Starhawk is a spiritual successor to Warhawk, one of the more prominent exclusive multiplayer shooters for the PlayStation 3. With the new iteration, LightBox Interactive have once again set out to create an engaging and enjoyable action title, and they mostly succeed. As an added bonus, a single player campaign is included, which allows players to learn the ropes and live through a brief story before jumping online. Though not without minor issues, Starhawk is a well made shooter and another notable entry to the exclusive lineup of the PlayStation 3.
Let's start off with the campaign, which explains some of the background story for the game's lore and two warring factions. In distant future, humanity has found a natural resource known as Rift Energy, which they did not hesitate to begin harvesting. However, some humans who were exposed to the energy became savage-like mutants, known as Outcasts. Since then, the Outcasts have been in constant conflict with the humans (known as Rifters) over control of the resource wells. Thus begins a story of Emmett Graves, a Rifter who's become a freelance expert at battling Outcasts and re-claiming Rift Energy rigs. One job leads him back to his home town of White Sands, where he used to live and started out his career. One thing leads to another, and before long Emmett is fighting a personal battle instead of just fulfilling a contract. The game's plot and writing is predictable and actually somewhat drags down the campaign -- which otherwise turns out to be surprisingly enjoyable. Characters are decently involving and the gameplay does a wonderful job of switching up the mechanics with every mission. Having said that, the single player is over before you know it -- and though it lets you play around with all of the mechanics that the game has to offer, it's none the less quite short and easily finished under 4 or 5 hours.
One of the most important factors of any shooter is the combat mechanic, and Starhawk shines in this regard. There are a number of weapons available for you to carry at once, from pistols to sniper rifles and rocket launchers. Best of all, each of the weapons feel powerful and distinct, with satisfying feedback. You start off with just a rifle and a pistol, and the rest of the weapons must be gathered either across the map, from fallen enemies, or via supply depots. But these locations (like the depot) don't simply exist with the game world -- they must be built by the players.
Therein lies the biggest draw of the game -- the so called Build and Battle system, which gives an extremely well-implemented strategic element to this shooter. Essentially, the players can gather Rift Energy by killing enemies or shooting storage barrels that occasionally respawn. With that energy, you're able to build one of many structures with varying functionalities and energy costs almost anywhere in the environment. Once selected from a radial menu and a location is designated, a building actually drops the sky and quickly assembles itself into production. The mechanic is based on the idea that there are giant ships in the sky that deliver these buildings when players request them.
Most of the single player campaign offers the chance to try out all of the buildings and their mechanics, essentially familiarizing you with what works best depending on the situation. The game's structures all offer unique and standalone benefits, so there is no build order to worry about -- just deploy what the heat of the battle is calling for. For example, one of the most expensive items is a shield generator that provides cover from attack to all nearby buildings from outside.
Incoming ground troops can be taken care of with some basic turrets, while jetbikes and jeeps provide mobility and a mounted weapon. Functional buildings like repair arms, sniper towers, and supply depots offer indirect services to the battlefield, while jetpack stations and Warhawk platforms let you soar the skies. The poster toys of the game, Hawks are units that can take on the form of either mechs or aircraft. Transforming from one to another is not only smooth and simply quite cool to watch, but is rather functional in the game, providing the game's only flying unit and a strong ground assault as well. Thanks to well-balanced weaponry and other in-game vehicles, Hawks aren't game-winning units by any means, but are still a blast to use.
All of the mechanics translate rather seamlessly into online with up to 32 players. For all game modes, players have a home base where everyone is free to build anything they wish, which can be used by the whole team. Rather than have Energy barrels, players draw their resources directly from the rig over time, giving some flow to the resource balance and building process. Players need to be aware of their teammates so that resources aren't wasted on duplicate structures, plus there are considerations for available space to be made. There is also a building limit to be aware of that disallows you to build any more than a certain amount.
Players spawn into multiplayer via pods dropping from the sky, and there is a limited amount of control that allows you to land anywhere in your team-controlled area. Landing on a friendly building allows you to quickly take advantage of it, while crashing down on an enemy vehicle destroys it instantly. The game has shipped with 10 maps, two per one of the game's environments which range from dust canyons to outer space. Most of the maps are large, allowing for sufficient use of vehicles and plenty of space to maneuver.
There are some concerns though. In non-full servers, the action can be too infrequent due to travel time and potentially a lack of organized attack. Multiplayer maps are largely barren landscapes, without any real distinctive features or memorable scenarios. Modes themselves -- Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Zones and Capture the Flag -- are nothing you haven't seen before. For a multiplayer-focused game with an opportunity for unique gameplay with the Build mechanic, that's fairly disappointing. The only mode that feels interesting is Zones, where players battle to control points of the map where they can build up defenses and advance further. Due to the earlier mentioned limitation on how many buildings can exist, means that players have to take risks and destroy the defenses of some locations in order to protect the others.
As you play, you'll go through the usual cycles of a modern online shooter by earning experience, which lets you customize your soldier and outfit them with new gear and abilities. The game's co-op mode Prospector is straightforward, letting you and three friends battle against waves of increasingly difficult enemies, who are attempting to destroy an energy rig.
This is a decent looking game, as it runs smoothly both online and during the campaign. The game's cutscenes are presented in a cool visual style, and the overall feel of the game leans heavily towards a space western. Though don't get excited too much, FireFly fans, there's nothing particularly memorable about the art style or the feel of the world. One thing that the game does really well is the background visuals of some locations - these can be quite breathtaking and make Mass Effect 3 jealous. The dialogue is well delivered, but the actors had to work with some rather painful lines. Audio design is sufficient and won't stand in the way of your enjoyment, but it's not something you'll remember very well either.
Starhawk, then, is a rather solid entry to the PS3 lineup. It isn't a game that's going to sell consoles, but there is none the less some enjoyment to be had here. An enjoyable campaign, if short and poorly written, will provide solid groundwork for your multiplayer experience. The Build system is certainly unique and provides an interesting mechanic not seen elsewhere, though the online modes fail to take any real advantage of it. Starhawk ultimately doesn't quite live up to Warhawk's legacy, though not due to any lack of quality, but by not taking full advantage of its biggest gameplay asset. As it is, Starhawk is a competent entertainment offering with a neat trick up its sleeve.