Starhawk is a third-person shooter. Actually, scratch that, let me try again: Starhawk is a fighter-pilot game. Although... only sort of. Maybe Starhawk is a real-time strategy game.
This is all getting complicated. How about: Starhawk is a Western, in space. And a fun one. Yes. Let's go with that.
The truth is, Starhawk takes a whole set of divergent styles and throws them together into one game. Bringing third-person shooting, giant mech battles, space dogfights and strategic building together in one could have been a disaster of epic proportions, but LightBox Interactive has somehow made it all work, and remarkably smoothly at that.
The premise is this: In the wild colony west of faraway solar systems, there is a new source of power called rift energy. It glows blue and looks quite impressive against dusty red planets and the dark void of space. There was a rush for it, deeply akin to the rush to take over Texas oil fields in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Of course, this being a science-fiction video game, nothing is ever easy. It turns out that with rift energy comes a horde of rift-mutated monsters called the Outcast. Every time you go to cap a rig, there they are, trying to kill you. This means constant work for a man like Emmett Graves, our player character and gunslinger extraordinaire.
The thing is, Starhawk is essentially pointless as a singleplayer narrative. There's nothing wrong with Emmett Graves or his mercenary ways. He's mildly interesting, and his frontier family drama is, if not immensely compelling, then at least not poorly told. (In fact, I particularly like the animation style of the interstitial cut scenes.) It's just beside the point.
Emmett, his support staff, his family and his allies exist for exactly two reasons. First, to give the you a good sense of setting — the frontier chaos and oil-rush mentality come to the forefront in singleplayer, and that knowledge, once gained, sticks with you permanently. Second, and more importantly: the 10 stages of the singleplayer campaign are the tutorial for multiplayer, the game's true thrust. And they're all the tutorial you get, so pay attention.
Here's how every mission goes:
"Oh no! The [building / energy source / ship] is under attack! The outcast will be arriving by [foot / razorback / tank / jetpack / fighter jet] in [twenty, 30, or forty-five seconds]! You should build [turrets / mechs / razorbacks] and prepare to defend the [X]!"
The difficulty curve is this: (1) as you progress, the game increases the arsenal of structures you can choose from and becomes slightly less explicit in telling you what to build, and (2) more waves of outcast are likely to appear between checkpoints. It's a system that is, at best, uninspired and, at worst, tedious.
But two things save it. The first is the game's biggest selling point, its "build and battle" system. In short, the energy you collect from barrels or fallen enemies allows you to open up a radial menu and call down massive buildings from the sky. You choose where to put them, and they land at your feet (or, if you don't move quickly enough, on your head) a few seconds later.
Usually in a game like this, you would find a gun, a vehicle, or an ally waiting for you. And at first, Starhawk provides its resources in the same way. But very quickly you learn that you will need to decide for yourself what to call down from the sky.
Do you need guns and ammo? Call for a supply bunker. Snipers pinning you down? Summon a sniper tower of your own — it'll have a rifle waiting for you in it. Are you bound to the earth, being shot at by enemies in the sky? Time to summon the building that lets you equip jet-packs or, the game's other big feature, a Hawk.
At first I approached Starhawk with the wrong mentality, and got wiped out rather a lot early on as a result. I admit to a mild flash of feeling like a genius when I finally started to think the way the game needed me to: I only had about 10 bullets left in my gun and was facing at least three dozen outcast with more on the way. But I called town two turrets and a supply bunker, and hey! Suddenly I had a defensible position to hunker down in, as much ammo as I needed, and turrets mowing down the horde for me while I was still out of range. After that, the wave went much more smoothly.
Starhawk's other saving grace is the fluid smoothness with which it switches modes. From running on foot, to building a garage and leaping into a ground vehicle, to building a launching pad and climbing into a giant mech, nothing seems graceless. Aside from a few small hang-ups in geography (and my AI companions' inability to drive down an obvious path), every change, every motion and every vehicle felt surprisingly elegant.
