If you like Ace Combat and have followed that series all the way from the infancy to the most recent game, then you might actually find a new love in Tom Clancy's: HAWX.
Once again the world is in crisis and the HAWX squadron are disbanded at the wrong time, just after saving the Ghost's asses in Mexico they're pulled from active duty. Your character isn't too happy about this and he decides to join the private sector working for a Private Military Contractor (these seem to be the in thing at the moment) and earn himself some big bucks.
He drags his two wingmen with him and the scene is set now against slowly escalating crises, twists and turns following as the HAWX fly again. I don't want to spoil the story for you so that's all you're going to get from me regarding it.
HAWX can be played in cockpit view, 3rd person view or just sans-cockpit and with only rudimentary instrumentation. It is essentially a simple flight sim with the emphasis on fast paced dogfighting action and a plethora of protection style missions (things which I have hated since Wing Commander). The controls are fluid and easy to use, you can link up a head set and control your plane's weapon selection, wingman commands and other elements with voice if you like.
There are several innovations in HAWX that add a near-future air combat edge to the game. The High Altitude Warfare Experimental Squadron use an advanced system for targeting, the ERS (Enhanced Reality System) allows the pilot to project a HUD based tunnel on the screen. If you follow this tunnel (press X to engage it) you can get onto your opponents six quite easily, or evade a missile if you hear the tone of a missile lock. As long as you can keep in the tunnel to follow it, you'll be fine.
The missions in HAWX earn you experience and you can unlock new planes and areas once you level up. Everything you do racks up those xp points and if you go above and beyond the mission parameters you can gain levels quite quickly. There are 50 licensed planes in HAWX and they all have varying statistics and later on, loadouts that you can experiment with, so there is a fair amount to gain from trying to do your best in each mission.
The controls allow for some pretty impressive moves and manoeuvres as the dogfighting can become intense and satisfying, engaging air targets one moment and then swooping in low to devastate a ground assault is a pretty exhilarating feeling. Orders are simple to give, weapons easy to swap and the controls are designed to allow the player to concentrate on having fun.
The single player element of the game has 4 players, drop in/drop out coop and there are 8 player online modes, deathmatch, team deathmatch and so on.
There's even a free flight mode that lets you experiment and just fly the planes that you've unlocked. You can pick any area that you've completed and unlocked, this is a great way to learn the various quirks of any aircraft and experiment with firing the weapons in an environment free from enemy weapons fire, aircraft and vehicles.
Not to mention that the scenery created by GeoEye's real satellite data is pretty damn impressive.
HAWX is a gorgeous game. Ubisoft have really managed to push the graphics engine to deliver a high performance frame rate, aerial thrills and spills at high speed and stay true to what makes a game like Ace Combat great. They have epic looking dogfights and engagements in the air with rocket trails, sun blazing through the cockpit and superb visual effects. This is a game that you truly play for the spectacle of ripping through the sky humming 'Highway to the Danger Zone' or having the Top Gun soundtrack thundering on in the background.
These planes are highly detailed, the ground and environments are highly detailed and the satellite mapped terrain (GeoMod) is superbly implemented to make the maps visually appealing as well as interesting. The same detail has been applied to the enemy vehicles, helicopters, planes and so on.
The special effects and lighting for the game are excellent, the smoke is superbly done and the fire/explosions look the part. Even the leading wingtip air trails are gorgeously done.
Atmospheric effects and environmental effects are suitable eye candy with some absolutely stunning vistas to fly/fight around/over.
There's a great deal of detail in the animations, from the small touches like rudder turns, flaps and cockpit instrumentation animation.
There's a feeling of weight to the weapons as they impact with the enemy, blowing them into a hot fireball and sending plane parts flying in all directions.
The AI is solid enough, wingmen do as they're told and the enemy AI can be a real challenge at the higher difficulty levels. You'll be doing a lot of evading and firing flares/chaff.
The sound design for the game is superb, the jets have a really meaty noise to them and the guns rattle a nice harsh staccato as they let fly. A swoosh of a missile and the noise of the lock-on is enough to stop your heart for a few seconds if you're really into it.
A good quality score keeps the action flowing and matches pace with the game.
The voice actors have done a fairly good job, Ubisoft have hired some decent talent and they perform their lines well enough. The actual writing itself is a typical kind of war movie feel and will transport you to such films like Top Gun. It's a typical Clancy-esque universe and there are tough-talking generals, smart mouth air jockeys and stalwart companions a plenty.
It's solid enough, there's little or no lag and the latency is acceptable. You can choose from a variety of matches with 8 players and play the whole story with up to 4 players cooperatively over Xbox Live.
The last rocket
It's a good game; it's not a great game though. Whilst there don't seem to be any ground breaking innovations or game shattering bugs, it's not really a game that reaches any new heights or grabs you sufficiently enough to go: wow, that's superb. Perhaps I tire of protection missions and doing a few similar missions now and then, or I've grown out of flight sims. Don't get me wrong, it is worth picking up and the whole package is excellently done.