Hands-on With Starhawk’s Space-combat, Straight From Fantastic Fest

Once again the PlayStation Blog paid a visit to little ol’ Austin, Texas.  The occasion?  Fantastic Arcade 2011, a part of Fantastic Fest (a horror/sci-fi-themed yearly film festival).  Fantastic Arcade began last Thursday and continued throughout the weekend, but Thursday brought with it a special event that had a line forming in front of the Highball (and it wasn’t simply the promise of free drinks).

A little game called Starhawk made an appearance, and a multiplayer map was fully playable.  In fact, the evening with Starhawk revolved around a multiplayer tournament, hosted by Lightbox Studios, complete with audio commentary by Dylan Jobe, President of LightBox Interactive, and Rey Gutierrez of the PlayStation Blog.  Jeff Rubenstein (PlayStation Blog) was also there with the sole purpose of making everyone jealous with his fancy Resistance 3 shirt (sporting the stylized look and color from the game’s cover art).

Free drinks and appetizers were handed out, as gamers poured into the rear section of the establishment and experienced Starhawk’s space combat arena, complete with rocket packs and proximity explosives.

But before I dive into my hands-on with Starhawk’s space combat, I wanted to mention that, as this was a PlayStation Blog event, and Starhawk was the centerpiece, there were plenty of other independent titles making their presence at the event, all playable via kiosks spread across the Highball.  Among them was the anticipated, atmospheric adventure, Journey.  We’ve already covered Journey, via a hands-on by Glenn, but I’d just like to reiterate how amazing this game truly feels.  It echos the sentiments I had when I first played ICO or Shadow of the Colossus.  That is, no one was rushing me to do anything, I didn’t feel the need to figure out my objective and complete it immediately.  I simply explored, and things just…happened.  It all felt so natural.  I didn’t want to stop playing, but at the same time, I didn’t want to dive to into it and spoil the actual experience of playing this at home when the game is finally released.

I finally made my way to the backroom of the Highball, where the large “Arcade” sign provided a gateway to a legion of cabinet arcade games and about a dozen Starhawk playable kiosks.

I took a spin with Starhawk for the second time, and it was just as satisfying an experience as the first time.  Lightbox gave us some playtime with the recently-revealed space combat, that included (but was not limited to) rocket-packs.   As soon as I had the ability to do so, I built a rocket-pack dispenser and took to the skies.   The great thing about the jet-packs in Starhawk is the fact that you can take them pretty high before they start losing steam and you have to allow them to recharge on the ground.  This allows for some almost-stealth like tactical planning, in that most engagements were taking place on the ground, so a lot of players weren’t accustomed to looking up for anything but the starhawks themselves, and those tended to be a much larger target than a little guy in a rocket-pack.  This was definitely a plus, except that gun placements still knew you were there, so you had to know when to hide behind a building, and when to release the boost button and dive into the action, guns blazing.  And speaking of the boost button, Starhawk allows for analog boost, so the softer you push the button the slower you ascend or descend.  You can even hover in place if you know just how much pressure to apply.

And the guns were blazing.  Capture the flag was already an incredible experience, when we tried the game earlier this year.  As folks began to learn the game at Fantastic Fest, they went from running and gunning to creating structures on top of enemy players, stomping on the enemy with the hawks, and using rocket-packs to get high above the flag, only to land directly upon it, surprising the enemy and claiming their prize at the same time.

Of course, a space-battle-centric map isn’t much without hopping on a starhawk and taking to the starry skies, so as soon as a buddy constructed a hawk tower, I climbed the metallic ladder and blasted off.  While the flight controls remained similar to the those of the terrestrial maps, I was able to distance myself from the main floating factory quite a bit, putting my plane safely away from the main combat area and affording me the chance to plan my attack-run better, not to mention that I could engage in smoother dog-fighting, safely removed from rocket-launchers and nosey placements.

Starhawk (much like Warhawk) allows you to swap between novice and expert flight controls.   Both schemes allow for comfortable flying, but if you can learn the expert setting, you will be unstoppable in the air, as your ability to outmaneuver enemy planes is increased with the added rolling ability, so you make yourself less-predictable.

Despite the game’s title being derivative of the beautiful-transforming planes, scoring in Starhawk takes place on the ground, and Lightbox continues to improve the ground combat with polished controls and a familiar placement of certain actions on the controller.  I personally appreciate when a developer understands what works and doesn’t try to force a new control scheme on you, simply to make a claim on it.  Starhawk continues to feel familiar to fans of Uncharted, Resistance, and even inFamous, what with that L1 button allowing for precise shooting and the joystick button swiping out your blade for melee combat.

I have to say that one-shot melee kills bugged be a bit, because with all the gun play available to you, having someone come up to you and one-shot kill you with a knife made for a combat zone full of people simply trying to run up to each other, instead of looking for better weapons in order to engage in some creative gun-play, but I’m sure balancing issues like these will be addressed as the game develops.

As I mentioned before, the Fantastic Fest patrons wasted no time in understanding the game’s mechanics, and by the time Dylan announced the start of the capture the flag tournament, gamers were building walled forts by linking constructs (through the game’s ability to magnetize barricade tiles that are created next to each other).  And while it would be understandable to assume that someone could simply hop over those walls with a rocket-pack, one would be wrong in making that assumption, in that these guys covered their defenses with gun placements and rocket turrets.  This is the type of game where a strong defense goes a hellova long way.

I had hoped that the team I started the tournament with would have somehow remained the same throughout the event, but since we were simply asked to pick a random station when it was our turn again, I ended up with a completely different group, and my new team was destroyed after the second round.    Needless to say, the best of the group won in the end, and I simply needed to work on my flying skills a bit more.

I had a chance to speak with Dylan Jobe, and  he expressed that, while we’ve been seeing a lot of multiplayer action going on with the Starhawk, Lightbox is developing a very strong narrative for the game.  This is backed by a dedicated writer, director, and a local Austin animation studio.   One of the monitors had a CG animated cinematic playing that looked amazing.  I can’t wait to see how the universe of Starhawk comes together in its campaign mode.

Dylan also mentioned that a public beta was on the horizon, so hold on to your hats, you’ll be piloting one of these sleek beauties soon.

You will be absolutely hearing more about Starhawk from us, so keep an eye open for more as it comes.

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