There’s something satisfyingly visceral about Starhawk’s self-constructing, tower defence inspired structures as they fall from the sky. Thundering towards the ground in a neatly compressed package they land with a camera shaking metallic thud, kicking up a cloud of dust and debris, and assemble with the whizzing, whirring, clanky cha-chunk of a Transformer. But far from a purely audio-visual pleasure they represent a brand new gameplay element for the ‘Hawk’ series; that of real-time strategy where once there was only large scale combat. Their arrival not only punctuates the silence during those initial preparatory minutes of each skirmish, but tells of a developer attempting to find a foothold within the highly competitive online multiplayer arena.
Back when the third iteration of Starhawk’s spiritual predecessor, Warhawk, released in 2007, console online multiplayer titles were something of a rarity and developers Incognito Entertainment (many members of which formed Starhawk developer Light Box Entertainment) had a somewhat open market on the PS3. Fast-forward five years and the modern landscape is dominated by Call of Duty, Battlefield, Gears of War, as well a plethora of other well-armed online competitors, each with their own speciality. So how does one stand out amongst such a tough crowd? Light Box’s answer is simple enough – diversification.
The use of those tower defence inspired structures represents the most obvious diversification. And their implementation takes inspiration from a rather unlikely place – Double Fine’s Brutal Legend. Sniper towers, armouries, defensive turrets and vehicle depots can all be placed at will, providing you have enough of the game’s currency, Rift Energy (a dangerous, turquoise substance used as a powerful source of energy). Each can be selected from a radial menu of options and easily placed from a third-person perspective through a holographic representation. But where Brutal Legend’s implementation of real-time strategy mechanics fit oddly within its melee based action game mechanics, Starhawk’s implementation is a more fluid, simplistic, intuitive and overall more successful inclusion.
Perhaps the most significant of Light Box’s diversifications from the 2007 Warhawk template is back into the territory of single player, and with it comes the introduction of a narrative. You play as Emmett Graves, a grizzled, chiselled space mercenary for hire in the defence of colonial Rift Energy mines against those who have been driven mad by the substances’ corruptive power – the ‘Outcasts’. Starhawk clearly takes inspiration from cult sci-fi TV series, Firefly, with its combination of Science Fiction grandeur and Western sensibilities, with the game’s primary antagonists quite clearly being a riff on Firefly’s demented ‘Reavers’.
It’s a rather bland and often muddled tale, made all the more confusing by the graphic novel style cutscenes, which may look rather nice, but lack the necessary clarity of direction to weave an interesting yarn. Bland and muddled are descriptors that fit the graphical representation of this world rather well too, although this is very likely a consequence of the buttery smooth framerate, which remains impressively solid regardless of the chaos on screen. None of this is helped by the fact that Emmet is a rather boring protagonist to spend several hours with – too stoic, stiff and lacking in any real development throughout the tale to prove interesting. Still, its sci-fi and western mash up provides a nice motif to centre the gameplay around as Emmet traverses the aptly named planet Dust solving conflicts in locales that range from large open desert wastelands, to orbiting space platforms.
The campaign’s biggest failing, besides its mangled narrative, is the lack of variety in mission objectives. It can often feel like a perfunctory introduction to each individual gameplay element and once that is over only the objectives of defending or clearing out areas sustain the remainder of the adventure. Still, the arenas in which this takes place are well designed, with a nice balance between wide open battle areas and tighter enclosures with enough defensive potential to create a base.
It’s for the use of multiplayer that these maps serve a far better purpose, working in harmony with Starhawk’s sandbox of toys – they give enough space for the larger vehicles, whilst providing enough tightly knight corridors for on foot shooting to feel exciting. The armoury itself is a rather uninspired mixture of ideas from other titles: There’s the UNSC warthog like jeep vehicle, a Halo: Reach inspired energy limited recharging jetpack, a Gears of War style chunky tank and even a hovering rocket powered motorbike that brings to mind a mixture of the Land Cruiser and pod racers from Star Wars. Despite lacking a little imagination each handles intuitively and offers a nice balance of power and limitation.
Perhaps the most important offensive tool at your disposal however is the game’s namesake flying bipedal mech, the Starhawk. Your first experience with one is decidedly rousing, as they whizz and whir much like the self-constructing tower defence structures when switching from ground to flight mode and are even accompanied by some stirring theme music as they blast off into the sky. The trouble with them is that they feel a little too underpowered for what is supposed to be the best weapon in the game, easily being brought down by one or two enemy beam turrets. And their own offensive firepower is never quite as terrifically destructive as you might wish it was. In fact where Starhawk’s set of combative tools is mostly well balanced, it’s the Hawks that you will find yourself avoiding due to their weakness, which is a mighty shame as they are simple and satisfying to control.
Another of Starhawk’s diversifications is into an area that has become something of a standard for most online multiplayer titles these days – the co-operative horde mode. Played as a group of four online, or as two players locally through split screen you must defend a single structure in a specific area of each map as waves of Outcasts attempt to destroy them. These scenarios might sound overly simple, but the blending of the tower defence and horde mode genre gives it an addictive longevity to rival that of Gears’ own horde mode.
The rest of its classic multiplayer suite is well fleshed out with a variety of team death-match and objective based game types for up to 32 players. The inclusion of those tower defence elements is what really sets the experience apart, acting as a refreshing squeeze of lime in an already tasty glass of lemonade. It’s just a shame that the developers didn’t sacrifice the weak single player component in order to concentrate their efforts on further balancing and providing an even more comprehensive and original suite of sandbox toys for the otherwise well stocked multiplayer.
In the end Starhawk’s biggest issue is that it never quite develops a personality of its own, with most of its fundamental designs easily traced back to their influences. The mixture of them is an interesting one, however, mainly because the inclusion of tower defence inspired gameplay into the already existing sandbox of vehicular combat does add a unique strategic layer upon the tried and tested Warhawk formula.
It’s the single player element that proves the weakest link in the package, as whilst it isn’t terribly conceived, it remains a shallow experience, providing nothing that a decent tutorial couldn’t have done in preparation for the plethora of more exciting multiplayer options. This is where Starhawk’s blend of fast paced combat, vehicles and base building make it a recommendable, if flawed, title that just about carves out its own niche in an already super-saturated market.