Starhawk First Look Preview -- Hands-On with Warhawk's Much Improved SuccessorBy Kevin Kelly - Posted May 13, 2011
Starhawk, the “spiritual successor” to 2007’s PlayStation 3 launch title Warhawk was recently unveiled by LightBox Interactive and should be winging its way to your PS3 sometime in 2012. The team at LightBox, mostly made up of the Warhawk team from the remnants of the now-defunct Incognito Entertainment, pulled up their stakes in Salt Lake City last year and headed to Austin, Texas, where they’ve been developing the game in conjunction with Sony’s Santa Monica Studio.
According to LightBox president Dylan Jobe, they’ve been working on this game in some form or another ever since they finished Warhawk, which, if you remember, was the multiplayer game to have on your PS3 at launch. Incognito continued to support the game with expansion packs and updates long after it came out, and the LightBox Team kept that legacy up as well.
Which is why they’re calling Starhawk a successor to Warhawk, which had already been an original PlayStation title back in 1995. But Starhawk isn’t what you would call a direct sequel. Instead, the game is more “inspired by” Warhawk. It’s set in an entirely different universe and features very different gameplay. There’s even a single-player element this time around, something that was completely absent from Warhawk.
Jobe assured us that Starhawk “has the same great gameplay that the fans love,” but they’ve added some surprising elements and boosted the graphics considerably. There’s a near cartoon/cel-shaded animation look to the entire game, mixing bright colors with muddy earthen hues in a collision of “man meets alien world” and some of the science fiction elements seem ripped out of Firefly’s and the steampunk genre at large.
If you were to put Starhawk next to Warhawk on a monitor, you wouldn’t think the two games were related … until you step into one of the Hawk mechs, transform into flying mode and take to the skies. Gone are the Eucadians and the Chernovans. Instead, they’ve been replaced with a new storyline, new foes, and a single-player hero who drives the campaign experience.
The world of Starhawk takes place in a distant, lawless frontier in space where adventurers and fortune hunters have come to take part in “The Rush.” Similar to the California gold rush of the mid 1800s, this brings people and colonies out in search of “Blue Gold,” or “rift energy.” This is the frontier’s most precious resource. Unfortunately, these “Rifters” face possible mutation and death if they come into direct contact with rift energy.
Those who come into contact with the rift energy and mutate and survive become the Outcast, and the Rift Miners are those who have stayed human. That is the central conflict in Starhawk. The Outcast form brutal warbands who try and protect the rift energy, while the miners try to take it for the frontier. You’ll play through the single-player campaign as Emmett Graves, a human hero who has come into contact with rift energy, and while it has mutated him slightly, he’s managed to stay mostly human. But that’s only because his techno-wonder gear buddy Sidney Cutter has built a regulator that he wears at all times to keep the rift energy in check. Think of him as the Starhawk equivalent to Iron Man, who needed to wear his steel suit in order not to drop dead.
Emmett, with Sidney aiding from far away by sending in tech and offering support, travels from rift claim to rift claim, holding off the Outcast warbands and helping to defend the frontier. Since Emmett is basically a gunslinger for hire, you’ll be doing that by shooting people, of course. But beyond that, Starhawk takes the third-person shooter model and derails it, adding an entirely new mechanic on the battlefield.
LightBox wanted to eliminate the linear-based pathing that most shooters tend to follow, and they’ve introduced more of an area-based system. To that end, Emmett has access to a system they’re calling “Build & Battle.” At its purest form, it’s basically RTS build elements, shoehorned into a shooter. Emmett calls up a radial wheel, and depending on how much rift energy he has available, and what schematics he has access to, he can call down different structures.
These are things like bunkers to resupply in, beacons to summon allies, walls to build obstacles, turrets to protect areas, anti-air beams, and so on. You can even drop and build mech stations that build Hawks, which can transform to flight mode, or garages that can spawn multi-passenger Warthog clones. Some of these structures can be upgraded, like a wall can be outfitted with a gate to allow vehicles to pass through, and as you progress, you’ll gain access to more structures.
