Did you ever play Afterburner in arcades? With the whole arcade cabinet constructed to superficially resemble a jet fighter cockpit? Yeah, it was pretty awesome. In recent years, though, the aerial combat game has become little more than a memory, the torch carried almost solely by the Ace Combat series. Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X., developed by Ubisoft Romania, might not revolutionize the genre, but it comes as an injection of fresh new blood.

H.A.W.X. puts players into the pilot seat as Air Force pilot David Crenshaw, a member of the titular elite H.A.W.X. squadron tasked with providing air support for the Ghost team (of Ghost Recon fame). Crenshaw and his squadron are decommissioned and sign on with Artemis, a PMC (Private Military Company) looking to make a name for itself. It’s worth mentioning that the story in H.A.W.X. is actually fairly well-done by videogame standards, and does a nice job at portraying a not-too-distant future where the world has become overly reliant on PMCs. It’s not as complex or convoluted (or preachy) a take on the matter as, say, Metal Gear Solid 4, but it certainly serves its purpose – plus, there aren’t any hour-long cutscenes.

The plot is of course a secondary concern, because its main purpose is to just serve as a vehicle for what H.A.W.X. is all about – high-speed jet-fighter combat. In this regard, H.A.W.X. is a solid endeavor, albeit nothing revolutionary. Despite how overwhelming they can seem at first, the controls are intuitive and comfortable, with the only real complaint I have being that it was a bit too easy to accidentally fire off an anti-missile flare when I didn’t intend to.

The main innovation that H.A.W.X. brings to the genre is Assistance Off mode. With Assistance On, you’ll be flying with the camera centered on your combat aircraft of choice – fairly par for the course as far as flight combat games go. There’s an optional system you can use that will plot a course to follow in order to get a better angle of attack, or – most usefully – to evade incoming missiles, though its use is questionable when it comes to intercepting an enemy plane.

Assistance Off, though, zooms the camera way out for a more cinematic approach. While you no longer have access to the course-tracker, Assistance Off allows pilots to pull off daring and acrobatic moves that make it easier to get the upper hand in a dogfight – though they’re also riskier to pull off. The cinematic camera is a bit hard to get accustomed to at first, and it’s frustrating (and occasionally disorienting) to not be able to control the camera angle. Once you get the hang of it, though, Assistance Off mode makes for some breathtaking aerial battles as you can see the full scope of battle – and it’s easily one of H.A.W.X.‘s strongest points.

The battles wouldn’t be so good-looking if… well, H.A.W.X. didn’t look so good. The game is a real visual treat for the most part, with particular praise going to the environments themselves. Much ado has been made over H.A.W.X.‘s use of the GeoEye satellite to create picture-perfect representations of real-world locales like Tokyo, Ciudad Juarez, and Rio de Janeiro, and it’s certainly deserved. The environments look absolutely fantastic while you’re zooming above them at supersonic speeds, and provide a great backdrop to the action – dogfighting around the Sears Tower in Chicago is pretty awesome.

Unfortunately, as good as the game looks in the thick of the action, it really doesn’t hold up as well if you go to inspect things more closely. The ground becomes pixilated, and it’s jarring when destroyed vehicles don’t actually leave any remains – blow up a naval vessel and it simply disappears, which becomes awkwardly hilarious if you finish the kill with a machinegun (no explosion, the ship just vanishes).

In fact, “looks great at first, doesn’t hold up as well under inspection” might perfectly describe H.A.W.X. as a whole. After every mission, you unlock a new plane with new stats and weapon layouts, but they all handle roughly the same. Flying a stealth fighter feels almost identical to flying a F-22 Raptor or Eurofighter Typhoon; the only difference is the weapons you’re carrying.

The missions themselves are fairly well-done, but end up feeling same-y after a while. H.A.W.X. is at its best when it throws you into the middle of a gigantic battle – with the two crown jewels the giant dogfights over Rio de Janeiro and Washington D.C. – but those missions are so exciting because of their grand scale. It’s not just you and your two wingmen; there are at least ten or fifteen enemies in the air on both sides, and it’s a thrilling experience. For most of the other missions, though, you’ll rarely encounter anything larger than three-on-five.

Multiplayer is disappointing, and feels phoned in. There’s nothing to stop a Rank 40 pilot with all the best planes and weapon sets from ending up in the same game as a Rank 1 newbie, and that’s just an imbalanced scenario that ends up not being fun at all. It’s serviceable, sure, but it definitely shouldn’t be a selling point for anybody.

It’s true that H.A.W.X. is a flawed game – but it’s by no means a bad game, and there are points where it shines. It’s clear that there are lots of great ideas under the hood in H.A.W.X., but the execution thereof could be better. Even so, it’s a solid first try from Ubisoft Romania, and lays the groundwork for potentially excellent follow-ups (after some tuning up, of course). H.A.W.X. is new, and its inexperience shows – but there’s potential under the hood for greatness once it’s grown up.

Bottom Line: Looks great (as long as you don’t look too closely), plays fine, Assistance Off is a fantastic idea that makes for some breathtaking dogfights. With a few exceptions, missions are barely above average, multiplayer is imbalanced and disappointing. A hypothetical H.A.W.X. 2 might be great; H.A.W.X. is merely “solid.”

Recommendation: If you ever had fighter-jet pilot fantasies as a kid, definitely consider picking it up … but try before you buy – rent it first.

John Funk likes to take it to the Danger Zone.

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

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