It’s a testament to Warhawk's longevity that almost five years after its original release, it still maintains a vibrant and enthusiastic community. Most other multiplayer titles shed their numbers at a worrying rate, but engaging core design and unprecedented post-release support has ensured the downloadable shooter a place amongst the PS3’s elite. Now Starhawk, the latest title from former Warhawk man Dylan Jobe, aims to usher that rabid player base into a brave new frontier.
Name aside, the comparisons between this new title and its predecessor aren’t immediately obvious. Starhawk shares much more in common with the big blockbuster shooters of 2012, boasting single-player and co-operative campaigns in addition to an expected multiplayer component. Visually and (on first glance) mechanically it is a different experience to its downloadable forerunner. But dig a little deeper and the comparisons begin to formulate: the brilliantly poised multiplayer action, the steep but accessible learning curve and the unprecedented array of community control options highlight the successor’s origins. If you’ve been waiting for a sequel to Warhawk – this is it.
But while Starhawk hinges on the same core ingredients that imbued its predecessor’s longevity, it also boasts some innovative ideas of its own. The most notable addition is the Build and Battle mechanic, an inclusion which has a much greater impact than cynics may at first assume.
For decades the most creative minds in the industry have struggled to bring the tactical precision of real-time strategy to the mainstream masses of the console. But Build and Battle solves that issue in one swift and agonisingly simplistic swoop, allowing you to build structures while engaged in combat from a third-person viewpoint.
The mechanic forms the basis for everything Starhawk does, be it single-player, co-op or multiplayer. By collecting Rift energy – a kind of mythical power source that’s key to the game’s narrative – you’re able to summon structures from the skies above. Loadouts include simple constructions such as supply bunkers, walls and lookout posts, through to more complex turrets and shields. Each edifice costs a different amount of Rift energy, with power sourced from fallen enemies or extraction facilities. The key to success in any mode is combining moment-to-moment combat with the tactical awareness of each deployable structure.
Starhawk is fundamentally different from the throngs of other copy-cat shooters on PS3, and so it takes a while for the complexity of the mechanics to click. But rather than implement a drab tutorial mode, developer Lightbox Interactive has instead opted for a single-player campaign. While it’s perhaps selling the experience short to describe it as a training option, that’s ultimately what the experience offers. It gradually introduces each of the tools from the multiplayer campaign, and encourages you to experiment against the relative safety of the AI.
The narrative plots the tale of Emmett Graves, a Rift miner troubled by the loss of his brother. In the game’s fiction, humans can be consumed by the desirable energy, at which point they’re turned into the Outcast whose sole purpose is to protect the source from being farmed. This forms the basis for warring factions, and also perhaps the most predictable plot twist in the history of video games. But the story is well presented through comic book cut-scenes, and, while the plot is never particularly remarkable, it’s good enough to hold your attention.
Missions in single player play out a little bit like a tower defence game. During each stage you’ll be given key posts to defend, and you must use the Build and Battle mechanic to formulate perimeters and fend off waves of oncoming enemies. Throughout the campaign you’ll be augmented with new structures from the multiplayer mode, allowing you to gradually learn the advantages and disadvantages of each construction as you play. The base-building mechanics get fairly complex – you can, for example, construct repair units near to key locations in order to ensure their stability – but it offers an enjoyable glimpse at the kind of tactical options available in multiplayer.
At roughly six hours in length, the single-player campaign is far from the selling point of Starhawk. But it is well implemented, thoughtfully polished and preferable to a drab tutorial mode. It puts mechanics ahead of spectacle – don’t expect any Uncharted-esque set pieces – but it’s a solid warm up to the more noteworthy multiplayer experience that the title also includes.
Co-op works similarly to the single player but with the added excitement of group play. The Build and Battle mechanic is similarly key here, as you work as a team to construct fortifications designed to protect a single Rift extractor in the centre of the map. Waves of enemies will attempt to break through, requiring clever tactical choices and strong communication. While the mode itself is fairly predictable – the wave-based co-op format has been repeated so many times now we’ve lost count – the inclusion feels fresh here largely due to the introduction of Build and Battle. It’s also a testament to the game’s understanding of its fanbase that the mode (and the competitive multiplayer) can be played in local split-screen, with full dual log-in support. That means you can still earn XP on your own personal PSN account while you play on a friend’s console.
Such an inclusion really underlines the importance of community that runs through the heart of Starhawk. A single look at the user interface tells you everything you need to know: the game feels like it was developed by a team that has a grasp on what its player base wants, and that’s reflected in every decision. From the confirmation of free map packs right through its unprecedented stat tracking options, fully featured leaderboards, custom game creation options and staggeringly dense clan support, it’s the ultimate goodwill gesture to fans.
The multiplayer really is outstanding too. Starhawk combines the on-foot ground action with the vehicular combat that defined its predecessor. When on the ground, shooting feels tight and satisfying; there’s a rich array of weapons available, from standard pulse rifles and rockets, to slightly more exotic shotguns and sniper rifles. Each of the weapons feels well balanced and fun to fire.
You’ll need to build in order to access some of these pick-ups. Sniper rifles, for example, are exclusive to the lookout tower construction, while rockets and shotguns can be collected from supply bunkers. Fail to deploy structures on the map, and your team will be limited to vanilla weapons and, potentially, a lack of ammo.
Deploying structures is pivotal to accessing vehicles too. There are several rides available, ranging from the nimble motorbike, through to the weapon mounted four-by-four and the heavily armed tank. Each of the vehicles can be customised – alongside your multiplayer character – as you progress through the game and level up.
The final vehicle class is the Hawk, aerial transportation which is equally deadly on the ground. The Hawk is able to transform between its default aerial form and a mech guise, allowing it to swiftly move between air and ground battles with a tap of the Circle button.
Ruling the skies is just as important as the ground in Starhawk, with a loss of air superiority prompting a negative impact on your team. Perhaps the best element of the multiplayer experience is that with so many options available you can choose between an array of different roles and still feel like you’re contributing to the war effort. If you’re a bad aim in Call of Duty then you’ll probably never come out on top, but here you can play the part of a base builder, foot soldier or air commander and still reap rewards. It all depends on how you want to play.
Competing in the air is perhaps the toughest element to master. While the controls have been improved since Warhawk, being successful in a Hawk does take practice. The aircraft has its own roster of weaponry (which can be collected from pick-ups around each map) and you’ll need to take your time learning the advantages and disadvantages of each one. Once it clicks, though, it’s hard to beat the satisfaction of ruling the skies, and Starhawk is strong enough to compete against dedicated dog fighting games in this area alone.
It’s perhaps disappointing, then, that given the depth of the mechanics and options included, multiplayer relies on a tired roster of game modes. Deathmatch (which has dedicated dog fighting variants), Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Zones are the only represented options, and while there’s discovery in the robust custom match creation options, a few more inventive playlists would have been preferred. Considering the importance of the Build and Battle mechanic, an attack and defend mode seems like a no-brainer, but it’s sadly nowhere to be found.
Maps are varied and take place on different planets. Space stations, dust towns and lively, organic abandoned landscapes form the back drop for the multiplayer experience. The game has a strong Western sci-fi flavour that every inch of the presentation works hard to sell, be it the catchy slide guitar soundtrack or the inclusion of period-appropriate sound effects. The Hawk’s primary weapon rolls like a reloading six shooter as you cease firing, for example, lending a real unique flavour.
The art style is outstanding too. It shies away from the dingy browns and greys of most other first-person shooters, opting for a vibrant and surprisingly clean visual style that accentuates the serenity of the futuristic setting. Animation is decent, and the frame-rate rarely stutters despite the intensity of the action. Considering the 32-player count and versatility of the game engine, it really is rather impressive looking.
As you participate in the multiplayer you’ll earn XP used to increase your level. Each level rewards you with new customisation options as well as skills, which work similarly to perks in Call of Duty. These can be equipped to enhance your performance in game or alternatively exaggerate your rewards.
The one slight against Starhawk’s current multiplayer offering pertains to team imbalance. We’ve regularly been dropped into Quick Matches where it’s two players against eight, and it’s just not fun in the slightest. Hopefully Lightbox Interactive patches this issue before it begins to put players off.
But for a game of its scope, such a lack of real online issues is a credit to brilliant design. There’s currently some concern amongst the community regarding the balance of cluster bombs, but during our extensive hands-on, we haven’t noticed anything particularly offensive. The title really speaks to the benefit of holding proper beta periods, with our hands-on yet to be deterred by a connection issue or lag.
And yet, for all its foresight and balance, it’s unlikely to usurp the likes of Call of Duty or Battlefield as the most popular multiplayer title on the PS3. The game is, by its very nature, niche, without the accessibility or immediacy of Activision or EA’s blockbuster franchises. Indeed, Starhawk is destined to occupy a similar space to its predecessor, securing a passionate fanbase that quietly enjoys the game while mainstream players stick to more popular brands.
It’s not immediately obvious, but Starhawk is every inch the successor to Warhawk. Lightbox Interactive’s title might have bigger ambitions, but its community focus and outstanding variety secure it a place alongside its forerunner. The complex tactical nature of the title won't appeal to everybody, but it’s ultimately what sets it apart. If you’re looking for a new shooter with a deep single player campaign, then Starhawk isn’t it, but if you’re in the market for a clever and fundamentally different multiplayer game, then this should absolutely be on your radar.