What is it about flight combat that is so hard to pin down? There are usually two schools of thought on the subject. One camp leans towards the ultra realistic, favouring the hardcore simulation with terms
like pitch, roll and yaw coming into play. This style involves intense concentration and an eye for detail, with a single misstep resulting in strewn wreckage across several miles.
The opposing side (like myself) have been raised on a steady diet of After Burner, whether it was in the arcades or recently on XBLA, and grew up quoting Top Gun, with expert knowledge of terms like "break right", "banking left", "I've got tone" and "you can be my wingman any time", but little understanding of their aeronautical applications.
The H.A.W.X franchise hovers somewhere in the middle, favouring neither side heavily, rather attempting to maintain the balance to keep both parties satisfied. The end result for the original was a slightly inaccessible jaunt that managed to find its place, and leave its mark. Sadly, the same cannot be said for H.A.W.X.2.
For those of you not familiar with the series, here's the deal. H.A.W.X. stands for High Altitude Warfare eXperimental squadron, gotta love those acronyms, right? The world is in turmoil, and it's up to paramilitary groups to clean up the mess. That's where you come in.
Playing as a series of pilots from around the world, you're there to "kick the tires and light the fires", and rip anyone who gets in your way a new one. This time, the conflict centres around the Middle East, and after a decorated wing commander is captured, you take part in a series on missions to locate and liberate said pilot.
It initially starts off well, with some rudimentary missions to get a handle of your flight controls and a spell as a gunner in an AC-130 bringing down the thunder as you cover a ground team in their infiltration and assault, but that's when it all goes awry. Some of the more user friendly features from the original H.A.W.X. have been dumped in this more streamlined, and dare I say it, niche version.
The original had a tracking system to assist on attack runs at specific targets by giving you a holographic series of triangles leading to your objective that you could manoeuvre through. The removal of these means you're doing everything on the fly (sorry), and as the mechanics are extremely unforgiving, it will definitely scare off the casual gamer (some veterans as well).
The control system seems set up to be counter-intuitive as well, so that you always feel that you're working against your natural tendencies. Coupled with the borderline retarded nature of your AI allies, and the bang on enemy AI leads to many frustrating hours of replayed missions. You'll spend most of your time shooting at tiny pixelated enemy pilots in the distance that have near godlike manoeuvrability, dispense flares to dissuade attack with pinpoint accuracy, lead you on a merry chase through canyons (which you'll undoubtedly crash into) and then fire a missile up your arse.
Then it's time to do it all over again thanks to the lack of checkpoints anywhere during a mission. Where most titles leave you chomping at the bit to get back into the fray, all I could think was "goddammit, I have to go through all of that AGAIN?"
The storyline takes place in the Tom Clancy universe, but at every turn, each new character you inhabit is less interesting than the last and immediately forgettable. I got the sense they were trying to bring a Modern Warfare 2 feel to aerial combat, but it failed to elicit even the briefest moments of interest. The mission structure as well created a peculiar feeling. You were always away from the action, running cover or taking out other objectives, none of which seemed as appealing as what was going down on the ground.
Yes, I know it's about AERIAL action, but the infiltration missions, or sea assaults always seemed so much more appealing than the actual tasks at hand. After a while, it was just a repeated slant on a previous mission, with my desire to finish the game
increasing, just to get it over and done with and never play it again, rather than to bring this experience to a satisfying conclusion.
By walking the line between Sim and Arcade, H.A.W.X.2 manages to represent neither and alienate both. Perhaps a stronger lean towards one side will reap benefits in any future sequels, but as it stands it was an entirely forgettable experience that I won't rush back to revisit in a hurry.