My experience with Starhawk began with an intoxicating jet-bike ride through the space cowboy desert wasteland of a fringe world and ended with me hanging out in an online lobby and sharing complaints with Don Parsons, our head of PR.
The brilliant Firefly-esque slide guitar melody of that bike ride hit the pleasure centres of my brain alongside the garbled whine of the engine. Moments later, I lept off the bike and sent a bunker crashing down from orbit to fend off mutated humans. The next level of Starhawk’s single player had me piloting the walking robot-mech form of a Hawk, the game’s fighter jet, before a press of a button had me transforming into jet fighter mode and blasting off into an aerial space dogfight. The entire single player campaign was just as well put together and was full of these moments where everything felt right, despite the tame and predictable brother vs. evil brother plot. Unfortunately, the rest of the game falls apart.
Starhawk is developer Lightbox’s next step in the land and air multiplayer third person shooter concept that began as Warhawk, a game developed by several Lightbox employees back when they were a part of developer Incognito.
Don’t worry if that obligatory history lesson doesn’t sound familiar to you, as the single player component of Starhawk brings you up to speed well before the end of its conclusion. You’ll be introduced to the shooting right before you’re thrown into several situations where you have to use in game currency, called rift energy, to call down buildings from space and watch as they construct real-time in a matter of seconds. This leads to countless situations where you have to defend a point from an increasingly varied mix of infantry, ground vehicles, and fighter aircraft. By the end of the game, you’ll be manning the parapets of turret toting walls to gun down infantry right before you salvage them in a button’s press to jump into the seat of anti air turrets after they burn through the atmosphere – it’s an experience more exhilarating than many I’ve had and it makes for a crushing tragedy that this formula collapses in the realities of online multiplayer.
In the over 14 hours of time that I spent playing Starhawk online, the game modes of team deathmatch, capture the flag, and zones (a variation of capture-and-hold gametypes) devolved into some of the most unenjoyable multiplayer I’ve played in years. This is because of players exploiting the build and battle system as well as the incredible power of tanks and hawks. At the beginning of these game types, several players usually stay behind in the home base gathering rift energy automatically while their teammates run out and skirmish with those of a similar mind on the other side of the conflict. Within minutes, the players that stay behind gain access to the structures that construct hawks and tanks. Because players spawning into the game immediately have enough money to create a tank at one of these buildings, this leads to one side having an incredibly large swell of powerful vehicles and quickly overpowering the opposing side. Well before the end of the match, one side inevitably ends up bombing, shelling, and obliterating the other force’s last remaining area.
It’s almost impossible to combat this behaviour, too, as the defensive structures necessary to do so have a prohibitively high cost and even the readily available rocket launchers do little against vehicles that can kill several infantry players with a single shot.
In all of my time with the above modes of Starhawk’s online play, I only partook in a match that wasn’t a landslide loss or victory once, when a stale mate ended in several well fought skirmishes and changed the course of the match. Sure, it was still due to the overwhelming force of tanks and turrets occupying the one contested and vital area only accessible by air, but it was something.
The most fun to be had with Starhawk is arguably with the online deathmatch mode, which puts all players in hawk jet fighters and throws them into a massive dogfight. Even when you spawn into one of these games after connecting, you can already see spiralling contrails of exhaust behind countless players as they swirl around each other in banks and swooping loops to avoid laser and gunfire. It’s not all that hard to learn, either, as missiles are easily avoidable by holding the X button and using the thumbstick to swoop away in a lilting barrel roll or loop-de-loop. Adding to the depth is the ability brought over from Warhawk to drift, similiar to a car in a street race, in mid-air.
The brilliant air combat and the conceptual appeal of calling down structures from orbit all seem like they’d go incredibly well together, and the talent behind Warhawk’s development has such promise. It makes it one of my biggest disappointments of recent years, then, to say that Starhawk isn’t recommendable on anything other than the merits of its online dogfighting and single player components.
“I hope they patch it,” was said by many of the players I met online, even the ones who were winning. The hope for a patch is mirrored by my own thoughts, but it’s hardly something to recommend a game on.
- Fantastic soundtrack
- Intoxicating space cowboy atmosphere
- Solid framerate and good online connectivity
- The best arcade flight gameplay in years makes online dogfights in Death Match mode fantastic arenas for fun and skill
- Fantastic visuals, sound effects, and animations
- Good single player campaign
- “Build and battle” system is a lot of fun…
- …but it makes for some of the most exploitable, unbalanced, and unenjoyable online multiplayer I’ve played
- Co-op has an unrealistically steep difficulty curve
- Party system is confusing and rarely works
- Online split-screen often results in disconnects
- Many elements, such as loadouts, medals, and online character progression, are left unexplained