LightBox Interactive, Sony Santa Monica Studios
Sony Computer Entertainment
Third-Person Shooter, Vehicular Combat
May 8th, 2012
In 2007 Incognito Entertainment gave us the cult classic PS3 title Warhawk. Without a story mode, the game was a bit of an oddity, but 32-player battles over PlayStation Network, an array of vehicles, and a dedicated following urged the production of a sequel. Five years later LightBox Interactive gives us "Warhawk in space" with Starhawk. Starhawk keeps the 32-player battles and vehicular combat aspect but revamps everything through the use of the new "Build and Battle" system. Now as a wrench turning, outcast hybrid gun-for-hire players can put the "final frontier" at their fingertips!
If you thought Starhawk is the biographical game based on a Neopaganism writer and political activist (search Starhawk on Wikipedia, I dare you) you might be disappointed. In actuality Starhawk is a sci-fi spaghetti western in space. Brothers Emmett and Logan Graves along with their friend Sydney Cutter were rifters, a futuristic incarnation of modern day oil riggers. That is until the rift find of a lifetime was attacked by outcasts, former humans who were driven mad by direct exposure to rift energy. An explosion destroyed the rift harvester causing Emmett and Logan to be ravaged by raw rift energy. Emmett was rescued by Cutter but Logan was not so lucky. On the ship Cutter is able to stop the rift energy from completely taking Emmett over, but his physical appearance is forever altered to look half outcast. With no real life to return to, he and Cutter become guns-for-hire. When a job takes them back to their home town, Emmett is forced to deal with the ghosts of his past and the unintended consequences of what happened that fateful day.
Sounds pretty cool right? Unfortunately for those story gamers out there (yes, we exist!), the plot feels like a shadow of what it could have been. The short 4-6 hour single player campaign is chocked with action but doesn't give any of the characters enough time to really grow or evolve in any way. In fact most of the story has to have the gaps filled in via reading developer interviews and press releases, as much of it isn’t fully fleshed out. You never truly understand why Emmett acts the way he does and I found myself spending extra time contemplating exactly why he was doing anything at all really. It would be easy to say "some story is better than no story", especially considering Warhawk did not have a story mode at all, but the fact is the game's story sounds more complete in interviews with Dylan Jobe and other LightBox employees than it actually is. Because I am an aficionado for a good sci-fi story I was especially disappointed by this. Not every game has to be Mass Effect, but a little attachment to the main characters is not too much to ask in my opinion.
On the whole, Starhawk looks amazing. The game has some decent diversity in the environments that is displayed as you get to roam around on old west style planets, swamps filled with industrial pipelines, space depots, asteroid belts, underground tunnels, and a primal underdeveloped planet. Some would complain about the lack of a consistent western theme but realistically that would get not only boring, but would completely ignore the sci-fi aspect of the game. Even when you visit the same planets again in the single player campaign, LightBox makes sure to take you somewhere new on that planet as well. The space levels are particularly amazing as planets and stars can be seen at every turn. Even flying beneath structures such as space depots and barges treats you to a view that is amazing, more so considering most players won’t ever see these sights. All the vehicles and buildings even show real time damage. There are some slight texture pop ins, especially when moving close to objects fast in vehicles. What I found the most noteworthy was the fact the graphics look pretty amazing... considering their max 720p. It’s still slightly amazing to me that the graphical powerhouse that is the PS3 still has more games that don't fully utilize its potential.
Aside from the normal in-game graphics there are some animations that play between the game's missions in story mode. These are beautiful as well, but all seem to have a case of the "Godzilla’s" as the mouths never properly synch to the voice acting. This is slightly annoying but the animations are still great to watch. The motion comic style is not totally western or sci-fi related, but it works well to tell what story the game does tell.
First off, the soundtrack to Starhawk is amazing. The tracks are all well composed and performed and do a great job heightening the mood. The "old west" feel in many of the songs embodies the space-western theme of the game very consistently. I feel like the compositions are reminiscent of Klaus Badlet's and Hans Zimmer's work on the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks. Basically think PotC with less pirate and more cowboy. It goes further than simply music in fact; it feels funny to say but I honestly felt Christopher Lennertz's score did more to develop the characters in the game's story than the plot itself did.
Several well known voice actors can be heard lending their considerable talent to roles in Starhawk. Fans of anime will instantly recognize the voice of Tracy, a bit character who is the sheriff of the town of White Sands. Unfortunately some of the main characters don’t get as many lines as I’d like, and thus not as much chance to flex some real vocal muscle, but our protagonist Emmett certainly embodies the role of the lonely hero with ease. Rifter Sydney Cutter's voice was done well but I expected him to have a slightly different voice considering his character design. Other characters such as Tilley, Jonas, and the Outcast receive the rest of the major voice work and are done well despite having few lines. Other bit characters have random lines as well but these are few and far between.
Being a space-western, the sound effects in Starhawk certainly fit the bill. Several of the more futuristic weapons ditch the normal gun sound for more inspired futuristic "pew-pew" sounds. Even the sounds of dropping structures as you build are done well, leaving me with the feeling that LightBox did not want to overlook any detail in this game.
