Developer: LightBox Interactive/Sony Santa Monica
Genre: Third Person Shooter/Tower Defense
What's Hot: Build-and-battle genre mash-up, gorgeous stylized visuals, deep combat for hardcore players
What's Not: Steep learning curve, style-over-substance campaign, horrible AI
Veterans of Warhawk, the second-to-last game from the studio whose employees went on to form LightBox, will be able to jump right into Starhawk—as soon as they come to understand the game's deceptively complex "build-and-battle" system.
The eponymous Hawks are a transforming combination of bipedal mechs and agile, space-ready fighter jets. That much hasn't changed. But unlike its predecessor, Starhawk is no longer a multiplayer-only game. And perhaps even more important than the Hawks this time is the game's brand new "build-and-battle" system. The ability to build walls, turrets, vehicle and ally spawns, health stations, and more structures on the fly changes the game significantly.
Each disparate part of Starhawk's wild west/sci-fi motif can be traced back easily to its influences. It's Mech Warrior and Star Fox 64, Firefly and Crackdown, Halo and Cowboy Bebop, Bastion and Command and Conquer. But while it may be derivative, that's not a fault. Starhawk blends elements from these sources and more in ways that are truly unique.
Online multiplayer is the mode that's truest to the game's mechanics. The tides of each battle are constantly changing, and there are countless opportunities for dynamic play. The options available at any given time are staggering. Build a watchtower and defend your position with a replenishing supply of sniper ammo. Construct a depot and take off with some teammates in tanks, jet packs, jet bikes, or Razorback jeeps (replete with mounted chain guns). Take to the skies in a Hawk, or simply run around with a rocket launcher and wreak havoc on enemies' structures and vehicles. Extend your base outward by building troop outposts, or construct walls around it and hunker down, and create shield generator to protect your territory from fire.
You'll have different structures at your disposal depending on what map you're playing on, and if you don't like the current game's odds, you can simply open up the list of servers and find a new one. There's no matchmaking, which is both a blessing and a curse—unlike in other online shooters, there's no penalty for quitting halfway through.
Skills and experience are an important facet of Starhawk, although they work differently from other games. You'll have to unlock skills through accomplishments, like achievements with actual in-game effects. So you won't be able to unlock that useful accuracy perk until you can prove you're a good shot, and even then, you can only have one active skill equipped at a time.
Unfortunately, playing campaign missions doesn't net you experience, which only helps to add to the sense that the single-player game was a bit of an afterthought. It's obvious that Starhawk's mechanics were built with multiplayer in mind, and the campaign seems to be shaped around them, not the other way around.
Unlike in the multiplayer, your build-and-battle options in the campaign are usually limited (build these spawn points here, hop in this vehicle, defend this spot), and most missions devolve into simple games of defense. You're shown where the enemies will enter from and what form they'll take (infantry, Hawks, etc.), then given a half-minute or so to prepare. Build some turrets or anti-air guns, erect outposts and summon allies, or give yourself the gift of a tank—it's sometimes up to you, and it's sometimes not, as you'll often be told exactly what to build. And there's usually a single correct choice—more than once I was forced to revert to an earlier checkpoint because I spawned the wrong structures and was left without the proper tools.
In many ways, the campaign feels like a glorified tutorial for the multiplayer, and it's not even a very good tutorial. The learning curve is steep, and Starhawk rarely tells you what you're doing wrong. The precise functions of new weapons, vehicles and structures are often left rather mysterious. The exception is the Hawk, the mechanics of which are explained in great detail the first time you enter one. And that's definitely a good thing, because the craft's repertoire of maneuvers is challenging to grasp and even harder to master.
Don't get me wrong—I very much appreciate the complexities of multi-party dogfights and explosive bombing runs over enemy territory. I'm simply saying that Starhawk is not a noob-friendly game.
As far as plot, Starhawk is very much a Western: In the aftermath of a cosmic gold rush sparked by the discovery of Rift energy, a one-street town known as White Sands finds itself at war with an army of Rift-mutated savages known as Outcasts. Protagonist Emmett Graves is hired to help the town ship its quota of Rift, but the war turns personal when he discovers that his brother—thought dead—is the leader of the Outcasts.
Unfortunately, Starhawk suffers from a severe case of style-over-substance in this department. The story of every cut scene is obscured behind quick cuts and turquoise-outlined silhouettes of characters that are difficult to connect to their counterparts in the actual game engine. By the final mission, I felt like I had an emotional deficit—was I supposed to care about these characters? I understood their plight, but I felt like I hardly knew them.
The world is filled with explosions, slow-mo, and vibrant colors. Pulsating turquoise rift energy arcs across the screen. Rock spires and organic alien edifices crowd each horizon. Lightning forks in the distance. Toxic fumes waft from turgid green oceans. Mechanical Rift mining stations litter each location like effervescent oil rigs.
It's just too bad the people that populate that world can't share its flair. The AI is infuriatingly dumb, getting stuck on various pieces of geometry, refusing to take advantage of vehicle repair stations, walking in front of you as you try to snipe, and so on. Enemies simply stand still as often as not.
There's a layer of polish missing here that, if it had been applied, would have covered Starhawk's incomplete HUD (What weapon do I have equipped? How many structures have I built? Where are my allies?), as well as the dumb-as-rocks AI, some texture-popping, random freeze-ups, and other technical issues.
There's co-op as well, similar to Gears of War's Horde or Halo's Firefight, but without a matchmaking mode, you'll be hard-pressed to find allies to assist you in the mode's punishingly unbalanced fights. Starhawk gets major points for including splitscreen, but an experienced friend and I couldn't even make it past the third wave.
Starhawk gives you a wonderful set of toys and just enough incentive to use them, and with a will to learn and experiment, hardcore players will find a deep and engrossing multiplayer experience. It may be rough around the edges, and it's certainly not perfect, but Starhawk is definitely fun.