Plants Vs Zombies, PixelJunk Monsters, Command & Conquer: A lot of video games come to mind when you first play Starhawk, none of them shooters, but above all else, that's what the successor to Warhawk is.
"We are definitely a shooter," said Sony Santa Monica senior producer Harvard Bonin. "There are inspirations from real-time strategy and tower defence games."
While Starhawk is played staring over the shoulder of a man armed with a gun, what helps separate it from the increasingly bloated third and first-person shooter genres is that enemies come at you in waves and you can call in support, building turrets and requesting back-up from space.
Bonin is quick to point out that the level I watched him play, and later played myself, isn't yet (might never be) a part of the game that Lightbox Interactive sells. It's a mash-up of gameplay, bad guys, setting and vehicles free of any connection to the game's story. It was created, Bonin says, to help illustrate the game's unusual take on shooters.
Maybe down the line this chunk of gameplay will become a demo, they haven't decided yet. Maybe it will become part of the game. It won't be both, Bonin says.
"If we did a demo of this we don't want to include it in the game and leave people feeling cheated if they buy the game."
The level opens on a moon of Dust. Emmett Graves, the game's half-outcast hero, is standing on the outskirts of some sort of encampment. In the fiction of Starhawk, power is derived from something called Rift energy. The downside of the energy is that it can transform Rift miners into mutants. Graves and his brother manage to stop the mutation halfway. One of the brothers turns bad, the other doesn't.
"Warhawk for us was a lot of fun," Bonin said. "It was one of those games that took quite a bit to get into, but once you did it was a lot of fun.
"The barrier for entry was far, far too high. We always felt like we wanted to make the basic game much more accessible."
One of the ways they did that, Bonin said, was by making the controls more standard.
As he talks, Bonin moves Graves down into a valley on Dust, toward a hole that spews Rift energy. Mutants spot him and start their attack. As he takes the mutants out he collects blue orbs, encapsulated Rift energy that he can later use to build on the planet.
But Graves can't build until he's cleared out the mutants and called in an extractor. All of the real-time building that takes place in the game is fairly instant. Graves calls Sydney Cutter, a ship pilot in space, and Cutter drops the building down to the planet, sometimes killing enemies or friendlies.
Later in the game I use this to great effect, taking out Mech driving mutants by dropping a two-floor platform on their suits from space. It kills them instantly.
But before you can drop buildings, you need to set up that Rift extractor. Next Graves needs to clear out a nearby radar installation and push a button to active better communication with Cutter. Once connected with Cutter the game takes a sudden shift, transitioning from something that plays like a standard shooter to something more akin to perhaps a real-time strategy title.
Your view, peeking over Graves' shoulder, remains unchanged and you still run around popping bad guys with guns, but now you've got a lot more choices and information.
Now, Cutter can warn you when he sees enemies inbound. This shows up on the map in front of you as icons with countdown timers. The timer tells you how long until a drop ship, or enemy vehicle will arrive at the location. This allows you to set up around what are essentially spawn points.
"We telegraph for players what is coming next," Bonin says, "because players have a gigantic amount of choice in the game. This lets players approach these situations however they want."
Graves calls in a pod beacon. The beacon brings in back up for Graves, a couple of guys he saved in previous missions, if this were part of the campaign. These good guys show up and essentially attack and defend on their own.
During my play through of the same level, once I get the radar dish activated, I run down to the first of three drop points for enemies and with a button push or two select a turret. The green outline of the defensive weapon shows up floating in front of me. While I can run around with Graves still, if I start to fire my weapon the selection disappears. Once I select where I want the turret set up, I push a button and a couple of seconds later the thing drops from space. Once active it scans the area for enemies and opens fire when it sees them.
After building a number of turrets and the pod beacon, I call in an two-floor armory building which both loads me up with weapons and ammo, but also serves as an excellent defensive position and sniping spot.
Later, when enemy Hawks appear in the distance, I decide to call my own mech suit in. The Hawk mech suit, like the Warhawk before it, can transform on the fly into a jet of sorts. I decide to level the playing field a bit, calling in the enormous platform that houses the Hawk to a spot currently occupied by an enemy Hawk. Once the giant building drops from space, it slams into the moon surface directly on top of the enemy, flattening it.
Hopping into the Hawk, I trudge and hop around clearing out smaller enemies until my eyes in the sky point out that a group of Hawks are inbound. With a button push the Hawk leaps into the air and swivels into its jet form. I tear through the sky above my Dust base.
"Can you call in buildings while you're flying?" I ask Bonin.
He's not sure.
I give it a try, managing to drop a turret onto a rim overlooking my base while soaring around the base.
"That's a first," Bonin says, laughing.
There's a lot of other things to talk about with the PS3 exclusive, due out next year. The game will support 32-player matches, for instance. It will have an Android and iPhone app for stat and tourney tracking. There will be a full single-player campaign and co-op modes. It will have split screen, though they haven't yet decided if it will support the same four-player local split-screen that Warhawk did. The game will include spaceflight, something I haven't yet seen.
Those additions are all wonderful, but none of them would matter if they were being created for a broken game, or worse still, a bland game.
Starhawk is neither. Its blending of action and strategy, of shooting and building, is wonderful, slick, seamless and more than a little fun.
I can't wait to get my hands on this game when it hits next year.