After 3 years of development, months of open beta gameplay, and numerous patches, Lightbox Interactive has finally released what they consider their most ambitious project yet. It is the spiritual successor to their online epic, Warhawk, which found one of the most devoted multiplayer communities on the Playstation 3. It offered vast, expansive worlds maps, polished vehicle combat, a sizable player count, and all the bells and whistles that one comes to expect from a current generation multiplayer game. Personally, while I respect what it brought to the table, I was never a huge fan of Warhawk. This is largely due to the fact I was a few years late to the party and felt little reward in conquering its learning curve, at that point. However, from the earliest announcement of Starhawk, I knew that it would be a sequel that I could sink my teeth into. It certainly did not disappoint. Starhawk offers, easily, one of the deepest multiplayer experiences you will find on consoles.
The primary draw of Starhawk, what sets it apart from other shooters, and what elevates it above its predecessor is the “build and battle” system. If I unrestrained myself and fully elucidated the depth this system offers, rather than being a review of Starhawk, this article would become a book about Starhawk. The “build and battle” system offers nearly infinite ways to play the game, encouraging a level of strategic devotion and practice that many people, affixed to the instant gratification of casual shooters (E.G. Call of Duty), might simply find too daunting. However, anyone with a propensity for strategic immersion, who takes the time to look Starhawk in the eyes, will see, as I have, a paradigm of tactical shooters. The game has a modest learning curve, as a game of such scope should. Unfortunately, the notion of games requiring intellectual skill and practice is not predominantly “hip” these days, as a few particularly petulant, vitriol-laden reviews of this game have demonstrated.
I will be as concise as possible in describing the vast array of tactics available to the player. Throughout the match, the player earns rift points which are spent to purchase vehicles or produce buildings. The structures that the player has at their disposal include numerous vehicle outposts (tanks, jeeps, Hawks, speeders, and Jetpacks). These are a vital component to a team’s success. At one point, I spawned a Jetpack Dispenser, which everyone on my team immediately began to employ, much to the surprise and chagrin of the enemy team. Turrets can also be spawned, both to counteract foot soldiers and vehicles. All of the guns in the game are also supplied by certain structures. The supply depots provide rocket launchers and shotguns, and the watchtowers provide sniper rifles. Both of these, along with all other buildings, present structural advantages on the battlefield. Other useful entries in the player’s arsenal include mechanical arms, which repair structures, and a bubble shield generator (like The Phantom Menace, only with fewer racially stereotypical aliens). Finally, the player can lay down spawn points anywhere on the map, which also slowly replenish rift energy.
This system is the cornerstone of the Starhawk experience. There are no classes or load-outs in the game. The player’s gameplay style is almost entirely contingent on their vehicle preferences, what combinations of structures they favor, and what weapons go along with them. As you can imagine, this presents such an array of options and play-styles that it is almost frightening. One has to ask themselves countless questions.
“Do I want to focus on ground-based vehicles or air-based vehicles? Is it more useful to my team if I use my resources for defensive purposes, such as anti-aircraft turrets? Should I use a speeder, for quick maneuverability, or a jeep with a mounted gun? Should I build turrets on enemy territory to distract and antagonize them, or should I save my resources towards creating a spawn point instead? Should I focus on sabotaging enemy constructions rather than building more of our own? Do we need more soldiers with sniper rifles or jetpacks, or both?”
The questions are endless, and so are the answers. The various buildings all have their own tactical advantages alone, but combined (especially between the resources of multiple players), they can turn the direction of the entire battle. This is why the game has a learning curve and why it is so intrinsically important. You can’t jump into the game and “go Rambo” and expect a favorable outcome. Starhawk takes experimentation and practice, in order to find one’s niche.
Like Warhawk, there is a focus on expansive maps, some of the biggest of any competitive online shooter, especially on consoles. The level design and terrain is also incredibly intricate, which compliments the strategic diversity of the “build and battle system.” It also adds to the strategic necessity of the vehicles themselves.
The game’s controls are smooth, both in vehicles and on foot. The Hawks don’t have quite the evasive abilities that they had in the previous game, but they are now granted with an alternate, and especially devastating, “mech” form. It allows for smooth transitions in the heat of combat, making it a formidable foe on land and in air. Hawks are a key to victory, in most matches. The character controls are well responsive and don’t take too long to get used to. It would be nice, however, if the game featured the shoulder swap mechanic of Uncharted. All of the other player mechanics are well implemented, including the brutally satisfying melee assassinations.
The graphics, while obviously not in the Uncharted or Gears of War league, are still exemplary for a game of this scale and scope. The frame rate wavers in matches with 25 players or more, especially when players are all clustered together. However, the dips in frames per second never become pervasive to the point where they cripple the gameplay.
The game consists of all the online features that one could want. From solid party, clan, and lobby systems, to home servers for players to loiter around and socialize in, to vast aesthetic character customization, to seamlessly combining the whole experience with a single consistent menu, Starhawk has one of the most well rounded multiplayer experiences on the PS3.
The server customization allows for nearly endless modes and ways to play the game, from “free for all” deathmatches where everyone pilots a Hawk, to capture the flag matches where jeeps are the only vehicles, to “Scourge” matches where the players only have their knives as a means of defense. Just by simply limiting the structures available, the nature of the game is radically transformed. This can lead to either intuitive, inventive new modes, or complete clusterfucks (for example, when someone thinks it’s a good idea to allow Hawks, but not anti-aircraft defenses). Regardless, it offers an endlessly changing landscape with fresh gaming experiences every day.
I cannot recommend this game enough. If you are looking for a deep, rewarding multiplayer experience and an alternative to the usual listless FPS slaughter-fests, this is the game for you. Starhawk is a strategy game before it is an action game, and is easily one of the most compelling in that department. I haven’t even talked about the addicting co-op “horde-esque” mode that perfectly complements the RTS elements. The game is stuffed to the brim with content, and the icing on the cake is that all future DLC will be free (on this consumer ethics principle alone, Lightbox Interactive deserves our praise). I recommend this game to anyone who owns a PS3, both on the basis of its immense content and virtually limitless gameplay depth. And with that, I deem it a 9/10.