Tom Clancy Presents Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. By Tom Clancy (Xbox 360)

It’s an arcade flight sim in a contemporary setting. And it wants to be Ace Combat 6 so badly it hurts, right down to the pre-mission target-percentage breakdown, the post-mission cinematic replay and the three camera view options, each practically identical to its equivalent in AC6.

Here are the things H.A.W.(ks – Ed) does better than Ace Combat 6: more planes (although they all feel pretty much exactly the same to fly), external fly-by “assistance off” view that looks hugely cool (but is completely unnecessary and massively difficult to control), your plane carries anti-missile flares (not that you’ll have any left when you need them because some idiot mapped “deploy flares” to a click of the control stick, something that’s incredibly easy to do accidentally when engaged in intense flight manoeuvres) no portentous and jarring cut-scenes about the hideousness of war (instead there’s a staggeringly nonsensical plot about a corporation as lacking in business-sense as they are in morals), moderately groovy R6: Vegas/CoD4 XP-O-Gain level system (which mostly only unlocks new planes which, as previously stated, aren’t much more than re-skins), looks hugely pretty in places (but extremely ropy in others – the Chicago level with the skyscrapers jarringly plonked down on what looks like a perfectly flat Google Earth map will take you back to the worst sins of mid-nineties flight-simmmery) and its whole campaign is playable in co-op (actually, that one’s pretty much an unreserved yay).

Here are the things it does worse than AC6: smaller maps with smaller, almost linear missions. One of my favourite levels in Ace Combat sees you asked to assist a massive amphibious assault on a coastal town. There are three different allied forces landing in three different places facing different compositions of enemy, and who you choose to primarily support in what way is up to you. Fly a mud-moving A-10 Warthog with iron bombs to easily take out enemy tank formations? Or air-to-ground missles for knocking out priority targets from a safe distance? Either way, you’ll be vulnerable to enemy interceptors and too slow to effectively support all three fronts. Go with a multi-role plane like the F-16 or the Mirage 2000 which’ll let you carve through enemy close air support bombers like a multimillion dollar supersonic knife through butter but is somewhat brittle in the face of ground fire? Should you take the risk of attacking the well-defended town in order to secure its airfield, giving you a base near the front-line where you can land to get repaired and re-armed?

All that light tactical layer is absent from H.A.W.(ks. – Ed). In your first playthough, you’ll have a lot of planes to choose from but generally only one weapons load and one approach to any given scenario. There’s no landing at carriers or airbases, no chance to change your payload mid-mission, no trading off effectiveness against X sort of target with effectiveness against Y. It’s pretty much just a shooting-gallery – hostile unit appears in front of you, press A to fire a missile, done, done and I’m onto the next one.

There are tons of smaller niggles. Hard mode is too easy (so I presume you could finish Normal mode without actually looking at the screen) while Elite mode doesn’t, y’know, make the enemy AI any more dangerous it just artificially and unfairly limits the number of weapons you can carry (which wouldn’t be as much of an issue except that, as previously mentioned, there’s no way of re-arming mid-mission). The targeting system is fiddly and thoughtless – if I’ve got AAMs armed, why on Earth does it let me lock onto ground targets that I can’t hit? And why oh why oh why is “change weapon” mapped to the D-pad? Did nobody twig that when you want to switch to, say, dogfighting missles you might possibly be in, f’rinstance, a dogfight and so not really be overly keen to LET GO OF THE HUGGING CONTROLS?

If the flight scenes in Top Gun mildly arouse you, you’ll have some fun with H.A.W.(ks – Ed). Me? They do and I did. It’s not a bad game by any means, it’s just shallow, workmanlike, a bit bland and lacking in charm. It’s like a tribute band – the songs are still good but the magic’s not quite there. H.A.W.(ks – Ed) is the Bootleg Ace. It’s the Counterfeit Combat. It’s the Tesco Value Ace Combat 6.

With an unnecessarily silly name.

John Woo Presents John Woo’s Stranglehold By John Woo (Xbox 360)

The graphics are ropy, the controls are slightly worse, its difficulty is up and down more than a manically depressed junkie kangaroo on a space hopper and it’s a pony that barely manages one trick. And that’s the exact same trick as Max Payne’s, only – and I appreciate this will be hard to believe – with a worse story. If I’d paid full price at release I’d have been a) insane and b) furious. But as a cheap, throwaway b-movie title it hits the spot. Stranglehold is the first game in history where the stuff you can do in-game is cooler than the stuff you’re shown doing in cut-scenes. The first time I slid down a banister, shot a sign that fell on a mook’s head, blew up a second mook by taking out the barrel of propane he was slightly foolishly hiding behind, then dove onto a wheelie-trolley and rolled across a courtyard shooting two more mooks in the face I’d pretty much had enough fun for the fiver the game set me back. And the massively over-the-top spinny-around-with-doves-flying-up-everywhere special move made me laugh every single time I did it. For that, I’m willing to forgive semi-frequent moments of frustration brought on by the lack of a Left 4 Dead-style “Spin 180 Degrees” button and insufficient information as to the location of the THOUSANDS OF ENEMIES currently shooting your wanger off.

