Enhanced Reality System: Augmented Reality Flight Assists in Tom Clancy's HAWX
On April 3rd, 2008, the last thing anyone expected from the Tom Clancy brand was a combat focused arcade flight simulator. With well known infantry combat and espionage series like Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell beneath the Tom Clancy name, this was an eye brow raising announcement at the time. When Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. (High Altitude Warfare eXperimental) was released on game consoles and PCs on March 3rd, 2009, its signature game mechanic was the subject of praise and scrutiny by both its fans and media outlets alike. Looking back at this system roughly 12 years later, this some what fantastical video game concept is now the subject of real world military development in 4th and 5th generation fixed wing combat aircraft. The Enhanced Reality System (ERS) is a central part of the gameplay of Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. Both when this game came out and even now over a decade and a half later, ERS is viewed as a function created only for players that are either new to flight games or have very little experience with them. Many of its functions are considered a somewhat “hand holding” level of assistance, but it’s difficult to say that ERS was just a system for unskilled newbies to effortlessly complete combat missions without a challenge. ERS was definitely not some type of easy mode switch that made players invincible, but rather, a mode that provided a wealth of information and more realistic flight control limitations as compared to the mode suggested for more advanced piloting. Enhanced Reality System can be explained by separating it into multiple layers. The flight control layer restricts flight to a more realistic flight profile that people would expect from an arcade flight simulator like this, though it is harder to stall the aircraft because assistance systems are running to help stabilize flight. Furthermore, any damage taken to the aircraft is reduced to a degree, but not to the point where an aircraft can take multiple missile strikes without suffering massive damage. The information layer contains a radar that can be toggled between the onboard aircraft radar and wide area map, Heads Up Display, weapons selection and quantity, current objective information and AI wingman controls. Incoming threats, selected targets and video communications also appear in small video boxes to add visuals to back the on screen text information. The threat layer displays engagement ranges of enemy air defenses or minimum defense ranges of allied units with circles and/or cylinders of various colors showing their detection and engagement areas transposed onto the terrain or airspace. Furthermore, incoming guided missiles are tracked and displayed with red triangles showing their exact position and red arrows indicating the trajectory of the incoming missiles. The final layer, which is the most memorable part of ERS, is the ERS Tunnel. It is a flight path prediction function that can be manually activated by the player. With the press of a button, the Enhanced Reality System calculates flight paths for intercepting enemy aircraft, attacking hard to reach ground targets, outmaneuvering incoming missiles, navigation through difficult terrain and the safest flight paths through even the toughest of air defenses. These flight paths are displayed as triangular shaped gates of various colors, depending on the task selected. Flying through these gates will efficiently take players either to their targets or away from threats. Remaining outside of the projected flight path for too long can result in the path being lost with a new path having to be recalculated. There are some missions within HAWX’s campaign in which activating this system is mandatory to get through certain set pieces of the game’s story, but for the most part activation of this flight path prediction function is completely optional. Furthermore, it is not perfect. Attempting to activate this system too close to the enemy or against highly agile, skilled opposition will cause the ERS to malfunction because it is unable to predict a viable flight path. Simply activating the flight path prediction function does not always guarantee success. This is especially true against incoming missiles, since it is possible for the player to activate the evasive maneuver flight path assistance too late and still be struck by enemy fire. While the Enhanced Reality System certainly provides benefits of stability in flight, damage reduction, clear threat identification and a wealth of possible flight paths to victory, ultimately it still comes down to the player to at least be competent enough to fly through the projected gates at ideal speeds. This is not a type of game mechanic which switches the player to some sort of on rails system that takes complete control from the player and delivers them to the solution while they sit back. The default state of ERS is commonly referred to as “Assistance On”. While it is on, all features and functions mentioned in the previous section are active. Switching an aircraft to “Assistance Off” is advertised as a flight mode reserved for only the most deft pilots willing to take risks for full control of their aircraft. Flying with assistance off is an analog to the concept of disabling a fly by wire system to remove flight control limits applied to an aircraft by its built in systems, allowing pilots to push their aircraft beyond what are deemed as safe limits. In Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. this is portrayed as the ability to perform extreme maneuvers - or as the game refers to it, “drifting”. For reference, present day equivalents would be the angle of attack limiter of Project Wingman and post-stall maneuver system of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. The exchange for this newfound maneuverability is that the in-game point of view defaults to a zoomed out 3rd person view, aircraft radar is hidden, flight path prediction is done away with and the most effective way to evade incoming fire is to outmaneuver them while keeping track of the minimal missile warning cues that appear on screen. Damage reduction is also disabled, meaning that one or two well placed enemy missiles is enough to destroy the player’s aircraft. Frankly, advertising Assistance Off as a type of “true pilot” control scheme is rather inaccurate. Whereas the Enhanced Reality System keeps players within a more believable realm of flight, Assistance Off seemingly throws physics out the window for the sake of a flashy flight style. Modern arcade flight simulators utilizing something similar to ERS Tunnels could be a learning tool for people completely new to the genre, making it easier for them to understand basic combat maneuvering and evasive maneuvering concepts, shortening the amount of time they would need to become comfortable and begin learning more advanced aspects of the game and perhaps of flight in general. Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. was successful in implementing this system in a way that was mostly non-intrusive, though again, it was required to complete certain mission sequences. Curiously, despite how forefront the Enhanced Reality System was in the first H.A.W.X. game was, it is noticeably altered and not as frequently seen in Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2. The most high profile changes include the rare usage of the ERS tunnel which was presented to the player only in limited situations. Discussing this subject in 2021 is especially interesting when discussing the Enhanced Reality System in retrospect, as similar concepts have been in development by militaries and aerospace companies around the globe. Of course it was early concepts about the incorporation of augmented reality in current and next generation combat aircraft that inspired what is seen in Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. back in 2009, but seeing real world aircraft in 2021 - like the F-35 Lightning II, Eurofighter Typhoon and the conceptual BAE Tempest - showing off experimental displays that mirror this game is an attention grabbing comparison. For those interested in seeing how concepts of tacti-cool tech from the late 2000s stack up with the bleeding edge technology of the near future, a play through of Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. would be a good way to spend an afternoon. About the Writer Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.