In air combat terms, the word furball is used to describe a densely populated dogfight. You'll find yourself in plenty of furballs in Tom Clancy's HAWX 2, and, for the most part, they're tense, exciting and rewarding. But these furballs don't always go down well. Inconsistent enemy AI and poor collision detection can mar an otherwise fun aerial fracas, and while the new non-fighter focused missions can be interesting, they simply feel out of place in this game. HAWX 2's faults may weigh it down and prevent it from reaching the stratosphere, but it still manages to soar at times.
One of the places HAWX 2 reaches decent heights is its narrative. Original protagonist Colonel David Crenshaw mainly takes a backseat this time around to let the focus shift onto three new hotshot pilots from the US, UK and Russia. In typical Tom Clancy fashion, the plot is a country-hopping potboiler that mixes in Middle Eastern insurgents, the rapidly-becoming-a-cliche Russian ultra-nationalist forces and a potentially devastating nuclear threat. There are even nods to other Ubisoft Tom Clancy franchises, such as Ghost squads for whom you occasionally have to provide air support. Most of the story is told through cutscenes that take place in dark briefing rooms, through grainy satellite images or via radio chatter mid-air while in the midst of a dogfight. Those aren't ideal ways to get the plot across, and the story does take its time to heat up. The eventual narrative payoff is solid enough, though, and you'll likely get invested in it long before the game's equal parts exciting and frustrating climax.
The game's missions similarly start slowly, with its first few forays content to spoon feed you the basics of HAWX 2's arcade take on air combat. Controls are easy to get your head around. It gets a little more complex when using advanced commands, such as ordering wingmen, but it never borders on the complexity of a sim. You get to fly 32 different planes from the US, British and Russian forces, including famous ones like the F22 Raptor, Harriers and several models of MiGs. Although there are subtle differences in speed and manoeuvrability among planes, they all feel responsive and fly quite well.
Novices may take a while to come to grips with the skills required to chase down other planes, but, after a few missions, you can easily hold your own against enemy fighters. This is due to the fact that bogeys in HAWX 2 start off pretty dumb, seemingly content to fly in straight lines for easy missile locks. But the challenge rises significantly in the second half of the game, with enemies becoming much more acrobatic and aggressive. This leads to some exciting missions where the game's dogfighting mechanic shines through. It's a lot of fun to take on large waves of aerial enemies, pulling off insanely high Gs as you try to outmanoeuvre opponents. A high-speed fly-through of a fireball that was an enemy plane milliseconds ago is one of the greatest thrills an air combat game can provide, and HAWX 2 provides those moments in spades.
But by the end of the game, the difficulty spikes unevenly. You can be on the tail of a tricky opponent for up to five minutes or even longer, with the enemy firing off a seemingly infinite number of flares to throw off your missiles during the entire chase. It can get frustrating, especially at higher difficulty levels when your missile complement is drastically reduced. And because many objectives are time sensitive, having to waste time chasing and gunning down that flare-happy opponent can lead to plenty of failed missions. Thankfully, the game has a pretty good checkpoint system so you don't have to retry entire missions from scratch. You also get your full arsenal back when you retry a section, which is a welcome exploit that allows you to get past the tricky AI.
Large-scale dogfights are the best part of HAWX 2. (Credit: GameSpot AU)
The game's sometimes poor collision detection is another source of frustration. This is particularly apparent when flying in the third-person view, as you find yourself in plenty of crashes after inadvertently flying too close to the ground, a mountain or a cliff-side when it looked like you had plenty of room. Normally, this wouldn't matter in a high-flying air combat game where your fighter plane has lots of room, but HAWX 2 features several missions where you have to navigate your plane through tight, constricted spaces (particularly in the final mission where it almost becomes throw-your-controller-against-the-wall worthy).
Flying and fighting aren't the only things you'll be able to do with your planes in HAWX 2; you will also take off and land in several missions. The controls for these are pretty easy to get the hang of, with landing the trickier of the two. If you're having difficulties with getting back on the tarmac, you can use the game's Enhanced Reality System to guide you (the ERS made its debut in the original game as a visual guide to show you how to evade tricky situations, but its use here has been drastically cut back to landings and one specific mission). While it can be conceptually pleasing to see a mission through from take off to landing, it still seems like an odd addition to a game like HAWX 2. If you're an action fan, having to land your plane after just surviving an all-out aerial assault can feel like an anticlimax; flight sim fans will feel the controls are too simple to be any challenge.