My first few minutes with Starhawk felt much like playing any other sci-fi themed third-person shooter. I attacked howling mutants on a desolate alien planet, shooting them from afar with a sniper rifle, then from closer range with automatic weapons. I hid, strafed, and charged. It was business as usual.
But then, after mowing down my final foe, a chubby, twanging fellow popped up in the corner of the screen and directed me to start building stuff. Serious stuff, like walls, turrets, gates, anti-aircraft guns, bunkers, beacons, vehicle garages, and even aircraft launch platforms. And doing it was a cinch. I simply pressed a button to call up a radial menu, chose a structure on the wheel, and pressed another button to plop the building on the ground in front of me.
Enemies began to return, but now they came in waves. My newly created defences did a capable job of holding off many of the attackers, but I still had to run around and eliminate my fair share. When things got really rough, I took to the air in one of the game's titular skyhawk mechs-summoned into existence atop that launch platform I'd built-and began raining death from above.
It felt like some sort of crazy hybrid combining standard third-person shooting action with classic tower defence strategy.
And it was a blast.
Starhawk was unveiled to journalists earlier this month at an event in Austin, Texas, home of Lightbox Interactive, an American game maker under partnership with Sony to create wares exclusively for PlayStation 3. The studio is composed of the remnants of Incognito, the company that created 2008's Warhawk, a distant relative of Starhawk even though it seems to bear no narrative connection.
Chatting with bearded and bespectacled studio president Dylan Jobe shortly after playing the game, my first question was why he bothered to link these two seemingly disparate games at all.
"We debated it for a long time, and eventually decided that there was some brand equity," he replied. "Plus, the two games share a similar underlying texture; they're fast-paced, arcade-y third-person shooters."
He also happily acknowledged comparisons I made to classic tower defence games, though he hoped that wouldn't turn off core gamers.
" Plants vs. Zombies, PixelJunk Monsters...those games were big influences," said Jobe. "When you're working on a game like this and you look at influences outside of big budget shooters there's a concern that you may be straying too far outside the clique. But with Starhawk, clearly, we want to stray from the clique. And while tower defence games were an influence for us, there's also an element of tower offence. You'll see people using buildings in surprising offensive ways."
One such way, as demonstrated repeatedly in multiplayer matches, is dropping buildings on your enemies. When you place a new structure it takes a few seconds to be airdropped from the sky. Should any enemies happen to wander into the construction area in that time they'll be instantly-and perhaps gratifyingly-crushed when it lands.
While I didn't have the chance to lay hands on the multiplayer mode myself, I did have the opportunity to watch 16 players duke it out for an hour, with one of the game's developers guiding a camera above and around the battlefield to capture the action and another providing live commentary.
The multiplayer map shown was set on another obviously alien world. A rocky labyrinth of paths sat atop a lake of fire, and lightning crashed down from a dark, angry sky.
Much as in solo play, the action appeared at first blush to be much like that of any other third-person capture-the-flag game. Soldiers were moving about, often in small groups or in all-terrain vehicles reminiscent of Halo warthogs, attempting to steal and guard flags.
However, closer inspection revealed that players on both sides were actively creating most of the structures on the play field. They strategically walled off certain areas, created protective energy domes to ward off aircraft, and set up turrets at choke points to keep attackers at bay. It was basically live, ad-hoc map editing.
What struck me most about what I saw was how quickly and easily players were deploying structures. Remember that these were journalists. They had no prior experience with this game-or, really, any other game quite like it-and yet it seemed they knew exactly what they were doing.
I asked Jobe how his team managed to make the building process so simple, quick, and intuitive.
"Honestly, the first several iterations of our 'build-and-battle' system sucked," he said frankly. "I can't tell you how many versions we threw out. We didn't want players to have to manage anything. We wanted it to be simple. Our goal became to make building a building as easy as throwing a grenade, and I think we did that."
An even more difficult task than developing an effective interface for building, Jobe explained, has been figuring out how to make sure the game's A.I. characters are capable of intelligently dealing with objects that appear out of nowhere.
"A.I. is a challenging enough problem in a static world," said Jobe. "Now imagine trying to make an A.I. understand that they can move between the legs of a mech being driven by another A.I. that's trying to navigate around a wall that it didn't know about until you built it. Our A.I. lead spends a ridiculous amount of time just making A.I. characters not look dumb."
Indeed, A.I. is a relatively new challenge for Lightbox, which didn't need to think about it much in the multiplayer-only Warhawk.
So, too, is storytelling.
Starhawk's narrative centres around "rifter" salvagers; humans who mine an invaluable extraterrestrial power source known as rift energy in a semi-lawless galactic frontier. But rift power is as dangerous as it is useful. Anyone who touches it mutates into an outcast; a disfigured, mindless rift worshipper. Outcast mutants attack any humans they find trying to mine the dangerous blue power source.
The game's hero, Emmett, is among the unlucky rifters who have come into contact with rift energy, but he has found a way to keep from fully mutating and retains his humanity, though he is in constant pain.
His brother, Logan, wasn't so fortunate. A powerful mutant, he acts as a leader to other outcast, attacking human operations without discretion.
Embittered toward the rift energy industry but still loyal to humans, Emmett works to protect the other salvagers. This, of course, eventually leads to a confrontation with Logan.
"Basically, Emmett has to bring his sibling to justice," said Jobe. "It's a brothers tale."
Jobe speaks about Starhawk's story and its characters with the passion of a man who has spent years working with them. We still have a while to wait before discovering whether his enthusiasm proves contagious. Starhawk is slated for release sometime in 2012.