Sunday, 22 August 2010

Demo Hands-On: Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X 2

For those expecting some high-octane aerial action taking you right to the edge of the danger zone, you need to look elsewhere because Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X 2 is a far more sedate, realistic take on airborne combat. Enemies appear as tiny dots ready to be engaged over the distant horizon rather than up close in intense choreographed battles, and the sense of speed expected by thrill-seekers hoping for a ‘Top Gun’ experience is also largely absent.

Instead Ubisoft are once again delivering a controlled slice of hybrid arcade action, arcade in the sense that most of the time all you have to do is move and shoot without needing to know the in-depth complications surrounding the difficulty of flying, and controlled in the sense that you can perform many intricate movements using the joypad without having to hit the various buttons required by a flight simulator. Realism then, glossed over in a more accessible package of sorts, more fun than non-fiction.

H.A.W.X 2 maybe fairly simplistic in what you are tasked to do; shooting down enemy aircraft in a slow-looking ballet below the clouds, however, there is much to learn with regards to manoeuvring your aircraft and successfully acquiring targets for takedown without stopping to blink. The control system, although initially daunting, allows for finite movements of your aircraft and subtle adjustments where a more direct method would hinder your accuracy.

The left analogue stick controls your aircraft’s position and roll, allowing you to turn slowly as well as perform a basic rolling manoeuvre much like After Burner’s trademark ‘barrel roll’. Pushing gently towards either direction, left and right, makes your craft turn subtly; just enough to keep up with other fighter jets at long range, whilst pushing down slightly more makes your craft perform a quick roll, allowing you to spin around in all 360 degrees of motion. It is also possible to slowly roll, and then reverse again. Or, to slowly turn and then enter into a quick roll as an evasive technique to avoid incoming missiles, but not really other aircraft.

Additional control for turning at high speeds is provided by the L1 and R1 shoulder buttons, whilst the L2 and R2 triggers are used to accelerate and brake your aircraft. Using the brake in combination with the analogue stick and either the L1 or R1 buttons allows you to ‘brake right’ or brake left’, much like seen in the film Top Gun, although not in anywhere near as dramatic a fashion. The implementation, like with the rest of the game’s controls, and realistic sense of motion, is delivered subtly.

Shooting missiles and firing off rounds from your ‘cannon’ is done purely on the face buttons, with X controlling missiles, and O the cannon, much like any other combat flying game, while lastly, the right stick is used to move the camera around your aircraft giving you almost 360 vision.

In the air enemies are represented as small yellow icons, with your next target surrounded by a yellow box which changes colour after you’ve highlighted it for a brief second with your cursor. Once this has happened you can fire missiles ‘off target’ and still make a direct hit possible. However, when using your machine cannon you need your cursor to be inside that box in order to successfully take down the target, although it is possible for skilled players to still do the same by firing off rounds when scrolling past and over enemy fighters.

Reading the air, and whether or not you’ve taken down the enemy is easy. Getting to grips with the game’s initially depthy control scheme isn’t. The first time you fly off and go for a spin for the benefit of the Soviet Union, control is both confusing and unwieldy. Seconds after picking up the joypad for the first time I was unintentionally performing barrel rolls instead of simply turning my craft around like I wanted to. Using both L1 and R1 to perform this manoeuvre instead of the stick didn’t feel right at all, and I felt a distinct disconnect between what I wanted to be doing and how the game wanted me to do it.

After a few minutes H.A.W.X’s somewhat in-depth approach to flight control (for a console) became wholly apparent, as did the need for subtlety rather than the quick-finger reflexes required for the likes of After Burner, or Blazing Angles. I would say that anyone not versed in the H.A.W.X series will need at least an hour or two to really adjust to the controls, and maybe a few days to become completely proficient in using them second nature. But I guess that is simply a requirement seeing as the right stick is sometimes essential in successfully tracking enemies from behind by providing an all round viewpoint of the action.

Strangely for me I also found that the camera system, in combination with the initially fiddly controls, were a catalyst for motion sickness. Usually I only suffer from the condition when playing first-person shooters, or shaky cam action games. However, in H.A.W.X 2 the need to be turning and constantly changing position in battle made me nauseous within ten minutes or so, having to adjust by taking a more relaxed approach to combat with slow turns and none of the Top Gun inspired stunt work that I’d been using so successfully juts prior to this.

Saying that, I suspect most people won’t suffer from this at all, and after getting to grips with the controls the chance of this happening by rolling around too much isn’t likely to be a regular occurrence.

Another point of note is with regards to the game’s graphics. The developers appeared to have re-tooled the overall graphics engine, placing emphasis on slightly more detailed visuals at the expense of having a blisteringly high framerate. The first H.A.W.X game ran at an incredibly smooth 60 frames per-second, reiterating the message that a higher framerate does more for a game than simply making it look pretty.

Sadly, for this sequel this has been paired back down to a more respectable 30fps to allow for more detail and additional effects. Although initially, the extra layer of visual polish doesn’t look quite enough to justify such a downgrade. Thankfully, in reality the lower framerate does very little to harm the overall experience, with the slow-paced nature of the gameplay meaning that very little is lost as a result of the change. The controls may be slightly less precise, but in the end I didn’t find the drop in smoothness to have an adverse effect on the action.

Aside from the graphical changes outlined here, the basic dog-fighting found in the demo, and a somewhat fiddly landing sequence, the developers are also looking to expand upon the types of missions that made up the list of things to do in the first game, along with providing a larger selection of controllable aircraft, and a greater range of weaponry that can be added to each one.

All of this should make H.A.W.X 2 a more enjoyable experience, or at least a more varied one. The demo however, barely provides us with a good enough look at the game to make any solid judgements though, and in many ways it appears to be a regression of the first H.A.W.X in terms of visuals alone. Well in terms of framerate that is. Plus, it’s also hard to see just how much has really been improved, given the fact that the gameplay taster provided is so similar to before, and that the control scheme, although still allowing for plenty of additional accuracy, is still a little too fiddly for its own good.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X 2 isn’t likely to redefine arcade realism combat flight game in any way, but it’s certainly shaping up to be a rather polished, if not nauseous, alternative to another instalment in Namco’s upcoming Ace Combat series. Whether or not that will be enough to make it as worthwhile the second time around is anyone’s guess, though it does have solid foundations on which to build upon.

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