Starhawk Hands-On Preview

The spiritual successor to Warhawk is all about building something from nothing.

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If you're anything like us, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of 2007's Warhawk is a swarm of fighter planes zipping through the sky. It only makes sense. The word Warhawk--the name of said zippy aircraft--is right there in the title to remind you of the highlight of the game. Now, a few years later, there's a spiritual successor in the works by the name of Starhawk. There are a lot of interesting new features going on with this follow-up, and if there's one thing we can say about Starhawk, it's this: The title isn't nearly as helpful this time around.

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Starhawk is on track to be a much bigger beast than its predecessor. Developed by a number of Incognito veterans at startup LightBox Interactive, the game uses Warhawk as a starting point on the road to much loftier ambitions, not the least of which is a full-on single-player story campaign. Starhawk's sci-fi narrative places hero Emmett Graves at the center of a conflict between those mining far-off planets for a valuable resource called rift energy and those who've been mutated by it and seek only to preserve and worship the stuff by any violent means necessary. There's very much a space-Western thing going on with all of this, both in the theme of exploring new worlds for valuable resources and the overall look of the characters and setting. Emmett isn't a guy who goes into battle wearing space marine armor; rather, he sports a sweet, leather gun holster; rolled up sleeves; and an awfully intimidating scowl. Likewise, the environments recall the rough-and-ragged terrain of the Wild West, though with an ominous view of deep space looming in the sky.

The story has its fair share of fun with the "What if?" nature of the sci-fi setting. Emmett, for example, has been tainted by the rift energy but has a regulator device planted in his spine to keep him safe and sane, and that adventurousness carries over to the gameplay as well. Layered on top of the core third-person combat carried over from Warhawk is a new strategy game-style mechanic that allows you to call in air drops that instantaneously pop up buildings and structures on command. Things like sniper towers, mounted turrets, defensive walls, and vehicle-spawning garages can all be dropped down onto the play space by pulling up a quick radial menu and selecting the object you want. The rift energy you pick up from dead mutants (called "outcasts" in the game fiction) is the currency for these buildings, so you have to be judicious with when and where you call on them. The radial menu interface works pretty well in the heat of battle, though the icons representing each structure don't have enough differences between them to make your desired building instantly identifiable.

In terms of the single-player campaign, LightBox president Dylan Jobe claims that the levels are designed with a more open, sandbox approach than the usual linear third-person shooter. The one level we played had Emmett Graves sneaking into a wide-open canyon and taking out a group of outcasts that were worshiping a rift spewing forth their precious energy. Far from pacifist religious types, these outcasts are former miners themselves, equipped with weaponry to help fight off anyone looking to ruin their fun. The initial on-foot combat was pretty standard shooter stuff, if not a little bit looser and faster paced than other games out there. However, once you take them all out and assume control of that valuable rift, that's when things change. For us, that's when this third-person shooter began to almost resemble a tower-defense game.

Meet Emmett Graves. And his scarf.
Meet Emmett Graves. And his scarf.

Once we cleared out this canyon of outcasts, we were free to begin harvesting rift energy. But our friends clearly had other ideas, sending in wave after wave of increasingly well-armed outcast reinforcements from a variety of different angles. Between each round of retaliating reinforcements, you have a set amount of time to build your next structure, accounting for where the enemies are coming from and how best to keep them from taking back the rift. It's during these moments of calm that the feelings of playing a tower-defense game begin to arise, which is to say, when you're running around placing objects to help stave off the next wave of enemies. However, bear in mind that it's still mostly a third-person action game. You're still running around shooting enemies and taking cover to let your regenerating health do its business. And when you've dropped in a launch pad, you can hop into a new style of aircraft that can transform from a walking mech to a fully weaponized bird of war. Not a lot of tower defense games can claim that.

Like Warhawk before it, Starhawk will support competitive multiplayer matches on large-scale maps that cater to three varieties of combat: on foot, in ground vehicles, and up high in those flying machines. We got to play a few rounds of two-team Capture the Flag and came away surprised by just how differently the tool set feels going from single-player to multiplayer. The big difference here, of course, is the fact that there are no fixed waves and your enemies have the same ability to plop down buildings and turrets on command as you. This is something that our outcast foes weren't able to do in that story mission we played (though that could certainly change later on in the campaign). What might have been a simple jeep run toward the enemy base to steal their flag can easily turn into your vehicle zipping around a blind corner only to smash into a well-fortified wall that the other team placed just a few moments earlier. Pathways and team bases are malleable things in Starhawk; the sheer variety of building and weapon placements means that you can't rely on the same strategies over and over again.

That said, there is a learning curve staring you down when you first pick up the controller. In our first few matches with the game, everyone was throwing down garages right at the outset so that they could hop in a jeep and cruise over to the other team's base. This left our side with a whole bunch of empty garages and little in the way of defenses. Others would throw down walls in random locations or sniper turrets overlooking the emptiest parts of the map. But as we played more and more, we could see the team strategies begin to crystallize. People would work together in linking walls to block off entire roadways; players would share jeeps; and the daring ones in the bunch would even kamikaze their way into an enemy base with an aircraft and plant a hostile turret right in the other team's stronghold.

You can morph from walking mech to soaring fighter plane on the fly.
You can morph from walking mech to soaring fighter plane on the fly.

And that's sort of the impression we came away with after playing Starhawk. It's a game that's clearly trying to add a fresh take on the third-person shooter genre, but it's going to take players some time to get comfortable with it. Despite some rough patches in this early showing--the camera, for example, was pretty wonky--we nevertheless really like where the game is headed. Starhawk has the potential to be a lot of fun, but we'll have to spend some more time with it before we're fully sold. In the meantime, expect to see it released on the PlayStation 3 early next year.

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