Friday, 1 June 2012

Starhawk Review

Since the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare way back in 2007, there hasn't really been a lot of room for innovation in the console shooter. Developers have sought to replicate COD as closely as they could to attract the brain-dead masses. For the discerning gamer, like you, dear reader, this is not good. As such, it gives me pleasure to report that Lightbox Interactive's Ps3 exclusive Starhawk breathes some much-needed new life into the sector.

Set in a space-faring sci-fi western universe that owes a lot to Firefly, Starhawk is a third-person team-based shooter  with open maps and vehicle gameplay in the vein of Battlefield, outwardly similar to its spiritual predecessor Warhawk, a decent third-person shooter that was sadly completely overshadowed by being released about 3 weeks before the original Modern Warfare. Two teams square off across a wide, open battlefield in objective based-gameplay, as you might expect, but there's a twist- players can summon structures to be dropped into play from orbit, changing the face of the arena in real time.

Turrets, vehicle spawners and fortifications are all available from this so called "Build & Battle" mechanic, and this is what sets Starhawk apart from the crowd. It demands more thought from players than the average shooter- correct use of it is vital for both team and individual success. You spawn with an assault rifle and a handful of grenades. This is fine for fighting some other punk that just spawned, but to mount a serious assault on the enemy base, or a concerted defense of your own? No chance. Call in a a siege tank depot or a supply bunker, though, and maybe you can have a go at it. Building is done with a straightforward radial menu, usable enough that it doesn't get in the way, and can be done by anyone- there's no commander or support role in charge of it. And it works, even in an uncoordinated public server team- walls go up, turrets placed strategically and vehicle structures placed where they can be readily accessed. I'm impressed that a mechanic like this has ben made to work as well as it does in the notoriously anarchic console shooter environment, probably down to the design devotion of the developers- improvements have been made from beta, and more are promised.
The broader gameplay is pretty good- while unmodified infantry combat can be a little flat, things get much more interesting when structures and vehicles are involved. Genuine excitement comes from the constant shifting of a match's dynamics as buildings are alternately erected and obliterated- you gotta keep on your toes. Infantry weapons are pretty standard- general purpose assault rifle, close range shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher- but all have their uses. Vehicles play a big part- the firepower of tanks and aircraft is needed to break a siege and the speed of jeeps and jetbikes to whisk the flag away- and handle well.

To my surprise, there is a singleplayer, and even more surprisingly it doesn't feel completely divorced from the multiplayer. Story hinges around the precious so-called "Rift Energy"- space-crude-oil, essentially. Out in the space frontier, there's a constant battle between Rifters (roughneck space cowboys) and Outcasts (once-men mutated and consumed by the energy). Our player-character is somewhere in between; a rifter with just a hint of outcast glow. It's a pretty decent space western, with colourful characters and animation cutscenes, but nothing earth-shaking. Starhawk does, however, buck the shooter trend once more by using largely the same mechanics in singleplayer as multiplayer- success rides on the use ofbuildings and vehicles just as much in both  cases. This lends a good chunk of player choice to what might otherwise be a fairly dreary campaign. The setting is really cool, though, with a real frontier vibe and great artstyle.

One thing that does strike me about Starhawk is the amount of really neat design features incorporated; I get a feeling that a lot of love went in from the designers, who were dedicated to do the shooter thing a little differently. Instead of just popping on to the map as if by magic, players drop in from above in a pod, able to make subtle flight adjustment to land exactly where they please. It's not just show, either- land your pod on an enemy player or vehicle for an instant (and hilarious) kill. Bunkers have team-exclusive doors and one-way shields on the firing ports to allow occupants to fire out safely- to take them out requires serious firepower or a daring dash up the external ladder to drop in and butcher those within. The "Hawk" aircraft is suited not only to dogfighting as is so often the case with air vehicles in shooters, but bombing as well, and can transform to a walker form to really take part in the ground fight. These things and more are real sparks of creativity and are very welcome indeed in the stale shooter market.

It's so easy to make an average shooter in today's market- just copy Call of Duty. Starhawk shies well away from this approach and does its very best to do something very different from the norm, and manages it, providing a unique action experience with its unconventional design approach. I like it quite a lot, but there are a couple issues I must mention; were it not for the dynamicism offered by the building mechanic, I don't think the shooter gameplay would work- it doesn'y play as well as a conventional shooter as a good conventional shooter does. Additionally, there are a few balance issues lingering still, particularly with vehicle spam- every player on a team can build himself a heavy tank, and if they all do it stops being much fun for the enemy. Nonetheless, Starhawk is living proof that different things can be successfully done with console shooters- take note, developers.

This article was originally posted on www.invalidopinions.com - check it out, it's totally awesome. 


  1. I totally agree that Starhawk is a refreshing change from the endless Modern Warfare clones that the market is flooded with. The mix of FPS and RTS elements is rather seamless, as well as the controls moving from ground to vehicles. I rented it from Blockbuster @Home because I didn’t know much about it, and I wanted to try it out before shelling out $60. I instantly got addicted, and have been playing it as my main game for the past couple of weeks. The one thing is that the multiplayer is not all that popular, and so it can be hard to get a good game going. I was able to get around this by getting some coworkers at Dish to start playing, and now we have a pretty decent group of people going.

    1. Yeah, it's a really neat game and a welcome breath of fresh air in console shooters. I can easily imagine that the playerbase is small, though (I myself haven't played in a little while)- a regular group of people to play with like you have would be just the thing.