Publisher: LightBox Interactive
Medium: Blu-ray Disc
Players: 1 – 32
I've spent countless hours mastering the art of flying a Warhawk and exploring every nook and cranny of the battlefields in Warhawk, and I honestly enjoyed the entire experience. Sure, the hawks had a hell of a learning curve and there was neither a single player mode nor any real training included in the game to help get your feet wet before jumping online, but for an arcade-style, team-based action shooter, I felt the game worked extremely well. With Starhawk, LightBox Interactive attempted to address most of the feedback gathered from the Warhawk community to craft a game that checked every box and went above and beyond what its spiritual predecessor had to offer. They almost nailed it.
Starhawk has a story! And actually, it's not at all a bad one. In the distant future, colonies are set-up to mine a futuristic and dangerous energy source known as Rift Energy. This glowing, plasma-like substance is rare and extremely profitable for those known as Rifters whose jobs it is to extract the stuff from nearby planets. Of course, like the Wild West gold and oil rush, many groups begin fighting for control of the resource, and soon greed leads to disaster as some of these Rifters become mutated due to overexposure to the Rift Energy. So a hired gunslinger known as Emmett Graves (who is partially mutated himself) is recruited to help organize the Rifters to rise up against the mutant Outcasts and their shadowy leader. There are a few twists and turns in the plot and the digital comic story scenes are effective at pulling you into the drama. The single player experience doesn't last particularly long but between that and the tutorials, players will certainly feel much more comfortable jumping online afterwards.
Other than the obvious changes in the setting and environments, one of the biggest differences between Warhawk and Starhawk is the new Build & Battle system. Build & Battle add a bit of real-time strategy into the 3rd person shooting action by allowing players to literally build right onto the battlefield by calling in new equipment from a drop ship in orbit above the battlefield. Are enemies approaching and do you need an ammo-stocked base, auto-turrets or defensive walls in a pinch? Hit triangle, choose the appropriate structure and down it comes, ready to be used by yourself and your team in seconds. Need some transportation or extra firepower? Then build a Starhawk spawn pad or a Razorback jeep, jet bike, Ox tank or jet pack structure for all to use. All that these Build & Battle structures require is a bit of open space and a certain amount of Rift Energy which can be picked up by either destroying enemies or breaking open storage containers. If you find that certain structures are no longer being utilized for whatever reason, you can quickly reclaim them and gather up some of the energy, and then use it rebuild something more useful. There are a number of ways to approach the battles in Starhawk, and the new strategic elements are a nice addition.
One thing in particular that I love about Starhawk is the frantic pace. You would figure that adding a layer of strategy would slow down the game in some way, but it's totally the opposite. Instead of needing to catch a ride back to your base to grab a hawk or new weapons, you can simply create what you need right where you are and establish a small base that others on your team can now also take advantage of. As a result, the battles in Starhawk are quite dynamic and shift all over the battlefield as players build out the areas they control, or lose areas to the enemy forces.
The game engine and controls in Starhawk, besides the Battle & Build feature, do feel very much like Warhawk, although tweaked and improved. The hawks are far easier to control now that landing involves transforming into a (also quite deadly) mech, and the stock controls are incredibly easy to get a handle on. The advanced controls scheme, which provides the ability to roll the Starhawks and offers greater maneuverability, is definitely worth the effort to learn. Starhawk retains the pick-up-and-play shooter feeling, and it shouldn't take much effort to jump into a game and be an effective player. The single player mode does a good enough job in assisting with any small learning curve that there may be in the game, though honestly, there’s isn’t much of one.
With up to 32 players and several familiar modes such as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Zones, the online action in Starhawk is extremely solid, and so far, well-balanced. Yet, personally, compared to Warhawk, Starhaw's multiplayer comes across as somewhat less inspired. The action is non-stop, and the Build & Battle feature is a well thought out one, but there's one thing that I found lacking, and that was the battlefields and environments themselves. The bland, hazy alien planets that you'll spend most of your time fighting on are just straight up boring when compared to Warhawk's tropical setting with lush landscapes, shimmery water and gorgeous fluffy clouds. Part of this has to do with players in Starhwak being the ones responsible for building out a chunk of their own bases, and the other is that the terrain or the variety is just not that exciting.
LightBox gets a thumbs up for including split-screen co-op and competitive play in Starhawk, and then unfortunately gets a thumbs down for the online implementation of co-op. Online co-op, which consists mostly of just fighting off waves of enemies, is invite only, so if you want to team up with up to 3 other players, you'll need friends who have the game and want to coordinate for some co-op action. Even if the co-op isn't all that exciting, it seems pretty odd (and disappointing) that you can't just create or search for a public co-op game and jump in, especially since Starhawk is such a pick-up-and-play sort of game. They have gone out of their way to include a host of other online functions, such as a tournaments, leaderboards, clan support, a community events calendar and news updates, though many of it is hidden within the menu and not quite as up front and center as you would hope a lot if it would be.
I really, really wanted to love Starhawk… though in the end, I had a hard time truly connecting with the game on the same level that I did with Warhawk. Starhawk certainly plays nicely, and the Battle & Build system offers a unique twist on the shooting action, but as compared to Warhawk, there's something about it that's just not as appealing or addicting. A new game set in the Warhawk universe with the features of Starhawk would probably be a different story.