Starhawk preview: The final frontier

Rather than just remake Warhawk with spaceships, Texas-based developer LightBox Interactive built Starhawk into something that maintains the DNA of its predecessor, while adding a few major components that turn it into its own thing.

It's got a single-player mode, for example -- with a storyline and everything.%Gallery-123409% While still recognizable as a Warhawk game -- it's a third-person shooter in which players can hop into both ground and air vehicles -- Lightbox augmented that formula with new strategy elements called "Build and Battle." It's now possible, while running around shooting at enemies, to call up a menu and drop down a wall. Want more jeeps in an arena? Set down a garage, and a few seconds later, you'll have a jeep. The same is true if you need to summon one of the transforming "Hawk" planes. You can even place automatic turrets.

It sounds like this idea is what LightBox and partner Sony Santa Monica were waiting for -- why we haven't seen a full reveal of Starhawk even after years of rumors. "We didn't just wake up and go, 'You know, this build and battle thing, that's exactly what we want to do,'" Sony Santa Monica producer Harvard Bonin told Joystiq, explaining that the team started off overloading the player with building options. "We found that being so oriented to that -- almost in a LittleBigPlanet way, originally -- we found that we got away from the center of what we thought made Warhawk special, which was that fast, arcadey gameplay." And so the team continued experimenting, even switching from the familiar behind-the-back perspective to an overhead view for a while, and waited to announce the game until there was something "very playable" to show. "We have plans upcoming in terms of making sure gamers get hands on, and have some fun. Rather than me telling you how fun it is, it's much better for you to try it."

But despite the seeming new emphasis on tactics, you don't have to be a tactician to get into it, LightBox creative director Lars DeVore asserts. "Really, I think that we are borrowing a lot of elements from RTS, but it is a shooter," he said. "It is really at its core a shooter." The team was "very conscious" about keeping the emphasis on shooting. "Building stuff allows you to kill more people; killing people allows you to build stuff."

Starhawk is sort of a space Western, taking place on frontier planets where people are fighting over "rift energy," a glowing light that comes up out of the ground. It's basically space oil -- space oil that mutates and kills everyone it touches. Protagonist Emmett Graves is a "rifter," someone who makes his living collecting and selling this valuable material. Thanks to some hardware jammed into his back, he's only mutated to the "cool glowing hand" stage, and is able to remain functional. With the help of partner Cutter, an engineer who hangs out in orbit coordinating missions and dropping supplies, Emmett seeks rift energy claims and fights with Outcasts. The Outcasts are, of course, also after the energy. They've mutated to the "recognizably inhuman henchman" stage, such that you feel okay about killing them.

In the first single-player mission, Emmett starts on a hill, directed to secure a geyser of rift energy below. A sniper is nearby on the hill, providing an opportunity to sneak up and take out an important target while also getting the sniper rifle. If you miss this guy, like I did, you end up having to weave around a lot while also taking out the grunts below. Whoops. After killing enough Outcasts, you capture the area and can call down a big communications satellite to put on top of it, using the radial menu that houses your other structural options.

With this part of the mission complete, you then have to climb up into an enemy structure and get rid of some more guys, each of whom drops down individually from orbit in a sort of capsule. This requires a bit of patience, as you can take them out one at a time as they drop down at each location (marked on your minimap). The gamer's best friend, the exploding barrel, is on hand in several spots to facilitate this task. If you don't use this punctuated approach ... you're just surrounded by enemies, which tends to be a Bad Thing. Around here, you'll see a bunch of Outcasts gathered around some rift energy, worshipping it -- and generally making themselves easy targets for horrible people like yourself.

After this, you get access to a Hawk launchpad, and the mission plays out in an exciting air battle, as you transform it to flight mode and take out some flying enemies trying to destroy your base. This early mission works to introduce you to the mechanics, without leaving too many strategic-type decisions in your hands, but it was at least enough of a primer to understand what to do in multiplayer.

I jumped into the second of two identical multiplayer sessions held at Sony's preview event. Two rows of the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater were set up with flatscreens (you can eat and drink at the Alamo, so there are tables in front of the seats), and an ever-changing, cinematic view of the action projected onto the main screen. The capture-the-flag matches were play-by-played live, seemingly entirely for the benefit of the LightBox staff sitting in the back, who cheered enthusiastically.

In these capture-the-flag matches, two teams of eight worked to get across a large, rocky expanse of alien topography, clamber to the top of the enemy team's bunker, grab the flag, and get it back across. Standard stuff. Except, very quickly, the assembled press began picking up on the strategic uses of the Build and Battle menu. Everyone worked feverishly to get enough Hawks and vehicles out on the field, and soon after, each side began erecting walls at choke points to prevent vehicles from getting near the bunker. A "bubble shield" type item went up on either side, preventing anything but soldiers moving on foot to get within its boundaries until it was blown up. Jeeps swung by to pick up a running soldier with a flag; snipers picked off Hawk pilots; several people were just plain flattened. It never really felt like an RTS as much as a shooter with some really useful abilities.

My favorite strategy, sort of by necessity, involved the respawning mechanic. Similar to Section 8, respawning soldiers are dropped from orbit in capsules, able to choose their landing spot from anywhere on their side, and control their descent a bit on the way down. So I did my best to land on any invading enemies. Maybe it stems from my skill level in competitive shooters, but nothing did more to augment my enjoyment of the game than letting me turn my frequent death into a powerful weapon.

In a presentation before the matches, LightBox promised a bountiful suite of online features, including clans, tournaments, calendar support, a connected Android app, and more. None of that was on display here, because we were playing locally, and PSN didn't exist at the time anyway. Bonin told me that setting up a clan and other online features are greatly streamlined to help attract more players. "It's about easy to use GUI and interface so that you don't have to dig like in Warhawk to make a clan," he said. "I barely know how to do it right now. In this one, it's so easy, setting up tournaments is so easy." That same desire is what prompted LightBox to map the controls to "your popular shooters out there" -- which it didn't do with Warhawk.

And yes, the timing of the announcement is unfortunate. After years, the multiplayer-heavy Starhawk ends up being announced in the middle of a total PSN outage. But LightBox's DeVore wasn't at all worried about the timing. "It has nothing to do with that at all," he said. "Really, what it comes down to is that it was either doing something for ourselves that we felt would be about Austin and the studio and the game and what's going on, or waiting until E3, and doing something where we felt like there was a lot of other great stuff coming out." The outage "just happens to be going on right now."

This article was originally published on Joystiq.