Picture this scene: you drop in from orbit, guiding your pod to land in front of your team’s flag stand. You quickly call down a few walls and turrets to help defend against the inevitable attackers. On the horizon you see a few vehicles driving towards your base but hear something else closer to you. The sound of jet engines get closer and closer until you realize the Warhawks are flying above you. Dropping from the sky, one changes into a mech and crushes you so the driver can hop out and steal your flag.
This is a normal round of Starhawk on the PS3. Set in the far future, Starhawk is the newest installment of the Warhawk series, which revolves around multiplayer matches, fast planes, and a third-person perspective. The first Warhawk game was a multiplayer-only affair while Starhawk has a single-player campaign and setting in space after a new form of energy has been discovered.
What is new and improved and what is still space junk? Find out after the jump.
The single-player campaign is the most interesting addition to Starhawk. The 6 hour campaign is accompanied with motion graphic novel style cutscenes telling the story of Emmet Graves and great soundtrack that is very reminiscent of Firefly. The voice acting is a bit iffy, but then again I do not expect exquisite voice acting from a game that prides itself on the multiplayer arena. Though the single player story is a bit short and doesn’t have the most finely crafted story, I have most definitely had worse single player experiences. If the single player left me wanting in anything, then it would be the backstory. I get that it is half glorified tutorial and half set-dressing for the multiplayer, but those little morsels of exposition and lore help tie together some of the design choices in a game.
Multiplayer is where Starhawk really shines. Capture the flag, zones, team deathmatch, and deathmatch are the flavors you can choose to play. There are 9 maps, each with a large and small version to accommodate different amounts of players. There is also a free roam mode where players can learn the maps without worrying about getting gunned down by another player. Along with the variety of maps, what players can build on the maps can be tweaked along with a plethora of other options like allowing flag carriers to drive vehicles or enabling all-talk. Starhawk even includes clan support with the option of clan wars and player-run tournaments.
While in a match, players gain rift energy which they can cash in for things like walls, turrets, vehicles, and supply depots that all drop in from the sky. Buildings help protect players’ spawn points from intruders and can even allow them to make forward bases elsewhere on the map. Depending on the server’s building list, some buildings can be upgraded to change functionality or chained together to create linked walls and turrets. To get a vehicle, players have to first call down a platform to purchase the vehicle from and then for a small price spawn one and head off. Hoverbikes, warthog-esque buggies, tanks (with an artillery alternate fire), and Warhawks (those crazy planes that can transform into mechs) are all purchasable from their respective platforms. All the vehicles are fairly easy to drive and the Warhawks can be switched to use a more advanced flight control-scheme. Having played Warhawk, the vehicles in Starhawk feel much easier to control but also have the kind of precision I want from them. None of them feel too soft or hard.
The online experience is very smooth and refined. After choosing what modes you want to play, the game quickly loads you into one. Unless it was very late at night, I never had to wait more than a minute to find a decently populated game. If you do not want to completely play server roulette, Lightbox Interactive has included a server viewer so players can filter things like connection strength, number of players, map, mode, empty/full, or even password protected. For a console game, this kind of functionality is rare but very rewarding since it allows players to be picky and not have to worry about being stuck in a server that may be complete crap. The multiplayer is good, but functionally the game can quickly devolve into spawn camping matches, which can get a bit out of hand but can be broken with a concerted effort.
Player progression is straightforward: do things, get XP, rank up, unlock some customization options, gain 1 perk point per level. Players can have only one perk active at a time and the perks are unlocked by completing challenges related to the perks. For example, to get the perk that allows you to always spawn with the shotgun, you have to kill ten enemies in a single match with a shotgun. The perk system is nice because it forces players to focus on one aspect of playing, but it does not hamper playing the game since perks can be changed at any time by accessing the menu.
Oh no. I mentioned the menu. This is where I have to draw the line between good and bad. I am just going to flat out say the menu system/UI is, in technical terms, crap. For instance, to select a single-player level to replay or change difficulty, you have to select multiplayer from the home screen then go to single-player or settings, respectively. To customize your character, you have to completely leave a game/queue which breaks the player’s ability to stay in a good server if the player was just matchmaking. To respawn, you have to wait the full respawn time then press the button to spawn, rather than confirming your spawn point and automatically spawning when the timer hits zero. This quickly gets annoying when you are trying to respawn somewhere but miss-time the button press at the end of the timer. Along with the fact that switch teams is well at the bottom of the menu, bringing up the menu in game completely obscures the screen and can get you easily killed. I could go on about the poor co-op/split-screen UI but I will just give you a picture of it. Just. Not. Good.
Also, though there is split-screen and co-op, co-op being Horde-mode-esque affair, those are frustrating affairs. To even be able to select the split-screen options, players have to enter a multiplayer game/map/homeworld (some kind of useless lobby system they have) to then open the menu, select split-screen, then jump through all the hoops of adding someone who already has a PSN account or not be allowed to since guests aren’t cool. To do split-screen, even if it is offline co-op, both players either have to be signed-in to the PSN or not at all. This is highly frustrating since co-op is actually enjoyable and does allow for XP gains. Also, since there is no matchmaking for co-op, you either have to go it alone or find someone you know online to invite to play with you.
I definitely appreciate what Lightbox Interactive crafted with Starhawk. The overall multiplayer experience is most definitely best in class and has room to evolve and grow over the title’s lifetime. And you have to commend them for announcing that all map packs will be free (though other modes/DLC may have to be purchased). However at the same time, the small things like the UI layout and hoops to jump through to play split-screen just pull down the blinds in front of the otherwise shining game. Overall, for Warhawk fans and those wanting solid online multiplayer, this is a must buy for the PS3. If you are looking for a single-player game, I would suggest looking elsewhere unless you are planning on just renting the game for a few days.
Starhawk was released on May 8th, 2012 exclusively for PS3.