Review: H.A.W.X 2 – Highway to the boredom zone

Flying around in a fighter jet firing missiles at “boggies” and thwarting terrorism at every turn is supposed to be epic. It’s something that you pretty much expect a game to be able to do with its hands tied behind its back but there is something so very wrong about how HAWX 2 tries to turn this fairly simple premise into something broader. In doing so, it loses focus on what makes a flight game fun. It seems that the developers couldn’t decide if it they wanted to make an arcade game or a flight simulator and tried to find a balance between the two which isn’t particularly satisfying.

Couple that with an unimaginative story that seems to be a photocopy of the script from one of a hundred other counter-terrorism games and you have a game play experience that is not only short but the one of the most tiresome five to six hours you will spend playing a game. The first HAWX was a pretty decent game. It had its fair share of problems but you were willing to forgive them because it had a pretty good story and it was a debut flight title from the Tom Clancy universe. Sequels in the gaming universe are meant to get better, not worse. This should be the Empire Strikes Back of the series, not the Ghostbusters II.

What would have made this game better is if they embraced the arcade style and made it more like Top Gun. I’m not saying there should be a volley ball level, this isn’t HAWX: Xtreme Beach Volley Ball. (Although I’d be much happier to play this if all the pilots were the chicks from Dead or Alive in bikinis, as long as I don’t have to give them gifts to make them like me). What I mean is, they should embrace the attitude and bravado of that film. Make flying planes a macho experience complete with brofists and slow mo runway walking at dusk.

Part of what makes Splinter Cell so awesome is Sam Fisher. What makes Ghost Recon so awesome is Scott Mitchell and likewise with Ding Chavez from the Rainbow Six series. These are characters that you follow between each sequel and travel that part of the Tom Clancy universe with.  In HAWX, they attempt to make a broad story by setting it across different countries and have you fly as pilots from each of them but in the end it just makes the story unfocused and the immersion disappears. What this franchise needs is a hero. A single pilot that you can get behind and, in order to make him worth following, he needs to have that Top Gun attitude. Make him an asshole, develop relationships with his wingmen and then kill them off, give him a character arc and have him do something that makes what you are doing actually mean something. Better yet, make it a chick, a hot sexy chick in a bikini playing volley… oh wait.

The biggest issue I have with this game right now is that five minutes after finishing it I can’t tell you any of the pilots names, the names of any of the wingmen or the names of the places we liberated or defended or whatever. It’s all a blur of blue boxes, red diamonds and yellow arrows.

Which brings me to gameplay. Essentially this game is so extremely simple it may as well not be a flight game. You have machine guns, but rarely use them. Pretty much every enemy can be taken out with two missiles and they rarely miss. The game becomes an exercise in lining up a target, getting a lock, firing two missiles and moving to the next target. You don’t even really have to wait to see if you destroyed the target, just move on to the next one.

Your current target has a box around it. When it isn’t in front of you, an arrow will tell you were to turn so you can find it. Once it is in range, a diamond appears and when the diamond is inside the square, you have a lock and can fire missiles at it. Two missiles will blow it out of the sky and you rarely miss. So why bother using machine guns, except on the few levels where you aren’t given missiles? Why bother even having a plane? I’m not here to play HAWX: Diamonds and Squares, I’m here to be a fighter pilot. I want to use missiles but I want the risk of missing to be high. I want to have to think about whether I want to use a missile or not. On the hardest difficulty setting the number of missiles you get is greatly reduced so you do have to conserve them a little, but considering they rarely miss, there is little chance you will run out.

When not dog fighting, the game tries to vary the level design by getting you to do mundane crap that really isn’t fun at all. Some of the missions have you piloting an unmanned UAV and firing beacons to illuminate targets on the ground. Yawn. In each of these missions, the Ghosts or an operative of some sort is doing something cool on the ground but you aren’t doing anything cool. You are firing beacons at shit, yay! It seems like Ubisoft was given the opportunity to work with all these awesome satellite images of actual places and tried to come up with a way to use them in a level but it’s not fun. All the fun seems to be happening on the ground while I’m stuck watching from afar. All these levels did was made me want to play Ghost Recon again.

Another level has you flying around in a massive AC-130 but you aren’t piloting. Oh no, you are a gunner firing at targets you are told to shoot on the ground. This is a fighter jet game right? It is another way to use the satellite maps but it isn’t a level that should be in a game like this. Firing big guns is cool and all, and at least you feel like you are finally participating in the ground action but I want to fly a plane, not man a big gun.

Another gripe I have is with taking off and landing the planes at the start and finish of every mission. This is likely something that fighter jet fans want from a game like this, but for the love of all that is good in the universe, give me the option of skipping it. It is so painful to have to land your jet, especially when your approach is slightly off and you have to circle around again to give it another shot. There is assisted approach which has you following a tunnel of triangles to make it a little easier but for those of us that don’t care about landing why not just let me press pause and select an option called “skip landing procedure”. Those that love the realism of landing their plane, get the satisfaction of doing so and those of us that don’t give a toss can be spared the heartache.

It is very easy to bash this game as it has a nice long list of flaw,s but it also has quite a few good aspects too. From a technical standpoint, HAWX 2 is quite impressive. The first HAWX fell down when you got too close to the ground as the level of detail dropped dramatically. This is one area where Ubisoft has improved dramatically. The terrain is highly detailed, the planes look incredible and the animations, especially when destroying enemies, look great. The cut scenes between missions are a mix of full video sequences which look pretty good and fairly static hum drum mission briefings which come off as lazy.

One of the best things this game has to offer is the way the planes handle. Each plane type handles slightly differently and the larger planes feel like they actually weigh more requiring a little more effort when turning. However, how each plane handles becomes fairly irrelevant since no matter which one you are given for a mission, you will still be chasing boxes and firing missiles at diamonds making the flight element of the game a little trivial. As long as you get some altitude, you will be able to play the box chasing game without thinking about how the plane is flying. Even if you slow right down and stall, there isn’t any risk of getting stuck in a flat spin you can’t recover from.

HAWX 2 is not worth buying at release. It pains me to say it, since I am pretty much a Tom Clancy fanboy but it fails at offering a gaming experience worth $100. It is definitely worth a play through for flight fans and those that want to keep up on the Clancyverse but only once it hits the bargain bins. Considering Ubisoft developed the excellent Blazing Angels series, you would expect that they know a thing or two about how to make a fighter jet game an epic experience. However, it seems they lost the tight focus on dog fighting and tried to make a broader game, and in doing so lost the core element of fun.

5/10

Second Opinion – ko-zee-ii

For those of you that want to check out an alternate view on H.A.W.X.2, you can check out my GameArena review here…

Here’s a tasty morsel, “What is it about flight combat that is so hard to pin down? There are usually two schools of thought on the subject. One camp leans towards the ultra realistic, favouring the hardcore simulation with terms like pitch, roll and yaw coming into play. This style involves intense concentration and an eye for detail, with a single misstep resulting in strewn wreckage across several miles.”

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