You can’t take the sky from me
There was a moment in Starhawk, about a third of the way through the game’s single-player campaign, when everything finally clicked into place. As I defended my objective from an onslaught of mutant Outcasts, a voice came over the radio to inform me, with textbook foreboding, that a much bigger, deadlier enemy was headed my way.
He was, as advertised, an imposing sort. Realizing I was underarmed, I decided to improve my chances by calling in a fully stocked bunker. For the next few seconds, I waited for my orbital drop to arrive, hoping he wouldn’t notice me. No dice. He started toward me, looking none too friendly, and I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable. And then, to our mutual surprise, my bunker arrived—right on top of him. Splat. Death by architectural bombardment.
And, just like that, I was hooked.
What’s most remarkable about Starhawk is how refreshingly open-ended it is in an age where shooters revolve around tightly scripted set pieces. Here I was, ruining a carefully planned dramatic beat in spectacular fashion, and the game didn’t chastise me or force me to reload and “do it right.” That freedom’s become a rarity outside of the occasional FPS-RPG hybrid, but it’s front and center in every aspect of Starhawk’s design.
This focus on choice is primarily manifested in the game’s Build and Battle system, which allows you to order up new supplies, defense structures, and vehicles at will. The basics are quite simple. As you kill enemies, you gather Rift energy—one of those handy sci-fi contrivances that only serves to advance the plot and explain away space magic—which you can spend on orbital drops of those various buildings. You simply select your drop, pick a spot on the map, and wait for the goods to come to you.
At its best, Build and Battle makes the combat choices in other shooters—even great ones like BioShock and Half-Life—feel downright insignificant by comparison. If you’re dedicated to using the system to its fullest, your choices can alter the basics of gameplay rather drastically. Build turrets and walls, and you can play scenarios out as tower defense. Call in a Hawk, and you can make it all about aerial combat. It’s your choice. Heck, at one point, I opted to fight a space battle almost entirely on foot. See, Starhawk doesn’t just permit you to do these things—it ensures you have the tools to make them all viable options.
Save for the required objectives and limitations on what structures you can call in during a given mission, the design does surprisingly little to steer you in any one direction. Even still, it could probably stand to loosen those reins a bit more. I understand the need to impose some order, but Starhawk is universally at its most engaging when you’re given the most freedom to improvise, and those moments don’t really come along until the end of the all-too-brief single-player campaign. The gameplay gradually builds in complexity, and just as it reaches its peak, the game’s suddenly over. In that sense, Starhawk almost feels like the first chunk of a much longer, more rewarding game.
To make matters worse, the story’s a wholly forgettable endeavor, so much so that it barely warrants mentioning. It’s a shame, too, because the Western-in-space concept carries so much promise. Unfortunately, a painful lack of character development and bland motion-comic cutscenes rob the plot of any emotional resonance. Even Emmett, our quietly stoic hero, reacts to the death of important characters with—you guessed it—more quiet stoicism. I can feel the tears welling up already.
Thankfully, multiplayer offers up all of the same gameplay freedoms with none of the flaws that hold the campaign back. The maps and game modes all mesh beautifully with the Build and Battle mechanics to make for an experience that’s unlike anything else on the PS3 today. As in single-player, you’re free to play in any way you see fit, with the added bonus that anything you choose—be it air, ground, infantry, or defense—can contribute something valuable to the team’s overall effort. The only real downside here is the hectic nature of having 32 players redesigning the map in real time, which makes strategizing difficult and organizing any sort of complex teamwork nigh on impossible. Still, it’s a minor scratch on an otherwise stellar online experience.
What you ultimately get out of Starhawk will depend almost entirely on what you bring to it. Regardless of outside appearances, this is a sandbox at heart—and, as with any sandbox, you’ve got to be willing to make your own fun. It’s entirely possible to play for hours and see nothing more than a generic third-person shooter, but if you revel in Starhawk’s depth and freedoms, you’ll see a very different game—one that’s flawed but undeniably brilliant.
SUMMARY: Though its middling campaign falls short, Starhawk’s open-ended Build and Battle system offers a wonderfully refreshing break from other modern shooters, both online and off.
- THE GOOD: Build and Battle system, online multiplayer.
- THE BAD: Weak story with an emotionally void hero.
- THE UGLY: The campaign’s 6-hour running time. Ouch.
Starhawk is a PS3 exclusive.