There’s a common misconception surrounding multiplayer shooters. To many, if you’re not doing Call Of Duty or Battlefield numbers, your game is dead in the water. While that’s probably the case for the online modes in middle-of-the-road shooters, there’s easily a big enough audience for a solid, balanced and well-supported shooter to live a long and happy life.
Just ask Warhawk, 2007’s often-forgotten multiplayer treasure. While rough around the edges, it gave PS3 owners large-scale, dramatic online warfare long before Battlefield got comfy in the console space, and maintained a loyal community for years. And now, some five years later, Lightbox is hoping to repeat that trick with the splendid Starhawk, a space-western reimagination that offers that same grandiose spectacle as Warhawk, but crams it with a host of new systems that you’d expect to find in a Real Time Strategy game.
The setting comes straight out of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, but gives the world a much-needed dose of colour and life in comparison to Warhawk’s cookie-cutter hills and cement bases. You’re introduced to its charming, whimsical world through the game’s campaign mode, which tells the story of Emmett Graves and his life as a mercenary in the battle for Rift- the glowing blue resource that’s fuelled an interstellar war.
Starhawk has pretentions of telling a story both about personal conflict (Emmett eventually has to battle his estranged brother) and politics (battles for resources), but it’s all rather clumsily told through cheesy dialogue and animated comic-book scenes, and is best forgotten. The campaign itself, too, is flat and laborious, partly due to the story, but mainly because anyone and everyone knows it’s just an elongated tutorial for the multiplayer.
Elongated is the word, though. Each mission gradually introduces another one of Starhawk’s marvellous features into the mix, but there’s a clear argument to be made that a specific and focused tutorial could have done a much better job. If you’re coming to Starhawk for single-player, though, you’re coming for the wrong reasons, because when you fire up those multiplayer servers (after an update and install or two, naturally), Starhawk comes alive.
The best way to describe the action is through the game’s premier mode, capture the flag. It’s 16-on-16, fought across huge maps which can be tackled as infantry, ground vehicles or the titular Starhawks, all seamlessly integrating with one another and showing off some of the best scaling tricks since the original Katamari Damacy.
So far, so Warhawk, then, but where Starhawk really distances itself from its spiritual predecessor is in the new Build And Battle system. As you collect Rift from nearby towers or by killing enemies, you can build huge battlements in real time by simply hoisting up a radial menu, selecting your contraption of choice and dumping it straight onto the field.
It’s a daunting system at first, especially when your inaugural creation crashes in front of you out of the sky and scares the living daylights out of you, but quickly it all starts to make sense. You can build supply bunkers filled with rocket launchers. Sniper towers. Jetbike stations. Tank garages. Even walls. It makes CTF a completely dynamic and unpredictable experience, as there are 32 base builders on the map creating the kind of defences you’ll never see twice.
While the resource management isn’t as intense as a traditional RTS, there’s a lot of tactical pondering nonetheless. Knowing that charging towards a well-barricaded enemy will only end in you dying and them collecting more Rift means you have to work well with your team and ensure that raids are carefully considered.
With this being an action game, though, the focus is still firmly on the killing and destruction of all and sundry. A well-trained ‘hawk pilot can undo even the tightest defensive system through accurate offense and clever use of flares, so the battlefield is constantly shifting and mutating. There’s little barrier to entry, too. Unlike Battlefield 3, flying in Starhawk is extremely simple – it’s the game’s high point and Lightbox clearly wants everyone to experience and enjoy it.
Of course, it helps that it’s a lovely game to look at, especially when 32 players are zipping across the turf. The bold colour palette and redneck-ramshackle architecture work beautifully together, like Rage through a Timesplitters lens, and there’s a glossy PS3 sheen coating the whole thing.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Starhawk has rock solid fundamentals backing up its bold ideas. The shooting is tight and accurate, blending a COD-style snap aim to speedy movement and chunky weapons. Ground vehicles take minutes to understand and are universally entertaining to zip around in, and of course the flying is silky-smooth and extremely simple to understand. It might not quite hit the heady heights of Battlefield 3’s unscripted drama and unmitigated destruction, but when you’re hurtling back to base with the flag and two ‘hawks firing lasers past your ears, well it’s not far off.
Starhawk’s campaign is throwaway, really, and the kinetic, expansive combat would slot in perfectly next to the likes of Tribes Ascend and Firefall as a free-to-play online title. As a full-priced effort, though, it’s crucial to know what you’re getting yourself into. This is a true multiplayer experience, which despite its accessibility, demands commitment and communication to enjoy to its fullest. It’s also a game, though, that deserves to be loved.