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Ubisoft Romania comes around for a second pass at its aerial combat Tom Clancy series, HAWX...
Aerial combat games are steeped in a history that goes all the way back to the mid-80s: from arcade games like After Burner and Top Gun to flight sims such as F-15 Strike Eagle and Gunship, this genre was once a valuable cornerstone of the games industry. These days though, After Burner and Top Gun remakes sit unremarkably on XBLA, PSN, and the iPhone, while flight sims are a dying (if not already dead) breed. What remains in your local game shop are the likes of Namco Bandai's Ace Combat and Ubisoft's HAWX series - games that are an inoffensive mixture of arcade and sim which, as a result, can come across as a touch bland at times.
Why? Because they neither require you to read a 50-page flight manual before playing (the classic flight sim joust), nor demand the hand-eye coordination of an actual fighter pilot to complete the game (like After Burner). Both the original HAWX and now this sequel seem gleefully happy to sand off the sharp edges of their predecessors by providing the sort of experience that the 'average gamer' wouldn't instantly dismiss out of fearful discomfort at the learning curve and difficulty. The average gamer, it would seem, is much happier to shoot at unthreatening, highlighted boxes for hours on end with little threat of these targets actually managing to kill them or make them think on their feet for a moment.
It's a bland, plodding format for a game. Whenever you do bite the dust it's usually because of attrition: a hundred too many bullets in your fuselage or a handful of missiles right up your jet engine that could've been easily avoided, only you couldn't really be bothered to avoid them at the time because there was no urgency to do so. You rarely die in HAWX 2; instead, you fail. Let's say, as an example, there's an AC-130 plane that you've got to defend from enemy fighters... the onslaught begins with tens of bogies buzzing around the gunship like flies on dung and you've got to take them out before the damage percentage of the AC-130 drops to zero. It's a timed exercise essentially - you fail because you didn't kill all the bogies in time, not because they managed to kill you.
This is HAWX 2 in a nutshell, and also the reason why we wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anybody who wants a different challenge or some kind of novel experience out of a game. If, on the other hand, you just want to pretend that you're Top Gun's Ice Man (not Maverick mind you - he's too edgy to characterise this game), then HAWX 2 is driven fairly well up your street. There are certainly plenty of moments where you'll take a mild thrill out of pulling a 10-G turn on your adversary and then nailing him with guns at close range, or making a skilful night-time landing on an aircraft carrier (unlike its predecessor, HAWX 2 features takeoffs and landing, albeit fairly simplistic ones).
Ubisoft Romania does a fairly good job of varying up the missions too, thereby keeping the action plodding along without getting eye-gougingly repetitive. There are a few examples of missions where you take control of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and complete tasks like tracking enemy vehicles and listening into their conversations, marking designated targets with infra-red beacons, and firing rockets at installed bases. By themselves these missions aren't anything particularly special but do offer a welcome change of pace nonetheless. Likewise, there's one Modern Warfare-esque mission where you man the guns of an AC-130 gunship and, again, it's nothing particularly remarkable (Infinity Ward's execution is certainly preferable) but does serve as light relief from the standard fare of cockpit-based action.
HAWX 2 also does a decent enough job of using the game's story to provide context for the missions. In turn, this engages you in the experience a little and makes the missions more involving than just repetitively destroying ground and air targets. Having said all of that, it's not as if the story itself is anything to write home about. Thinly veiled American imperialism, a condescending take on Russian self-destruction, and some of the worst voice-overs for British characters that we've ever heard in a game don't reflect particularly well on HAWX 2. Nonetheless, it's still preferable to the storyline of the original game, which wearily addressed the actions and ethics of private military companies (as was the gaming vogue at the time).
From the cut-scenes that depict this story to the gameplay itself, HAWX 2's graphics are no advancement on the first game. Environments are out of scale (some airports have traffic cones taller than your plane which explode at the touch of a wing), buildings are fairly non-descript and uninspiring, and ground textures are the usual job of pasted satellite images. The planes themselves are definitely the most visually stimulating part of the game, although even these lack finesse compared to the models in Namco Bandai's Ace Combat games. If all of this doesn't make HAWX 2 the most appealing game though, at least it's fairly well stocked with content.
A campaign that's knocking on the 10-hour door in terms of length is then fleshed out with additional 'Survival' and 'Arcade' challenges for each story mission that encourage further playthroughs. Multiplayer is also well catered for with 4 player co-op and an 8 player adversarial offering similar to the first game that should please dogfight junkies. The XP system underpinning all of this is the same as the first game though, which means that planes are unlocked for use in the multiplayer via progress throughout the whole game (including the single-player). More importantly, most of the harder to attain fighters are also the best performing ones, which makes HAWX 2's multiplayer matches a painfully frustrating experience for newcomers.