Review: Starhawk (PS3)
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (12.3 GB)
Release Date: May 8, 2012
Developer: Lightbox Interactive
Original MSRP: $59.99 (Blu-ray Disc) / $39.99 (PSN)
ESRB Rating: T
Starhawk is exclusive to the PlayStation 3.
The Blu-ray Disc version was used for this review.
Listen to Episode 266 of the podcast for a lengthy interview with Dylan Jobe from Lightbox Interactive:
Warhawk on the PS3 has always been a favorite of mine. I may not play as much as I used to, but I do still play it, and to this day I will defend its greatness. In 2009, right after E3, I had the chance to go to Salt Lake City, to the old Incognito studios, right before the team that had now become Lightbox Interactive. After signing an NDA (Non-disclosure agreement) that I believe even included something about my eternal soul, they let me in on what they were working on, and I couldn’t tell anyone else until last May after the game was officially announced.
Yeah, I had to keep that secret for almost 2 years, and it tore me up inside. But Sony was a leaky ship, and it was obvious that the team felt it vital that the details not be known to anyone until they were ready. Imagine my excitement when I received the invite to finally see the game unveiled to the world. It was an experience that not only was obviously a relief to the team, but it was a huge relief to me as while. I could not only finally talk about it, but I was also able to see how much the game had not just evolved, but how it flat-out changed from what was described to me back in Utah.
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 267 of the podcast.
The biggest change since Warhawk is obviously the Single-Player campaign. I’m not going to talk about specifics in the story simply because I want to avoid spoilers, but I can give you an overview. The story is set in an “old west in space,” complete with spaceship versions of trains, small mining towns in space and on planet surfaces that look like they’re out of the 1800′s, with the inclusion of things like a Marshall’s office and a Saloon or two. Instead of mining gold though, settlers are after what’s known as “Rift Energy”. Mining towns started to crop-up around the wells, and soon life became pretty normal, until this rift energy started affecting the miners that came into contact with the energy too much. People started changing, and soon they completely changed into what would be known as an Outcast, or “Scab” as the Rifters would start calling them. This is where the game picks up, as the Outcasts are doing everything in their power to stop anyone from mining the Rift Energy by raiding outposts ad attacking nearby towns.
Your character, Emmett Graves, is a contractor of sorts, brought in to help the miners fight the Outcasts off while mining as much Rift Energy as they can. Emmett is unique though, as he was affected by Rift Energy when he was a miner, but it didn’t fully change him into an Outcast, and instead becoming a hybrid of sorts. Graves and his partner Cutter act as hired guns now, and have gained a reputation for getting the job done. Cutter stays in orbit so that he can drop whatever Emmett needs on the ground as part of the Build & Battle system. Cutter also supplies special weapons and information throughout the Single Player campaign no matter where you are, and seems to be pretty-much the only person that Emmett feels he can trust.
The campaign starts-out like most games, as a tool used to teach you how to play the game, both on the ground and in space. The missions eliminate any chance of becoming stale or repetitive, since on average they switch between a planet surface and in space quite a bit. The thing that catches you pretty quickly is that you’ll be able to play the campaign many times, and it would be a different experience every time. After the first couple of “getting to know the game” missions, the Build & Battle system allows the game to be played in a huge number of ways.
On the ground, you’ll usually need to travel across some of the landscape to check certain points, or to cap a mine, or even try to protect a facility. So you’ll use a vehicle like the Sidewinder cycle, the Razorback Jeep, or even the Ox heavy tank. Of course, there’s always the Starhawk, in Mech or Flying mode. Some points may just require to move get through a group of enemies, but others will require you to fight multiple waves of enemies of multiple types. In these, Cutter will let you know that a group of scabs will hit one point, Starhawks coming from another direction, and tanks may move in from a third direction. Each is indicated by a unique avatar, and each will have a timer. Using the Build & Battle system, setup your defenses in any way you feel will be effective, but make sure that you don’t waste all of your available Rift Energy before you get everything setup.
One thing I noticed in a couple of the missions is that a certain action may actually trigger the attack to begin. Once I realized that, I actually took 10 or even 15 minutes to setup defenses, go around the map and get more Rift Energy, and setup even more. It might take a bit more time, but in the long run (especially in the later missions) doing so was invaluable.
