Starhawk review: Drop in, blast off

Decked out with garish signs and weatherworn workers, the refueling platform looks more like a truck stop than a sophisticated piece of engineering. That is, until I walk to the edge of the platform and see an entire desert planet looming below. There's no time, however, to drink in the view. My comrades need help, so I call in a landing pad drop. A capsule screams in from the sky, smashing into the ground as the landing pad installs itself. I climb atop the pad and hop into a Hawk. The massive mech leaps into the air and, in a flash of whirring metal, transforms into a jet and rockets into the sky – at which point my beautiful flying machine is summarily obliterated by a more skilled pilot.

The setting changes – different planets, different platforms – but I've repeated the above exercise more often than I'd like to admit. I could do something else. I could call down a supply bunker or a tank. I could concentrate on building defenses, dropping down turrets and walls. Starhawk offers those options, but me, I've got to fly.
%Gallery-125574% The ability to call down equipment is Starhawk's claim to intergalactic fame. Also, unlike its spiritual predecessor, Warhawk, Starhawk comes packing a single-player campaign. The story revolves around Emmett Graves and a valuable form of energy known as "rift." Graves is a salvager, a hired gun that reclaims rift harvesting sites from Scabs, a tribal, savage group of men driven mad and consumed by rift energy. Before too long, Emmett discovers there is more to the Scabs than simple insanity – something seems to be controlling them, driving them. Naturally, said force threatens to claim all of civilization if left unchecked and, as it turns out, the person behind it all, known only as "the Outlaw," is much closer to home than Emmett suspects.

The story isn't exactly riveting, and I'm still having trouble remembering the names of major characters. Most of it is told via 2D cut-scenes between missions – scenes that clashed heavily with the in-game graphics and pulled me out of the action, especially given the minimal amount of animation. Personally, I'd much rather see a giant weapons platform explode in real-time than via stilted motion comic. For what it's worth, Starhawk does sport an impressive soundtrack, appropriate for the Wild West space opera it attempts to be. (The soundtrack bleeds over into multiplayer as well, accentuating key moments.)

Ultimately, the single-player campaign serves as a tutorial for multiplayer, teaching players how to call in structures, which are immediately deployed from orbit. Toward the end of the campaign, Emmett can call in essentially whatever he wants, giving players a lot of freedom in deciding how to accomplish objectives. A few of the more difficult missions require Emmett to survive wave after wave of Scabs, so crafting an effective defense on the fly is crucial.

You'll need those single-player skills in multiplayer, especially since its utterly devoid of any other kind of tutorial. Most players won't have much trouble coming to grips with the various game modes, but even seasoned third-person shooter vets won't know one loadout from another without some trial and error. There are four modes of play: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Zones.

The available structures in each mode are dependent on the aforementioned loadouts, each offering a different flavor – some might favor vehicular combat while others might offer a bit of everything. Zones is easily my favorite mode, requiring teams to capture and hold different bases in order to accrue points. A familiar mode to be sure, though it's enlivened by the fact that teams are essentially constructing each base piece by piece.

Turrets and vehicle bays spring up like wildflowers as new areas are captured (at least, they do if your team cares about winning). Tanks, jeeps and hover-bikes sweep across the map, and then there's my beloved Hawk. As I mentioned, I'm not the best pilot, but the complete freedom of flight is just too enticing. Dogfights and bombing runs are a literal and figurative blast. Don't get me wrong, Starhawk's tanks are great, armed as they are for both direct assault and long-range battery, but nothing beats the up-close-and-personal joy of stomping a soldier into the dirt.

Starhawk's vehicular greatness unfortunately serves to highlight one of its shortcomings, namely unsatisfying gunplay whenever players are on foot. None of the infantry weapons are particularly interesting, occupying the usual roles of assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher, etc. The rocket launcher, at least, has the handy ability to lock onto Hawk and jetpacking soldiers, and a skilled sniper can shoot the pilot right out of a marauding tank, but infantry weapons generally lack a feeling of power or heft. Also, while many weapons can be summoned with the appropriate structure – supply bunkers always have the rocket launcher and shotgun, for example – certain weapons can only be found on the map itself. So, if you'd rather concentrate on repairing structures or vehicles, you'll have to venture out into the map, and away from safety, to find a welding torch.

Speaking of specialization, Starhawk features a number of unlockable skills, each of which enables a passive perk. The system is constrained, however, as unlocking skills is tied to both acquiring experience and accomplishing in-game feats. The Field Mechanic skill, for example, automatically repairs vehicles you happen to be in – pretty handy for someone who likes to fly. In order to unlock it, however, you not only have to have the requisite skill points, but must also make ten vehicle kills in a single match. It's a decent enough idea on paper, but in practice it means that skilled players may unlock perks that less skilled players aren't able to, which seems like an unfair advantage. Granted, you can only have one skill active at any given time, and rarely will any skill completely alter the course of a match, but they do offer significant benefits.

There are a number of other omissions and strange design choices in Starhawk. Save for a simple quick match option, there is no matchmaking. You can browse and filter server lists to your heart's content, but console players used to simpler systems may find it irksome. You're also unable to browse for matches of the cooperative survival mode, meaning you'll have to directly invite friends or be invited by others. Also, while this may not technically be a design problem, once one team has a significant advantage in vehicles, spawn camping can be a serious problem. Much like equipment, players drop in from orbit upon respawn, with a nice big target painted on the ground exactly where they will land. If one team manages to park a handful of tanks around the opposing team's respawn area, it can quickly become a frustrating shooting gallery.

If you can look past these issues, the uninspiring gunplay and ho-hum campaign in particular, Starhawk offers up plenty of multiplayer freedom. If you can pull together a cohesive team, building defenses and barreling through enemy territory can be deeply rewarding. Meanwhile, jumping into a Hawk and blasting off is exhilarating every time. I just hope you're a better pilot than I am.

This review is based on a retail copy of Starhawk, provided by Sony.

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