Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Starhawk Review

Warhawk was a reasonably popular game for the PS3, and one of the only worthwhile multiplayer titles exclusive to the console. It was also one of the first full-fledged PS3 games to be released both physically and digitally. The 0.5-1 million or so Warhawk players made the game one of the most successful multiplayer games for the new console, which was convenient, since the game had no single player mode. Lightbox Interactive just released Starhawk, the spiritual successor to the original PS3 success story, with updated graphics, story, atmosphere, and gameplay elements. Can it follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, or has the market had time to grow and mature out of the *hawk series?

Starhawk Multiplayer

Whereas Warhawk had no single player, Starhawk not only has a single player campaign, it has a rather large emphasis on single player. The game follows Emmett Graves, a hired gun looking to protect miners of a volatile natural resource called Rift Energy from Outcasts, people corrupted by said Rift Energy. Our protagonist was in an accident himself, and though his powers are not fully explained, he is visibly half Outcast, though certainly human. We follow Emmett as he tries to protect the town of White Sands from the Outlaw, an Outcast banding his brethren together in a way no one has seen before. Though this story is rather basic and rife with clich├ęs, I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the universe and the new human way of life. I was given the absolute briefest explanation on what life is like now, not why, and thrown into it. I learned the names of vehicles, the way things worked, how monsters reacted, how to build things, and the politics of the new world all by doing and through dialogue, not by reading a backstory or having some narrator or character plot point explain it to me.

Starhawk Outcast

Nothing twists my knickers more than being treated like I’m in kindergarten.  Though I suppose that would be better than being dropped in with absolutely no context and being confused. I’m staring at you here, Dear Esther.

The narrative was also bolstered by a talented voice-acting cast, breathing life into the characters. I was quite happy listening to character interactions since most of their dialogue and way of speaking seemed natural.

Starhawk Voice Actors

In fact, the only voice out of place that made me cringe was that of Jonas toward the ending – if you play, you will know which scene I am referring to. That entire sequence made me embarrassed to watch. Also, the voices sometimes had trouble matching up to the mouth movements on screen, something that annoyed me to no end. Luckily, in-game cut scenes were kept to a minimal and most large narrative breaks were done with short animated featurettes — think Infamous 2 with a simpler art style and set in the wild west, and you’ve hit the nailhawk on its head.

The gameplay is quite similar to Warhawk, as expected, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The original game was arguably the most enjoyable multiplayer experience on PS3, and Starhawk just adds to the fun. It's a standard third-person over the shoulder shooter in which the protagonist gets a variety of weapons, some useless and some not, to fight a horde of enemies who range from quick and weak to large and overwhelming to planes that are actually mechs. And yes, that is a feature that’s seen heavily in the *hawk games, Hawks—large mecha that turn into planes, making them suitable for heavy ground combat, or high-flying, heart-pounding dogfights. From intense shootouts to outmaneuvering and boosting your way through enemies, Starhawk delivers a fun gameplay experience.

One huge difference between this game and its predecessor that I fell in love with is the ability to build structures. Pressing Triangle brings up a build menu, allowing you to construct objects from Hawk-spawn stations to supply depots to a good old fashioned wall.

Starhawk Building

The game switches quickly between sections of mowing down Outcasts to giving you a few brief seconds to breathe, put up some structures, and get ready for the next assault, before bombarding you with far more than you could handle without building.

Starhawk Rift Energy

This gameplay element is both well executed and hellaciously fun, adding a level of strategy to an otherwise standard shooter title. 

Your options for multiplayer online are about what you would expect—multiplayer campaign, versus matches, and exploration modes. The multiplayer campaign is nearly identical to the single player campaign, the only difference is that your AI helpers are now people. Most people help immensely, so if you have the opportunity to play through the campaign mode online, I highly recommend it as the AI is usually useful, but definitely has its stupid moments.

Starhawk AI

The versus modes are mildly off balance. Essentially, whoever can build the most, fastest, and prevent the other team from building will be victorious. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re focused on capturing someone’s flag, and they’re focused on making a Hawk before you can so they can destroy all of your buildings, why even play capture the flag? Nevertheless, playing with other people proves to be a strong point for the *hawk series. In fact, straight after this review, I think I’ll play a little team death match and hope I get spawned on the team who had the good sense to put up beam turrets.

Verdict: Starhawk may be a spiritual successor to Warhawk, but it far surpasses it in every category. The multiplayer is sharper, the single player campaign exists and is quite interesting, and I actually care about the universe instead of trying to brutally murder random people on the internet.  If you like third-person shooters like Dead Space, online multiplayer games like Uncharted, or strategy games like Starcraft, you’ll love Starhawk. 

Full disclosure: The title was presented to me by a Lightbox Employee, but that in no way affects my judgment of the game.
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