Released in 2007, Warhawk was one of the PlayStation 3′s earlier exclusives. With a complete focus on multiplayer gameplay, the third-person action game boasted 32 player battles and fast paced combat. The game was well received, and Incognito Entertainment (now known as Lightbox Interactive) along with Sony’s Santa Monica studio have decided that the game deserves a spiritual successor in the form of Starhawk. Like Warhawk, Starhawk features 32 player battles (with up to 16 on each side during the match), but adds its own twist to the formula.
The story behind the game goes like this: In the distant future, human colonies are set up across various different planets, in order to mine a newly discovered form of energy. Called Rift Energy, it’s also highly dangerous, but the glowing substance is rare and extremely valuable. The miners are known as Rifters, and their greed eventually leads them to overexpose themselves to the Rift Energy, accidentally mutating themselves into violent creatures called Outcast. You play as Emmett Graves, a hired mercenary who is asked to help the Rifters in order for them to fight off the large-scale Outcast assault.
The single player mode, with its straight forward objectives and above-mentioned simple story, feels more like a fancy tutorial for the multiplayer side of the game than anything else. The presentation is minimalistic, with voice acted motion comics used to tell Emmett’s story between levels. Each level teaches you how to do something new, and essentially forces you to practice it until the game feels you’re good enough. This can make it feel repetitive at times, but the progression isn’t painfully slow, nor does the single player mode overstay its welcome. You can blast through it in just a couple of hours.
No matter whether you’re playing online or offline, the game’s basic mechanics remain exactly the same. At the start of each battle, your character is packed into a small shuttle and dropped from a airplane high in the atmosphere, landing on the surface of the planet at the location of your choice. This is how you spawn, and every time you die, you’ll go through the same process. Spawning is not instantaneous though, your character has to physically drop onto the battlefield (inside their team’s base), and that’s where you get to have a little fun. As your shuttle drops, you’re able to control its trajectory to a certain degree. This means that you can actually land on other players if you’re lucky/careful enough, killing them instantly if they’re an enemy. It’s a great anti-camping feature, and you even get an overhead view of where you’ll be landing (including enemy positions) before you choose your location in the spawn menu. Once you’ve landed, the game plays like a typical third person shooter, on the surface. You’ve got a range of guns and vehicles available to you, and your objective will either be simply killing your enemies, or capturing designated areas of the map.
What sets Starhawk apart from most other third-person shooters though, is the Build and Battle system, which adds real-time strategy elements. It enables you to access a Build menu at any time during a match, which you can use to select from a variety of structures that you’d like to construct. Selecting one closes the menu and gives you a building shaped cursor, which you use to select where you’d like the structure to be built. Once you’ve chosen the spot, the structure will literally fall from the sky and then assemble itself in a few seconds, as it is sent down to the surface by a drop ship. You can build walls, turrets, beam towers, shields, and various vehicle factories. Factories are also usable by other players, adding a communal aspect, and will spawn a particular vehicle when accessed. Structures don’t come free though, and each one will cost you a certain amount of Rift Energy. You gather energy over time whenever you’re inside your team’s base, as well as when you kill an enemy. Structures can also be demolished at any time, allowing you to reclaim some energy. Although the Build and Battle system is a strategic element, it doesn’t slow down the game’s pace at all, as you can easily build on the go. Battles in Starhawk have a fast, almost frantic pace to them. Multiple players build weapons to use against their foes, while bases are raided almost constantly as others scramble to quickly construct defenses. The flow of the game is quite enjoyable, and you never quite know what will happen next, especially when Hawks are on the loose. Hawks are large mechs which are the games’ signature vehicles. They can be used as both walking tanks on the ground, and heavily armed fighter planes in the air, with players able to switch between modes at any time with the push of the circle button. They’re expensive to build, but when it comes to mobility, they’re hard to top. There’s nothing quite like dropping into the enemy’s base from the air and wreaking havoc, blasting any players or structures that get in your way.
Once you’ve completed the single player, you’re left with the real meat of the game, the robust multiplayer section. The battles are large-scale skirmishes, with most modes being team based. One side takes on the role of the Rifters, while the other represents the Outcasts. There are four modes on offer, Capture The Flag, Team Deathmatch, Deathmatch, and Zones. They’re all pretty self-explanatory, no surprises here. Deathmatch is limited to Hawks only though, so it’s more like an aerial Dogfight mode. You never even see your character during these aerial battles, since everyone’s in vehicles and trying to shoot down anything that moves. I found the flight mechanics to be a little clumsy here, and the tactics pretty much came down to who could do a 180 degree turn and shoot the other Hawk in the back the fastest. While the modes don’t offer anything especially new, the small range of well designed maps keep things interesting, as does the ever-changing nature of the game. While the single player mode gives you a glimpse of what can be done, the gameplay truly shines when you’re in a map full of fellow players. More maps would have made the experience ever better though, Starhawk only features 5 different maps to choose from, a disappointingly small number. You earn XP after every match. When you level up, you earn new options in the character customisation area. You also earn skill points, which can be used to buy abilities which are unlocked by performing certain feats. These range from building a certain number of structures during a single match, to being the top player on your team by the end of the battle. These abilities make life a little easier, and there’s a decent range of them to choose from, though only one can be equipped at a time. A local player can join you during online matches, all you have to do is turn on your second controller after starting a battle, and they can hop right in. When creating a match, you can set custom rules, limiting which structures the players will be able to build. As such, you can have ground-only battles if you wish. This is a welcome feature, and one that is used often online.
In addition to the online elements, there’s also a local co-op mode which offers arena-style gameplay for up to four people. No matter what you’re doing, Starhawk’s in-game menu gives you full control. You can bring it up at any time, and it allows you to switch seamlessly to single player, co-op or multiplayer at any time. Had enough of playing co-op with your buddy? Just load up the in-game menu and join a multiplayer match instantly, it’s that easy. It’s very user friendly, and a really good feature to have.
The graphics are quite respectable for a multiplayer game with such large environments, and the frame-rate is very solid. There’s no clipping issues, and very little lag, it’s clear that the game and its servers were well tested before release. Draw distance is great, and there’s no noticeable pop-in. The only area where the game falls down technically is with the loading times, which are uncomfortably long, lasting around 15 seconds on average (sometimes longer). This can make loading a match a bit painful at times.
Overall, Starhawk is an enjoyable multiplayer experience. What might have been a fairly bland third-person shooter comes to life with the Build and Battle system, helping to promote hectic battles with a large number of players, where your choice of construction can have a direct impact on the outcome. Capture the Flag is a lot more interesting when an enemy turret can drop from the sky at any time. While small in number, the maps are well designed, with large open areas for players to clash in, as well as more enclosed base areas which are tougher to crack. If you’re a fan of solid online third-person shooters, then Starhawk is definitely worth your time. Those new to the genre may find it a little hard to keep up though, but the single player mode is always there if you need to practise. Real-time strategy fans may also find enjoyment here, since Starhawk goes above the level of simply shooting everything that moves, and requires some deeper thought. If the premise appeals, then by all means give it a look, you could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy of Starhawk.