Monday, February 16, 2009

Freebird! Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. Impressions

The problem with most flight combat sims on consoles is the lack of a decent control method. Obviously, a joystick is the preferred choice of interface for your dogfight enthusiast, but when the complex controls for manoeuvring jet aircraft get translated onto a gamepad, well, suffice it to say that the game suffers a little as the result.

This is case with Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X., the demo for which was released on Xbox LIVE last Wednesday. Shortly after booting up the demo, you’re promised that H.A.W.X. will “revolutionalize” your flight sim experience. Before you start your training mission, you’re given a quick preview of the control scheme. The left analog stick controls the aircraft completely, relying only on the shoulder buttons and the triggers for yaw and speed control. To a generation of gamers that have become used to the two-stick control method, using one stick for input will seem stilted and awkward at first.

Once you get used to using one stick to manipulate your aircraft, the game introduces you to “Off Mode”, in which the complex computer systems helping you maintain control over your fighter are turned off, giving you greater dominance over the plane’s performance. In Off Mode, you can perform complex turns and drifts that would be impossible in assisted-flight mode, giving you a leg up during hectic fights.

Unfortunetly, Off Mode also comes with the worst camera angle possible. The camera snaps away from directly behind your fighter, and gives you a long shot view of your plane. This is done to give you better awareness of what’s going on around you and also enables you to see those fancy tricks that you’re pulling off. You’re also made to fight in Off Mode and, if you still haven’t mastered the one-stick control scheme, this can be a bit frustrating.

Due to the odd camera angle, you have to constantly jostle your plane around until your targeting computer can get a lock. Controlling the fighter in Off Mode is rather like trying to skate on greased ice: you slide everywhere, and controlling your movements is far from precise. It’s a good thing that your targeting computer is highly forgiving; you’ll lock on to bogies that are far out of the view of your cockpit.

After you pass your flight certification, you’re launched into an assault on Rio de Janeiro, tasked with defending the city. Hope you’ve got binocular vision, because you’re mostly going to be shooting at indistinguishable black dots on the ground and in the sky. H.A.W.X. has run into the problem that a lot of flight sims have run into: in an attempt to give the game a realistic scale and feel, your enemies are incredibly small and by the time your close enough to get a visual, they’re already behind you.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. might have been a fun game, but it's plagued by a few persistent problems that have been with console flight sims for a while. Floundering controls, strange camera angles and microscopic enemies all make for a frustrating experience. This is only the demo, but I doubt that the full product will have much else to offer flight enthusiasts. If you’re really hankering for a dogfight, I’d consider renting this Clancy outing as opposed to putting down sixty of your hard-earned dollars on it.

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