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Wot I Think: Tom Clancy's HAWX

Shiny lookin' flying game Tom Clancy's High Altitude Warfare eXperimental squadron landed safely on the IBM desKbox last week. In the quiet hours between sleep and typing endless alpha-numeric characters into the uncaring face of the internet, I've been giving it a go. So should the titular Tom Clancy be proud of the polygons to which his name is attached? Or is it time to grab the ejector seat lever of shame? Here's Wot I Think.

Something like a reason for gladness: a use for analogue control devices. A flying game! They're almost as few and far between as space sims, are they not? Okay maybe not quite as rare, but they're certainly unusual fare. I had to dig out huge fossilised boxes from under the stairs to get close to my Microsoft joystick, and although I could see it pinned under that box of Kieron's magazines that somehow ended up in my house, I finally gave up and used my 360 controller instead. Not bad, you know. The feisty airplanes fly okay with a thumbstick, although the stick button-press function meant my greater exertions expended all the counter-measure flares from my bird. It's okay though, I was much more likely to crash into the ground than be shot down. And I only occasionally flew upside down.

HAWX is, I am forced to observe, a bit broken at the outset. The Steam version of the game, which I have been playing, elects to install .NET Framework whenever it starts up, promptly crashes the installer, and then launches the game without another hitch. It's a peculiar thing, but some how confirms the experience: Jim Rossignol, you are playing this game on a PC. Yes, random technological error, I sure am.

The game itself is immediately playable, and the methodology of air combat is instant and tangible. No simulation take off and landing trappings here, it's just about the shooting. You're in the air immediately, the targets are ahead of your, and you starting learning the ropes. Of course on my first go I immediately flew into the ground while "having a look". Then again while getting in a fiddle trying to change the view point - first person is so much more involved that the plane-cam third person, I feel. Once these minor issues were out the way I was swooping about and ordering my wingmen about with aplomb. The assist stuff, which gives you a VR "tunnels" you should fly down to avoid a missile or chase a baddy, is really neat. I can see why they were so pleased with it. I'm guessing it's not too far from the reality of computer-assisted combat flight that real pilots face today.

That said, what comes later, which is the ability to turn off the assist systems and be flung into a RADICAL CAMERA ANGLE (which was apparently key to the way the game was marketed) seems almost irrelevant to how things play out. The time that the game spends selling the idea to you does little to explain why it might be a good idea. Aside from one tutorial mission you never need return to it. Assist on always seemed the sensible way to fly, to me, since it allows you to stick to the superior first person perspective, and, well, I know how planes move about in the sky. It also provides the signposts for where to fly. On harder difficulty levels assist off becomes purely a good way to jump out of the way of missiles, and the third-person perspective lands you in all kinds of trouble. Rely on the electronic signposting to dodge missiles, or to get you behind an enemy plane, and you'll win out - not least because you can't afford to waste missiles by fluffing a lock with a poor approach on the target. That's all too easy if you're flailing about doing stunts in assist off mode. All in all, the capacity to turn the assist off sounds exciting, but amounts to little more than a loss of HUD clutter and a dramatic change in perspective.

That satellite-imaged terrain, by the way, seems a little variable. In some places the scenery is spectacular, but in others it's a little like the photograph-of-featureless-hill in sims of old. If there was one complaint I could have about the visual design of the game it's perhaps that it needed to be both more extreme, with battles in bad weather, or under spectacular sunsets. But also in that the impacts on the ground seemed a little hollow. Is that really how popping open a tank should look? It's flashy, but rather weightless.

Anyway, the bizarre near-future plot in which air-bound corporate mercenaries bomb rogue states into submission makes little sense, but it's essentially nothing more than a gunmetal excuse to give you access to the huge range of modern combat aircraft that Ubi have licensed for the game. There are Eurofighters, Dassault Mirages, Lockheeds and Grummans encompassing all types of F-number planes, and even the splendid Saab 35 Draken, which looks a bit like a spaceship from Buck Rogers. I had a small metallic model of a Draken when I was a kid, and I still wonder what happened to it.

Yeah, I can never be a fighter pilot. I'm too old to start training, probably, but I've also got a knackered eye. I couldn't spot a bogey from a bird-strike until it was too late. Yeah, maybe the six year old boy in me would really like to have been an instrument of NATO's "peace-keeping" war machine. It looks like a fun time.

And if HAWX is anything to go on, fighter pilots really just get to drag some reticules together whilst avoiding getting shot down by other aircraft or anti-aircraft guns. How hard can be it be? Actually I'm prone being a little flippant around HAWX: the single player campaign does actually provide near perfect difficulty curve, and the missions are suitably varied. From slow bombing runs to frenzied dogfights, they just about encompass all the variety of aerial combat in modern war. There are moments, here and there, even without the RADICAL CAMERA ANGLE, when you pump the afterburner towards the enemy, have wingmen cover your ass, spit out four missiles in a volley, and have whirling bads explode on your face. Those moments are okay by me.

Use the full scope of the sky and find yourself twisting through dogfights, looping the loop and generally being more like a stunt-plane than a sober military type. You can push that much further with the assist off, but the forced camera suddenly seems to undermine what you've achieved, and kicks you out of "I am fighter pilot today" mode. HAWX errs on the right side of doing things in an arcade style (I've little interest in precise flight sims) and the balance of shooter and flight is relatively refreshing. Of course if you're playing on a console you're probably going to prefer Ace Combat (that never made it to desKbox) or be totally at home with the exploded third-person views.

But then there's online multiplayer: the exulting choir in my head sings a little when I get to play a new type of multiplayer. Co-op campaign, ranked dogfight matches - a chance to become both an ace pilot and a solid wingman. I start poking people on my Steam list to see who else has the game? We can play a co-op campaign. No-one? Ah well I'll jump in online and see what open games are available...

Right. Right. Crash to desktop makes more sense, I guess. I got other stuff to do, anyway. Things to blog, washing up waiting for me.

I want to like HAWX. I like that it gives me options, and lets me totally ignore its main feature, and be fine with that. I'd ideally like to be able to play it multiplayer too, but that's not happening today.

The heart of the game is kind of grey and unambitious, but that's okay: Flying! Shooting! A garage filled with $20m aircraft - which are at least all there, even if the difference is negligible and they all pretty much perform on spec for any mission. Yeah, it's a tiny little military porn dream, all wrapped up in instant accessibility. With chums yelling in your ear I bet it's a riot. Sadly, between the bugs and lack of dynamism this is hardly something I can recommend to anyone, least of all you, Steve. Perhaps pick this one up in a few months when the patching teams have done their thing, or when it's down to $10 somewhere.

Like my little metal Saab Draken, I suspect HAWX this is going to end up as something of a lost toy. We'll remember it every now and then, maybe wonder where it is today, but we won't genuinely care, and it won't really matter.

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