Since Tom Clancy originally signed with Red Storm over 13 years ago, 36 games have been released with his name plastered across the box. That's almost three a year. Luckily for Mr Clancy, most of them are pretty damn good. The Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell series are perfect examples of the sneaking-around-all-stealthy-like genre, with satisfying stories (as you'd expect from a best-selling novelist) and addictive gameplay. For his latest effort, Tom Clancy's Hawx, he's taken a massive leap from ground-based tactical warfare to frantic aerial combat.
Hawx sets you up as an American pilot called Dave, who has just been recruited by a private military corporation. The story is a typically twisty-turny affair which I won't spoil here, although fans of Clancy will probably spot the rather predictable hi-jinx a mile off. Still, the premise is sound and sets you up for a series of kinetic dogfights over various international locations. It's worth noting that this game is a far cry from Microsoft Flight Sim territory. The gameplay follows an enjoyable arcade style, and is all the better for it.
Missions come in typical chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavours. Most have you either defending an installation or destroying a series of targets - nothing revolutionary or even particularly original, but the buzz comes not from the objectives, but the frantic nature of the combat. The first level is deceptively simple. Take down a few tanks and a couple of fighter jets and you'll feel near invincible. However, soon you'll be taking on several lightning-fast foes at once. The sods are smart too – they won't just fly straight at you and happily plough into your missiles. They twist and turn all over the place like someone just released a swarm of killer bees into their cockpits, which makes it a serious challenge to achieve a lock-on at times.
The graphics are perfectly fine and in some areas quite impressive, given the grand scale of the levels. Ubisoft actually used satellite imagery to create the cities you do combat over. Urban areas are reasonably detailed and pretty from afar, but many of the buildings and landscapes can look a little blocky once you fly lower. To be fair though, you're often zipping by far too fast to pay any real attention. The last thing you'll be worried about when you've got three bogies on your tail is whether a particular skyscraper looks just a tad too grey and bland.
Controls are fully customisable, which is always necessary in a game like this. The mouse and keyboard combination is perfectly fine, although can be a little clunky. To get the most out of this game, you'll definitely need a joypad or joystick. Thankfully, because this is an arcade game, the control complexity is vastly scaled down from typical flight sims. Even if you've never played a dogfighting game before, it shouldn't take you too long to get accustomed to the basics. Taking down opponents is simple with the helpful lock-on system, and there's an additional guidance system called ERS that can be turned on at any point. Basically, this creates a number of virtual checkpoints that show you where to aim for in tricky situations. You'll need to pull off some impressive aerial manoeuvres to shake any rockets on your tail and rip apart the tougher opponents, so ERS will be a welcome addition for rookie pilots who find themselves struggling.
More casual players are helped out in a couple of other areas too. For a start, you can choose the difficulty of each mission before you start. It's perfectly possible to play most of the game in 'hard', then simply drop the difficulty to easy if you struggle on a later mission. It doesn't make you any less of a man. Honest. Non-hardcore players can also rest assured that the game auto-saves at certain checkpoints during each level, so if you screw up right as you're about to complete your objective, the game won't throw you back to the start of the mission. As a result, Hawx never becomes frustrating, even when the odds are greatly stacked in the bad guy's favour.
Like in most dogfighting titles, you have a number of wingmen who help you out in each mission. However, your command over them is a little limited. You can order them to attack a target, which is pointless because it's much quicker to simply shoot the target yourself. You can also ask them to defend you if you find yourself under heavy attack. Whether this actually makes any difference is a bit of a mystery, because it's hard to tell what they're up to as you dip and swerve about the place, desperate to escape the enemy jet that's right on your arse. Still, the wingmen do keep you company with a bit of banter, and regularly update you with new objectives and warnings. Their inclusion makes you feel more like a member of a crack fighter squad, instead of a slightly chubby loner sat at a computer desk in Marmite-encrusted boxer shorts.
At the end of each mission you're rather interestingly rewarded with a number of experience points, depending on how well you performed. Although you can't assign these to key skills, you do unlock new planes and weapons when you reach certain limits. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of difference between the different jets you can pilot. The controls never really change, and neither does the power, speed or armour (at least not a noticeable amount).
The single-player mode lasts a good ten hours, or even longer if your flight skills are comparable to Richard Branson's. However, there's also a half-decent stab at a multiplayer mode to extend the game's life a little. The jump-in co-op lets you fight alongside fellow humans, while a deathmatch mode lets you blow the hell out of them instead. Deathmatches unfortunately seem to follow a rather basic structure:
Fly madly in circles around enemy, while they do the same.
Crash into ground by accident / get bored and crash into ground on purpose.
Only diehard fans are likely to spend any time with the multiplayer, but you know that Ubisoft would've been crucified for leaving it out.
If you like a bit of dogfighting then Hawx is definitely worth a purchase. Fans of more complex sims, which require about fifty buttons to simply fly in a straight line, are going to be less pleased. Don't worry if you fall into the latter category, however – I'm sure Tom Clancy's British Airways Experience is just around the corner.