Track the trajectory of most console-based, competitive shooters and you’ll discover more evolution than revolution. Mercifully, that’s not the case with LightBox Interactive’s Starhawk. Although born from the fundamental design philosophies which propelled Warhawk past its fly-and-frag peers, the near-faultless integration of a construction component allows the title to feel remarkably unique. In an era when many comparable games have turned their gaze inward, offering amenities such as Battlelog or Call of Duty: Elite to peer into the minutiae of matches, Skyhawk has fixed its sights on a higher echelon, delivering enjoyably mutable, consistently engaging online battles.
Trading the oft-tedious resource gathering and micromanagement of real-time strategy game for an emphasis on vehicular, aerial and infantry-based conflicts, Skyhawk strikes a solid balance between tactical and trigger-happy. In lieu of sending drones out to mine material, the title’s resource- Rift energy is acquired via the execution of foes or the destruction of respawning barrels. As players collect the commodity, they are able to call up orbital drops, which offer up goodies ranging from defensive walls, turrets, weapon depots, and even stations which dispense fearsome mechs.
Starhawk’s five-hour single player campaign teaches the fundamentals of the title’s “Build and Battle” system as well as demonstrates the abilities and weaknesses of each weapon and vehicle. It’s here that the balance of the game is conveyed as gamers use their mechanized Hawks to raze flying foes one moment, before becoming obliterated by a single soldier with a rocket launcher. Currently, the game’s equilibrium seems fair, but improbable-with rifles taking a dozen blasts to down foes and mechs transformed into scrap by a few hastily thrown hand grenades.
Although it’s clear the solo component is supposed to serve as a tutorial, the mode’s stress-free pacing does little to prepare players from frenzied multiplayer matches. In a battlefield filled with thirty-two human combatants, Starhawk is a radically different and every fluctuating whirlwind. Predictably, human competitors are hellbent on reducing your construction efforts into rubble and don’t arrive with the telltale indicator of the single-player game. As such, jumping from Starhawk’s off-line campaign into the competitive realm can be a jarring experience. Ideally, the game would have offered customizable skirmishes which more closely simulate the bedlam of multiplayer battles.
However, once players acclimate to the pace and patterns of online conflicts, the title truly shines. Traveling with a trio of players aboard the off-road ready Razorbacks endows Starhawk with a sense of camaraderie, with driver and passenger barking out enemies locations to the machine gunners mounted atop. Vulture jet packs convey a pleasing sensation of flight, with soldiers shifting between using their limited fuel supply for momentum and euphoric glides over expanses of the battlefield. Naturally, the Hawks serve as the game’s showpiece, and when their rousing theme music begins, players can feel invulnerable. Between the missile lock-on and discharge countermeasure in aerial battles and the ability to summon up infantry-flinging stomps, controlling these transforming machines feels sufficiently exhilarating.
As pleasing as the game’s vehicles are, Starhawk’s greatest virtual is the variability of battles. With thirty-two participants all buzzing about the title organically offers up a bevy of objectives. From sabotaging emerging enemy installations, keeping the skies clear of adversarial hawks, or working cooperatively to build a force field capable of repelling enemy fire, Starhawk never has to pull up a checklist of assignments. If fact, such an agenda would be quickly rendered obsolete by the shifting tides of warfare, as domination is delightfully (and deliberately) unstable. The sole exception can we witnessed when one team has an excess of vehicles, capable of overshadowing the other squad’s respawns.
Visually, Starhawk’s environments are all well textured and ingeniously crafted, with the engine exhibiting extended draw distances across its locales. This graphical competence becomes especially noticeable when contrasted against the game’s single-player cutscenes, which employ a bland, comic-book like aesthetic. In execution, this means Starhawk is the rare game whose in-game rendering outshine its cinematics. The game’s storyline seems similarly underdeveloped, using much of the same space western tropes we have seen in titles such as Red Faction: Armageddon.
Starhawk’s single-player element aside, the title offers some of the most engrossing combat found on the PlayStation 3. Innately there’s a diminutive sense of investment as players build bases. As opponents come to annihilate your structure, a sense of retribution impassions players, unearthing an impetus that is absence from most frag-for-frag bouts. As long as LightBox Interactive keeps the community engaged with free DLC content and regular tweaks to get the combat balanced, Starhawk has the potential to accompany Sony’s console to the end of its lifecycle.