Incognito Entertainment’s Warhawk still stands out as a genuine highlight on the PlayStation 3. In a world heaving under the weight of countless militaristic first-person shooters, its third-person, vehicular-focused combat provides a pleasing contrast with gameplay rewarding tactical thinking as much as speedy trigger fingers. From the title alone it should be readily apparent that its spiritual successor, Starhawk, takes the action into outer-space, but developer LightBox Interactive (founded by former members of Incognito) attempts more than a simple change of scenery, building on already solid foundations. While such ambition is to be respected, does Starhawk’s gameplay soar effortlessly into the stratosphere or burn up on re-entry?
The most immediately apparent difference between Starhawk and its predecessor is the inclusion of a fully-fledged single-player campaign. Though promised in the pre-hype, Incognito dumped this aspect of Warhawk citing concerns that it didn’t stand up against the game’s online multiplayer, a concern that weighs heavily on Starhawk’s solo outing which, despite being a welcome addition, has a definite smell of extended tutorial about its six to eight hour play-time. Punctuated with pretty cutscenes telling a reasonably arresting tale of intergalactic frontiersmen, the level and mission design is clearly first and foremost sculpted to teach you how to play the multiplayer aspect of the game, which once again is the clear focus of the package as a whole.
This makes judging Starhawk’s single-player campaign quite difficult; it does do a good job of teaching you the ropes, but also feels a little undernourished in comparison to more focused, single player affairs. With that being said, it is enjoyable and gets the mix between tutorial and solo distraction just about right. You won’t finish the game entirely satisfied, but you will leave feeling fully prepped for the often harsh world of Starhawk’s online element.
Online shooters of any ilk are, more often than not, incredibly daunting for newcomers forced to square off against players who know the maps, weapon sets and choke-points like the back of their hands, and so it is here. Making Starhawk doubly daunting is its penchant for real-time strategy-esque tactics, resource management and construction that add an additional layer of complexity. Though shooting a foe in the face does make up a large part of the gameplay, being able to think tactically, use resources intelligently and apply pressure in just the right way places a host of demands on the player above and beyond their ability to aim straight and shoot fast.
Fortunately, LightBox Interactive has crafted a set of mechanics that allow the third-person shooter/real-time strategy elements to gel remarkably well; neither element overwhelms the other and you rarely (if ever) find yourself tripping up as a result of flaws in the design. Even more impressive is that LightBox have managed to make a concept that could have been rather dry visually spectacular and surprisingly visceral, achieved mainly through your ability to call down equipment and structures which promptly plummet from the sky before constructing themselves before your eyes. Using transparent maker templates to position hardware is a cinch and many items intelligently lock together – so, a section of wall built beside another connects automatically, gun-placements latch on top etc. This makes bridging the gap between conception and implementation extremely slick, allowing you and your team to set about building defences and implementing tactics without hindrance.
Without any individual player overseeing your efforts, teamwork is of the utmost importance even if individual players are free to manage and collect their own resources, which come in the form of ‘rift energy’. This resource can be collected in a number of ways, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. In any game mode, your home base comes with a rift energy source that gradually tops up the supplies of any players within a certain radius. Though quite slow, accumulating energy in this way is reliable, constant and, as there is plenty to keep you occupied if base building is a priority, sticking close to the base rarely feels like time wasted.
Should you wish to stray a bit further from the nest, barrels of rift energy are scattered throughout the maps which can be destroyed for a quick and more substantial fix. Hunting down these depositories can imbue a sense of ‘worker-bee’ in a player choosing to flit around the map collecting rift energy/pollen before heading back to the home base/hive. Should you have enough rift energy, outposts can also be set up which drip-feed rift energy in the same way as your home-base whilst also allowing players to spawn at more remote (not to mention more more tactical) locations.
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