Developer: LightBox Interactive / Publisher: SCEA / Played On: PlayStation 3 / ESRB: Teen
Plenty of recent games have proven that the third-person-combined-with-tower-defense genre can be successful. Given the right room to breathe, these games provide a layer of interesting and even fun strategic possibilities not present in standard third-person games. Unfortunately, many decisions in Starhawk feel like they hinder the potential depth of these mechanics. Starhawk could be a masterful game but reveals itself to be middling at best.
Starhawk’s storytelling is clumsy. The vague, poorly written, poorly voice-acted cutscenes between missions stumble through a narrative around a glorified space miner named Emmitt Graves on the Rift energy frontier. It’s the equivalent of the San Francisco Gold Rush, but in space. The twist is that this Rift Energy source has the ability to corrupt men, turning them into literal monsters known as Outcasts. The story is so flimsy that it ends up being entirely inconsequential, failing to add weight or context. Even the one remotely interesting thread about Graves’ past and how he became a half-Outcast is fleeting and ends up going nowhere.
Whether you’re playing through the solo campaign or attempting one of Starhawk’s multiplayer modes, the basics of its third-person shooter gameplay revolve around gathering energythat acts as a currency to purchase various structures that aid in defending or assaulting your objectives. These structures include self-guided turrets, energy shields, supply/ammo bunkers, and vehicles, to name a few. It’s a solid enough premise but a majority of the time Starhawk fails to provide mechanically interesting situations to justify their existence.
Starhawk’s loosely tied together singleplayer scenarios supply a basic understanding of each structure and vehicles use but beyond that a lack of thoughtful design sells Starhawk’s systems far too short. When the only challenge variety comes from increasing or decreasing the number of enemies attacking you at a time, there is very little reason–strategic or otherwise–to overly concern yourself with structure placement. It never appears that picking the beam laser over the sniper tower generates a meaningful advantage. This results in an experience that’s disturbingly flat. And the overly abundant (and with some easytofind exploits, infinite) quantity of energy available during these scenarios means there’s very little resource management. So without a need for restraint, there’s no reason to not just put as much shit as possible on the battlefield.
Starhawk occasionally finds its footing in multiplayer, making for exciting moments here and there, even if it is flawed. One look at the vehicles, huge maps, and game modes like CTF and Zones (a control point variant) and it’s clear that Starhawk’s emergent gameplay shares a lot of similar DNA with Battlefield. It’s awesome watching jets battle overhead or seeing an opponent’s Razorback get blown up mere feet from you. And Starhawk’s structures occasionally introduce an interesting facet not found in other shooters. I felt like a clever bastard sneaking over to the opposition’s base, placing a turret, and watching them get unexpectedly picked off.
But even through all these awesome moments, Starhawk’s flaws burn bright in its multiplayer. Team cooperation is imperative to victory. You need to be all on the same page to know not to double up on structures and to make sure you’re assaulting or defending in a synchronized manner. Without this, playing Starhawk becomes an exercise in banging your head against a brick wall. It fails to accommodate lone wolf players. So without a cooperative team by your side, there’s very little you’re able to accomplish on your own.
Where Starhawk shows its greatest potential is in its co-op mode. Lightbox’s take on wave-based survival keeps you on your toes by throwing different combinations of enemies at you. It’s the rock-paper-scissors executed in a way that’s missing from competitive multiplayer and the single-player. Because you’re holding up in one spot for as long as possible, thoughtful decisions are required about which player should build which structures to focus on which enemies.
Red Faction and StarCraft may have already monopolized the space cowboy aesthetic but there’s still some mileage if Starhawk has anything to say about it. On the surface, the twangy guitar riffs and old Western vibe really help to establish a fun identity for Starhawk. And I don’t want to speak too early here but Starhawk is my current frontrunner for our coveted Skyboxes of the Year award in 2012. The gorgeous nebulae and crazy-looking star clusters act as a constant reminder you’re totally in space. You know, in case you forgot.
Starhawk is definitely a game that was made I just don’t know if it was a game that was designed. Its scope seems at odds with its mechanics. There’s nothing inherently broken about Starhawk, it’s just painfully straightforward s if the question of “why” was never asked. And it’s one I continued to ponder as I played the game and don’t think I ever really came up with a satisfying answer.