Controls are spot-on, and for any veteran Warhawk fans, they’ll feel very familiar with only the addition of running using R2 added to the mix. Weapons are still tied to the d-pad, and everything else feels pretty familiar as well. The camera is a bit more active now by not only being a bit closer to your shoulder (this is a 3rd person game) but also more dynamic in the way that the camera bobs while moving. It definitely gives you more of a visceral feel, like when you watched ‘Saving Private Ryan’.
I really enjoyed the campaign, even with my fears of flying the Starhawk. Overall on “Normal” difficulty (there are 4 in total) it took me about 6 hours to get through the entire story. For me, that was perfect. I’ve never been adept at flying Warhawks, and if the beta was any indication, that deficiency carried-over to the Starhawks. Thus, my cries of “I hate this!” in a couple of the Starhawk-centric missions were heard far and wide, but I really didn’t. The gameplay in space is pretty crazy, and actually flying around asteroids and other large objects and vehicles gives you that sense of speed and open-space combat like none other. Even getting through those missions still doesn’t mean that I’ll be using a Starhawk online much, so yeah, I’ll leave that to the experts.
I always felt like Warhawk was visually just so impressive. The fact that you could not only see all the way across one of the expansive maps, but that you could fire a rocket all the way across that same map, and all of the lighting stayed intact for its entire journey. Sure, the texture work etc doesn’t really hold-up to today’s standards, but it still impresses me every time that I play it. Starhawk is the evolution of that tech, with the same large environments, better and more impressive explosions, and well, let’s just say that everything is massively better. Just wait until you take a moment to look up into the sky, only to see the rings that circle the planet you’re on, or even another planet on the horizon. You’ll also notice effects like the sun obscuring a Starhawk flying at you from directly in front of it, the shadows made by the higher mountains, or the lightning in the sky, the environments are definitely more dynamic and quite impressive, especially just in the size and scale of the maps themselves.
Animation is well done, and customization of not only your character, but of every vehicle type separately adds to the personal feel that not many games afford beyond the character. Even in the largest battle at a hold point or base, the visuals not only keep-up with the action, but impress with numerous explosions and smoke effects. One other thing that really stands out for me at least, is the amazing amount of time put into the variety, depth, and detail of the maps themselves. What you saw in the beta is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of design, with a couple of maps showing some pretty far-out concepts. All though, still stay grounded enough to be ultimately playable in a variety of different ways.
As in Warhawk, the audio design is phenomenal, with full 7.1 DTS and Dolby support. Voice work in the campaign is very well done, and I don’t recall a bad one in the bunch. The bad news, unlike Warhawk there’s no custom soundtrack support. I’m not sure if it’ll come at a later date, but honestly this is a bummer since when I’m playing an all-day online session, the in-game audio in ANY game can get a bit dull.
The rest of the audio is fantastic. Guns sound weighty and dangerous, vehicles all have distinctive audio signatures, and explosions, well they’ll fill your room with awesome if you have the right setup. My favorite still is when a Starhawk is taken out and instead of just blowing up, it spins out of control with a whirring death knell that is unmistakable.
Obviously, this is the meat of the game, and it doesn’t disappoint. In a couple of instances, Starhawk even sets a new standard for console online features.
First-up is the co-op mode. This allows 4 players to play scenarios on a number of maps in something that I would consider a huge leap past the standard “horde mode” that we’ve seen in numerous games over the last couple of years. You and 3 others, AI or an actual human, are tasked with 6 waves of randomly generated enemy attacks, but fortunately you have the Build & Battle system at your disposal. I only played with AI partners, but unlike all of the Horde Modes etc, I actually enjoyed this. First off, there’s an actual end in sight instead of wave after wave until you ultimately fail. Second, every time you play it’s different, since the system randomizes the attacks waves. After time, I’m sure there are only so many combinations, but it’s a great addition that’s been well thought out.
