Starhawk: More than meets the eye?
13th May 2011 | 10:25
It might fly under the radar these days, but Warhawk remains one of the better PS3 multiplayer experiences. It started off as one of Sony's riskier projects: a multiplayer-only, third-person shooter that focused on a mixture of ground level troop combat and dogfights in the air.
Its mainstream hopes weren't helped by the fact it was initially only available through the PlayStation Store, carrying the same price tag as a full retail title to boot; a bold move at a time when publishers were still only just starting to explore digital delivery.
On paper it seemed like a recipe for failure, but Warhawk's gameplay shone through. Its sales and critical reception might not have been 'blockbuster' but over time it's managed to develop the kind of devoted, borderline fanatical fanbase that many modern shooters are desperately trying to etch out.
Four years later and Sony's once again strapping itself in for another flight, except this time it's headed into the cold clutches of outer space with Starhawk.
FLY ME TO THE MOON
Starhawk builds on the tried-and-true multiplayer gameplay of Warhawk by creating a new universe and introducing a full single-player campaign as well as a new gameplay feature creator Lightbox is calling 'Build and Battle'.
The game is set in an area of the galaxy known as The Frontier, which itself contains a number of smaller systems occupied by various planets. Colonies are built by miners who explore the galaxy and gather a valuable energy known as 'Rift', which serves as the lifeblood of the universe's economy.
However, after a rush exhausts the availability of the energy, miners are forced into venturing out into the deeper, darker corners of the galaxy in hopes of uncovering Rift geysers. Although these geysers offer an abundance of Rift energy they come with significant risks attached. Exposure to Rift has terrible effects on humans; melting the skin off muscles, exposing the skeleton and causing the victims to go insane.
The Frontier is home to two warring factions; along with the Rifters are a warband of former Rifters, exiled after being transformed into hellish ghouls as a result of exposure. The fanatical Outcasts have become utterly obsessed with the Rift energy, worshipping it and taking umbrage with Rifter activities.
Starhawk's protagonist is a Rifter named Emmet Graves, a man who was hit with rift energy on the side of his body but hasn't succumbed to the full effects of the mutation - yet. Although the majority of Emmet is still human he has been partially mutated, Rift energy can be seen coursing through his right arm his Rift filled veins are visible through his skin and snake up his body to his eyes, engulfing them and emitting a neon blue mist.
Hidden underneath his flowing kiffiyeh scarf is a Rift regulator designed by Emmet's partner and fellow miner Cutter. The device keeps Emmet's infection in stasis, while not completely curing him the regulator halts the contamination process but leaves Emmet as somewhat of a ticking time bomb.
Together the duo spends their careers traveling the galaxy and defending the Rift geysers throughout the systems from the Outcasts and their mysterious leader. This informs the structure of the game, which involves traveling from moon to moon while protecting or liberating the Rift planes from the obsessive outcast warbands.
Our play session begins on a moon called Echo, which serves as a postal relay. The planet is a vast desert lined with canyons and brimming with muties. The distant horizon is dominated by a green Rift geyser, which the Outcasts look to have completely surrounded.
Starhawk's visual style is very much in line with that of Warhawk's; although Echo isn't exactly brimming with fertile life it's still rather colourful, there's an unshakable Red Faction: Guerrilla vibe to it all too, although we're guessing that's down to the Mars like structure and colour scheme of Echo.
Being scavengers the Outcasts have reduced the area to a husk of its former self, metals have been deconstructed and structures have been destroyed, replaced by shrines to their all-powerful energy source. Our on-screen radar indicates that we need to make our way towards the gather of goons so we begin to descend the mountainous path and move towards the gaggle.
As we get closer it becomes evident that they're too busy prostrating in front of the pulsating Rift geyser to notice we've advanced on them, but as soon as we fire our first shot they scatter in all directions, taking shelter behind cover. From then on it's all pretty much the standard third person shooter fare, though a little more loose and twitchy than we're used to.
Snapping to an over-the-shoulder view we begin to quickly cut through the enemy defences, taking cover as we advance. The enemies rarely sit back and wait, instead opting to try and force us out of cover through a sheer force of numbers approach, but Emmet is quick on his feet and quite agile to boot, a couple of minutes of carefully aiming while strafing and we'd dwindled their numbers, leaving us free to call in a rig and restore power to the postal relay.
Although the controls were tight and the shooting felt solid it was all very familiar, and so far there wasn't a hawk in sight.
It wasn't until much later in the mission when LightBox revealed its ace in the hole, the new gameplay mechanic it claims 'adds the texture shooters these days have been lacking', what it calls 'Build and Battle'.
After securing the geyser we were tasked with defending it from oncoming waves of Outcasts, to do that we'd need to use the Rift gained from killing enemies in order to build structures on the battlefield. Along with the traditional ground and air combat Starhawk features a tower-defence like mechanic which requires players with building, maintaining and upgrading structures.
Spotting a timer counting down to the arrival of enemy forces we got to work, bringing up a radial menu we opted to first set down a communication tower, which spawned in a number of AI controlled team mates to fight alongside us. We followed that up by constructing a bunker for them to take position in then placed a turret on top of the bunker to help thin out enemy numbers should they try to attack it.
With only ten seconds left we blindly and frantically peppered the battle zone with auto-turrets, until we ran out of Rift to spend. As the time ran out we heard the distant thundering sound of a jet and watched as it swooped in low to the ground before transforming into a walking mech. Aircraft's in Starhawk also serve as ground units by transforming into, well - Transformers.
The mechs wasted no time and began crushing nearby structures and picking off any straggling AI. Although the mechs had a devastating effect on the battlefield they weren't completely overpowered, which we learned when when toppling one with a few well placed rockets. However, by that time they had done enough damage our turrets and we had start to become overwhelmed by the grunts.
To manage the hordes of enemies we started placing walls down to funnel the enemy towards an area we had dropped a few turrets in. The game's snap-to system made getting the walls positioned a breeze and we quickly blocked off a portion of the battlefield and forced the Outcasts to move towards our Killzone.
Alongside the traditional over-the-shoulder third-person shooting mechanics Build and Battle feels like it has the potential to introduce an interesting new dynamic to combat that requires players to constantly switch between offensive and defensive roles. The mechanic also allows for greater replayability within each mission, which the game rewards with additional experience points towards your persistent character.
The Build and Battle also forms a core part of the multiplayer experience, which retains the fact-paced multi-dimensional combat that will feel very familiar to long-time Warhawk players.
Maps in Starhawk feature basic structures and roads to enable players to get around but are very much built as blank canvases. By constructing their own structures players can build maps in tune with their own tactics and then destroy and rebuild to reflect the changing battle conditions as then unfold.
In our own multiplayer session we were able to set up sniper towers to use as vantage points and defend team mates escaping an enemy compound with the enemy flag, build garages to spawn vehicles and helipads to spawn aircrafts as and when we wanted, this meant that the map was constantly changing on a round-to-round basis.
Although much of the multiplayer feels familiar Lightbox has made numerous updates to the multiplayer feature-set, which now includes a separate co-op mode for up to four player, an Android app that is plugged into the community, an automated tournament system, an in-game calendar and - it promises - more features it will unveil soon.
We thought we knew exactly what we we're getting with Starhawk and it managed to surprise us with something a little different. It's good to see LightBox trying to take the game in a new direction instead of sticking to its established, popular formula. We're looking forward to spending some more time with the build and battle system in both multiplayer and single-player in the future.