Wednesday, April 8, 2009

20cc reviews: Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X.

With Gamefly's inability to deliver Weapons of Fate in time for this week's review, and the fact that I'll no doubt have to take next week off for travel, it seems I'm looking at another month or so without a break in the release schedule. WoF and The Godfather 2 are already out, and before I've finished them I'll have Velvet Assassin to contend with. I may end up cutting a couple games out of my schedule, depending on their continuing interest level.

In WoF's absence, I had planned on writing a completely irrelevant Prince of Persia review for this week, but Gamefly couldn't get that in time either, so I was left to find something at Blockbuster for my review. (It goes without saying that they didn't have WoF in stock either.) I settled on H.A.W.X.

For a little background, I've had a rather sporadic relationship with Tom Clancy games, and flying games in general. Every so often, one catches my interest, but only for a little while, and I've never been particularly good at either. It may in part be that I played most of these games when I was younger and sucked at games, and over time came to ignore Tom Clancy games because they're pretty much all the same. And yet here we have a Tom Clancy flying game. How refreshing. My aversion to this genre would have kept me from playing the game, but a friend suggested it to me, and I ended up getting the demo on XBL, figuring I had nothing to lose. (And nothing else to play, since Gamefly fails at shipping.)

It turns out, the game is fun. I would go so far as to say addictive. They accomplish this, first of all, by making it ridiculously easy. I say ridiculously because I finished the game in a day, and as I said before I'm pretty terrible at flying games. Combat, realistically, consists less of pulse pounding dogfights with opponents firing their cannons blindly, hoping to wing their enemy and maybe chip off a little health, and more of blowing the shit out of helpless ground targets. Less realistically, while most fighters might carry two to four missiles, H.A.W.X.'s fighters regularly came equipped with 200 Joint Strike missiles, 40 multi targeting air to air missiles, and rocket pods (just to give a possible weapon load). In addition to the typical flight mode, H.A.W.X. adds an alternate “assistance off” mode (referred to as OFF, in capitals, for no apparent reason) that makes for easier dogfighting. What it does, essentially, is removes most of the HUD, such as the altimeter and speedometer, disables the ERS, (the “enhanced reality system,” basically an advanced targeting system) changes to a camera angle that makes targeting a pain in the ass, and disables the failsafe that prevents the plane from slowing too much and stalling out. While that seems to be mostly negative, it really is worth it to be able to cut the plane's engine, spin around 180 degrees and fire a couple of missiles into the face of that enemy jet that thought it was going to get away. Also, admittedly, it's pretty fun to stall the plane and then pull out a second or two before hitting the ground. (Tangentially, the game would have been better if the player could use a Mechwarrior-style customization system, perhaps selecting weapons that fit into a weight limit, instead of choosing from preset options.)

As far as missions go, the gameplay consists of a combination of area defense (boring), escorts (frustrating), ground support (the closest to realistic of all the mission types), and infiltration (rare but fun). Like GTA4, the game really doesn't stray from its model, except in a couple minor cases, for instance an escort mission in which the player's targeting and ERS only works while near the escort target, (an AWACS) or a defense mission that ends with the player having to intercept cruise missiles before they reach the target. Despite maintaining a strict model, the gameplay remains fun because of the graphics, and the feeling of power that comes as a result of watching a multi targeting air to ground missile wipe out a tank platoon.

But you knew I would have to talk about the story, didn't you? I can't say I know exactly what role Mr. Clancy took in the writing of this game's plot. However, I was under the impression that his stories were popular because of their realistic, near future disaster scenarios that incite the public's fears because of the possibility that it could actually happen. In H.A.W.X. (According to Wikipedia, this stands for High Altitude Warfare eXperimental squadron, a typically contrived acronym that is also inaccurate, since, as a support unit, the H.A.W.X. squad spends most of its time at a rather low altitude. I don't think the acronym is ever explained in game, but then I did stop listening to the dialogue about halfway through.) the protagonist is a decommissioned Air Force pilot who is hired by the upstart PMC Artemis Global Security. The early part of the game sends the H.A.W.X. to put down rebellions and such, and ends with Artemis signing a contract with Brazil and supporting them in a war against an alliance of South American states called Las Trinidad. The flaws in the writing are minor at first, like the fact that Artemis is not only angry but for some reason surprised that the U.S. tries to intervene in a full scale war between a friendly nation and a vocally anti-American alliance. My personal favorite quote comes up during the defense of Brazil's capital, when a fellow pilot remarks, “Las Trinidad is going for the throat. This is a coup d'état!” A coup d'état is a military revolution, and requires someone inside the country to be rebelling. A war between nations is something very different. However, I became convinced that this character was simply mentally challenged, since he also has a tendency to repeat the same line every goddamn minute.

About halfway through the game, however, in a fit of terrible predictability, Artemis gets a better deal from Las Trinidad, defects, and declares war against the U.S. Somewhere along the line, Artemis apparently confused the definitions for “company” and “terrorist,” because I really don't see how such a plan would be profitable. Whatever Wall Street's current condition, America remains a major economic and military power. A war with the U.S. would first cause Artemis's stock to crash, and then cause all of their soldiers to die. However, because we've long abandoned any sense of realism, this six year old private company manages to actually stage a surprise attack that disables America's defense network, takes several military bases, and sets up a jamming system that disables electronic targeting systems nationwide. There isn't much of a change in gameplay however, since with the protagonist's defection, Artemis's previously advanced forces are replaced with the same tanks and dated fighters that the rebels were previously using.

(Here's a video of someone who apparently doesn't know how to dodge missiles.)

I couldn't honestly say that I didn't enjoy my day with H.A.W.X. Unfortunately, it seems that all of the games I've played of late have been fun without any real valuable content. About a year ago I read an article about the improving condition of video game writers. Why haven't I seen any indication of this? The last game I played with a convincing plot was Silent Hill 2, which is now going on a decade old. Before that was Kane & Lynch, which has been overwhelmingly criticized for its graphics and the fact that the characters “swear too much.” (Whoever wrote those reviews have apparently never been in the real world. The characters in K&L swear less than my friends or my parents.)

What I'm saying is that I like games to be enjoyable, but I would also like to feel that I'm doing less to contribute to America's deteriorating intellect. It's really not that hard to write a convincing plot. All that's required is that the writer asks himself three questions: “Are my characters realistic? Is my plot fresh and plausible? Am I not a flaming idiot?” If the answer to any of those questions is no, it's time to get outside help. Please people, have some standards. There's a difference between games like Saints Row that are cleverly written and lack plot only because it's meant to be a parody, and games whose writers assume that we can't tell the difference between characterization and bullshit.

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