When you get right down to it, Starhawk is a different beast (bird?) altogether. I can't say it's the only third-person RTS game out there, but as far as I know it is the first to feature third-person shooter gameplay as well. Let's face it, combining RTS elements with anything can be risky, but LightBox manages to make it look easy. Neither the shooting nor building aspects of their "Build and Battle" system seem to have been given the short end of the development stick. In fact, the two are so well balanced, it's a wonder something like this hasn't been attempted before.
The shooting aspect of Starhawk is more fluid than any other third-person shooter I've played recently. It just feels so right in your hands, like a natural extension of what you always wanted a shooter to be. I never had a problem over-correcting my aim, or with those pesky accelerating cursors. Overall, Starhawk has a very "run and gun" feel to it, much like Halo. The targeting and movement are both so easy to control I literally got the hang of it in the first level without a single hang up. Even shooting from the hip is surprisingly accurate. While the "snap to cover" aspect of other third-person shooter games is missing, the fact is that it is hardly present in other "run and gun" games. After awhile the lack of a cover feature didn’t bother me at all when I got to thinking about how many times I've found myself snagged on cover objects in other games. Because of the lack of cover based gameplay the game can be so fast paced that even if Starhawk was nothing else, it would still be a great game. Thankfully LightBox Interactive did not stop there! In Starhawk you have your choice of eight different weapons, a pistol, a long barreled rifle, a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher, proximity mines, a welding tool, a chargeable laser weapon, and the grinder. You also have a knife melee attack at all times by clicking the right thumb stick. Probably the only negative things you can say about this game’s mechanics are the limited gun selection and the lack of options for controller layouts. To be completely honest I am not used to the thumb stick shank, but as I understand other games (which shall go unnamed) already use this as the norm. Everything else comes amazingly natural.
When it comes time to build, Starhawk will make you feel like the Lego Maniac. Rift energy is gathered from killing opponents, destroying enemy structures, or from barrels of stored rift energy that respawn occasionally. The triangle button brings up a radial menu that will display anything you can currently build. Hovering over any of these options will tell you the name and how much rift energy it takes to build. Selecting one will give you the general shape of the structure so you can position it where you want it before it drops. The coolest part about this is that it is so quick to do. Orbital ships drop the structures mere seconds away from being fully constructed and savvy players can even use this to turn unwitting opponents into the wicked witch of the east (You may not get ruby slippers out of it but you do get a shiny trophy). Some structures can even be paired seamlessly with one another like walls connecting to other walls, turrets that can sit atop walls, and an armory bunker that can support up to three turrets. All the basic RTS structures are here too: auto-turrets, plasma guns, walls (which can be upgraded to gates), vehicle depots that become spawning points for their associated vehicle, repair A.R.M.s, rift harvesters, shield generators, spawn points, armor bunkers, and sniper towers. The last two even come with weapon spawns for the game's rocket launcher and sniper rifle respectively. The most impressive thing about building is the fact it compliments team work. Sure, one man can build himself a decent defensive structure, but several players working together can put up a veritable fortress up in minutes by coordinating!
Vehicular combat in this game is every bit as impressive as well. This aspect of gameplay seems to come very naturally to LightBox and each vehicle shows it. You have a weaponless single rider speeder bike, a three-seater off road truck called a Razorback (a tongue-in-cheek reference to a warthog I will assume!), a transforming jet/mech called a Hawk, a heavily armored Ox heavy tank, and even a rig that deploys the jet-pack like Vulture. While all of these handle well and are easy enough to control, what truly shines is the Hawk. As a jet the thing performs marvelously. They are fast yet maneuverable and easy to handle. You of course have air brakes to slow or make tight turns, but you can also perform barrel rolls, Immelmann turns or Split S maneuvers by using the left stick and the X button. You can even deploy chaff to throw off those pesky missile lock-ons but this has a cool down timer and can’t be relied on frequently. The aerial based missions and multiplayer matches have the fun factor of Star Fox or Crimson Skies and are fast paced to boot. The only problem I ever encountered with the Hawks was that for some reason I kept trying to use the right stick to try and look around. When you are done dominating the skies you can press the “Circle” button and your jet will transform into a bipedal mech. The change is fluid and you still have access to your normal weapons, but gain a stomp move that takes the place of the jet's chaff. The change is so quick between the two, I have been known to fly into an enemy encampment, transform into the mech and stomp on an opponent, then change back to the jet and fly off. The only problem I had was with the Ox heavy tank. Maneuvering the thing is about as well as expected, but most of the planets have lots of debris that seems to hinder movement quite a bit. Trying to go off the beaten path in one of these things can be a little more precarious than you would expect. Poor off-roading in this thing might leave you a sitting duck for an incoming plasma gun or rocket launcher attack.
