For those of you unfamiliar with it, Starhawk is the spiritual successor to the multiplayer-only game Warhawk, where players would take control of fighter jets and be mercilessly shot down less than thirty seconds after spawning. Warhawk didn’t have a learning curve, it had an abyss that you plummeted face-first into until you got used to the idea of falling. Having said this, the -hawk IP has evolved in leaps and bounds since its initial launch on the PS One back in 1995, and in its present state as Starhawk, it’s impossible to deny the level of innovation that the team at Lightbox Interactive have added to both the franchise and the third-person shooter genre. I could go on and say how it feels ‘fresh’ or just ‘pops,’ but it just doesn’t convey the deep level of enjoyment that is to be had with the game. What I can say, is that I have a $1600 PC with Diablo 3 ready to run, right next to my Playstation and I’m still choosing Starhawk more often than not.
The pulling power behind Starhawk is its core feature, the ‘build and battle’ system. While it sounds like something that you’d associate with some kind of cheap, badly made Hot Wheels play set, it’s the way that LightBox have brought together the third-person shooter and RTS genres. The result is a hybrid baby whose only purpose in life is to provide cheetah-fast action that rewards those who value tactics over running and gunning. Basically, everything I wanted in a competitive game.
In both single and multiplayer, you’ll be gathering Rift energy in order to build walls, turrets, launch pads for the Starhawk’s, vulture stations for jetpacks, and so on to face the enemy at hand. At its core, everything runs smoothly. Gaining Rift from extractors, barrels and kills is quick enough that you can change tactics and builds on the fly. All movement is accommodating, whether you’re jumping quickly onto your Sidewinder jetbike you created a mere second earlier, climbing a ladder or running up a cliff that you soared to with your jetpack; and the combat is easy for beginners to get into and deep for players who want more.
Unfortunately it’s here that the similarities between the single and multiplayer end, to the detriment of both. Just like a Hills Hoist clothesline that’s been hooked up to a generator in order to kill any bird that may land on it, a solid core concept is good, but doesn’t account for everything. In the multiplayer portion of the game, the problem is one of balance. No matter how gloriously you’ve begun a team deathmatch for example, if the enemy has taken over your territories to a point where you can only respawn at your home base, which has then been promptly surrounded by tanks, Starhawks, beam turrets, auto-turrets, and a general array of weaponry, your gameplay turns into twelve second cycles. Die, choose where you’ll respawn, respawn, run in one direction for two steps, die, repeat. Once this has begun, there is virtually no way to break the cycle and it makes for a poor experience that you either have to rage-quit or suffer through.
Some of the game modes don’t seem properly thought out either. During a Capture the Flag match with ‘Air Supremacy’ special rules (the only vehicles you could use were those that granted the power of flight) you may, like me, sneakily fly into the enemy base using a jetpack, pick up their flag and start to sprint, jump, and press R2 to take off into the air only to have the game say that you can’t fly with the flag. You may think, to hell with it, my great-grandfather survived the war, I can run across the map to home base. Bringing up the map leads to the sobering realisation that it’ll take you fifteen minutes in real time to navigate the damn thing.
Your only option in this particular scenario is to pilot your Starhawk in its mech form. But as you stomp across the battlefield like a petulant 20-tonne toddler, you’ll end up hating the game, and when you exit the cockpit to try and run it across the gargantuan map and are subsequently shot down by someone who is flying, you’ll hate yourself.
These flaws are all the more annoying when I consider just how much fun the game is when there is balance. Starhawk pilots barrel-rolling through the sky, avoiding the deathly lasers of the beam turrets while trying to lock onto an enemy pilot, strapping into a jet-pack to fly down and melee a player that’s trying to launch a rocket into an distracted tank and all of it possible because of what you built. What you personally contributed.
However, RTS’ are rarely built to accommodate several players that have no interest in working as a team. While it’s fun to ride your jet-bike and harass the enemy by running them over, it’s not entirely useful if you should be providing more air support, or more tanks, or better defenses. It’s like playing Starcraft with ten players each in charge of their own probe. Having said that, when it works, it really works, as you’ll more often than not find yourself falling into a rhythm of seeing what your team is building, what the enemy is building, and fighting accordingly.
Starhawk is a decidedly multiplayer game – hell, if you pause while playing the campaign you can jump straight into a multiplayer match, and there’s a good chance you’ll do this. Why? Because the campaign is a good tutorial, but a sub-par game.
LightBox wanted to make the star of their campaign, Emmet, a real character. Emmet was a Rift miner with his own extractor and land right up until the Outcast (humans that have been changed by the Rift, affectionately known as ‘Scabs’) raided and subsequently killed his brother. Taking up arms, Emmet becomes a space-cowboy, a mercenary paid to protect Rift mines from the Outcast. Despite having a coherent back story, Emmet can be boiled down to a generic bad-arse black guy that’s just strolled back into his home town and it’s like, you know, ‘you just come back here with no explanation?’ ‘Yep I totally did that, I’m deep and mysterious and the past haunts me. I’m a complex character’.
No Emmet, you are a genre vessel, and no-one is impressed. If I drew a moustache and eyes on my thumb, called him Sanzo and made him accost people with a lisping, sarcastic drawl, he would have more originality and depth of character than you. In a very real way, I would have more character than the entire cast of Starhawk in my thumb.
It gets worse from there, but this just might be a personal problem caused by the fact that I read books and understand how narrative is supposed to work. I won’t get bogged down in this though, because the campaign provides a brilliant introduction to the different gameplay elements. Whereas Warhawk didn’t have a single-player mode and therefore everything you learnt had to be done in the face of more experienced players that had a penchant for shooting you down as soon as you took to the air. Lightbox has fixed this and then some.
Unlike many other games that assume you’re brain dead, Starhawk doesn’t wrest control away from you to ensure that you’ve learnt what the shiny buttons do, and doesn’t force you to perform the actions to move on. It unfolds like a good tutorial should, starting with the basics and working you up towards to more complex scenarios, guiding without forcing. What you learn during this won’t really help you bring down a human opponent, yet it provides a good understanding of how you can approach different combat situations.
Strangely enough, it’s the addition of a narrative that makes the campaign so unwieldy. Had LightBox simply done ‘the day in the life of a Rift mercenary’ and introduced a faceless protagonist, using the Human/Outcast situation as a backdrop rather than a motivator, and simply introduced new gameplay elements as plot progression, I think there would have been a far larger sense of involvement.