Ever since the first man thought it was a great idea to wax himself up, and douse himself in feathers, mankind has been fascinated by the idea of flight. From the barely airworthy craft of WW1, through the romanticised WW2 dogfights, to the multi-million pound technological wonders of today, the ability to pilot a plane is still the exclusive territory of a limited few.
Thankfully, for those of us who don't want to put ourselves in the firing line, or for those of us who simply would never be able to fly a plane in real life, games like H.A.W.X 2 offer us the chance of whizzing around at Mach 2 from the comfort of our own home. And, thankfully, in the digital version, things are a lot easier than in real life. Whittling down the realism level, whilst still retaining the authenticity, in HAWX 2, you'll be able to barrel roll your way to victory, without stalling and plummeting out of the sky every time you try and turn your plane.
For the hardcore sim enthusiasts then, H.A.W.X 2 maybe somewhat lacking, but for the rest of us, it has that balance just about right. Letting you strap yourself into the cockpit, without having to worry about what all the buttons do, and just, well, fly, H.A.W.X 2 should be a game that a wide range of people - from the aircraft addicts, to the mum who kind-of enjoyed Top Gun - should be able to enjoy. This being a Tom Clancy game, there's a pretty stereotypical story here that attempts to provide a background, and a reason for all the commotion. As you may imagine, this being a game set in the near future, the plot doesn't exactly push the boundaries of imagination, and instead, mostly revolves around terrorists, insurgents, Russians, and the Middle East, with a few Americans who come and try to save the day. Hoo-rah!
Of course, this being a game about flying, with the aerial combat, and dogfighting being its bread and butter, you may be worrying things may become a bit repetitive pretty quickly - but, thankfully, the missions have a rather impressive amount of variety to them, which keeps things feeling fresh. It also helps that the terrain you'll be fighting over changes so drastically from mission to mission. In one level, you'll be dogfighting over the mountain tops, making the snow sizzle with your afterburners; the next, you'll be zipping in between the derricks and cranes on an oil rig, before dropping a bomb on a ship that's parked in the middle. Utilising Geo-Eye technology, each level in HAWX 2 uses a hi-definition satellite map of the area to provide some spectacular, and real, scenery for you to do battle over. It's so impressive, the developers have even included a Free Flight mode, which lets you take a plane of your choosing into an area of your choice. We chose Tokyo, and actually managed to find Tokyo Disneyland - which, even though the rest of the park was disappointingly flat, came complete with a 3D, fully modelled castle. Which we then promptly crashed into. Sorry, Walt.
But, in an interesting twist for a game that doesn't pride itself on its sim credentials, there's an impressive amount of little touches here. The developers are on record as saying that they wanted to concentrate as much on the experience of flying the plane as they did on the combat, and so, when you take to the controls, you'll be doing everything a real pilot would do. Taxiing down runways, take-offs and landings - on runways, and on aircraft carriers (which come complete with a guy who stands on the deck, and guides you forward with glowing sticks), even mid-air re-fuellings - if a real pilot does it, and it's half interesting, chances are you'll do it too. Not only do they provide a nice break from the combat, but these sections challenge you in a different way, as the skill and precision taken to land a plane requires a completely different skill set to manoeuvering onto a bad guy's tail. If you don't trust your own skills to put your plane down without it exploding into a big ball of flames, you can even press a button to have the game guide you in. Giving you a nice friendly set of markers to fly your plane through, this makes landing and refuelling a lot easier for a novice pilot.
However, even though they've tried to make things easier, it is a bit disappointing that when you're trying to match your speed with a tanker in mid-air to refuel, or trying to land at an airport, that the game doesn't let you set your speed. You can boost with the right trigger, or break with the left, but as soon as you take your finger off, you'll go back to whatever the game decided you should be flying at - which caused us more than a few problems.
Interspersing the usual take off, fly here, shoot these down missions are a range of levels that put you in less of a flying role. Here, as either a gunner in a gunship, or as the pilot of an unmanned recon drone, you'll be being flown over enemy airspace, concentrating only on where your camera's pointing, as you follow terrorist movements, record conversations, tag buildings with UV flares, or, in the case of the gunship, blow up tanks, and other enemies, as they try to attack a vehicle you're protecting. It's all a welcome change from the proceedings, and even though it offers a simpler distraction, it never feels less than the flying.
However, despite not being the most hardcore of flight sims out there, HAWX 2, sadly, isn't the most accessible of games for flying novices either. If you don't know much about flight terminology, there's been next to no effort made to explain it to you here. A HSM means a High School Musical to us, and an AGM is an Annual General Meeting - not a heat seeking missile, or an air-to-ground missile, respectively. Instead, it's a murky world of abbreviations and military lingo that it can be hard to penetrate.
Equally tricky for novices, seemingly, is the concept that you're actually flying a plane. Although it's not the most realistic of simulations, and you can fly from either a cockpit view, or from behind the plane, allowing you a much wider field of view of the action, Sarah always seems to find it tricky to realise that she's actually flying a plane. She can't get her head around pushing the joystick up to make the plane go down, and while she got the hang of HAWX fairly quickly, it was still a pretty steep learning curve.
More disappointingly is how unfriendly the most important part of the game - the combat's been made. When a missile's coming after you, there'll be no warning noise, and no everything-inside-the-cockpit-turning-red, either - instead, you just get a little picture in picture display of the rocket bearing down on your plane. It's from such a weird angle (with the camera tracking the missile), that's it's hard to work out where exactly it is, so it's about as much use as a chocolate teapot. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that the game may as well not bother warning you at all - and the number of times you'll be hit by a missile you haven't even noticed coming, thanks to the game's useless efforts, you'll often wonder if it has.
Considering you're meant to be part of some elite group of pilots, flying highly technical and experimental planes, it's also somewhat disappointing how difficult targeting things can be. Numerous times, we'd have our nose pointing directly at an enemy, and press Y to try and target it, only for the game to cycle through seemingly every other target in the area. And when your plane's computer insists on cycling through air targets, when you have a air-to-ground missile equipped, it seems more than a little bit stupid - especially when your heads up display even warns you that you can't target an air target with an air-to-ground weapon. So why does it even give you the option in the first place!
Continuing the disappointment is the fact that the game offers nothing in the way of a local multiplayer mode. While the campaign can be played in four player co-operative, it's only possible if you have three friends, who each own a copy of the game. Being able to sit back on the sofa, with a wingman in tow, would have been great - even if you couldn't have had the full complement of four pilots. And to be honest, I'd have happily taken a graphical hit, because I don't really care - swooping through the skies with three of my friends would have over-ridden that. But instead, the multiplayer remains sadly online only.
Ultimately, it's these frustrations that stop HAWX 2 from being the game it tries to be. While it's one of the most forgiving flight sims you'll find, and has a well-balanced, and nicely varied campaign, the lack of any real missile lock-on warning, and over reliance on already knowing the airforce lingo presents a barrier for novice pilots. Which is annoying, because with all the great little touches the game has, and the extra emphasis on doing things other than dogfighting with your plane, there are plenty of great moments here which make you really feel like a Top Gun. It's just as soon as you've had them, you'll be crashing back to earth - brought down by a missile you never saw coming.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360