While it may be true that in space no one can hear you scream, they will find it harder to ignore a massive battle going on around them. Especially when that battle features up to 32 players, multiple structures to build, and the odd mech armor that can fly.
Such is the way of things in Starhawk, the spiritual successor of the 2007 cult hit, Warhawk. Fans of the original game may recognize certain aspects and feel the tug of the nostalgia, but it will be a fleeting feeling, quickly replaced by the sense of discovery stemming from the non-sequel sequel.
Starhawk is an interesting experiment, a mashup of styles. It is one part third-person shooter, one part real-time strategy. Within the shooter side of the game, there is both traditional combat as well as vehicular combat. On the RTS side, the game features structures that can be built in the field based on available energy. To top it all off, the game features both a single player campaign as well as substantial online section.
There are some flaws to the game, and some areas certainly got more TLC than others, but for a certain type of gamer, including shooter fans looking for something different, Starhawk may have a long, long shelf life.
The campaign of Starhawk is almost a blink and you’ll miss it affair, but it does do a respectable job of setting the tone for the game. The “Star” in Starhawk should give you a general sense that the game is set in space. But unlike most typical space tales these days, the world of the future is understandably influenced by the past.
Days of Future Past
The story follows Emmett Graves, a prospector—sorry, a space prospector–who mines for rift energy, the oil of the future. Living on an aptly named planet called Frontier, Emmett and his brother mine rift energy in this Western-like world of frontiersmen. Right up until the accident.
An explosion of rift energy consumes The Graves boys. Generally, rift energy corrupts the infected, turning them into monsters called outcasts. In some cases, as with Emmett, the rift energy can be held at bay by a mechanical harness he wears, but it is rare, and causes him to be shunned. Emmett turns to a life as a hired gun and galactic prospector, but he can’t quite escape his past.
This gives the game a sci-fi Western flair that is obvious in the look, the tone, and the settings. It is hard to avoid comparisons to Joss Whedon’s Firefly, but there’s nothing wrong with that. If/When humanity does colonize the stars, it makes sense that the early settlers are going to have to live a rougher lifestyle, more akin to an old frontier life than most sci-fi futures typically portray.
The worlds and environments reflect this frontier mentality, and most of the planetary settings are a bit hodgepodge, combining technology and desperate ingenuity. This is definitely a contrast to the skies, which feature broken planets, gas pockets, and just a touch of the fantastic to offset the more barren world. The maps do tend to blur together though, and one sandy area is much the same as another, despite the cool view overhead and the odd mission in space.
The character of Emmett is also interesting, but for the most part, the story available in the single player campaign is short and never engaging. It whizzes by at under six hours, and the bulk of the narrative is told through a comic book style series of cut scenes that rob the game of any real emotional pull. The missions are also fairly straightforward, which is somewhat surprising given the inventive possibilities that are available thanks to the RTS qualities of the game.
The AI on both sides of the fence can be a bit dodgy though. Your allies will quickly fade into obscurity, and more often than not you will probably waste time trying to destroy them, thinking they are enemies because you haven’t seen them in a while.
The enemies can run the gamut. Sometimes they will simply stand there behind cover, waiting for the sweet kiss of death to come via your knife, but other times they can be hard. Very, very hard. There is a special place in Hell reserved for the enemies on one particular mission where you need to cut through a barrier while protecting both the turrets and fighting waves of enemies.
There is no real emotional or even intellectual tie to the plot, but it is still fun enough, if forgivable. Thankfully though, this game isn’t made for single player fans. The campaign is worth a quick play through, mainly to learn the way the game plays, but the story won’t hold much weight. The gameplay, however, is great.
When it comes to third-person shooters, you can generally judge their quality within the first few minutes of playing them. It is just something in the way they move and shoot. You either feel in total control, or you don’t. With Starhawk, the gameplay is smooth and fluid, and the guns are predictable and reliable. You know the damage the guns will do because the weapons are consistent.
The lack of a roll and a cover mechanic are notably absent, but you can move with ease, which makes up for it.
