There's no denying the debt that H.A.W.X. owes to the excellent Ace Combat series, upon which its core gameplay and design ideas are based. In particular, the fundamental idea of looking like a combat flight simulation while playing like an arcade game remains intact. At the same time, Ubisoft Romania has gone far beyond crafting a copy, adding in plenty of innovative ideas, fun game modes, and an integration with the wider Clancy mythology that gives weight and depth to the experience.
The near-future setting tells the story of a squad of ace pilots who join up with a private military contractor after completing illustrious careers in the U.S. Air Force. As anyone who follows today's zeitgeist can guess, the insanely powerful PMC turns out to have some sinister motivations, and lo, we've got ourselves a plot. It makes for some epic conflicts over Tokyo, Washington D.C., and Rio de Janeiro, all of which are displayed in glorious, breathtaking detail thanks to extensive satellite imagery data. Thankfully, the planes, weapon effects, and HUD show an equal level of polish.
The flight combat rises to the challenge presented by its visuals through well-balanced and varied missions. As you switch between desperate dogfights and furious bombing runs, you have the option to do it all with up to three friends. A thrilling two- to four-player cooperative mode turns the air fights into titanic affairs, since more enemies show up for every player in the game. There's an exhilarating high to be found in covering a buddy's bombing run with a blast of missile fire, or calling out that you've got the MiG squadron at 8 o'clock as your wingman zooms off to tackle the tank squadron rolling in at 2.
The game also innovates through its Assistance Off mode, which delivers big thrills despite its dreary nomenclature. By double tapping one of the triggers, players disable the safety locks on their plane, sacrificing a degree of control for increased mobility and evasion. The camera pans back to a wide third-person angle, and suddenly it feels like you're drift racing a jet plane, as you veer wildly through the skies to zero in on targets, while warding off stalls that could send you spinning into a nearby mountain.
Like some of the recent Clancy games, H.A.W.X. also offers a leveling mechanic, based on both in-mission kills and larger challenges that are completed over time, such as perfecting the use of a particular missile type. As you level and unlock new jets and weapon load outs, you can use those unlocks in either the campaign or in the eight-person competitive dogfights. Along with multiple difficulty settings, there's plenty of reason to continue ranking your pilot, since every game mode contributes to your growth.
So much about the game is well done, it's easy to not notice that almost everything is a little too scripted. It'd be nice to see a little more creativity and adaptability in the enemy AI, but it's a small complaint when stacked against the impressive feature set of the wider game. H.A.W.X. is the best flight game so far this generation, and a worthy addition to the best in the Clancy stable.