Starhawk Preview

Platforms: Sony PlayStation 3

Starhawk is the spiritual successor to the 2007 online multiplayer game Warhawk which was made by Incognito Entertainment. Though the studio is now gone its core team members founded an independent company called LightBox Interactive in 2009 and they continue to support Warhawk as well as developing the new game. Starhawk will again be a Playstation 3 exclusive since LightBox Interactive has a multi-year, multi-title agreement with Sony and their Santa Monica studio are also providing additional support to the project.

In 2011 the Warhawk community was still active with thousands of dedicated players populating the online servers. For those unfamiliar with Warhawk, it is a 3rd person online multiplayer game where two competing sides battle for supremacy in various modes of play across large maps. It has a varied mix of gameplay with on foot action, turrets that can be manned, ground vehicles like jeeps and tanks to control and aerial combat with the Warhawks of the title. The game has enjoyed free updates adding new modes of play, features like jetpacks and trophy support as well as booster packs that included new maps and vehicles through paid for downloadable content.

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Dylan Jobe, the president of LightBox Interactive wanted to retain the gameplay that fans enjoyed but take it in a slightly different direction. In an attempt to avoid the crowded marketplace of space marine or military science fiction territory, it was decided that a sci-fi western theme would help distinguish the game from other titles. Unlike its predecessor, Starhawk will feature a single player campaign and this is particularly good news for those who had difficulty learning how to play the first game which dropped the player in at the deep end for them to sink or swim. When Warhawk was originally released it didn’t even have a tutorial and Dylan Jobe would like the story mode to promote the universe and provide a comfort zone where players can learn the gameplay systems before moving online.

In the Starhawk universe humans have discovered rifts which emit a pure source of energy that they believe is the answer to all humanity’s power generation needs. In a futuristic style gold rush, humans travel to many distant worlds to set up small mining colonies in order to collect this rift energy or “blue gold”. It is very profitable but also dangerous work for the rift miners (Rifters). Eventually it is discovered that exposure to this rift energy can transform humans as the rift energy causes their minds and bodies to mutate. Infused with this blue rift energy they become hostile and hell bent on protecting the rifts which they begin to worship. This is the basic premise for the conflict between the Rifters and Outcasts in the Starhawk.

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In the main story you play Emmett Graves a former rift miner turned gunslinger for hire. Emmett and his brother Logan had been working at a small rift mining operation when it was attacked by Outcasts and their extractor rig exploded. Both Emmett and Logan were exposed to rift energy and while Logan was completely transformed into an Outcast warrior, Emmett was only partly changed and a device fitted to his back prevents him from completely losing his humanity. Bearing the brand of the Outcasts and remaining human means he isn’t really trusted by either side. With the help of fellow Rifter and technology expert Sydney Cutter they try to help defend rift mining colonies across the frontier worlds of the galaxy from Outcast attacks.

One day Emmett Graves takes a job that brings him back to the frontier colony of White Sands on a moon called Dust, the place he once called home before the other colonists turned their backs on him. It seems they have an Outcast problem and their leader is somebody Emmett knows very well...

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Sydney Cutter has developed a revolutionary technology that allows him to deploy self-building structures from his dropship in low planetary orbit. For the player this is known as the Build & Battle system which is one of the main innovations in Starhawk. At any point during the game you can bring up a radial menu of structures ranging from walls, auto turrets, supply bunkers, garages and so on, place its holographic image where you want it built and Cutter will immediately send a cargo crate down to that location. The structure will assemble itself in front of your eyes in real time. This makes the battlefield much more dynamic than it was in Warhawk which had fixed bases and control points. It is hoped that this system will give the player more freedom in how they take the fight to the enemy, to complete the missions how they want and give a greater sense of ownership over what they build.

Build & Battle isn’t an unlimited resource and it doesn’t come cheap - it all runs on rift energy that you (Emmett) must collect during story mode missions although it works in much the same way in online multiplayer modes. You automatically absorb rift energy from the fallen Outcast warriors that you kill and spend what is essentially the game’s currency on structures to use in battle. As Dylan Jobe puts it “you kill to build and build to kill”. There are some other ways to gain rift energy such as when you are in close proximity to an energy rift (or pod beacon) you will slowly absorb energy from it. Destroying enemy structures and shooting barrels of rift energy in the environment will also earn you this precious resource. The rift energy you gather is displayed at the top right of the screen, showing how many energy cores/units you have filled. Simple crate drops like walls require the least energy to send down and build while the more complex and useful structures will cost you more energy cores.

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I have been fortunate to play the Private Beta of Starhawk which doesn’t have a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) so I will outline the Build & Battle structures that have been included so far.

Wall - this is the most basic structure and will only cost 1 rift energy core but the likelihood is that you will need more than one wall structure as they are best used when linked together to prevent the enemy from reaching something of value. A section of a wall can also be upgraded to a wall gate to allow you or a vehicle you are in to pass through it. It is also noteworthy that wall sections have ladders on one side but not the other.

Garage – these cost you 2 rift energy units and you receive a Razorback which is like a jeep for you to use. The Razorback is very useful for getting about quickly for a reasonable energy cost and also has a mounted gun for another player to use. Additional vehicles can be purchased from a garage control panel.

