Life on the frontier is all about routine, until one day, it isn't. You work your claim, taking things step-by-step and steadily surmounting the daily obstacles that life presents. Then suddenly, a gang of gun-toting outlaws rides into town, and everything changes. So it is with Starhawk, a new third-person shooter from LightBox Interactive that teaches you how to shoot, fly, and build structures as part of its novel brand of warmongering. Armed with this knowledge, you venture into online competitive or cooperative multiplayer, only to find that most of what you learned no longer applies. Disarmed and disoriented, you must struggle to get a handle on the action, but once you figure out the way things really work, Starhawk provides a lot of frantic fun with an intriguing constructive twist.
The short single-player campaign stars a gruff mercenary who returns to his old stomping grounds for a contract gig. Emmett Graves is the likable, well-voiced protagonist, and the simple story is laid out with stylish animated cutscenes that contrast nicely with the rich, colorful environments. From dusty earthbound outposts to clanking orbital platforms, Starhawk creates the strong sense that you are in an industrial backwater of civilization. Pipelines and mechanical detritus scar the barren landscapes, and the big, beautiful skies imbue the game with a great frontier feel.
As Emmett gets to work clearing out the mutated humans that plague the local industry, you learn the basics of combat. You run and gun with vigor, zipping around at a sprint that sets a fast pace for combat. Though your enemies can move quickly too, there's no real sense of urgency on the default difficulty. Your partner in the sky keeps you well apprised of the enemies you are facing, and you frequently have timed indicators that show you which enemies to expect and where they will come from. This methodical pacing gives you plenty of time to employ Starhawk's most novel feature: the ability to bring prefabricated buildings crashing down from low orbit.
With a press of the triangle button, you call up a radial menu of available assets, make your choice, and release the button to summon your structure (provided you can afford it). Walls and turrets can stand alone to form a rudimentary defense, but with a little care, you can create one long linked wall studded with elevated turrets--a much more formidable barrier. Supply depots and watchtowers bring new weapons and cover positions, while shields and repair arms help fortify your position. Seeing enemy waves crash against your fortifications and be thrown back is a pleasing reward for your efforts, and it's also fun to take the fight to them.
The best way to do this is in vehicles, which spawn from buildings that you call down from the sky. The swift hoverbikes are mainly for mobility, though a good roadkill is definitely possible. The three-man jeep comes with a handy turret, and the heavy tank has a traditional shell and an arcing artillery shot that can both deal serious damage. A jetpack grants you limited flight capabilities, but the skies belong to the titular hawks. Flying these nimble jets is easy and exciting, and the array of weapons available for midair pickup can make them very deadly. You can also transform into a lumbering assault mech with the push of a button, and then bring stomping melee attacks and your full aerial arsenal to bear on the ground.
The five-hour campaign lets you play around with all of these things, though basic structures like turrets and supply depots are much more heavily featured than more advanced buildings. In each level, your loadout is tailored to the task at hand. This means that your decisions lie in choosing where to position things rather than deciding what combination of things is effective. With one notable exception in which resource farming and lengthy building prep are all but required, you coast through the campaign believing that you have a great grasp on how to counter threats using your available arsenal. Then you jump into the online multiplayer and find out how little you actually know.
It's not just that the action is faster and the enemies are tougher; it is and they are, but this is par for the course with many online multiplayer modes. The real disconnect lies in the fact that the assets you've been trained to use don't have the same utility. Walls are easily demolished or circumnavigated, turrets aren't nearly as effective, and hawks are either much more vulnerable or much more deadly than you expect, depending on the situation. It feels like all of your campaign experience is actually misleading you--the instincts you developed can't be trusted, and it's an unpleasantly disorienting feeling.
Team communication can help alleviate this issue, provided you and some friendly allies have headsets (or you've got a savvy friend playing split-screen with you). There's no way to set a team waypoint or issue a quick command--you must rely solely on voice chat for coordination. Without a helpful teammate, you're left to unlearn the nontransferable campaign knowledge, test out new tactics, and work out the unexplained elements all by yourself. It's certainly doable, but it can create a lot of unnecessary frustration.
But once you settle in, it's a different story. These battlegrounds are bustling with activity, and new fronts are constantly springing up as players try new tactics to best their foes. The push and pull of attack and defend is richer and more complex than in many competitive shooters, thanks to the myriad methods available to control, infiltrate, and disrupt areas of the map. An entrenched outpost can change hands with one concerted push, and this unpredictability makes every moment count. There is great potential for engaging combat here, as buildings and bullets come in fast and furiously.
In addition to competitive multiplayer matches, you can team up for some co-op and fend off increasingly difficult hordes of enemy AI. Again, this mode requires a distinct tactical adjustment from the other two modes, and the transition is jarring. You are likely to suffer swift defeat before you get your repair arms and resource management properly planned, and learning legitimate defensive strategies is just as important as working out helpful exploits if you hope to overcome the stiff challenge offered here.
Figuring out these tactics and tricks makes Starhawk a lot of fun to play, but it's a shame that the transitions between modes are so rocky. Learning harsh lessons and recalibrating your approach isn't a pleasant process, but it's well worth pushing through. These online battlefields are unlike any others, and wielding weapons, soaring through the sky, and creating fortifications on the fly all add up to exciting action. Starhawk is a bold new frontier with a bounty of competitive and cooperative riches for those intrepid enough to seek them out.