[When I was at NYCC, I found some time to have a quick crack at a load of games on the floor. Quick cracks. I’m going to write up the ones that stick in the memory.]
If anyone on the development team is hanging around the Ubisoft booth, you’re glad that they’re not actually standing beside me and watching. It’s about 10 minutes before the doors of the con close, and the early-twenty-something guy on the controls have spent at least the last ten minutes circling aimlessly in the sky. Really trying has long since drained away. He’s destroyed two of the three drones which he’s been charged with shooting in, but the third is proving elusive. Occasionally a missile collides with him. Occasionally he dodges one. He seems to take down the last one down by some semi-random method, puts down the controls at the end of this abstract training sequence before the mission proper and steps away into the thinning crowd, cursing about the bloody camera.
Developers would be wincing at this point, because they always do when they see someone playing their game wrong. I’ve seen it in action many times – most memorably in the creeping horror of the Looking Glasser watching a PC Format staff-writer butcher every single man in a castle. Since there’s no devs her, I’m wincing for them. I know how the game should be playing. I was there when the game was unveiled – so being one of the first to audibly laugh at the name, the full title of Tom Clancy’s HAWX making it sound as if Mr Clancy has his own male strip-team or something. I get the point. It’s an action flight sim. Traditionally they’re played solely from the cockpit. However, they wanted to try and grasp the sense that how magically insanely agile these next-generation fighter planes on, and how they can manoeuvre in ways which are more akin to a UFO than a traditional plane. To do this, the game keeps a cheery dichotomy between Assist-On (where you fly from the cockpit and have more computer assistance) and Assist-Off (where you fly from an external view which… it acts in its own way, which can’t be characterised simply as “Tracking cam on whoever you’re dogfighting with you in the middleground”). The advantage of the alternative mode is that you’re able to pull stunts which are cheerfully infeasible for anyone who was brought up on Top Gun, and being in this third-person perspective allows you to actually see them (So realise what you’re actually doing) and do things like dodge missiles and line up shots and all that.
That’s the theory.
It’s not really that simple. In this demo-pod version the game does itself no favours in introducing this characteristic take. After some basic flying, it locks you into the mode and refuses you to let you out. And by the time I’ve worked my way up to the same drones the earlier person was wrestling with, I’m in a similar situation of a camera which is so obtuse to seem unfathomable. And that’s the problem with HAWX – what makes it most unusual is also what’s immediately alienating. Perhaps there is a mass of unique pleasures there when it clicks. But unless the full game introduces the assist-off mode in a less sink-or-swim way, most people are going to bounce off the surface of this in exactly the same way I didn’t bounce of the surface of the floor when I stalled my plane for the fourth time.
The Demo’s out on the 360, and on the PC on the 26th, so everyone has a chance to find this out for themselves shortly (or have already)… but I suspect the reviews are going to be interesting on this one. The Tom Clancy games have been models of accessibility for most of this decade. But at the moment, even at the best, this is feeling like something that’ll end being to the average combat-flight sim what Space Giraffe was to the average shooter. And at the worst… well, just a whole load of people walking away from the cabinet, swearing at the camera.
That Fucking Camera.