Ever since the PlayStation Network showed us all what it was truly capable with the release of Warhawk in 2007, gamers have been clamouring for a sequel. Struggling to maintain their dominance in first-party software development, Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) is not one to ignore the demands of their core audience, and so this summer have delivered the sequel they were all hoping for, but this time it’s more than a series of one-off online bouts.
After a ridiculously long install Starhawk is ready to throw you into a brand new world. While Starhawk is the direct sequel to Warhawk in terms of gameplay design, lead development studio, franchise model and more, it is entirely unrelated as far as the setting goes. Starhawk takes place in the distant future in a far flung galaxy where humans are colonising on other planets as both residential and industrial sites. The use of a planet is decided based purely on the availability of Rift Energy, a valuable but dangerous energy source. Known as Rifters, the miners take the risk of being mutated by the Rift Energy, which when unleashed can transform humans into savage-like mutants known as Outcasts.
Emmett and Logan Graves, two former Rifters who were exposed to Rift Enery during an Outcast raid on their own farm, now find themselves on the opposite sides of the coin. Logan, unfortunately, mutated into an Outcast, but Emmett was able to remain human thanks to his friend Sydney Cutter, who created a regulator to implant into Emmett’s spine to keep him from transforming into an Outcast. Emmett and Cutter now act as mercenaries; hired gunslingers who travel from planet to planet to reclaim Rifter mining sites from Outcasts, and now from Logan too.
The brother-against-brother storyline of the brand new single-player mode is certainly an enjoyable romp, but is hardly groundbreaking stuff. It’s unlikely to stay with the player long after completion, as much like that of Section 8: Prejudice, no matter how much dressing you put on a training mode, it remains merely a training mode. It’s a reasonable length and offers varied objectives, but still Starhawk’s strengths unquestionably lay in it’s multiplayer mode.
Here there is no plot; there are no characters and no moral dilemma to confuse matters. You are a good guy, but those guys on the other team? They’re bad. You must shoot them as quickly as you possibly can, as is typically the case in competitive online videogames. In Starhawk however, it’s not just a straight forward deathmatch every time, though that option is available. Capture the Flag and Zones modes are also the basic overarching rulesets, but Starhawk offers more than just a fragfest and team-based pushes across the map. Much like titles such as oft forgotten The Outfit: Destruction on Demand and the Section 8 series, players are able to call new units into battle almost instantly. Selecting gun turrets, defensive structures and new vehicles from a wheel menu, players can summon any item they like so long as they have gathered enough Rift Energy. There is a limit to the number of units that can be summoned by each team, and it does appear significantly more restrictive than either The Outfit: Destruction on Demand or Section 8, especially when playing with larger teams.
From a technical standpoint it’s clear that the greatest investment for Starhawk has been one of balancing. Just as with the under appreciated ShadowRun, there are better looking videogames in the same genre and there are those which may offer greater stability – during Electronic Theatre’s time with Starhawk there were many menu-based interactions that caused the videogame to crash – but as a showcase for intuitive design it doesn’t get much better. The bigger turret is better than the small turret, the bike is faster than the tank, but never unfairly so. Every weapon has both strengths and weaknesses, allowing players to learn the options at their disposal when taking the fight towards the enemy.
While Starhawk provides room for thirty-two players on the battlefield, the community has sadly withered away quicker than you might expect. It’s not difficult to find a match by any means, but the battlefields do often feel decidedly empty as you shoot around masses of open landscape on your bike, looking for something to rally your crosshair on. When at its best, Starhawk crackles with intense tactical warfare from minute-to-minute, though those matches are rarer than you might hope. And for that, things can surely only get worse as time goes on. Starhawk is a videogame that lives and dies on its community, and it seems as though that community isn’t as convinced a second time around.