Stranglehold is rubbish. But it’s extravagant, operatic, cheerfully stupid, generally good fun rubbish. It’s rubbish with the courage to be rubbish as loudly and forcefully as it can. Much like Face/Off, actually.

Russell T. Davis Presents Russell T. Davis’ Doctor Who Easter Special By Russell T. Davis (Alright, you can stop now – Ed) (Telly)

It was alright, wasn’t it? The Lara Croft wannabe pseudo-assistant was good fun, the visual of a London bus crashed in the middle of a desert wilderness was cool to the point that you strongly suspect that RTD started with that image and worked back to find a story that semi-justified it, I liked that the ugly menacing-looking aliens actually turned out to be innocent bystanders and the story rollocked along at a decent old pace even if it didn’t make a lot of sense and fell apart a bit in the final third. No change there, then. So not a boundary, but a controlled single that keeps the scoreboard ticking over. Still looking forward to seeing what Who will turn into in fresh hands, mind.

Nobody Presents Nobody’s Empire: Total War By Nobody (You’re fired – Ed) (PC)

Medieval: Total War is one of my favourite games ever, I’ve read every Sharpe book ever written (they are, after all, Mills And Boon for boys), and there’s nothing I like more in movies than some buckles being suitably swashed. So why oh why oh why hasn’t this game clicked with me? Am I just a bit Total Warred out? The real-time battles have a very different feel to Rome or either of the Medievals. Those games depended on you winning the scissors-paper-stone-lizard-Spock matchups (archers beat everything at range, everything beats archers up close, spears beat cavalry, cavalry beats swords, swords beat spears) and making practical use of flank and rear attacks on already-engaged units. Outflanking remains important in Empire, but its battles seem to primarily hinge on your ability to concentrate fire. Almost everyone’s got guns, so all things being equal what you’re trying to do is get two of your units shooting at one of the enemy’s. If you can do that, the opposition will rout before you and your freed-up soldiers can then start shooting at the next enemy unit, continuing a virtuous circle that will eventually see you “rolling up” the other fellow’s battle-line. It’s a different tactical challenge, and an interesting one, but for some reason the whole package isn’t quite grabbing me.
There are lots of little problems with it, but nothing I can see as being The Sticking Point. The naval battles are fiddly but easily-skipped. The battlefields seem a lot more varied than they used to be, with buildings that you can garrison, but occupied buildings are such easy prey for enemy artillery that they’re not remotely worth the bother 90% of the time. In the strategic layer, I don’t feel like I’m getting enough feedback on the socio-economic situation in my territories making it hard to determine which cities are performing well and which are on the brink of anarchy, although this may simply be down to not yet having spent enough time learning the nuances of the game.

Can’t put my finger on it. All I know is that this weekend I spent nine hours fiddling with a game I’ve had for six months and three quid’s worth of tower defence shenanigans rather than bestriding the nations of the Earth like a colossus. That can’t be right, can it?

Werner Herzog Presents Werner He… (*gunshot*) Grizzly Man (DVD)
Grizzly Man is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor who spent 13 summers living among bears in Alaska before he and his girlfriend were killed by a bear.

(Much as with Steve “Man Who Teases Dangerous Animals For A Living Killed By Dangerous Animal He Was Teasing” Irwin it’s such a horribly predictable fate I’m not even sure that it counts as ironic.)

It’s fascinating stuff with some beautiful footage of the Alaskan wilderness in general and bears in particular. The opening scene, with Treadwell talking the camera, describing himself as a “gentle warrior” who’s “earned the trust” of the bears and will never be hurt by them leads you to think that he’s going to be portrayed as an absolutely colossal tool. In fact the film gives a much more nuanced, interesting picture of a divisive, remarkable, quixotic and thoroughly tragic figure.

A few of the interviews seem weirdly forced, even staged – every time the guy who did the autopsy on what was left of Timothy Treadwell’s body is on camera for instance, or the scene where Herzog listens to the audio recording of Treadwell’s last moments. But that aside, it’s a terrific film that I’d thoroughly recommend.