Starhawk on Playstation 3 feeds gamers off multiplayer battlefield strategy and exhilaration while the methodical single player campaign begs for attention like a neglected pet. One glance at the pause menu during the campaign reveals an online mecca of options, stats and modes that demand playing nice with others.
In other words, the greatest rewards aren’t showered upon the recluse.
No need to worry about the bevy of multiplayer options until after the brief yet surprisingly useful campaign is wrapped up and strategic skills are honed. Sony and developer LightBox interactive promised an unparalleled multiplayer console gaming experience with Starhawk, and they delivered a rainstorm of weapons, vehicles, and fortifications at the ready.
Though Starhawk is technically a new IP for Sony, it shares enough in common with one of Playstation 3’s first games that also came from LightBox interactive and put multiplayer gaming at the forefront back in 2007, Warhawk, to be considered a “spiritual successor.” Both games are a hybrid of vehicular and third-person shooter combat that sway the advantage toward the player who can best utilize the available tools, and both games place an emphasis on online adversarial combat.
LightBox Interactive tried to remedy complaints from Warhawk gamers that the campaign mode was virtually nonexistent. For Starhawk they took a step in the right direction and failed in one respect but succeeded, whether intentionally or accidentally, in another.
Starhawk’s production values jump out immediately as being reasonably high with artistically drawn motion comic cut-scenes and above average voice acting built into the campaign narrative. There’s a western tilt to the art and accents despite the game taking place in the distant future and across multiple worlds. The presentation is extremely polished and clearly not an afterthought driven by laziness or attention directed elsewhere.
However, the story about hero Emmitt Graves and his fight against the Outcasts, mutated beings from Rift Energy who threaten to disrupt the mining of the valuable yet rare and dangerous resource, the same stuff that has partially but not fully mutated Emmitt, is shallow at best. There are some stabs at coherent and engaging storytelling with links to Emmitt’s family and a predictable twist seen coming from a mile away, but ultimately the narrative takes a backseat to quickly reaching next level of battling Outcasts on the ground or in the air.
A more upbeat angle to view the single-player campaign from is as an extended tutorial for the meat and potatoes: the multiplayer component. New items to deploy are slowly introduced and put to use from one level to the next, so that by the time I was deep into the campaign, I felt ready to take on the world.
One jump into the online multiplayer modes instantaneously ramps up the pace and action well beyond anything experienced playing solo with A.I. controlled Outcasts. There are upwards of 32 players utilizing Rift Energy collected in the “Build and Battle” system to deploy structures and weaponry with a simple move on the directional pad and button click. From rifles to speeder bikes to tanks to the Hawk, a sleek and well-armed plane that transforms into a walking mech, there is ample opportunity to discover which weapon works best for your skillset and to take advantage of it.
Any shot at continual success requires the deployment, retrieval, and redeployment of structures. These structures, including supply bases and lookout towers, are the exclusive home to some extremely useful weapons such as the rocket launcher, and additional ammunition caches. Not to mention structures are needed to launch some of the vehicles into action. The placement of these structures can dictate which side the advantage lies. For example, on-the-fly strategy is required to quickly determine where to insert the supply base that will offer the optimum vantage point from its roof to take down a pesky Hawk.
Dogfighting plays a role in the campaign and multiplayer modes. Oftentimes chasing an enemy through the air and trying to keep them in the aiming reticule can be near impossible. Starhawk successfully cuts down on this unavoidable frustration with a pair of aiming reticules; a larger one required to have the target within its edge to score a hit, and a smaller one that automatically acquires the target when the larger one is within range. It still requires calm nerves and extended patience to win a dogfight, but the difficulty has been toned back thanks to the dual reticules.
Running around on foot is futile exercise as the vehicles control the upper hand. It’s not recommended save for the perfect sniping spot or rocket launcher use, nor is the game designed to take advantage of the run-and-gun style. Warhawk veterans already understand this, so newbies are especially prone to becoming cannon, bomb or tank tread fodder.
The options menu choices should be second-nature after playing through the campaign, and it is here where the Starhawk community can come together and rejoice. Not merely in the vanilla way that some multiplayer titles default to, either.
LightBox Interactive truly wants to unite its players under a common passion and proves their intentions with an extensive array of multiplayer features. The pause menu offers endless leaderboards, stats, news, messaging, the MP Homeworld to hang out in prior to matches, events, the ability to scope out other players, clan support and customization options.
Free map packs these days are like finding Waldo, yet Starhawk parades their impending arrival via a news update as if with a smirk at the costly and ill-received additional maps to Warhawk. The long-term effects of this strategy grants every player access to the same suite of maps as one another, a grand gesture to keep the Starhawk community bristling with activity.
There is also a 2-4 player co-op mode (2 offline, up to 4 online) that allows two players on the same console to simultaneously sign-in and play together to fend off waves of Outcasts, and rack up XP individually while doing so. No gaming ground is broken in suppressing wave after wave of foes, but engaging the challenge with the added ability to build structures and talk through strategy with friends – even if they weren’t wholly interested like my partner wasn’t – makes it feel surprisingly fresh.
If not for the universally exploited adversarial modes of Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Zones, Starhawk’s full multiplayer cache of tools and modes might warrant stealing some hours from multiplayer powerhouses Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 2. For Warhawk veterans, it just may.
One area Starhawk can improve is in striking a balance between sides. It is not uncommon to jump into a match and find one of the teams with two to three times or more the number of players as the other. A slight advantage for one side is fine, but when the scales are tipped to this degree, a one-side slaughter is no fun for either team involved.
It is hard to justify faulting LightBox Interactive for minor nitpicks when they have managed to build such a fun and robust multiplayer gaming experience for up to 32 players, and do so without any noticeable signs of lag and absolute minimal framerate issues on top of vibrant graphics and immersive audio. It took five years for Warhawk to be replaced, and Starhawk easily proves the wait was well worth enduring.
– Dan Bradley
Shop for Starhawk exclusively on PS3 for a discounted price at Amazon.com (May 8, 2012 release date).