The ground-based third-person shooter segments are dry. They are without any particular artistry or nuance. In short, they are not particularly fun. There is a way to make a third-person shooter dynamic and entertaining, and Starhawk doesn't have it. But, like the singleplayer campaign writ large, that's OK, because it doesn't matter. The moments where you stand on foot, shooting, aren't the point. Strategy is the point: knowing how and when to drop a building from space, knowing when a wall will help, or when you should just drop turrets all over the place, is the point. And when you have Emmet leap into his hawk and soar into the air? That's where Starhawk finds its soul.
It took me a while to see it, because frankly this is not a game for the motion-sensitive and at first I was just trying really hard to avoid throwing up. (I took a break to go buy Bonine, which I made sure to take every day I played thereafter.) But there's a true joy in the flight and aerial combat segments. The controls are designed such that banking through the air, making a tight turn through a web of pipelines and targeting swarm lasers on your mindlessly spawned enemy is genuinely delightful. If, still, not for the motion-sensitive.
I've played a lot of games lately that are entirely driven by quick-time events, and it's nice to get back a measure of freedom. That said, the negative side to the freedom is that Starhawk doesn't necessarily give you the guidance you need. For example, when you get a jet pack, the game tells you how to take off but then, after, not how to maintain flight. (I figured out what didn't maintain flight by plummeting into the interstellar abyss a few times before getting the hang of it.) And while it's very helpful to have your guide, Cutter, saying, "Outcast coming in from the East and South!", a map and mini-map utterly without compass direction don't give you what you need to figure out where South is.
The lack of guidance carries over to multiplayer as well. Leaping into matches, it was at first unclear what, exactly, I was expected to do. Coming into a match already in progress has some distinct problems.
My notes about the "quick match" feature mostly involve long strings of obscenities and no actual play. This is because every time I tried to join a quick match, I found that players in hawks were camping my ground-based spawn point before I even landed on it, and shot me down immediately. Spawning involves being shot at the ground from a pod in orbit, and anyone with eyes can see where the pod will land before it gets there. In at least five or six attempts, I never once got to step more than three inches away from my pod.
Luckily, browsing the game list rather than using quick match allowed me actually to play a few rounds, rather than just to drop dead a whole bunch. The game modes are what they sound like: "capture the flag" has the red team and the green team trying to steal each other's flags and carry them back to base. "Zones" has teams vying for control of marked regions in the map. And "deathmatch" is, well, exactly what it says on the tin.
All match types can hold up to 32 players, and that can be every bit as chaotic as you might imagine. Popping in with a bunch of strangers, who all start throwing buildings around, is a mess. But once teams have laid down their basic fortifications and the game is in progress, the fun begins. My favourite experience was a Zones match on a platform in space. For a brief, worrying moment I felt clueless and surrounded by equally clueless idiots, but the game began very quickly to take shape and a few minutes later, our team had constructed a launch pad and I grabbed a hawk and went airborne. Weaving through, around, over, and under the map, trying to shoot down enemy turrets before they could shoot me, was a delight.
But for all that I managed with strangers, Starhawk is clearly meant for friends. The co-op mode is invite-only, requiring you either to invite friends from your list, or be invited by friends who have you on their list. Likewise, while I personally hate voice chat with the fire of a thousand suns, in the frenzy to build defensible, well-armed positions and maintain good strategy for a 15-minute, 20-minute or 30-minute match, communication is essential.
If you have a couple dozen friends on PSN and have always wanted to soar through the inky skies shooting swarm lasers, Starhawk is a good bet. In the end, I know I personally don't have the long-term patience for regular 30-minute fights of attrition and patient building placement. Nor, sadly, do I have the stomach to take on an offensive airborne role for very long, although I wish I did. And yet, I find myself eagerly recommending the game to those who can. The play in Starhawk can be intricate and creative, and in terms of graphics, animation, flow and function, the game is superb. And it's true: dropping buildings right onto a pile of baddies just never gets old.