Online play itself is definitely what you’d expect, and then some! The game supports up to 32 players online, offering 5 environments with 2 layouts each. 4 modes are available at launch: Capture the Flag, Zones (like Conquest,) Deathmatch, and Team Deathmatch. Warhawk players will feel a familiarity, but there is a lot that has changed. Even though there are a couple of items strewn across the environment (mines, repair tools etc), weapons aren’t found laying all over the place. Instead, you use the Build & Battle tech to drop a supply bunker or sniper tower to get specific weapons. The benefit is that people won’t steal weapons out from under your feet, the downside is that if you get stuck out in the middle of nowhere, weapons are quite scarce. Along with the option for a quick match, there’s a full server browser with filtering options, which again is relatively rare for a console game.
Some strategies that you may have used in Warhawk will definitely need to be altered, especially since bases aren’t usually walled-in. This negates the idea of trying to strategically lay mines at specific entry points. You now need to build the walls where needed, and cover the gaps with turrets and the occasional mine (you only get 3 mines per pickup now, and they’re much easier to spot.) Your default machine gun is actually pretty good, but there’s no lock-on any more, and spray-and-pray works even less now (short bursts soldier!)
You can still play in any way that you want. During a lengthy play session, I actually toyed with attacking in a CTF match, but I soon found that I did what I usually do in Warhawk, and that is defend the flag. At their core, the modes are similar, but what changes everything is Build & Battle, and it’s extremely easy to use, but takes thought and teamwork to use it effectively. Per team, there is a 32 structure limit, so you don’t need 3 supply bunkers, 2 vulture stations, and 4 Razorback garages. Be smart about what you build and where, and you can be unbeatable. Something that I immediately noticed even in the beta is that there are hundreds of effective strategies, and that’s ultimately what makes this game so great. In Warhawk, many matches that end in a 0-0 tie in CTF now, because everyone has figured out how to defend the flag perfectly. I just don’t see that happening in Starhawk simply because there will always be a Yin to someone else’s Yang in competing strategies.
In terms of server setups, clan support, and even tournament features, this game is deep! There are 10 pre-built object configurations that you can use, some only allowing vehicle builds with others that don’t allow beam weapons or gun turrets. Map and mode rotations are also what you would expect with the Warhawk pedigree, with the interface even easier to use.
Server options are incredibly deep for a console game. Along with the standard fare like being able to randomize the teams, team balance, split-screen, and even All-Talk, the clan and tournament system is truly impressive. Setting-up a clan is very easy to do, and inviting members just as easy. You can have more than one officer, but still no word on the member cap. Along with an integrated calendar system, the server setup has the ability to lock a server down using clan names, perfect for setting up clan matches. Stats are available for any of the past clan battles right in the clan interface, along with News and Leaderboards.
Also, instead of using the boring old lobby system, teams can instead meet-up in one of two Multiplayer Homeworlds (one map for each faction) that allows everyone to meet in the game, plan strategies, try new ideas, or just screw around. On top of that, every Environment/Layout is available for practice, allowing you to invite friends or clan members in without it appearing on the server list. This is huge for clans that compete in tournaments or leagues, and it’s definitely something that I’ve never seen on a console game (no idea if another game does this, but I’ve never seen it.) They also made an in-game messaging system for clan communications, and with the upcoming mobile app, clans and their members are gong to have an unprecedented amount of access to each other without having to make major shifts to their PSN Friends list.
I’ll be honest, when they showed us the Build & Battle in Austin last year, I was a bit worried. In my mind all I could hear was “oh no, they’re turning it into Tower Defense!” When I finally played it though, I saw the potential. The biggest roadblock though is your teammates. If you’re teamed with people that just build whatever they need without thinking about the ramifications, you’re going to have issues. Luckily, the option is there to tear down anything that your teammates build. The single player isn’t just some attempt to give you some training for online, and instead is a well written, tight, and very entertaining campaign with some really cool cutscenes. The multiplayer exceeds every one of my expectations, and the changes made as a result of the beta have moved it forward in so many ways. Sure, some Warhawk zealots, especially those that loved to base-rape everyone in hover mode then speed away, are probably going to complain because this isn’t Warhawk 2. Don’t listen to them. This is a fantastic game that I expect to play for years to come. If this is Lightbox’s first attempt, I can’t imagine what their next game will bring.
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