Unconventional. That?s the best way to describe Lightbox Interactive?s PlayStation 3 exclusive, Starhawk. The game takes all of the ?rules? that players have become accustomed to in the traditional third person shooter, and, through its unique game mechanic, in one quick swipe manages to throw them all out of the window. The game?s uniqueness is its greatest strength. Will that be enough to set it apart and worth your money?
The world of Starhawk revolves around an interplanetary commodity known as rift energy. Just like oil, rift energy?s value is what makes it an object of desire among those who farm it and those hired to protect it. To raise the stakes even higher, anyone who is overly exposed to the substance becomes infatuated with it (think Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) and in the process pretty much becomes a blue glowing zombie.
You play as Emmet Graves, a disconnected and jaded rift seeker. With help from his partner, Cutter, the game opens up with the duo scouring some well known rift sites in hopes of turning a profit. Along their way, they encounter Logan, the once believed to be dead older brother of our main character who, like Emmett, also happens to be infused with rift energy. Its because of that connection to the rift energy that Logan wishes to protect it from those who attempt to harvest or lay claim to it, even if it’s his own flesh and blood standing in his way.
While Starhawk serves as Lightbox Interactive?s first foray into a story based campaign, it is, for the most part, a solid effort. Though it is quite obvious that the inclusion of single player is mostly to serve the purpose of introducing folks to the game’s biggest differentiator and that?s the ?build and battle? system. This unique gameplay mechanic allows the landscape of the game to change on the fly by transforming what would be your typical third person shooter into a real time strategy hybrid. It?s ambitious yet functional as it provides a level of flexibility to approach missions and objectives previously unseen in any other shooter that came before it.
Starhawk uses the story to patiently introduce all of the different facets of the build and battle system. Early on you?ll be positioning walls in preparation for a wave of enemies. Later in the game you?ll be preparing instant-battle stations full of turrets, tanks, launch pads, and shields. Under normal circumstances, I hate the monotony that comes with trial and error in most games, but in Starhawk, whenever I?d get taken down and have to settle for a do-over, it was the build and battle system that helped to keep things interesting by allowing me try different and more favorable strategies.
The game?s presentation brings forth both a high and low point. Visually, in-game at least, Starhawk impresses. It doesn?t have the flashiest of textures, by any means, but characters look good and the fact that there is just so much go on on-screen, you almost have to allow yourself to give it a pass.
Cut scenes on the other hand, which Starhawk?s story relies heavily on, leaves much to be desired. It?s a comic book style format that you?ve probably already seen one time too many this console generation. What was once a unique way of presenting a game’s story is now starting to feel dated here in Starhawk. With a game that has such a high level of presentation, it?s a little disappointing to get the bulk of the story delivered in such a way.
The best thing about how build and battle is built into the game’s campaign is that it helps to ease players into what could potentially be an easily overwhelming competitive online mode. It?s something that Warhawk — which was Starhawk?s spiritual predecessor — just couldn?t get right. The game?s learning curve and barrier of entry was simply too high. So much so that the ?weekend warriors? who couldn?t devote as much time as the core everyday players, would just get steamrolled; to the point that much of the online community dwindled down until only the most hardcore were left.
Thankfully, history does not repeat itself here. After taking on everything that the single player campaign throws at you, taking the fight to the rest of the world on Playstation Network didn?t seem anywhere near as dreadful as it did in Warhawk. Not only could I last more than 30 seconds in the air this time around, using all the skills that I learned in the game?s campaign, but within moments and a few kills later, I quickly felt my inner Maverick coming out. All I needed was my own Goose to join in. (Apologies for the Top Gun references. If you don?t know what it is, ask your mom.)
It doesn?t take a rocket scientist to realize that the multiplayer portion is the meat and potatoes here, and Lightbox was sure to pull all the stops. In a nice design move, the games pause menu — whether in single player or online — instantly gives you plenty of online meta data and instant access to jump into another game as well as access to your friends list where, in a few short clicks, you can quickly join up with a buddy in-game. Starhawk’s focus is to get players in and to keep them there by allowing them to bounce around with ease.
If there was one concern that had to be raised here, just like Warhawk — well I guess you can argue this point with any title that has a heavy emphasis on its online component — Starhawk is going to live and die by its community and its offerings. What I mean by that is Lightbox Interactive is going to have to provide feature rich content that will keep players coming back for more. A plus that certainly works in their favor is that they’ve already announced that all maps in any upcoming DLC will be free, which I’m sure will be enough to keep many players faithful, myself included.
We first laid our collective eyes on Starhawk back at E3 2011. After a few short minutes and seeing the first of its kind “build and battle” system, we declared it our pick for best of show. Instead of just being a spiritual successor to their previous work, Starhawk very much stands on its own, as Lightbox Interactive not only re-thought how a third person shooter can be played, but in doing so, invented their own genre in the process. Starhawk won’t win a pulitzer prize on the storytelling front, but receives some much deserved praise for thinking outside of the box.