Saturday, 2 October 2010

Tom Clancy's HAWX 2 (7/10)

Dogfights in HAWX 2 can be exciting, but some dodgy AI and lackluster missions stop this game from being an air combat ace.

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 ultranationalist forces, and a potentially devastating nuclear threat. There are even nods to other Ubisoft Tom Clancy franchises, such as Ghost squads, and you occasionally have to provide air support for them. Most of the story is told through cutscenes that take place in dark briefing rooms, through grainy satellite images, or via radio chatter midair 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 maneuverability 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 outmaneuver opponents. A high-speed flythrough 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.
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 cliffside 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 in (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.
The game's other attempts to get you out of the cockpit are just as ill fitting. HAWX 2 tries to break up the dogfighting action by letting you control unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance missions and even gets you behind the turrets of an AC-130 for a very Modern Warfare-like death from above section. The UAV missions are fairly monotonous--you have to mark buildings, identify targets, and track vehicles to eavesdrop on phone conversations (and it's as exciting as it sounds). The AC-130 is the more fun of the two--if only for the sheer firepower at your disposal-- but even this is on rails and requires little more than moving a target reticle around.
HAWX 2 fares much better when it sticks to its core competency--fast-paced hijinks while in the fighter pilot's seat. It's not always about straight dogfighting, as the missions here feature some good variety. You have to pilot stealth ships using infrared, do close flybys of satellite dishes to identify radar-jamming sources, escape from a fiery airfield with no weapons while being tracked by bogeys, quickly switch from aerial targets to taking out ground defenses, run escort for naval, ground, or air allies, and much more. Despite some of the problems you run across with tricky enemy fighters, flying in a fighter plane rarely gets boring in HAWX 2. Playing through the game's 20 missions takes about 12 hours, but there's some good replay value to be found, thanks to an Arcade mode that has you replaying through the story missions while meeting specific challenges. There's also a Survival mode where you have to fight off waves of enemies and a Free Flight mode that lets you fly around the game's large maps without fear of getting into a skirmish.
Multiplayer options in HAWX 2 are more robust than in the original. As in the first game, HAWX 2 features drop-in/out co-op for up to four players, and you can play through either individual missions, through the entire story campaign, or even on Arcade mode levels. Playing through with friends is good fun, particularly during the more intense dogfights. UAV and AC-130 missions are not particularly engaging when done in groups--instead of taking control of different aspects of the vehicles (such as flight and weapons), all players will just have their own UAV or AC-130, which makes these missions incredibly simple to complete.
When it comes to playing competitively, HAWX 2 offers team battles where opposing planes aren't the only things you'll have to combat. Various targets--some static-like satellite installations and others dangers like naval frigates--populate the play fields and can be destroyed for extra points, but in most matches they tend to be ignored as players concentrate solely on taking each other out. Up to eight players can engage in dogfights, and these matches generally run pretty well online. The game also has its own perks system. As you earn experience points and gain levels by playing the campaign and online, you can unlock new planes and abilities (both passive and triggered) that can be used in competitive matches. These can range from cutting down the time it takes for you to achieve a missile lock, shortening the cooldown time for cluster bombs, increasing the damage your plane can take, and more.
HAWX 2 looks best when you're in the air, with the game's use of satellite images making the large areas you're flying in look quite realistic. Mountains, valleys, forests, and real-world locations, such as Moscow, all look great from a height, and it's not until you get closer to the ground that things start to look decidedly dicey. Flying in any lower than a few hundred meters reveals blocky trees, poorly defined structures, and plenty of low-quality textures. The game's cutscenes may not look as bad as the ground in HAWX 2, but they're not great quality either, thanks to stiffly animated character models. The planes are deservedly the stars here; they're all rendered in good detail and pleasing to look at in flight due to nice little touches, such as vapor trails streaming off wings or visual shimmers around exhausts. The sound, too, is a winner. The music reaches great bombastic heights during missions, and it's pleasing to listen to the various explosions, gunfire, missiles, and other effects.
While HAWX 2 tries to surpass the heights of its predecessor by bringing on more features and modes, the game only truly shines when it focuses on aerial combat. Imperfect as it might be, there's still plenty of fun to be had in blasting through the skies in pursuit of your enemies and getting involved in some serious furballs. Everything else is HAWX 2 just seems like a distraction.

FIFA 11 (9/10)

FIFA 11 is more playable, refined, and feature-packed than any FIFA game before it.

After a steady rise in quality over the last few years, FIFA 10 added yet more welcome new features and game modes while refining the core gameplay. It's a tough act to follow for FIFA 11, but thanks to more realistic gameplay, new game modes, and more features, this is the best and most comprehensive FIFA game yet. The main improvements are refinements to the gameplay, rather than revolutionary new game modes as we've seen in previous years, but they're significant enough to make EA Sports' latest offering well worth the upgrade.