But the core shooter system is only one part of the gameplay. Along with it, you have the “Build n’ battle” mechanic, which is where the RTS side of things comes in and Starhawk sets itself apart from most shooters.
The game revolves around the gathering and management of rift energy. You will obtain it through several means, including barrels you see lying around, but most commonly it will fill up through defeating enemies. Located onscreen is your energy bar, which is made up of multiple blocks. Filling these blocks and learning the structures they unlock is the key to not only survival, but generally just enjoying the game.
With the touch of a button you bring up the build wheel, which offers several options. If you want to create a wall, you can call one in for the cost of a single block; if you want an auto-turret, it will cost you three. Once you have the majority of the structures unlocked, your options radically change, as does the game itself.
With enough blocks you can begin to call in vehicles. An armored SUV with a mounted turret makes it easier to move around, but the top dog in the arsenal is a Hawk ship that can transform from a bipedal mech into a jet-like fighter. The best thing about the gameplay is the balance though. If you want to take the fight to the skies, you can. If you want to stay on the ground in a supply depot and use traditional firearms to defeat the enemies, you can. You can also set up defenses if you have the time. If you have the luxury of choosing your combat zone, you can even get creative and build walls to funnel the enemies to you. Once they are in range, create a few auto turrets and sit back as the rift orbs from fallen foes refills your bar.
The RTS elements are well integrated, and the best part is that there is no need to worry about the management of created resources. You build something and move on. Kill a few enemies to regenerate your energy, and you repeat. This game is a shooter first, and that is why it works.
It takes a while to learn all that you can do, and it also takes time to learn where things are on the wheel so you can drop them quickly. Plus being able to strategize and know the number of blocks you have and need to use for each item is something that only comes through repetition. But once you can do everything seamlessly, the game takes on a new level of immersion. Especially when you are doing it to beat other real-life opponents.
The real meat to Starhawk is the multiplayer, which makes up for the skimpy campaign in spades. It is robust, to say the least, and it should have something that appeals to most online gaming fans.
The multiplayer modes offer the games you would expect, things like deathmatch and capture the flag, and up to 32 players can jump in online. There are plenty of game modes, but what is really interesting is seeing the way that players are finding new ways to adapt to the gameplay and create strategies that are incredibly original. Imagine a typical capture the flag mode, but then add tanks and air support as you run for your life back to your base with mechs lumbering after you. In Zones an enemy may be screaming towards you in a ship to control your territory, which makes for the perfect time to create a laser turret to take them out.
A good team working together can quickly design and create a nearly impenetrable fortress, while others that learn the maps could set elaborate traps. And yet if none of that is appealing, you could still just rely on an impressive third person shooter game.
Every game can be wildly different from every other thanks to intelligent play and players, that constantly require you to try to out think the other team.
So far the frame rate looks solid with almost no slow-down. It is 30fps rather than the boastful 60 that some brag about, but the 32 players makes up for it. There is also a deep leveling system, and plenty of customization unlocks to keep people going.
The co-op modes are also incredibly addictive, and some games would be satisfied with only this mode and call it a success—Mass Effect 3, for example. The co-op play is a survival/horde mode, with allies facing waves of enemies. Be warned though, teamwork is essential, and having a full (or close to one) compliment is the only (or at least the best) way to survive.
There is also split-screen, but it is difficult to see and the sense of perspective makes it a hard to adjust to. Online is definitely the way to go.
The groundwork for a thriving online community is there, and it will continue to grow and emerge. New players will continue to adapt to the gameplay, which will grow with the creativity of those players. LightBox has already promised a stream of updates, and DLC is a given, so it is exciting to see where it goes.
The Starhawk multiplayer is what you will play this game for. The campaign is forgettable and shallow, despite some challenging missions. It really just feels like an engrossing tutorial for the multiplayer. And why not? You will end up spending almost all your time in the multiplayer anyway.
If you are looking for a new type of shooter to break out of the mold, you could do much worse than Starhawk. This game will end up being only as good as the community that feeds it, so it may take a while for it to really hit its stride. But the foundation has definitely been laid for what is already one of the best multiplayer games of the year so far.
Score 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment)