Starhawk Review

Warhawk was perhaps the first great online shooter for the Playstation 3. With massive 32-player battles spanning both land and air, a large variety of vehicles, and a satisfying arsenal of weaponry, the game represented a massive and ambitious take on console warfare. A passionate and dedicated fanbase has followed Warhawk for years since its release, and for good reason. That said, the multiplayer gaming landscape has shifted drastically since the game was release in August of 2007. Just a few months later, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare released and changed everything, for better or for worse. Now that Sony and LightBox Interactive have released a sequel in Starhawk, does it stand up to these new ideals or does it stand rooted in the past?

The answer, as it turns out, is a pleasant mixture of both. Starhawk has been modernized in many ways, not the least of which is in its visuals. Warhawk was developed early on in the PS3’s lifecycle, with a significant portion of that development probably having taken place before LightBox even knew the final specifications of the platform. By comparison, the sequel is gorgeous. The models for the characters, vehicles, and weapons look thick, solid, and dangerous, but in a slightly unrealistic way that differentiates the game from its competition. The particle effects that abound when these weapons and vehicles collide are equally beautiful. Most impressive of all, though, is how with all of the action and all of the players occupying the online matches, not a hint of slowdown has ever plagued the gameplay. All in all, it’s an impressive looking game, and one that clearly has a solid base of code supporting it.

The visuals make a great first impression, but as always it’s the gameplay that really counts. In this regard, Starhawk has been modernized too. No longer a pure shooter, the game can now boast elements of strategy and tower defense in its design. This is thanks to the Build and Battle system. During battle, you will collect Rift Energy from fallen foes and from the occasional Rift Energy mine. This energy, represented in the game by floating blue orbs, will serve as your currency. With it, you can order the deployment of turrets, fortifications, barracks, and more. With two button presses, you can bring an entire building hurtling down from the atmosphere. If said building happens to land on an enemy, all the better. It’s a cool effect, but beyond that it serves to deepen the gameplay significantly. Battles in Starhawk are as much about building a solid defense as they are about launching a vicious offense.

Thankfully, both options are equally entertaining. Like the Build and Battle system, combat in Starhawk is intuitive and exciting. Although most of the weapons are of your generic science-fiction variety, they still kick. Pulling off a headshot with the basic assault rifle and watching the little glowing orbs of Rift Energy spew forth from the deceased enemy never ceases to satisfy. The more complex weapons, like sniper rifles and rocket launchers, are even more fun to use. These are all weapons that you have seen before, but they’re as satisfying to use in Starhawk as they ever have been.

Then there’s the vehicle control. This has been an aspect of combat that many shooters have struggled with for years, but Starhawk pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Land-based vehicles use the PS3’s squishy shoulder buttons to handle acceleration and deceleration, something that more shooters should take note of. Firing the vehicle’s weapons, if it has any, is handled with the R1 and L1 buttons. On the ground, the physics of each vehicle feel unique and just grounded enough that you’ll intuitively understand how they operate. The game straddles a fine line between realism and arcade-style controls, but it does so skillfully. Of course, the star of the show rarely spends any time on the ground. Granted, it’s now possible due to the titular Hawk’s new transforming ability. With a tap of the O button, you can shift your Hawk from flight mode to mech mode, or vice versa. On the ground, the Hawk mech is a force to be reckoned with. Its powerful chainguns and rockets can lay waste to careless enemies. It’s far from invincible, though. Even a fully powered-up Hawk can be brought down by a soldier or two, as long as they know how to fight back. Hitting it with rockets is the most direct approach to taking it down, but shooting the pilot out of his seat is perhaps even more effective. After doing so, you can hop in the pilot’s seat yourself and take the Hawk for a spin. In the air, it controls just as gracefully. A series of evasive maneuvers and a vast array of power-ups will help you make the most of your airborne assault, but even when in the air the Hawk never feels overpowered. An exquisite balance has been struck between the various weapons and vehicles in the game, and it’s one that helps keep matches fair and fun. In this way, the game can feel pleasantly old-school at times. It's not about the perks you have equipped or the killstreaks you earn (there are none, in fact.) It's all about you, your vehicle, and your gun.

In another first for the series, you can now take these vehicles and weapons for a spin in a story-based single player campaign. Unfortunately, most of the game’s issues also spawn from this mode. More than the glorified training modes of games like Unreal Tournament 3 but still lagging behind the rest of the competition, the story mode in Starhawk feels just fleshed out enough to justify its existence. It serves to teach you the basic mechanics that drive the game, and it does so pretty well, but that’s about it. The story of Emmet Graves is far from the emotional, hard-hitting stuff that other games have done with similar formulas. Instead, the motion comics between levels serve to regurgitate a dry and lifeless plot about Emmet, his mutated brother, and the divide that has formed between them as a result of the latter’s change. You will never get a sense of either the protagonist or his villainous brother as being sympathetic; they are caricatures designed to fit neatly into certain story slots.

The Build and Battle system and the accompanying gunplay are also made less satisfying by the story’s linear approach. Like in a tower defense game, you will often find yourself rushing about setting up turrets and walls before enemies begin to spawn from set locations. It’s an interesting take on the tower defense formula, but it’s not the main attraction in the game. Other missions that see you piloting Hawks or invading enemy bases are more entertaining, but still not as thoughtfully designed as they could have been. A large part of the problem is that the game just feels too constrained by some of the mission zones. More open areas with room and resources with which to experiment would have been appreciated. As is, it often feels as if there is only one “correct” solution when it comes to defending your bases. This makes the missions stifling and boring, something that the infrequent checkpoints certainly don’t help. You'll often find yourself repeating sections of the game that pose little challenge just because the checkpoints weren't spaced evenly enough. 

Luckily, that missing freedom is placed on a pedestal in the game’s multiplayer modes. You will have the choice of which weapons to bring into battle, which emplacements to call in and where to place them, and how to attack the enemy. The Build and Battle system invigorates even standard modes such as Team Deathmatch, injecting them with a new life. When it comes to more complex fare like Capture the Flag and Zones, you will find that a coordinated team is key to victory. Starhawk is a very dense game thanks to the large array of emplacements that can be called in, but in terms of the core gameplay it is also very simple and intuitive. Just about anyone can figure out how to fire a gun and call in some turrets. It is knowing the time and place for each gun, each vehicle, and each emplacement that makes a player great. Because of this, Starhawk has the potential to entertain its already-dedicated player base for a very long time.

Starhawk soars online, but stutters when it comes to the single player. A dull story filled with forgettable characters does little to help the constrained design of the missions. That said, the story was never going to be the big draw for most players, and for good reason. The Build and Battle system at the game’s heart makes for a constantly changing online landscape full of unanticipated depth. In Starhawk’s case, the knowledge of how to use your arsenal is just as important as the arsenal itself, and because of this it should support its fanbase for a long time to come. Know what you're getting yourself into, and you will come away satisfied with Starhawk.

Score: 8.5/10

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