Did you ever play Afterburner in arcades? With the whole arcade cabinet constructed to superficially resemble a jet fighter cockpit? Yeah, it was pretty awesome. In recent years, though, the aerial combat game has become little more than a memory, the torch carried almost solely by the Ace Combat series. Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X., developed by Ubisoft Romania, might not revolutionize the genre, but it comes as an injection of fresh new blood.
H.A.W.X. puts players into the pilot seat as Air Force pilot David Crenshaw, a member of the titular elite H.A.W.X. squadron tasked with providing air support for the Ghost team (of Ghost Recon fame). Crenshaw and his squadron are decommissioned and sign on with Artemis, a PMC (Private Military Company) looking to make a name for itself. It's worth mentioning that the story in H.A.W.X. is actually fairly well-done by videogame standards, and does a nice job at portraying a not-too-distant future where the world has become overly reliant on PMCs. It's not as complex or convoluted (or preachy) a take on the matter as, say, Metal Gear Solid 4, but it certainly serves its purpose - plus, there aren't any hour-long cutscenes.
The plot is of course a secondary concern, because its main purpose is to just serve as a vehicle for what H.A.W.X. is all about - high-speed jet-fighter combat. In this regard, H.A.W.X. is a solid endeavor, albeit nothing revolutionary. Despite how overwhelming they can seem at first, the controls are intuitive and comfortable, with the only real complaint I have being that it was a bit too easy to accidentally fire off an anti-missile flare when I didn't intend to.
The main innovation that H.A.W.X. brings to the genre is Assistance Off mode. With Assistance On, you'll be flying with the camera centered on your combat aircraft of choice - fairly par for the course as far as flight combat games go. There's an optional system you can use that will plot a course to follow in order to get a better angle of attack, or - most usefully - to evade incoming missiles, though its use is questionable when it comes to intercepting an enemy plane.
Assistance Off, though, zooms the camera way out for a more cinematic approach. While you no longer have access to the course-tracker, Assistance Off allows pilots to pull off daring and acrobatic moves that make it easier to get the upper hand in a dogfight - though they're also riskier to pull off. The cinematic camera is a bit hard to get accustomed to at first, and it's frustrating (and occasionally disorienting) to not be able to control the camera angle. Once you get the hang of it, though, Assistance Off mode makes for some breathtaking aerial battles as you can see the full scope of battle - and it's easily one of H.A.W.X.'s strongest points.
The battles wouldn't be so good-looking if... well, H.A.W.X. didn't look so good. The game is a real visual treat for the most part, with particular praise going to the environments themselves. Much ado has been made over H.A.W.X.'s use of the GeoEye satellite to create picture-perfect representations of real-world locales like Tokyo, Ciudad Juarez, and Rio de Janeiro, and it's certainly deserved. The environments look absolutely fantastic while you're zooming above them at supersonic speeds, and provide a great backdrop to the action - dogfighting around the Sears Tower in Chicago is pretty awesome.