Written : Tuesday, May 15, 2012
By: Lee Bradley
The premise of Starhawk, Lightbox Interactive’s spiritual successor to 2007’s Warhawk, is a neat one. Set in the far flung future, humans have spread throughout the stars, colonising the galaxy. But as their numbers have bloated, so too has their need for energy. Thankfully, a power source has been identified to service that demand.
Rift Energy is both incredibly dangerous and highly valuable, instigating a neo gold rush in which teams of Rifters attempt to locate and tap energy springs for massive rewards. However, overexposure to Rift Energy mutates and corrupts, transforming Rifters into Outcasts, tribal monsters with a fanatical desire to defend the source of their power.
It’s against this backdrop that every aspect of the game plays out. It provides Starhawk with a central conflict, an in-game currency, a Wild West sci-fi setting, context for its game modes, the narrative for its tutorial-esque campaign and even the slightest of nods towards our current energy war; all through one rather well conceived sci-fi Macguffin. It’s quite a smart idea.
"Look out below!"
Make no mistake though, Starhawk has no time for high-minded faffing. This is a game where you can stab a mutant in the face, land a building on another’s head from space, then jump into a giant mech, stamp on a tank, transform into a starfighter and go soaring up into the air, all within about five seconds. Video Games!
Among the structures available to you are walls, auto-turrets, manually operated anti-air turrets, shotgun and rocket launcher-spawning ammo dumps, separate garages for speeders, all-terrain buggies and tanks, plus Hawk launching platforms, sniper watchtowers and more. Every weapon, power-up and vehicle is accessed in this way.
Each of the structures costs you a certain amount of Rift Energy to deploy. As measured in the bar in the top right hand corner of the screen, you can recoup the energy in one of three ways; either by killing enemies, shooting special barrels or sticking close to the Rift Collector - the structural cap plonked on the Rift springs to suck out their goodness.
Every single aspect of your success or failure in Starhawk - as an individual or as a team across single-player, co-op and multiplayer - depends on your ability to manage these structures in the best possible manner. At least that’s the idea. It’s like Gears of War 3’s Horde Mode 2.0 on a larger scale, or - if you prefer - a kind of Tower Defence/third-person shooter mash-up. The problem is that despite the brilliance of the idea, Starhawk fails to take full advantage of Build and Battle’s possibilities, while also getting a few of the basics wrong.
This is no more apparent than in the game’s co-op, four-player Prospector mode. It’s a wave-based defence game in which you must protect your Rift Collector from attack by AI-controlled Outcasts. Yet the mode’s narrow focus, rather than homing in on the qualities of the game, only serves to bring its inadequacies into sharp relief.
"Mind if I hitch a ride? Oh..."
The structure building never really gels with the gameplay. Sure you use it to access the game’s defences, weapons, vehicles and ammo, but it’s not quite the tactical experience it should be. Where you would expect your resource management skills to be tested, by balancing attack and defense, you’re far better off just spawning a power vehicle and going on a rampage.
What’s more, the enemy AI is dumb, the difficulty curve is uneven and the pacing is off. As a result, battles are not won or lost in a triumphant or tragic manner - they’re either a dull anticlimactic scrap to the last or a swift and seemingly unfair demise. In short, it lacks the drama offered by the best wave-based modes of its kind.
In Team Deathmatch, meanwhile, as soon as you’ve plonked all of your vehicle and weapon spawning structures down from space - which will happen relatively quickly - then tactics take a back seat completely as you scrap it out. This can be fun, as the sheer amount of options are brilliant, few other games offer such freedom or choice over how you dish out death. Yet still the mode falls short.
This is largely thanks to balancing issues, a good example of which is provided by the Hawk. These aerial fighters should be the game’s crowning achievement. You can fly and bomb and spew out homing missiles and soar and swoop and fly! Then when you’re bored with that you can turn into a mech and stamp on things. Amazing!
"More than meets the eye"
Except not really amazing, because they feel a bit underpowered. Hawks should be a reward for saving up your Rift Energy, a powerful bonus. Instead, they’re merely liberating from a movement perspective as their weapons feel a little limp. Dogfights go on for ages, necessitating several joust-like passes to find a winner, while flying near fortified bases is ultra-treacherous thanks to anti-air lasers. An initial feeling of ‘WOO, I’M STARSCREAM,’ quickly dissolves into slight disappointment. It’s the price you pay for a stab at balance.
All of which is a hell of a lot of moaning for a game that throws up some wonderfully unique battles. When everything gels and bombs are raining down on your base and Hawks are swirling in the air and buggies loaded with enemies are launching themselves over ramps towards you it feels great. Starhawk provides some compelling, action-filled battlegrounds. But the problems stop the game from being truly great.
The nearest Starhawk comes to getting it completely right is in the Zones mode. In this mode you have to capture a series of points by building your defences up and occupying the area for a spell of time. The kicker is that you can only build a finite amount of structures, meaning that as you move up the map you have to collapse previously built strongholds to make more. This takes planning and a hell of a lot of communication.
With the right team, communicating in the correct manner, Zones is where it’s at. It’s the mode that core Starhawk players will no doubt dedicate most of their time to, as its the one that most coherently makes use of all of the game’s elements.
For a game so heavily weighted towards multiplayer, the trophy list is relatively painless. A big chunk is dedicated to merely making your way through the four or five hour campaign, while the MP-focused trophies rack up pretty quickly just by playing and winning each of the game modes. There’s little creativity, but a Platinum is an easily achievable goal.
Ultimately, Starhawk provides enough evidence that it’s worth sticking with. It hasn’t quite come together yet, but with further support from the developers there’s every chance that it will. The ingredients are there for a game quite unlike any other. Lightbox has shot for the stars and you have to respect them for that. Right now however, with the game as it is, they’ve fallen short.
The Transformers-esque sound of a Hawk roaring to the ground in a ball of flames is worth the price of entry alone. Voice acting in the campaign is solid, but the talent works with some decidedly shonky dialogue.
Average. The art style is uninspired, with dull characters and enemies, while the barren environments do little to quicken the pulse. Stylish motion comic cut-scenes make up for it a little.
The building element is easy to use and feels great. Vehicles handle very well too, but many of the weapons are weak and flimsy, with little feedback.
The campaign is a passable side note, while the multiplayer modes are merely Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Zones, all of which we’ve seen many times before. The building element of the game works best in Zones. Wave-mode is poor.
Run-of-the-mill, yet pleasingly unchallenging, you shouldn’t have too many problems on your way to Platinum.
Capable of some wonderful moments, Starhawk is nevertheless let down by a central mechanic that rarely fulfills its potential. Team up with friends with headsets and stick to Zones if you want to get the most out of it, while keeping your hopes up for new modes and improvements in the future.