When will Sony start promoting their first-party games? It has to be soon, right? They keep letting wonderful titles sneak out the door without more than a whisper. It’s not fair; not to them, not to great developers like Lightbox Interactive and not to gamers chomping at the bit for unique and creative game play. If you’re tired of staring down the scope of an AK-47 or struggling with the controls of a DICE-patented Helicopter Crash Simulator, Starhawk might be the experience you’ve been waiting for.

The title comes from a long lineage, dating back to the PlayStation 1′s aerial combat game. Most recently, the Warhawk name was used for a multiplayer-only affair on the PlayStation 3 that did well, but never had the stickiness of games like Gears of WarHalo or Call of Duty. Starhawk aims to change that, balancing out the multiplayer modes with a compelling, if short, single-player campaign. While the solo play won’t take you more than five or six hours to play through (depending on your affinity behind the stick of the titular flying vehicle), it’s an engaging and informative ride.

Usually in multiplayer-focused games, the narrative is given the short shrift, with shallow characters, boring settings and game play that is so blatantly tutorial in nature that it is simply impossible to enjoy. While the story of protagonist Emmet Graves is still thinly veiled preparation for your forays online, it manages to weave an interesting tale. Part of the allure is the stellar voice acting and music (oh, the music), evoking more than a little of the nostalgia I feel whenever anyone mentions the word ”Firefly.” The deep space meets old West theme has been done, but if you’re going to crib from one version of it, make it Joss Whedon’s short-lived masterpiece.

The story works because it focuses on a very narrow slice of the universe. As Emmet’s tale progresses, we’re given more information about how he came to be afflicted with overexposure to Rift Energy (there’s always some energy source to fight over, right?), the history of his family and why he is a gun for hire. Thankfully, the precious blue glowing substance isn’t just a plot device, it’s integral to the game play.

Emmet is assisted by Cutter, who mans a ship in orbit over whichever blasted rock is currently under invasion from the mutated Outcasts. Rift Energy is used as currency to purchase a variety of defensive and utilitarian structures.  Trade in your cash, and you’ll see (and hear) your ready-to-assemble Ikea space-furniture hurtle toward the ground.Auto turrets, supply bunkers, watchtowers and walls are all necessary to arm yourself and protect the precious rigs safely capturing the fuel from the ground.

Sometimes, though, you want to take the fight to the enemy. A number of structures that can be dropped in spawn vehicles like speeder bikes, tanks and the eponymous Hawks. If this is starting to sound like an RTS, you’re not wrong. The beauty is that these structures can be used to turn the tide of battle very quickly, especially in the Zones multiplayer mode. Capture point games are always pitched, with ownership swinging back and forth. However, once occupying a zone, teams can drop turrets, reinforcements and huge beam canons to fortify the position.  This swings the analogy from RTS to tower defense, as you’ll want to pick off the enemies that will be making a bee line for your territory.

The other online modes featured are Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. All are standard on paper, but the 32-player battles always feel fresh since you never know what’s going to be crashing down around (or on) you. Fans of Warhawk might find themselves a bit disappointed that some of that game’s modes didn’t make it into this release. Hero, in which one player is tapped randomly as an über soldier (only killing the VIP counts toward the team score), and Collection, a “keep what you kill” resource gathering game type, are absent.

On the other hand, the addition of the different vehicle types, fantastic structures and lively maps keep things interesting. I never get tired of watching the Hawks transform from lumbering mech to sleek starfighter. Thankfully, the controls are fairly intuitive and, even though you I was shot down a bit, it was never because I couldn’t fly the ship.

There are also cooperative options for those looking for a more friendly atmosphere. You can take up to four players through the campaign mode, keeping the planet Dust safe from marauding Outcasts. There is also a horde mode, for those looking to team up without pesky human opponents. This is a good opportunity to test strategies and get familiar with different structures’ impact on opponents.

The title features a host of online features that should make fans quite happy. In addition to character customization and clan functionality, players can host their own tournaments. With battles as large as Starhawk supports, watching two coordinated teams battle it out with 16 people on each side is something I definitely want to see.

Visually, Starhawk is a reminder of why there should be console exclusives. The game makes use of the PlayStation 3′s power with a lightly cel-shaded look, and the little touches are what make the title shine. As Emmet gets hurt, the contraption on his back keeping his Rift infection at bay, starts venting more of the poison. The piston-like containers become more exposed. Watching bullets streak through the air is more than visual flair, too.

Each vehicle has a distinct type of gun fire. Watching the skies will give you a hint as to what your enemy is using for fortifications. I also greatly appreciated the added touch of colored contrails to the Hawks. It would have been murder to track them otherwise. The cutscenes seemed to take a cue from inFamous. So that there is no mistake, this is a very good thing from my perspective. The animated comic style doesn’t work everywhere, but it fits Emmet’s story.

The audio, as I mentioned earlier, is all superb. The sounds of Hawks screeching by and beam canons charging up (among others) all sound wonderful. The voice acting offers the proper amount of gravitas without being melodramatic. It doesn’t hurt that actors like Steve Blum are involved. The real star of the show, though, is the soundtrack. This was just another place where the memories of Firefly sparked inside me. I could listen to the tunes from this game for hours. Written by Chris Lennertz and performed by the Skywalker Orchestra, the music in Starhawk should be something every aficionado makes a point of seeking out. This should get you started.

Starhawk is a very enjoyable game that smartly integrates RTS elements to make ordinary third-person shooting feel fresh and new. The single-player campaign is enjoyable, but probably won’t satisfy your desires for a $60 game by itself. Furthermore, while there was always one or two games with a significant number of people online, I didn’t always have my pick of types. It always felt better to go where the crowd was, even if, for instance, I didn’t necessarily want to play Team Deathmatch. I do hope that Sony and Lightbox Interactive see a substantial and loyal community for the game over the long term. Starhawk is just too cool to die on the vine.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Great blend of third-person shooting, RTS and tower defense game play
+ Action feels good both on foot and in vehicles
+ Extremely strong presentation tied together with fantastic soundtrack
+ Giant, transforming robots
+ 32-player battles feel great with 10+ players, but…
- Sparse with fewer
+ You can usually find a game to jump into…
- But it might not be the mode you wanted to play
+ Single player mode is engaging…
- But a bit short, making this only a good use of $60 if you plan to play multiplayer

8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.

Starhawk was developed by Lightbox Interactive and published by Sony. It was released on May 8, 2012 at the MSRP of $59.99. A copy was provided by the publisher to RipTen for the purposes of review.