- Lightbox Interactive
Made2Game Starhawk Review Score: 8/10
Developer: Lightbox Interactive / Sony Santa Monica
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Review by: Mick Fraser
It is an accepted truth within the videogame metaverse that should Humankind ever discover an energy source greater than those upon which we currently rely, it will undoubtedly either cause a civil uprising, unleash an alien menace or physically corrupt half of our species. But then, if it were human nature to simply chuck a refinery on it and all just get along, there would probably be a lot less videogames...
Either way, it's the latter of these three calamities that plagues humanity in Lightbox Interactive's PS3-exclusive sci-fi western Starhawk, set in a future where humankind has discovered Rift Energy, an uber-power-source that makes all kinds of improbable sci-fi hokum possible.
This here’s ma claim
Mining “RE” is incredibly dangerous for two reasons: firstly, the greatest reserves are out on the lawless frontier (hence the western stylings); and secondly, over-exposure to RE mutates folk, transforming them into barely-human "Outcasts" who worship the Rift Energy and slaughter those who would seek to mine it. Up until recently they've been scattered bands of savages, but now they're being united by a powerful mutant called The Outlaw, albeit for reasons that never become totally clear in the undercooked story.
You play the part of Emmett Graves, a former Rift miner who turned mercenary gunslinger after an accident left him one step shy of Outcast-hood. Saved by his partner, tech-savvy Brit Sydney Cutter, Emmett now travels the outer edges of the star system protecting prospectors whose Rift claims are threatened by the Outlaw and his horde. Unfortunately, Starhawk’s story never really gets going – in fact it tops out at a fairly shallow 5-6 hours and does nothing at all to encourage replayability, which is a shame when you consider how ripe with potential the campaign is.
Action in Starhawk is an accomplished, confident mix of several genres and styles. On-foot combat is third-person-flavoured, presenting slick, fast-paced running-and-gunning with meaty weapons, exhilarating firefights and a pleasing amount of stuff going boom. Vehicle handling is nothing new but brilliantly-implemented, with jet-bikes, jeeps and tanks to keep you moving and grooving between objectives.
This here’s ma fort
On top of that is a simplified RTS-alike system, whereby you can call down all sorts of buildings and weaponry from Cutter's orbiting spaceship, Annabelle. Spending accumulated Rift Energy (earned by capping wells or killing enemies) allows you to summon ammo silos, sniper towers, defensive walls, turrets or vehicle stations, all slamming violently into the charred dirt seconds after your button press. You can even flatten baddies with them. Most of Starhawk’s missions will allow you a certain amount of time to place defences and equipment or to call in reinforcements via dropped mobile outposts, before hurling a mini army of glowing bad guys at you. A well-placed sniper tower or vehicle repair station can make all the difference in a fight – especially given Starhawk's pathological stinginess with checkpoints.
The third major element in Starhawk's genetic makeup comes courtesy of the titular Hawks. Evolved from the similar vehicles featured in 2007's multiplayer-only Warhawk (to which Starhawk is the spiritual successor), these flying mechs allow you to take the fight to the heavens, swooping amongst the clouds and stars in breakneck dogfights. Controlling them is simple thanks to an intuitive interface, and the variety of weapons (collected by flying through coloured icons) is fairly impressive, from homing cluster rockets to bombs and guided missiles. Movement is split between basic steering on the right stick and advanced evasive manoeuvres on the left; boost and brake capabilities are self-explanatory, and, once mastered, flying the Hawks into battle is incredibly satisfying and empowering.
It's just such a pity there isn't more. We don't condone collectibles for the sake of padding, but there's so much empty and unused space in Starhawk's singleplayer maps that scattering some hidden pickups around wouldn't have seemed arbitrary. Likewise, there's nothing to upgrade despite the fact that the high-tech structures scream out for player-controlled improvement.
This here’s ma mule
Also, Graves himself is underdeveloped. His unique condition could have allowed for superhuman abilities or some kind of character progression or levelling system, but as it is all he's got that we haven't is an impossibly fierce scowl. It all counts as evidence that Starhawk’s solo mode is pure bolt-on, throwaway fluff. The combat is truly great, but the narrative is clichéd and personality-deficient. Only Graves and Cutter have an impact on events, and only Cutter has any presence, his snarky patter providing exposition and smirks in equal measure. Other characters serve little to no purpose beyond giving Graves a reason to practice that scowl. The campaign is far too short and far too shallow, which is a shame considering what it could have been.
Thankfully, then, the multiplayer is excellent. Undoubtedly how Sony and Lightbox Interactive intended the game to be played, Starhawk’s multiplayer makes proper use of everything the solo campaign neglects – the wide open spaces, the tactical options, the variety of gear and hardware.
Leaping into the multiplayer mode headfirst is ill-advised, however, as the learning curve is steep and your opposition fierce. Sadly, attempts to finish the solo mode first to familiarise yourself with Starhawk's nuances yield unexpectedly irritating results. Tactics you learn in the campaign are worth nothing when up against thinking opponents who won't bother wasting time demolishing a wall that they can simply circumvent; who won't try to snipe you out of a sniper tower, but simply bring it down instead; who won't use the same, easy-to-evade ammunition in their Hawks, but will mix it up to catch you out. Play solo to learn the controls, then be prepared for an education in humiliation online.
This here’s ma 20-foot-tall armour-plated, flight-capable battle mech
While Starhawk doesn’t boast the biggest selection of maps, there's enough variety on offer to prevent stagnation, and the open-air arenas are large enough to accommodate huge 32-player contests. Communication is paramount to success, though, given that during team games you've a shared structure limit, and banging turrets down to save your own worthless hide may result in teammates being unable to even call down a wall to hide behind. Sharing tactics and rationing resources is also just as essential in the wave-based co-op.
It's not unfair to say that without the multiplayer, Starhawk would be scoring way, way less than it is – though there are other elements to praise besides the combat. The visuals, for one, are gorgeous. Clean, sharp textures, striking contrasts of colour and a fantastic draw distance combine with the inspired art direction to create a world in which Starhawk's story, such as it is, truly belongs, even if a little more variety would have been welcome. Unfortunately, the voice cast is mostly either underused (Graves and Cutter) or utterly forgettable (everyone else) – but the Serenity-esque score is exceptional, equal parts spaghetti western gallop and stirring sci-fi strings.
Had Lightbox and Sony attempted to produce a more balanced solo and multiplayer experience, Starhawk could have been genuinely incredible. As it is, we are left with a truly involved online shooter with a wealth of content and inventiveness, but a singleplayer game that feels serviceable but hollow. It's a 6 for the campaign, a 9 for the multiplayer, but mashing them together produces a more appropriate score for Lightbox Interactive's space western. Well worth playing with friends but, perhaps ironically, a lone gunman will find the final frontier a lot less accommodating.
Words by Mick Fraser (Twitter: @Jedi_Beats_Tank)
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