The multiplayer-only Warhawk of 2007 broke away from its title-sharing 1995 singleplayer predecessor by shifting towards large-scale shooter action and exploiting PS3’s networking capabilities. Five years later, Starhawk – developed by LightBox, a studio home to members of Warhawk maker Incognito Entertainment – has returned to the singleplayer game.
It sees you take on the role of Emmett Graves, a typically gruff, grizzled loner who traverses the wastelands of a space age dominated by the battle for Rift energy. Storytelling spice is added by drawing from Joss Whedon’s cult-favourite TV series Firefly, with the game’s homages including the Scrappers, a direct nod to the show’s Reavers. Meanwhile, a glorious score from award-winning composer Christopher Lennertz evokes the space-Western genre with rousing orchestral arrangements. It is, however, light on content and heavy on style. Fundamentally a linear series of objectives interspersed with cutscenes, the mode better serves as a tutorial for the game’s more essential online modes, but also a showcase for the team’s dazzling technology – equally capable of lengthy draw distances and the detailed minutiae of crafts and characters.
Starhawk’s visual style is thick with sci-fi references, including Tatooine and the industrial aesthetic of Ronald D Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, but, as with Warhawk, it lacks the spark of individuality to elevate it from a solid singleplayer action game to something greater. It borrows a number of ideas from series with better-defined personalities, and hence reminds you of their finer implementation. The Razorback, for example, is a less manoeuvrable facsimile of the Warthog; the Vulture jetpack is a riff on Halo: Reach’s more tightly designed Armor Ability; and the character models, while heavily customisable, lack the iconic impact of Gears’ Marcus or, in the Scrappers’ case, the Locust.
Where Starhawk finds its own voice is in an RTS-like building mechanic that plays a major role across multiplayer and singleplayer. Holding triangle pops up a structure wheel, and making a selection plunges you into a long-distance view from which you can choose a location to construct buildings. They then drop from the sky, provided you (and your team in multiplayer) have collected enough Rift energy to pay for them. The result is that you can strategically craft base camps that generate vehicles and help accumulate more energy for bigger, better structures and vehicles, as well as extra munitions. The sight of a friendly Starhawk launchpad falling from the heavens offers a glorious sense of power, and, since players respawn in the same way, a sense of comradeship, too. Players and structures dropping into the large maps are signified by a trail of colour in the sky that’s visible from across the battlefield, a cunning way to track hostile encampments and prey on new arrivals to the maps.
Including a singleplayer shooter has at least helped draw LightBox’s attention to the weak spots that hindered Warhawk. As a result, there’s now a greater sense of physicality to movement, with more nuanced animations and weightier physics, and ground vehicles feel more believably connected to the terrain. But unfortunately, the game doesn’t rectify all of Warhawk’s issues. Grenades are still too unpredictable to use with any level of precision – you’ll regularly misjudge the trajectory and find yourself caught in the blast. And while the levels lend an astounding sense of scale in singleplayer, in multiplayer their size can still feel too limiting, especially in 32-player battles, which get too cramped for comfort.
Despite such niggles, the growling, gripping core of Warhawk’s well-balanced online multiplayer still lurks beneath Starhawk’s more stylish veneer. Modes in which you occupy zones and capture the flag matches are highlights, requiring you to organise your base effectively as a team if you’re to fend off enemies’ carpet-bombing runs and hilltop sniping. At its best, Starhawk is a game of fighting fire with fire until a perfect storm of an attack opens up the enemy base and leaves it vulnerable. It may take you a few hours of play to find the rhythm (and the right crowd of players to gel with), but once you know the lie of the land, how best to manage your resources and assemble a team with a strategic sensibility, Starhawk’s multiplayer is beautifully freeform within the confines of its tightly plotted, symmetrical maps. Deathmatches play out much better for the lone gunner this time as well, with the ability to spawn your own arsenal providing a solution to the lonely trawl for scarce Hawks that plagued many a Warhawk session. And the maps are more aesthetically extravagant than Warhawk’s, framed by stunning backdrops that demand you stop and stargaze between bouts of battle.
Among all the flash, Starhawk’s building mechanic is its most important innovation, and one that we may find inspiring more shooters to take on its ideas. It’s intuitive and responsive, bridging the gap between RTS and action game, a concept that we last encountered this well integrated back in 2000 while playing Massive Entertainment’s Ground Control. It lends Starhawk admirable ambition, adding more distractions, destruction, and dynamism to a mould that was at least sturdy to begin with. But though its maps are denser with activity than Warhawk’s, they can also prove more confusing and chaotic. More seriously, its magpie picking of influences leaves it with too little personality of its own, and comparisons with its sources are often unflattering. Still, it boasts scale, action and variety that make it a welcome addition to PS3’s multiplayer roster.