The changes to this year's game aren't all immediately apparent, but they are welcome and make the game deeper and more realistic. The biggest change is the physicality between players--whether it's a winger holding off a defender, or two players tussling in the box, FIFA 11's players are constantly fighting each other for the ball. This increased tactility has an impact on the gameplay, adding an emphasis on player strength and speed, making player interaction more brutal, and producing some nice touches that add to the realism. For example, if you perform a crunching tackle, the tackler will sportingly tap the downed player on the back as he runs by to collect the ball. There's also much more variation to the passes and shots; you won't see the same shots being taken repeatedly, while positioning, footedness, and environmental factors such as rain all have a real and notable impact. Scoring is also more difficult than before; improved goalies are harder to beat than in FIFA 10, and shots, particularly those lobbed over the keeper, are harder to get in the net.
Much more emphasis has also been put on individual players and how they operate within the team, thanks to the new Personality Plus feature. This is a system of attributes that affect players' skills, from how accurately they pass the ball to how quickly they can control it from the air. Topflight teams boast players with skills across the board, and to get the most from players you need to know how to play to their individual strengths. For example, a player like Wayne Rooney has an inherent ability to score from short range, whereas Steven Gerrard is a much better long-distance shooter. The system works well, and you can feel the difference between players as you control them on the pitch. This personality system also extends to celebrations--you can now hold down the A button to do trademark post-goal dances from famous players, and if you're online, you can also interact with the goal scorer with new team-based celebrations.
The only new game mode in FIFA 11 is Career, which combines the Be a Pro and Manager modes from previous games and gives them a slicker visual presentation. You start out your 15-year career as a player, a manager, or a combination of the two, with responsibility for different activities depending on your role. As a player, you can choose to take control of an individual team member, such as your Virtual Pro player, or play as the entire team. Since you can choose from both options on a match-by-match basis, you can mix things up during your career to keep it interesting. As a manager, you have considerations such as bringing new talent to the club and making sure all your players get experience on the pitch. There are slight tweaks to the management side this year, such as a two-stage negotiation process that also involves wage discussions with the player. It's an improvement and adds depth to proceedings, while coach feedback allows you to keep better tabs on your squad than before. The career mode has definitely improved the existing modes by rolling them into one structure--the presentation is great, you have more flexibility to play games in different roles, and you can compare your career accomplishments with friends' accomplishments on online leaderboards.
The headline feature this year is the new option to play as a goalkeeper in offline and online game modes. The prospect of being the keeper may not sound that exciting, but the controls are intuitive and it can be fun to play as him in short doses. The camera shifts to a behind-the-player perspective, and you control movement with the left stick and diving with the right, with the aim of maintaining a good position while diving at the right moment. The process is made easier by visible lines that predict the path of the ball, as well as a marker that shows the optimal position to be in, and you can even snap to this spot by holding the left bumper. While it's inevitable that much of your time is spent waiting around, you can shout instructions to your team in offline modes by pressing buttons to indicate when they should cross, pass, and shoot, allowing you some tactical control over the game. Ultimately, it's a welcome addition to finally control the keeper, but it's unlikely that you'll want to play through an entire career as one unless you're eager to unlock achievements for doing so. The main benefit comes online, where it's fun to play as the keeper on an occasional basis.
Online, FIFA 11 is as robust and fun as ever, and it boasts 11 versus 11 online play for the first time. This is the first FIFA game to include EA's online pass system, so you need to input a code included in the box in order to play online. The Live Season feature continues, updating real-world player data throughout the football season for 400 MS points per league, or 800 MS points for all five. The hospitality settings option, which was introduced in 2010 FIFA World Cup and saves your FIFA settings to EA's servers, also makes an appearance, allowing you to import your preferences from the earlier game. The online game modes are all familiar--head-to-head ranked and unranked matches are still a lot of fun online and mostly lag-free, while the 10-versus-10 team play mode has been expanded to 11-versus-11 for the first time. You can also play the game with up to four players locally on one machine.
It only takes a couple of button presses to jump into any of the online match types, but there are also lobbies for those who wish to tweak their match options or chat with other players before a game. You can also set up friend leagues for others to join, with multiple matches played between each player in the league in order to decide the victor. You can also play ranked matches with your Virtual Pro player, and set up your own club with your Virtual Pro and recruit other players to join your team. In all, there are an abundance of online game types for you to get involved in. That said, there are still areas where the game could be improved; being able to download your Game Face for your Virtual Pro is neat, but it still needs to be done through a fiddly process involving a computer and a camera or webcam, rather than an Xbox Live Vision camera.
FIFA 11 preserves the series' tradition of slick presentation, with excellent commentary, easy-to-navigate menus, and a great soundtrack. The commentary is insightful and is naturally delivered, with anecdotes about the history behind the major clubs and recognition of derby matches, although the commentators will frequently start to make a point only to cut themselves off when something else happens. This year's soundtrack is also particularly noteworthy, with 33 tracks from the likes of Gorillaz, LCD Soundsystem, and Mark Ronson, and the ability to play weekly podcasts in the game is a nice feature. The commentary, presentation, and music have always been good, though; the only standout addition is a leaderboard on the main menu that compares your accomplishments to those of your friends.
Off the pitch, there are a couple of new additions that add to an already robust set of features. The creation centre allows you to create players and teams through a Web browser and then share them with other people to download in the game. The customisation options are impressive, letting you tailor the look, stats, and even mental approach (such as "argues with referees") of your player. A replay theatre has also been added--highlights are automatically compiled at the end of each match, and you can save them in video form locally or online. If you save them locally, the video format avoids the need to load the game up to watch them back in-engine, although the videos are saved in a low-resolution format. The music and chants feature is also a good addition, allowing you to import songs and audio clips into the game, with an impressive level of customisation. For instance, you can choose a specific song to play when your favourite team scores a goal, and your chosen recording will sound as if it's coming through the stadium speakers.
Thanks to key improvements to the core gameplay this year, FIFA 11 is the best and most addictive version of the game yet. The improved player characteristics and animations result in a deep and rewarding experience that feels as exciting and unpredictable as the real thing. It also boasts key online and offline improvements, with full 11 versus 11 online play for the first time in the genre, and a new career mode that brings together the single-player game in a much more enjoyable way than before. There may not be any new revolutionary new game modes this year, but with matches, leagues, tournaments, multiple career options, and 11 versus 11 online, it's as feature-packed a football game as you could want.