Tom Clancy's HAWX Hands-on Preview

Years ago, a friend tried to sell me on the air combat sim genre, swearing that assault rifles were for pansies and that real men did their killin' from the seat of an F-22 Raptor.

"Fat guys can't join the Air Force, so [Ace Combat 5] is about as close as you'll get," he said. "Pop in the Top Gun soundtrack and it's practically the real thing."

The ensuing war of words ensured that my introduction to fierce in-flight battles wouldn't occur for another three years, when I--with some trepidation--stumbled my way through a demonstration skirmish in Ubisoft Romania's HAWX at the company's Ubidays event. There was fear, panic, doubt. Who would put a clumsy, drunken fool like me behind the stick of a jillion-dollar aircraft, virtual though it may be?

As the chorus of "Take My Breath Away" reached a triumphant crescendo in the back of my head, I noticed I hadn't yet crashed or been repeatedly shot down, nor had I accidentally killed any of my compatriots--hardly becoming of a rookie. Perhaps I was gifted. Born for this crap. But before I could muster any undue ego bloating, Ubisoft personnel assured me that the game had been crafted for veteran air combat gamers while adding some features aimed to assist clumsy, idiot newbies—an effort to bring the air combat genre to the masses.

"One of the things we've really been working on is trying to make this accessible," said Ubisoft brand manager Shane Bierwith. "Air combat tends to be a very rigid genre because the accessibility's pretty low, and they're very difficult to pick up and play. We tried to strike that perfect balance between authenticity of simulation and the fun of an FPS in the sky."

Taking place in the same geopolitical hodgepodge as fellow Clancy alumni series Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, the HAWX demonstration had me screaming through the skies above Rio De Janeiro, recreated with crisp colors and an alarming level of detail using licensed satellite images from GeoEye, a commercial Earth-imaging corporation.

The terrain is appropriately scaled for elevation, with peaks where appropriate and—as you might suspect—Christ the Redeemer on the top of Corcovado Mountain. While the map includes its fair share of the flat-textured suburban cityscapes you may recognize from several other aerial combat sims, HAWX doesn't skimp on the fully-rendered buildings, creating an urban battlefield for enemy tanks and strike teams to hide in.

It's a pretty game to behold, provided you catch a glimpse through HAWX's smattering of on-screen displays, targeting reticules and other informative minutia composing the title's HUD—an assault of information almost as terrifying as the many ways you can kill yourself by mishandling the controls. Drilled down to its most basic elements, the controls are simple enough—one trigger to throttle down, the other to speed up, control sticks and shoulder buttons to control your flight path. More elegant strikes require a bit more finesse, and though first-timers to the genre might be intimidated, Ubisoft has a solution in the ERS.

Called the "Enhanced Reality System," the ERS is essentially an on-screen guidance system that handles a multitude of tasks while you get to the business of killin' folk. The ERS incorporates anti-stall and anti-crash subsystems to keep you aloft and shooting, and also includes a handy system for plotting interception or missile evasion courses. When engaged, the system will flash a series of brightly-colored triangular gates on the screen, directing you along the quickest path to reach your current target, dynamically altering course as the target's location changes.

While it certainly helps in getting the job done, utilizing the system took me out of the heat of the moment. Though I could rest assured that the ERS was indeed guiding me to my target, the bizarre series of twists and turns plotted for me in the brightly colored gates had an almost minigame-like feel to it—more Star Fox than a free-flight combat simulator. Naturally, the ERS and its manifold subsystems can be clicked off at the player's whim, so those looking to hotshot their way through a battle can do so at any time.

Players looking for an extra challenge or a quick burst of maneuverability can also engage the game's third-person camera, which brings the screen focus far, far away from your jet, giving you a more complete perspective of the skies. Bierwith explained that the mode not only aids in keeping tabs on what's behind as well as in front of you, but also prompts the disengagement of your jet's anti-stall systems, allowing for some pretty spectacular maneuvers to dodge missiles or escape bogeys riding your tail.

By cutting the throttle and pulling back hard on the stick, you can effectively manually stall your jet, forcing a swift ascent into a slow overhead loop, putting your enemies and a bit of distance right in your sights as you level out. It took a few hundred tries to get it right, but getting a feel for the maneuver certainly made dogfighting a much easier and more satisfying experience.

Missile locks on enemy targets are as smooth in the third-person perspective as they are in the cockpit, but the wide and often cock-eyed angle of the camera more or less negates the effectiveness of your guns, which must be manually aimed—not a huge problem, given the utterly massive (and perhaps slightly unreal) cache of missiles aboard your plane.

We weren't given access to the title's multiplayer functionality or the full breadth of its playable jet lineup, but here's a brief rundown as to what to expect: four-player drop-in cooperative play throughout the game's main campaign, spanning roughly 18 missions in locales all around the world; online multiplayer for up to sixteen players; fifty licensed aircraft from a wide lineup of manufacturers.

With a bit of time behind the stick, I felt comfortable enough to be a little more daring, and it seemed as though there lay a remarkably deep and fulfilling combat experience beneath the game's simple pick up and play element. Time will tell whether or not Ace Combat fanatics will find reason to join Clancy and crew on this latest mission, but hear me, newbies: HAWX may not be the simplest game ever made, but as far as the air combat genre is concerned, it's practically idiot-proof. Good news for us clumsy chumps.