The multiplayer-only Warhawk from 2007 was the type of game that catered to a very specific competitive crowd—an accommodating audience that didn’t mind beginning a third-person air-versus-ground battle endeavor with what was essentially a sizable mound of pale clay, and then, through tireless practicing and waves of patches and DLC, ended up with a product that allowed for ample replayability so long as there were other Warhawkers signed into the PSN. Warhawk was also the kind of game that nobody anticipated or even really desired a sequel for. It became a price-slashed greatest-hits title relatively quickly, though not so much due to any massive sales numbers as much as SCEA realizing that Warhawk was basically an unfinished asset right out of the starting gate. Yet here we are in 2012 with the theoretically brazen Starhawk, more a spiritual successor than a direct continuation, the game Warhawk could have been had it not been rushed to market with such carelessness and urgency. Indeed, there now exists a single-player mode aimed to appease the snap-judgment faultfinders, and it’s comparatively stock material at best, but where Starhawk shines is its creative, invitingly chaotic online modes that may very well be among the strongest the PlayStation 3 has to offer this year.
Ironically, what drags Starhawk away from true excellence is the precise aspect that its predecessor cancelled at the 11th hour and promptly suffered for: a story-driven solo campaign. The main protagonist, Emmett Graves, is appealing in a few ways and severely off-putting in many others. Starhawk’s space-western aesthetic lends itself well to the aerial/terrestrial combat variations, but Graves, as well as the game’s narrative and supporting cast, feels like developer LightBox Interactive being downright tawdry for the hell of it, without having any sort of over-arcing themes or clever storyline twists to support such watery, vanilla nonsense. Graves is a rightfully militant black man (which we could surely use more of in video-game leading roles) who comes to be contaminated with Rift Energy, a sought-after substance that’s being mined by humans during a future colonization of the galaxy. Unlike most who come into contact with Rift Energy, including his own brother who soon becomes an antagonist, Graves avoids morphing into a dangerous mutant sub-species dubbed Outcasts with the assistance of a spine-affixed regulator that contains the powerful bursts of alien life force. This is all well-traveled comic-book territory, and Starhawk’s story scenarios, though graphically impressive (the environmental artistry is far beyond that of Warhawk’s), never step outside the clichéd novelized walls it so willingly constructs. Graves faces countless arduous, trying situations that test his emotional capacity, yet at the game’s closing he’s fundamentally the same assertive, hard-edged, cash-hungry roughian he was at the outset.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that Starhawk is a TPS multiplayer at its most inventive, intuitive, and unreservedly thrilling. Equal parts deep strategic planning and white-knuckled action-packed explosions, the game will rarely present you with a round of planetary warfare (with up to 32 live participants) similar in flow or approximate outcome to one that came before. Working from a simple yet visionary concept called Build & Battle, which is just what it sounds like, players are able to beckon an assortment of uniformly fun-to-pilot vehicles and various pieces of construction elements via calling for orbital drops. That’s right, once enough Rift Energy is amassed, you can summon giant transforming jets, tanks, rovers, and even entire turrets or defensive bunkers to fall right out of the sky. All this happens proportionately rapidly and without much slowdown; framerate is typically smooth throughout, as it’s required to be for altercations such as this. Any sort of heavy lag would absolutely kill a hot streak or result in sudden death. (If there’s a positive regarding the aforementioned solitary course, it’s that it acts as a tutorial for a number of tactics that will lead to eventual successes in multiplayer.)
Starhawk understands that blowing stuff up real nice is awfully satisfying, but it also grasps that a great shooter needs to excel in other departments besides gunplay to achieve a lasting effect. The idea of literally reshaping the battlefield and conjuring futuristic transportation/destruction methods on the fly as you dodge enemy fire is so intrinsically simplistic that it’s altogether ingenious. Starhawk is one of those easy-to-learn, tricky-to-master online treasures that, even with an inferior single-player mode, it announces itself as modern merchandise worth your time and money.