Sequels, as we know all too well, are the lifeblood of publishers across the globe: take the basic idea of a hit game and polish, refine it and throw it back out there. Dead Space 2 was fantastic, but it’s essentially a shiny Dead Space 1; Uncharted 2 had improvements over Drake’s first adventure, but in terms of gameplay it wasn’t a big step up. So, with this slightly jaded view of the gaming world and follow-up titles, I wasn’t all that excited when Sony asked us to go and play Starhawk at an exclusive unveiling.
But after seeing it, I was wrong: I haven’t been this excited about a game in years – Lightbox have found the holy grail and brought something entirely new to the shooter genre, massively exceeding their sterling work on the original Warhawk, taking it to levels none of the rumours even hinted at.[advert]Set in a completely new universe to Warhawk, the action unfolds on a series of moons and colonies on the frontier of space. Two factions, the Miners and the Outcasts, are fighting over Rifts – dangerous geysers of energy that can melt the flesh from your body and push your bones inside out – literally. The
Outcasts were originally human but were mutated by exposure to the Rifts and are now seem to worship them.
You might have heard rumours about a single player campaign here on TSA, but it goes above and beyond what we thought: it’s story based, and will follow the exploits of one Emmett Graves, a human who has been exposed to Rift energy, but has not yet entirely mutated. His left arm and eyes now glow bright blue and to control the mutation he has a Rift regulator strapped to his back – it doesn’t stop the mutation, just limit it, but it does mean our hero can take a few bullets. Get hit too much, though, and the regulator starts to overload, tubes springing from Graves’ back as a warning to find some cover.
Joining Emmett is the fabulously moustachioed Cutter, a character who proves support during the missions as Emmett attacks and defends Rift mines from the outcast attacks.[drop]So, with the scene set by Dylan Jobe and the team, it was time to grab a Dualshock and check it out for myself – and after quickly dispatching an Outcast sniper I used his own weapon to take out some of his pals – a massive fire fight erupted, showing off Starhawk’s impressive AI to the fullest.
The Outcast did not run blindly at me, they sought cover and tried to flank. In many other games if an enemy does take cover they usually crouch down then pop their head above the wall now and then take a shot, it’s child’s play to line up your gun and just wait for them to show their face which you can then quickly splatter over the nearest wall. In Starhawk the Outcast ran from cover to cover, using strafing moves to attack.
After massacring the first wave of Outcast my faithful companion Cutter tells me a second wave is on the way and at this point another new idea in Starhawk makes its presence known. Dylan explained that most shooters follow a very linear pattern of enemy attacks – no matter how many times you play the game there will always be a sniper in a certain window, an enemy hiding round a particular corner. In most shooters the level design consists of a series of fire fights connected by passages. Dylan explained that the levels in Starhawk are most like arenas so rather than scripting them to appear at a certain location the enemies now have a drop zone area and can appear anywhere within the specified parameters, thus making every game you play slightly different.
I continued to play and removed the rest of the Outcast, successfully reaching the top of a structure which held a switch my character needed to activate to turn on a giant satellite dish in the play area. As I did so Cutter reveals yet more Outcast are on the way and I had better get prepared. At this point Starhawk reveals its killer feature and in my opinion, it’s utter genius.
Lightbox have essentially taken the basics of Warhawk and mashed it up with Command & Conquer. It sounds terrible on paper but it works beautifully in game. As you kill the Outcast they spill glowing orbs of Rift energy, and the same energy can also be harvested from your Rift mine. Cutter’s ship which is hovering above the planet is packed full of buildings, defences and vehicles and with quick press of triangle you can use your Rift energy reserves to power a building. When selected a glowing green outline of the building appears and you can move it around until you are satisfied with its position. Another quick button press and moments later a pod drops from the ship in orbit and unfolds in to your requested building.
There were only a small number of buildings in the version available to play but many more will be available in the full game. In the sequence I played I could purchase automatic defence turrets, an armoured barracks packed full of weapons and a support tower. The support tower will supply a stream of AI controlled characters who fight on your behalf. Two other buildings were available, beam towers and a Hawk pad.
Ah yes, the Hawks – no longer Warhawks, not even Starhawks, just Hawks. The design has been streamlined and they are much easier to control but Lightbox have added one other totally unexpected feature…