This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.
You've got to feel sorry for the American entertainment industry. The country comes home from a few decent world wars with a new image for itself as the glorious, conquering heroes, and ever since then their existence has been one long quest for another worthy opponent. They're like Red Sonja minus the whole sex obligation, as much as that would liven up global politics. They had a good thing going with the Russians for a while, before East Berlin paid the price for shoddy building contractors, and in all their other wars it's difficult to root for America when the villains of the story live in a ditch and are armed with jagged rocks. At some point in recent years they looked up from their international heroism to realize they'd alienated the entire world, and contemporary war stories now all seem to deathly avoid clearly associating the villains with a foreign power. It's quite entertaining to watch, really, like how they used to put bears on hot plates to make them dance.
Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X (by Tom Clancy) is another of my adventures into the gaming wilderness, because I've never really been into flight simulators. That said, H.A.W.X is a flight simulator in the same sense that, say, Spade Invaders is a simulation of tactical guerrilla warfare. You're a jet fighter pilot in a near future where America's military is now staffed entirely by the people who do movie trailer voiceovers, and you're tasked to enter various theatres of war to stabilize the situation with a few nice big explosions.
Now, I'm no expert on this (or, indeed, anything except dick analogies), but I do know that modern military jets are very fucking fast things! By the time you see one, it's already over there. So combat in such a thing would usually amount to pressing a button and watching something half a mile behind you burst into flames. And that's not just idle fact, it's cold, hard speculation. But real life makes not for entertainment, so for this game we're all just going to dogfight in jets like it's nineteen forty-fucking-five, okay?
Obviously, the big flaw in the pledge to try new things is that I have very little to compare them to. The closest thing to a flight sim I'd ever gotten into was Frontier: Elite II, and H.A.W.X doesn't give you the option to autopilot everywhere to the tune of Hall of the Mountain King. But I'm honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed H.A.W.X. After a fairly brief adjustment period (in which I learned to complete a low-flying bombing run without getting my nose cone stuck in somebody's chimney), I found the flying controls to be fairly intuitive and was soon gaily tearing up the skies, enjoying the lovely scenery served hot from Google Maps. There's something like twenty different planes you can fly, but that's really just a bone for the enthusiasts. The only appreciable differences are the exact design of the expensive, military arse you have to stare at all day and possibly a slight promotion from "ludicrously fast" to "there is a mosquito-shaped hole in my teeth".
Combat technology really has gotten pretty foolproof in 2014 - makes you wonder why they even bother with pilots. For ground-based and slow-moving targets, the computer does all the targeting for you. All you have to do is press the fire button as soon as you're in range, turning a large percentage of combat into a sequence of glorified quick-time events. But the subtraction of fiddly gunning mechanics does allow one to concentrate on strategy - in theory, anyway. For all the box blurb boasts, the only orders you can give to your wingmen are "defend" and "attack". I've seen light switches with more tactical flexibility. And the thing is, they let us grow reliant on auto-aim, and then on maybe two occasions in the whole game they'll pull a dick move extraordinaire and jam your targeting system, forcing you to use your manual turrets on high-speed enemies, which is like threading a needle with the leg of an angry spider.
The dogfights with other fighter jets help the game come alive, because at close range relying on your targeting system turns you into a meth-addicted sloth trying to keep up with a high-speed tennis match. So you're taught how to disable the safeties and go into a whole different viewpoint. It takes a bit of getting used to - in fact, on the training level the unmanned drones shot me down three times, which was a little emasculating - but once I'd gotten the hang of it, all the dodging and pursuing was actually quite fun and effective.
So overall, I enjoyed H.A.W.X. In fact, I might go as far to say H.A.W.X could well have sold me on air combat games. But that's not funny, so let's find more things to rip on. The story's a nice, fat target. I wonder how much input Tom Clancy actually has on all the games that wear his name. If it's a lot, he must be working pretty fucking flat-out - I doubt he'd have time to sleep or salute the American flag the required six times a day.
I'm going to give away some spoilers here, so if you're that bothered stick your head in a bucket 'til the generic metal starts up. Because the actual standing army of a foreign nation would have inconvenient things like patriotism and families and adorable pet doggies and shit, the bad guys of H.A.W.X turn out to be private military contractors, the true bogeymen of our time. You start off working for them because the U.S. Air Force laid your ass off, but then they decide to support a militant group working against America, so you defect back to the Air Force (since everyone in the American military are all so selflessly heroic it makes me want to puke!)
The PMC point out that the U.S. can't stop them from doing private business dealings with whoever they want, and that's probably true. But then. . .they invade Washington, bomb the White House, and try to shoot down Air Force One. I'm pretty sure the U.S. are within their rights to stop them doing that! who the hell is running this company, Scaramanga? Why would a PMC invade the U.S.? What were they going to do after killing the president, declare themselves king? And where were they hiding all the soldiers and hardware you'd need to wage war on a global superpower, the fucking moon? I know that drama demands that the enemy actually be a plausible threat, but I still think it'd be more credible if the villains had been an army of disgruntled insect people from the Earth's core!
Wearing silly hats!
It's all in the timing, this job: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
It stands for 'Heroic Airmen Wax Xenophobic'
Neeeooowwwwwwwn boosh budda budda budda aargh