H.A.W.X is without a doubt the best arcade flight game since the last PS2 Ace Combat. It’s the game Assault Horizon and even Ace Combat 6 wanted to be but failed. If you’re looking for a realistic flight-sim then you won’t find what you want here; the arcade genre is marked by absurd payloads, impossible aerial-acrobatics, and larger than life scenarios. But if you’re looking for a competent action game, or are a long-time fan of the bygone arcade flight games of the past I can’t recommend this highly enough. Seeing the average scores I veered away from this one for several years but having played it I can say without a doubt that if you’re a fan of the genre you can go ahead and tack on an extra “grade level” to any review you’ve read.
Taking place is 2021 in a world where military machines are as much computer as they are the human piloting it the game takes advantage of that premise to inject some unique mechanics and make its own stamp on the genre while still centering on the staple dogfighting. Now of course having modern planes involved in point-blank, knock-down-drag-out dogfights isn’t particularly realistic but it IS
fun. If you can get over that you’ll find that the controls are tight, the action frenetic, and all of the weapons/movement is very intuitive. I’ve been playing with a keyboard and the typical controls one finds in console entries (simplified compass turning, more akin to driving a car than a plane sim) translate just fine to WASD and the arrow keys.
Locking-on and firing a wide range of missiles feels fluid, and the main cannon is as frustrating as it is in any game but also just as satisfying when you do manage to get a kill with it. The enemy AI in straight up dog-fighting is smart without being infuriating. Enemies will dodge and jockey for position but never to the point where you wind up in an endless merry-go-round waiting minutes for that one tiny slip-up as I’ve seen happen in other arcade games. Friendly AI is an odd beast as it’s quite good on the offensive but transitory on the defensive. If you send them out on the attack they’ll wrack up kills with regularity but set them on your flank and not only do they not provide cover for you, but their kill count drops to almost non-existent meaning they might as well not be there. In the end though they’re practically aesthetic as the action predominantly focuses on you and all missions are possible to complete without needing to monitor them closely.
As is par for the course with this genre you get a wide range of aircraft to choose from in H.A.W.X ranging from the always iconic A-10A, to the modern F-22 Raptor, all the way to a futuristic fictional aircraft that’s made a few appearances in Tom Clancy works. The game overcomes one of the major hurdles with this line-up in that every craft handles differently instead of being a mere palette swap with perhaps a different max top-speed which is an unfortunate side-effect of not being a sim many of these games fall for. Here however each craft has widely variable parameters from speed, turning, stability, armor, wind-shear when changing altitude, and a decent number of load-outs. Though not the most highly customizable game I’ve seen each craft has three load-outs usually with more than enough variety to tackle the mission in any way you see fit.
As an aside, I have one minor issue with the planes others might disagree with. But personally seeing as the game is in the future and is already quite unrealistic I would like to have seen a few more fictional aircraft on the roster. Though the likes of the F-22 would still be in-service, albeit aging and toward the end of there careers would the Mirage-2000 series and the F-14 (which has already been retired) really still be being fielded by top of the line PMC’s and governments? I know it’s to appease fans of certain aircraft but it felt a bit odd and given how futuristic other elements at play are seeing a few more cutting-edge aircraft would have been neat.
And that brings me to the big changes to combat I alluded to at the start that shake things up just a bit from the stock cat-and-mouse firefights. The technological setting allows several user-assisting “softwares” as they are in the lore known as ERS (Enhanced Reality System) and Assistance On/Off. I should note that neither system is required if you want to play straight up dogfighting style, or want to place self-imposed penalties. Indeed other than the occasional ground unit and one (admittedly VERY cool) mission where it’s forced I rarely used ERS.
ERS can be activated when you have radar contact (not lock) with an enemy unit and with the press of a button a series of HUD-based waypoints guides you directly to a firing position on the enemy. It’s not as simple as it sounds as you still have to guide the aircraft through the points manually, it often requires some complex maneuvering, and moving outside of the trail will restart the program. It’s an interesting feature and as the game has far more cluttered city environments than is the norm for this genre it actually can come in handy for getting sight-lines on a ground unit set amidst a congested cityscape.
Assistance On/Off is a system that allows you to perform aerial acrobatics that would make the pilots at your local airshow green with envy. In fact the tumbling and shear-breaks that you can perform are to an extent it’d likely tear someone in half in real life, but again this is where the whole “arcade” point steps in and taken from that perspective it’s quite fun to watch. When activated the camera pulls out into a forced chase-cam (I admit, having a cockpit view would have been more fun but from a stylistic standpoint I can see why they did this). From this view you can then break, pivot, and spin to your hearts content allowing you to pull harsh 180’s in the blink of an eye to quickly lock-on to a passing target. Stalls are a danger in this mode if you slow down too much and the controls aren’t quite as tight as they are in the normal piloting but it’s a unique little trick and fun for what it’s worth.
Graphics are quite nice for the time it was released (2009) and honestly hold-up today. They aren’t the absolute best you’ve ever seen but the game has some nice lines, a clear style, and makes amazing usage of satellite imagery for the maps. Of course using real-life images is nothing new in flying games but H.A.W.X use of the GeoEye is undoubtedly impressive, perhaps the best that’s ever been done. Though things can get a little pixel-ey and out of proportion if you drop into the brush with your tail hugging the ground that’s never where the game intentionally puts you and obviously there had to be a limit somewhere because as viewed from 500+ meters your surroundings are both beautiful and intricate. The fact that the environments include a large number of free standing structures instead of just being a flat plain makes it doubly impressive.
The game unfortunately has no arcade missions but it has a large number of story missions that can be replayed with variable limits/bonuses in place. This might be a bigger deal except that the missions in place cover a wide and entertaining range that will give you pretty much anything you could want thanks to the outlandish setting. Attack, defense, escort, huge dustball dogfights, low-altitude insertion, races, ground bombardment, and one mission that makes unique use of the ERS system to pull a scene straight out of Firefox. If you want it, it’s there and to top it off there’s a wide set of in-game achievements to pick up and planes to unlock.
So in the end I can only fervently recommend H.A.W.X with one exception; if you’re looking for Microsoft Flight Sim then stay away. Otherwise this is a brilliant example of the genre that everyone should experience.