This week we got to ask a few questions of Thomas Simon, the lead designer on HAWX. Mr Simon already has a bit of Tom Clancy background in his career, having previously worked on the Splinter Cell series. This time, however, there aren't going to be any silent takedowns: HAWX ("High Altitude Warfare Experimental Squadron") is an air combat game that encompasses all the noisy, destructive things that modern aircraft get up to. It's looking moderately spectacular, and certainly seems like a fresh, non-simulatory take in a world where modern air combat games don't exactly dominate the gaming headlines. Interestingly, it also ties in with the other Tom Clancy games, as Simon explained.
Firstly, though, we have to ask just what sort of stuff are we going to be getting up to in HAWX? What's the first hour going to do for us? Simon explains: “There are going to be all types of modern air combat missions in the game: Air Supremacy, Close Air Support, Escort, Infiltration, Bombing Raids, SEAD (Suppress Enemy Air Defense), Fleet Protection, Air Interdiction and Interception. The first hour will take first in a flashback and the replay of GRAW 2 airstrike mission from the air, above Ciudad Juarez. There you will have to provide close air support the Ghost team on the ground. Then you will start your career within a rising Private Military company with missions in Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan, until the story takes a whole new turn.”
Private military companies, eh? Everyone's favourite baddies in the modern world. I wonder where that plot could take us... Simon explains that his team is trying to tell that story as much within the parameters of flying the aircraft as possible. It's a tricky business: “You need a very specific approach,” says Simon. “Players cannot stop to look or read and will see everything through the eyes of a pilot. We decided that the actual story is not going to be so much in the background but precisely directly linked to the player’s actions, especially in the second half of the game where the military thriller starts fully.”
Interestingly, you're going to be able to indulge in this Tom Clancy stuff with some chums, as the campaign supports four-player co-op. (I know!) “The campaign is fully playable in co-op,” says Simon. “From beginning to end, with the exact same features. The game has been specifically tailored to allow this and to make the experience as smooth as possible, allowing for instance to drop in and out of a co-op session without spoiling it for the others. We have also created special difficulty levels that will provide the appropriate challenge for multiple players.”
Of course all this stuff is somewhat moot if the planes aren't going to be interesting to fly. HAWX isn't going for simulation – in the same way that games like Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon aren't really soldier sims. Nevertheless the game is analogous to real life air combat. “Each aircraft will have a distinctive behavior based on its real capabilities and supported by the physics engine,” Simon explains. “The player’s skill in controlling the aircraft and taking into account its specific strengths will make a difference in his performance. However, we didn’t want to restrict the game to a certain audience, which is the case if you go full simulation oriented. That’s why we decided to tune some physics parameters in order to ensure that a wider audience will enjoy the air combat experience, while still respecting the authenticity of air combat and keeping depth in the piloting.
We really wanted to take advantage of the latest developments in plane aerodynamics and vectorial thrust technology, and all the new techniques developed to help a pilot getting more solution to win a dogfight.”
Vectorial thrust whatnologies? “Basically, vectorial thrust allows a plane to take a high angle of attack, meaning almost be able to reverse in mid-air from a position; so if you have a guy behind you, you can flip the plane, bleed a lot of speed and finally find yourself behind your attacker and get a firing solution in a lapse of one or two seconds, while the enemy has basically seen nothing. It’s a very cool and powerful tool for dogfight.” Blimey. Sound exciting. Here they are happening on a real plane:
So that all sounds simple enough. Is there anything else that has been keeping the HAWX team up at night? “We had several complex technological issues to solve as we wanted to keep the game at 60 FPS while keeping it photo-realistic and full of life (I mean explosions, missiles, smoke, and units) and this forced us to really push the optimization and the quality of the engine. But still the biggest challenge from design point of view was the creation of the Assistance feature and especially the Assistance OFF mode, with its brand new camera and revolutionary dogfight gameplay. The mode was really a total new approach touching cameras, behaviour, AI, controls, weapons, physic, signs and feedbacks; basically: a big ecstatic mess for developers, really rewarding at the end.”
So what does that actually mean for the game? Simon explains: “In modern jet fighter, computer helps the pilot on every possible action. Without computer, it’s really, really hard to pilot a plane, and we want to give that sensation to the HAWX player. You have on one side the Assistance ON, where player gets full support from the computer. He gets access to all the battle network information, he can use the ERS (Enhanced Reality System) trajectories to intercept enemies, dodge missiles, and he gets access to computer anti-stall, anti-crush safeties. But this powerful technology comes also with some limitation, because the computer is designed to think you are standard. You are here to perform a mission, the plane and the assistance is tuned in a way that allows you to perform that mission. But when things start to get crazy, when a problem occurs… then you have the option to turn off completely the computer assistance, by just pressing a button; basically, you now take full control of the plane and deactivate all safety. From now on, what you do is what the plane will do, instantly, with no limit. It comes with a dramatic boost in the plane manoeuvrability, allowing you to do some high alpha angle dogfight and with an incredible (really) external camera that let you play and see the action as if you were in a replay.”
Okay. Let's see that in action.
Tom Clancy's HAWX, then. Definitely not a simulation, but not looking too shabby. I have to admit that the third person perspective doesn't really do it for me - I keep getting flashbacks to arcade games that I was terrible at... Still, I'm looking forward to having a go at this when it comes out at the end of September.