Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
A glance back down the annals of yesteryear shows off reels of games that refused to stick to one genre, refused to simply follow trends, and aimed to create something new - to fill gaps or create brand new ones, rather than simply looking to expand upon the in-vogue blockbuster of the moment. Warhawk served as a reminder to those adventurous games, and it's a testament to the enduring quality of Incognito's game that it has maintained a healthy following this past half-decade.
Now that a bunch of the developers who worked on that game find themselves at LightBox, and they've released a sequel that trumps its older sibling in nearly every way - mashing together the TPS and RTS genres with aplomb. It's not enough to simply try something new, though such endeavours should be encouraged; pulling it off is the key. Starhawk may not be a perfect game, but it's certainly a welcome one.
Titles have tried the heady blend of third-person action and real-time strategy before, perhaps most notoriously in the divisive Brutal Legend. But Starhawk's integration of those mechanics are tailored perfectly to the frenetic action of its forebear, which has been suitably ramped up here.
There's an old-school feeling at work here as you shoulder multiple weapons, sprinting about the battlefield without limits, without sticking yourself to surfaces for cover, blasting foes to pieces and snapping up the ammo boxes that they drop. Better yet, LightBox have done what Incognito couldn't: they've added a singleplayer mode to proceedings, and have even drawn up a story to keep you interested as things tick along.
You dive into the boots of one Emmett Graves, a mercenary who's been hired to service the interests of Rift prospectors - protecting their mining investments from rabble rousers and saboteurs. The glowing blue Rift Energy has kicked off something of an interstellar conflict (think Tiberium in Command & Conquer and you get the idea), and Emmett soon finds himself embroiled in a larger conflict that will see him square off against his own brother. There are melodramatic emotional and political undercurrents to the tale (the latter of which seem a bit suspect at times), and it's all relatively nice, if a little bland.
You're led through a series of missions, interspersed with some rather amusing comic-book style cutscenes, and incredibly cheesy dialogue, as Starhawk gradually introduces you to all of the tricks it has up its sleeve.
The Rift Energy forms the basis for most of these tricks, with the majority of missions seeing you reach an area, clearing out hostile incumbents, and then preparing for an onslaught. It's here that the game's RTS twists come into full effect, as you're led to spent Rift Energy on a variety of buildings, bunkers, towers and turrets, shield generators and sniper nests. Balancing the fast-paced combat with tearing it up in a host of vehicles, all the while carefully managing your resources and buildings is pretty engaging once you've gotten the hang of things.
The length of the singleplayer campaign serves as a hugely accessible aid too, even if it does drag on a fair bit. The space-western setting, which will delight and frustrate Firefly fans, is undercooked and under-developed. There's real scope for a hugely engaging exploration of the universe that LightBox have created, but that's not really what this game is here for. The occasional controls-overlap aside, everything's very accessible indeed, making Starhawk a simple game to start playing. When you take it online though, for some 16-v-16 multiplayer action, that's when everything you learned gets puts to good use, and the previously pleasant-yet-predictable action comes truly kicks off and comes alive.
Frankly, if you're thinking about investigating this game mainly for the offline options, you're absolutely nuts. Starhawk knows where its strengths lie, and that's in having 32 players on a gigantic map, pitting teams of 16 against one another in Capture the Flag, with arrays of aerial and land-based vehicles to be commandeered, and the Build and Battle mechanic both giving structure to the carnage in a very literal sense, and making things even more chaotic at the same time. Battlefield fans are going to absolutely love this.
Having 32 combat architects on the field means that no match plays out the same way, that the action is constantly shifting, the tide (and indeed the nature) of battles always changing. It's here that you realise there's still much to learn, as the singleplayer doesn't instil the importance of communication and co-ordination between team-mates.
The best bit? Everything fits, it all makes sense. The frontlines are calling for armoured support? Build a tank garage. The enemy have deployed vehicles of their own? Fix up a bunker stocked with rocket launchers. Mix it up by leading a charge on foot and then take to the skies and have an aerial dogfight with the titular Starhawks. LightBox know exactly what you're going to want to do, and they've made executing those things highly intuitive.
However, romping across a battlefield from on high should be a liberating, empowering experience. Make no mistake, flying in Starhawk is delightful, rather unlike DICE's acclaimed FPS, but the aerial combat aspect is a little disappointing. In fact weapon balancing is a little poor all around, really. There's plenty of feedback, and you genuinely feel like you should be kicking ass at times, but there's no real result. Entire clips are often required to gun down a single foe, and the Hawks themselves suffer from being woefully underpowered. Pretending to be a sci-fi Icarus is lots of fun, but then again Icarus never really kicked ass, and it's not long before you're blown out of the sky with little to show for your aerial adventures.
But there are worse sins afoot, and most of them come from LightBox creating something genuinely fresh in this current climate and yet not really knowing what to do with it. The game modes are all genre staples and, although the Build and Battle mechanic does a fair amount to shake things up, the primarily defensive innovations never get to shine. You would have thought that an "Invasion"-style game mode would have been a no-brainer, with one team on offence, and one holding the fort, but there's not really anything like that to be found save in the co-op Survival mode. You have to hope that the CTF modes end up splitting themselves into two games of attack and defence really, and that just seems a little bit reductive, with games often extending for long periods as players lose track of the battle and an impasse appears inevitable, with patchy satisfaction the result. Only being allowed 32 structures in play at any one time doesn't help either.
At the end of the day, what you'll get from Starhawk really depends upon how much you're willing to put in. There are glimpses of a truly fantastic multiplayer experience here, and when it hits its stride, there's the feeling that this could be something very special indeed. The great thing is that some tailored DLC has the potential to make a huge difference. The balance can occasionally frustrate, but you'll never get tired of crushing a tank with a shiny new bunker. The most important thing to ask yourself, though, is whether or not you're looking for a deep multiplayer experience that rewards teamwork over maverick gameplay. If you answer yes, you might be able to look past the underwhelming campaign, forgive the wasted sci-fi-western opportunity, and enjoy the diamond in the rough that LightBox have provided.
- Build and Battle system works brilliantly
- The Hawks are a lot of fun to pilot
- Survival Mode is great (and offers dual-login splitscreen co-op)
- Weapon balance issues, particularly for the vehicles
- Undercooked singleplayer
- Uninspired game modes considering the opportunity
The Short Version: There's enough freshness here to make Starhawk a very attractive prospect for third-person shooter fans. The Build and Battle mechanic is well-implemented, and the fan-service is excellent. But balance issues, and a lack of ambition beyond the core game undermine what could have been an utter gem.