As I mentioned before the single player campaign is short. Really short, like six hours at most short. In many circumstances it’s easier to think of the single player as an extended tutorial, for which it does very well. Through the game’s 10 missions you learn the basics of shooting, building, defense, piloting, and the majority of the main weapons. This is great for running through before you jump into the games vast multiplayer. It is not uncommon for games to have many game types but they really don’t seem as diverse as the games types can be in Starhawk. The online matches fall into one of four categories:
CTF is the same basic idea as in other games, but the building aspect really makes it fresh and exciting. Teams will rush to build up defenses to protect their flag while also subverting or circumventing opponents’ defenses to capture the flag and bring it back to score. Balancing offence and defensive building is key in this mode!
Zones is a game type where players must rush to control and defend rift pockets scattered across the map. Each rift you cap contributes to a total amount of harvested rift energy and the first team to hit a certain amount wins. The opposing team can attack your rifts and claim them as their own to further their rift energy harvesting if you are careless.
Team Deathmatch is this game's version of classic team warfare. Matches usually have a first to 50 kills win condition. The kinds of structures you can build depend usually in both the map itself and the settings from the host. Those who want to rack up those kills usually head here!
Deathmatch is dogfights all day every day. Players take to the skies in Hawks to prove their air superiority in a free-for-all battle for the skies. Tons of power ups and action make this an exciting game type especially for those who enjoyed games like Crimson Skies.
Not only are the game types fun, but they are super easy to find and join. The quick match option is a good way to go if you aren’t particular and just want a quick match. You also have the option to search games that are publicly created. It will display game types, number of players/max players, latency, and a brief description. I was not surprised there were quite a few clan tryouts every time I looked and it’s totally handy to be able to view games in this manner. It reminds me of how the servers were listed on Counter-Strike back in PC gaming's heyday, but with the added ease of the quick match option.
Speaking of clans, LightBox must be a bunch of wizards for all the extraordinary clan support they allow in game. From the game’s main menu you can not only view your online friends at all times off to the side, but you can check your clan stats. Heading to the clan page will display the average kill/death spread for your clan as well as how much experience per hour your clan averages. You can also manage current clan members, invite people to your clan, assign clan roles everyone can see, send clan-wide messages, and add events to an in-game event calendar. It’s quite cool to see the developer go out of their way to provide the tools to make the community happier. Unique clan banners are even created by LightBox and given to “elite clans” of their choosing, as an additional way of thanking the players that support their game!
Those aside Starhawk does feature a cooperative mode called Prospector. Players can team up to defend against waves of Outcast scabs. It’s a pure survival type with limited rift energy resources so players will have to get creative with building the most useful structures for offence and defense to survive. There is unfortunately no matchmaking for this mode which I hope changes in the future but you can invite specific players or play split screen co-op as well. Prospector matches are deceptively tough but I found a lot of enjoyment in them as well.
Multiplayer Homeworlds are perhaps the coolest addition to this game. Online matches move from one game to the next with no real lobbies, so Homeworlds were created to be gathering areas. Unlike lobbies in other games though these Homeworlds are fully functioning game spaces that you and your party/clan members can also use to goof around or practice. Think of having a special map you can build, drive, or mess around in while waiting for your friends or team to show up. It is here I taught a few friends how to handle the game before we jumped into some multiplayer matches later on. This is one of the aspects of the game I’m most impressed with because it wasn’t really necessary, but added simply to add a fun social experience to the game outside of multiplayer!
Of course playing multiplayer and gaining experience is not solely for show. As you level up you start to unlock customizations for your online character, like other faces, and pieces of clothing/armor to wear and mix and match. There are also accessories but I am unclear at the moment on how to unlock those. You can also unlock Skill Points that are a kind of perk system for the game’s multiplayer. There are many different skills to unlock but only one can be active at a time. The only problem here is that (at least as I write this review) there is a certain glitch that only allows you to access the Skills menu from within multiplayer games. Hopefully this is changed but even as it is, is not too much of a hindrance.
Basically, if it is not clear by now, it is easy to waste plenty of time with this game's online modes. LightBox Interactive has even announced there will be both single player mission DLC as well as new maps for multiplayer with the latter being free of charge. This guarantees a constantly evolving gaming experience. I don't know about you but that sounds pretty darn awesome to me!
To be quite honest games like Starhawk don’t come around very often. Many times developers get to comfortable within their genres and little is done outside of adding a new multiplayer game type (or multiplayer entirely) to really change things. The risk of incorporating the “Build and Battle” system truly paid off in my opinion, by giving players something in this game they can truly not find anywhere else. The story mode does leave much to be desired, but the 32-player multiplayer battles can more than make up for it. There are also little bugs here and there, but LightBox is very active in listening to and communicating with their players. In fact, the extent to which LightBox continues to interact with the Starhawk community is nothing short of amazing in itself. Players finally upgrading from Warhawk will find this game to be a no brainer, but I truly believe more and more gamers will find something unique and fun in this title. Starhawk is a #gamechanger and I have no doubts it will prove that sometimes reinventing the game is better than recycling the same old formula time and time again.