Auto Turret – these automated turrets which cost 2 energy cores cannot be manned by the player but they are very useful if used in defensive positions or choke points. They aren’t that powerful but small groups of them can be quite effective against enemies who are on foot. Once they are locked onto a threat they fire constantly but they are quite slow to rotate and target enemies.

Sniper Tower – they are tall structures with a ladder leading to a perch where a sniper rifle can be picked up. The weapon and ammo regularly respawn as long as the tower is there and they can be deployed for 2 rift energy units. The sniper rifle is very powerful but uses a laser sight which is quite easy to spot.

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Pod Beacon – when you first begin playing or after you die, you will join the battlefield by being fired down from the dropship in a pod. Initially you will only be able to land near your home base but if you call down a pod beacon for 4 energy cores it will act like a control point where you or other members of your team can deploy in future. Being able to drop to different parts of the map can be very useful and time saving. You also absorb rift energy if you are in close proximity to one of your pod beacons.

Supply Bunker – these are useful for a number of reasons and they only cost 4 rift energy units. They act as fortified shelters for the player to use and attack nearby enemies. But they also contain weapons like the shotgun and rocket launcher which regularly respawn for extra ammo. Shotguns are useful at close range against a variety of enemies and rocket launchers can be fired in most situations but they are particularly effective against flying Hawks because they have a lock on feature. Some structures have “sockets” which you can build turrets on to and the ability to add three auto turrets to the roof of the bunker makes it a more formidable presence of the battlefield.

Jetpack Dispenser – no matter what universe you are from jetpacks are cool and the Starhawk universe is no exception. Just 4 rift energy units will buy you a very manoeuvrable and fast means of transportation helping you reach places that would otherwise be inaccessible. A moving target is harder to hit and jetpacks can get you into situations and out of them very quickly. The fuel that gains you height doesn’t last long but it soon replenishes itself while you slowly lose altitude. Hovering and firing weapons like rocket launchers, assault rifles or shotguns can be very effective against turrets and enemies on the ground. If you purchase a new jetpack from an existing dispenser it will only cost you 2 energy cores.

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Launch Pad – a launch pad with a Hawk can be built for 4 energy units and additional Hawks purchased for 2 rift energy. Hawks are more versatile than in the previous game because they have flight and mech modes. In flight mode the Hawk behaves just as the Warhawk did in the previous game, with a full range of Hawk specific weapons to pick up and use on air and ground targets. With the press of a button the Hawk can also change into a walking mech which is useful for bringing heavy firepower to ground level and it even has a special stomp move. Then with the press of a button a mech can launch into the air and switch back to flight mode making them ideal for raids on enemy bases.

Beam Turret – these cost 6 rift energy cores but are much more powerful than the auto turret and are ideal for taking out ground vehicles and Hawks. These turrets can be manned by players and they are ideal for defending bases against sustained attack. They can be used against jetpacks or other enemies but the energy beam is designed with armour piercing in mind. If unmanned they will automatically target incoming threats.

Energy Shield – the most expensive structure costing 8 rift energy to deploy. These are huge energy shield domes that absorb incoming fire to protect important structures. They provide an effective barrier against long range attack while not blocking your own outward firepower from within the dome. They are impenetrable force fields but don’t prevent movement through the energy barrier by any enemy unit and their generator is relatively vulnerable to attack once inside the shield.

The structures and energy costs within Build & Battle are always subject to change as the Beta is updated and may be different in the full game. There are known to be other structures, vehicles and devices in Starhawk such as the Comm. Tower, jet bike, APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier) and a powerful rift energy time bomb. Build & Battle adds a real time strategy dimension to the existing Warhawk formula which helps to immerse the player in dynamic battles that evolve around them as bases are built, destroyed and rebuilt as the tide of battle constantly evolves and changes.

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In the story mode Sydney Cutter’s job isn’t just to send down structures you request, as a planetary surveyor he is also your eyes in the sky alerting you to incoming threats. He will identify where new enemies will appear from and a countdown timer will show how long you have to prepare for their arrival. This is similar to the way tower defence games work and it is probably the biggest difference between the story mode and online multiplayer modes of play. The story missions can be played with up to 4 players cooperatively but there is a structure in Build & Battle called a Comm. Tower which adds three friendly AI bots to assist you in battle if you are playing in single player. They are reasonably intelligent and will even commandeer Hawks if they are available to use.

The game’s shooting system is still viewed from a 3rd person perspective but it uses an over the shoulder viewpoint while aiming. In addition to the assault rifle (kinetic rifle), rocket launcher, shotgun and sniper rifle already discussed; Emmett will have access to his trademark gunslinger handgun, grenades, proximity mines, a knife (combat blade) and the grinder which is a good short range weapon replacing the flamethrower from Warhawk.

One invaluable tool in story mode and online multiplayer is the repair tool which functions just as the wrench did in Warhawk. It will repair your team’s vehicles and structures, while using it on those belonging to your enemy will have the opposite effect. Ammo is sometimes in short supply but the repair tool only needs time to recharge and its destructive ability can significantly weaken the opposing side’s ability to wage war while gaining you valuable rift energy. It can help turn the tide of battle when defending or attacking.

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This feature has mostly concentrated on introducing the Starhawk universe, the story and the Build & Battle gameplay system and some information from the Private Beta. Though the focus of this preview has been on the campaign mode much of it applies to online play as well. The story mode shares the same pool of XP as online multiplayer, so you can replay it to earn badges and choose perks when you level up just as you can when playing against other people.

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