This is where Starhawk really shines, and it adds an entirely new element to the increasingly-tired shooter genre. You’ll constantly have to keep an eye on your rift energy meter, and when you see that an incoming invasion force will be arriving shortly, you have to make some decisions. Do you build a wall and call down some allies to help you defend an areas? Do you spend big and build a mech station and go for air superiority? Or do you drop automated turrets and beam cannons, determind to take on the enemy all on your own?
Each kill you get nets you rift energy, which is the currency in the game for all practical purposes. Occasionally, Sidney will make new tech available to you, or you can sometimes find schematic cubes on the ground that make some of that same tech immediately available to you. The actual building is pretty impressive as well, as Emmett literally calls these units down from the sky, and their foundation will land with a mighty whomp, and then begin automatically building itself.
One nice feature is that you can drop those buildings on unsuspecting enemies and flatten them instantly. More than once, we dropped structures onto unsuspecting enemy heads both in the single and multiplayer versions of the game. Additionally, when you respawn, you plummet to the ground in a drop pod, which you can steer slightly. If you’re lucky, you’ll take out an enemy soldier or vehicle on combat. Of course, if you miss, you’re in a prime position to get killed.
What you’re doing here is building an entire battlefield on the fly, and as a result, you’re deciding how the level plays out and what the AI does in response. If you nail their air combat early, they’ll assault you on land. Or if you lock down the ground, they’ll take to the air to try and take you out. Walls allow you to create paths, and buildings themselves can act as barriers throughout each level.
In the single-player level we played, Emmett is at “Echo,” a postal relay on Planet Dust. His goal is to get the main communications dish back online, but that isn’t very easy. Each step of reactivation draws the attention of the Outcast, because there’s a large rift nearby, spewing energy. While you and Sidney work to get the dish back online, Outcast begin invading, and soon enough you’ll have a whole firefight on your hands.
Luckily, you can drop beacons down that let allies drop pods down to your location, and the other slew of tech available to you help you contain the breakout either from a Hawk, or on the ground armed with several different pieces of sci-fi weaponry, ranging from a pulse rifle to a missile launcher. We only had one level to play on in single-player, but going through it three different times gave us the opportunity to play three different ways. I stayed on the ground the first two times, but the third time through I took to the air, and you quickly remember how addicting it was to fly in Warhawk.
The Hawks require a bit of work to learn how to pilot adeptly, but soon you’ll be dogfighting with ease and strafing ground targets left and right. In the air, you have access to an afterburner (R2), an air brake (L2), and missiles and machine guns. Pushing down on R3 drops flares, and you use the right stick to pull off maneuvers like rolls and 180-degree direction reversals. What’s really nifty is that you have access to the full slew of build and battle controls while you’re in the air, so you can drop buildings while doing a flyby.
Multiplayer is just like the single-player campaign, but you’ll be fighting against real people instead of AI opponents. The game will support up to 32 players in the multiplayer, and also up to four players via splitscreen in the same room. There’s also one to four player co-op available in the single-player, bringing multiplaying to every facet of the game.
In multiplayer, we had access to a new unit, the garage, which spits out vehicles. If you run up, and the garage is empty, just hit the control console on one of the walls. If you have enough energy, you’ll get a new vehicle, with two seats up front, and a turret in the back. We only played Capture the Flag, which was extremely addictive, and these vehicles are easily the best way to zip from one base to the other. They’re also gigantic targets. Don’t be surprised if a bunker comes slamming down on your vehicle and takes out all three of you.
With the ability to drop in bubble shields, turrets, and build an entire wall around your base, the game changes dynamically on the fly each time and was immediately more fun than games that feature the same static battlefield every time. One run on the flag might reveal that the enemy has built a wall around the flag base, but your next trip over might have the wall destroyed, but with turrets everywhere and a Hawk circling overhead. It’s highly unpredictable, and a hell of a lot of fun.
We know that in the single-player, Emmett will uncover a mysterious story between the Rifters and the Outcast that even involves his family, and he’ll face an outlaw behind the Outcast. In multiplayer, there’s an entire world of new maps and gametypes that we haven’t seen yet. LightBox told us that they looked at classic Western films for inspiration here, and while that’s obvious at times, Starhawk is an extremely pretty game full of innovation that will looks to redefine multiplayer on the PS3.