Starhawk, the PlayStation 3-exclusive successor to 2007's multiplayer-focused Warhawk, has several tasty ingredients that should have guaranteed a fragging good time.
It's a fast-paced sci-fi adventure set in the far reaches of space, where frontiersmen toil to earn a living by harvesting valuable "rift energy" while fighting off the humanoid mutants who try to protect it. This is the backdrop against which a conflict between two brothers plays out. One is (mostly) human, the other is a mutant, and they seem destined to face off in some sort of bloody, Wild West showdown.
What's more, it boldly and cleverly combines three distinct kinds of play: standard third-person shooting action, arcade-style mech combat on land and in the air, and a sort of tower defence strategy that sees players calling down walls and turrets from a ship in orbit to bolster key positions.
Plus, it has a robust online mode distinguished by its enormous, intricately designed maps, a good player levelling system, and a satisfyingly high (for a console game) 32-player cap.
These parts suggest a deep and innovative whole that ought to provide weeks or months of fun. Yet just a few days of play have left me less than enthusiastic about the experience and unlikely to return.
Part of the problem may come in the telling of its story. The game's sibling rivalry tale plays out in stilted, lightly animated cartoon sequences between missions. This half-hearted attempt at narrative results in characters bereft of personality, charm or wit. I was left without any emotional connection with our hero – a glowing-eyed man tainted by rift energy who still fights for human rift miners – or his sidekick Cutter, a twangy-voiced old-timer in charge of orbital drops.
Uninspired visuals play a role as well. You can try not to judge a game based on something as shallow as its looks, but there's little denying that pretty pictures can spark an agreeable sort of brain chemistry. That hasn't happened for me. The game's environments, whether dusty planetoids or cruiser convoys in space, are lacklustre, wanting of detail and seem to generally lag behind other current PlayStation 3 action games. I think it unlikely many players will eagerly relate stories of Starhawk spectacle to their gaming friends.
But these are by no means deal-breaking issues. I've been quite engaged by games with much worse storytelling and graphics. Indeed, one reliable way to overcome deficiencies in plot and presentation is to deliver satisfying action, and, truth be told, Starhawk hits the nail squarely in this department.
There's little denying developer LightBox Interactive's gift for player control. Regardless of whether I was aiming a rifle or piloting one of the game's titular mechs, which handle brilliantly both on ground and in space, I never had a complaint with the abilities I was given. And the game's tower defence element represents a deft accomplishment in interface design. It takes only a second or so and a couple of button taps to place an order for a structure to be dropped onto the battlefield. Tempting stuff for those enchanted by the notion of creating elaborate bases filled with walls, gates, bunkers, defensive turrets, vehicle platforms and artillery batteries that players can man themselves.
But a compelling game requires more than an intuitive interface and satisfying guns. It needs smart enemies, diverse objectives, and interesting level design. Starhawk, in contrast, provides foes that continue to attack walls even as you're filling them full of lead, goals that consist mostly of holding and attacking positions, and simplistic maps filled with cookie-cutter architecture.
Multiplayer is beset by a different set of frustrations. I found I was often dropped into matches set on huge maps with only a handful of allies and enemies. This made it easy to set up huge defensive structures, but players must eventually wander into the wastes to capture flags and kill enemies, and these treks proved long and lonely.
When I was lucky enough to enter a fray teeming with players the experience improved dramatically, especially when I was with a group keen on cooperating with one another – there's no assurance of this in public, 32-player matches – to ensure adequate resources allocated to building, defending, and attacking.
Even then, though, I found matches frequently lopsided. I attribute this mostly to the game's slightly overpowered vehicles – especially the mechs, which often prove a battle's deciding factor. If one team, even outnumbered, has a couple of truly skilled pilots, they can become an overwhelming force as they protect their base, provide cover for ground assaults, and dive in for quick hit-and-run attacks that lay ruin to carefully constructed fortresses. Fun stuff if you're on the team with those pilots (or, better still, happen to be one of them), not so much if you're the subject of their aggression.
Even now I find myself a bit titillated by the idea of Starhawk. Piloting mechs, building bastions, and mowing down enemies with rifles and rocket launchers, all in one game. It sounds lovely. Yet thinking about my actual experience extinguishes the excitement.
I've yet to finish the campaign or move up to higher levels in online play, and I'll admit there's a chance the story missions might improve toward the end of the game or that, with time, I might suddenly find my multiplayer groove. But I fear it's too late. There's a window in which a game need capture a player's interest to secure an additional investment of time, and, for me, Starhawk's shutters are closed.
Platform: PlayStation 3
Developer: LightBox Interactive
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Release: May 8th, 2012