Review: Starhawk

Several years ago Warhawk hit the PS3, and gave gamers something genuinely unique to enjoy. Combining ground battles with vehicles and some epic dog fights in the air the number of ways to play was enormous. When you add in the fantastic support from the developers in terms of both free and paid-for DLC it became a title that was not only still played by a huge number of gamers years after release, but was constantly evolving over time. As time drew on however, rumours started flying around the Internet about a new game in development. A Warhawk set in space.

And so began the gaming world’s wait for Starhawk. Effectively Warhawk 2 but with a cooler name, Starhawk arrived on the shelves recently and achieved a fairly modest chart position, only hitting 17th in the UK chart. Even with it being a PS3 exclusive, that’s surprisingly low for such a hugely anticipated game. So is it just the fact that it’s not very good?

No. It’s definitely not.

Starhawk builds on everything that Warhawk had become over time, offering the same 3rd person style gaming mixed with some great vehicles and flying options. The biggest addition is the single player campaign, which will be a welcome addition to those who weren’t keen on Warhawk’s online-only gaming. The campaign itself serves as a several-hour tutorial for the online game though, with a reasonable storyline that does a decent job of keeping you interested without ever being a contender for gaming storyline of the year. It gives you a great chance to try out all of the various new toys you’ve got, as well as giving you plenty of flying practice while you’re at it. This will be welcome to those who want to improve their flying, with airborne combat still being one of the more challenging aspects of the game.

You’ll also get chance to play around with the new building aspect. Bringing RTS elements into the usual carnage, you’re able to collect Rift Energy – a valuable substance in this world and one that can mutate people who get a bit close – which can be spent on calling various structures from space to crash down wherever you want them to. This not only allows you to work as a team to build a full arsenal of vehicles, hawks, weapons and useful buildings but also to fortify an area with walls and various turrets. It’s also fun to call them down on top of opponents; in fact, that never gets boring. Structures like the beam turrets and walls can be upgraded to give additional functionality too, so collecting Rift Energy as much as possible will give you plenty of chance to build, expand and upgrade. It works extremely well – in one multiplayer game I played the other team captured the first flag and managed to set up a shield at an important choke point, build a couple of tank stations and drop a spawn point. From then on, they spent much of their time shelling my team’s base to a point that trying to approach their flag was a nightmare at best, and trying to return it was almost impossible. I’m sure with some careful teamwork they could have been brought down to size, but it was teamwork at its best and proof of just what you can achieve online with some team-based players.

So the single player campaign teaches you the basics of combat, controls and weapons. Don’t expect a huge mission – it’s around 7 hours or so – but it’s good fun and does a top job of preparing you for the main attraction.

Step forward online gaming. With Warhawk being entirely online, it comes as no surprise that this is where Starhawk shines. There’s some co-op on offer, but the options available are disappointingly slim (a whole co-op campaign would be bewilderingly ace, but alas that’s not on the menu) and give you a chance to team up with a friend (there are no lobbies at the moment) to face a few waves of enemies while you defend a key point. If you’re bereft of Starhawk friends, this is a non-starter, but worth a stab if you’re looking for something a bit different for a couple of hours.

But this isn’t about the co-op. Jump online, either with some friends or just into a random lobby, and you’re in for a treat. The extensive beta period has worked wonders, with well balanced weapons and close, even combat from the first moment. The variety found in Warhawk is back with style, and there’s no easy way to get the upper hand. If someone’s being a nuisance in a Hawk, a carefully placed beam turret, rocket launcher or tank shell can shoot it out of the air in a jiffy. Got some tanks rumbling your way? Strap a torpedo to your Hawk and you’ll obliterate everything within a 30ish metre radius of where you send it. Even ground troops can be dangerous if they’re armed with enough Rift Energy to build a few turrets and provide their team with a supply depot or cunningly placed spawn point. There are, as previously mentioned, occasions when a heavily setup team can gain the advantage and make life almost impossible, but it doesn’t happy often.

And then you’ve got the fact that no two games are ever the same. Whereas other online shooters give you the same maps, with the same obstacles and same places to find weapons and the like, Starhawk is entirely dependant on the people playing. 32 people building stuff and setting up their defences means that the maps themselves change as the features get dropped in from above, and trying to fetch a flag in the addictive CTF modes is never an easy task thanks to never quite knowing what’s waiting for you at the other end. The other modes, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Zones all return from Warhawk and are every bit as manic and crazy as you’d expect. As if all this wasn’t enough, there’s more.

Fulfilling various objectives will allow you to occasionally unlock perks for your character, only one of which can be active at any point. These aren’t your usual COD perks allowing 54 weapons on each finger or excess accuracy at a distance of 3 miles, instead offering bonuses such as gathering Rift at all times, having your vehicle automatically repair itself slowly or double XP for those who like a bigger number by their name. You’ll need to earn the right to unlock these by achieving a certain number of kills in a round, winning a Deathmatch game or other such options. They’re not handed out on a plate, that’s for sure.

Lightbox have also suggested they’ll be releasing free DLC in the form of new maps, and if Warhawk is to be a basis of an assumption we can also expect bucket loads of brilliant paid-for DLC too. While you can’t buy a game on the promise of updates, it’s encouraging to know that the community will stick around for a long time while Starhawk grows and improves over the next couple of years.

But something annoys me. Starhawk isn’t perfect. I really wanted it to be, but having no easy matchmaking on the co-op or the multiplayer modes means either only playing with friends or selecting a lobby for yourself, which isn’t difficult but we’re used to more slick methods of joining games. You’ll also struggle if you end up on a team of players more interested on going solo, more so if the other team or a bit more well-oiled. But you know what? It’s so very easy to overlook these issues. I’m not even going to worry about the odd bland area of a map, because that’s not what all this is about. While you’re being chased by two Hawks, inches from death and 2 teammates rock up with beefy missiles and save your skin by taking them out your heart will be pumping too hard to notice that the textures don’t quite match up to other modern games in parts. And the moment you first shoot down a Hawk which plummets to the ground with a TIE-fighter style “wum-wum-wum” sound you’ll want to come back again and again. And you can’t ask for much more than that.

Reviewed on PS3

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