Following on from a title with what could only be described as a decidedly loyal fanbase had to have been a constant factor in the design of Lightbox Interactive’s Starhawk. One one hand, one could consider this a very strong pointer in the game’s design direction, but it could also be considered a certain hindrance for the game’s creative team, who have to factor in said fanbase while also trying to keep the game fresh, to innovate, and to pursue their vision of what they wanted from Starhawk.
The massive departure in setting, and to an extent gameplay mechanics, was a huge surprise as someone who played Warhawk more than a fair bit back in 2007 and the years following. The space-western motif Lightbox has grafted into Starhawk is vastly different from Warhawk’s decidedly utopian setting, while the new “Build and Battle” RTS-esque structure building mechanic creates a huge variance in how Starhawk fundamentally plays when compared to Warhawk. Changes, then, but Starhawk’s not all different from its spiritual predecessor, something fans should be delighted to hear.
This time around, Lightbox has decided to cobble together a single player story for Starhawk. Although ostensibly its purpose, it serves as a method for introducing Starhawk’s mechanics and a combat-oriented setting. It follows rift miner Emmett Graves, a man who has been imbued with the effects of the coveted rift energy, the main natural resource of this universe. Its representation bares a striking similarity to oil; huge structures are built to extract rift energy from planets, and – like its thick, viscous inspiration – the blue, vaporous rift energy is the cause of a brewing war.
The story is mainly told through comic-like scenes before each of the game’s nine-or-so missions, and it’s a bit thin on the ground. They provide minor exposition for the upcoming mission, and the story really only serves to move you to the next combat mission, which gradually introduce new aspects of the build and battle system. There’s definitely promise in the story, but the characters are never satisfactorily fleshed out beyond their obvious motivations. The storyboards do look beautiful, however. They’re stunningly well drawn and animated, and are probably the highlight of the game’s single player mode.
Something which the campaign can be commended for is its use of environments. The variation in the planets you’re taken to is refreshing, and the stylistic choices Lightbox made are brilliant. The views out to space are stunning, with the skyboxes extremely colourful and breathtaking visually. While Starhawk may not be the most beautiful game in terms of fidelity, – the character models look extremely dated and it looks generally unremarkable technically at times – though it oozes style from every fibre, and that’s to be commended.
In many ways it’s a Firefly fan’s wet dream. The space-western motif is carried through brilliantly; from the roaming deserts, the lush planets and the visual make-up of the game’s vehicles and structures. Even the game’s antagonistic force, the Outcast, are fondly reminiscent of Firefly’s Reavers, their misshapen human form disfigured from the effects of their rift energy infection that now keeps them alive.
This carries over to the game’s soundtrack, for which a case could be made that it’s Starhawk’s best feature. The western style guitar tracks suit the game perfectly, and are again strikingly reminiscent of Firefly. The way the music changes when you’re on foot, and then transforms again when you enter a vehicle, particularly a hawk, is fantastic, and the change in direction of music to something more motivational and epic will certainly serve to put a big beaming smile on your face every time you jump into a hawk. The sound design isn’t without its hiccups, however. I encountered multiple stuttering problems in the game, particularly in the single player campaign. Audio will clip, distort and repeat, very obviously and it’s really out-of-place.
However, what Starhawk’s main raison d’étre is of course its adversarial multiplayer component. Starhawk largely takes its game mode cues from its spiritual predecessor Warhawk, in that it offers Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Zones and Capture The Flag with various different modifiers. The gameplay from the single player transfers fully into the multiplayer; it’s a fast-paced third person shooter with a focus on vehicular combat.
The build and battle mechanic really shines here in multiplayer, or at least it can. As with Warhawk, Starhawk is a much better game when you’re playing with friends who have microphones, and when you aren’t, things can get messy, and at times the build and battle only serves to highlight that. It’s not the game’s fault, per se, but when you have four Hawk launch pads in your base, even though you can just spawn any number of Hawks from one, the game is doing something fundamentally wrong by not restricting placement to stop ridiculous things like that happening.
There’s also a severe lack of restrictions to stop teams from base camping to win. There’s no way to prevent another team from entering and camping in your base once they’re in there, because as soon as you spawn you’re dead, and teams can even create outposts at your base to call in turrets to spawn kill you. Boredom can set in as a result as once we got in the opposing base it was game over.
When it’s good, though, Starhawk’s multiplayer is best-in-class. It helps that it’s a much, much more competent shooter than Warhawk too; the guns feel far better to use and the game controls magnificently. The vehicles feel a lot more fun to control too, and advanced flight on the Hawks gives you plenty of maneuverability that you just don’t get in other titles and, as you would expect, transforming your Hawk into a mech and vice versa is just awesome. Every. Single. Time.
Starhawk is a very, very good game. Great, in fact, and if you’re a fan of Warhawk, you’ll absolutely love it. World class multiplayer, great gameplay and a remarkably brilliant visual style and soundtrack are standout features of Warhawk’s spiritual successor, and although as a single player experience it may disappoint and some muddy textures, audio glitches and the odd multiplayer hiccup can detract from it at times, it’s well worth your money.