Starhawk’s strength and weakness are pretty much the same thing. On one hand, you could say it’s got an egalitarian approach to handing out hardware. Games like EA’s Battlefield series condition us to think of the pilots and tank drivers as a privileged few. There’s only so much heavy iron and high octane on a map, and to the camping victors go the spoils. Similarly with the good guns. You have to put in your term of service to unlock the actual killing guns instead of the ones that tap the other guy on the shoulder so he can turn around and shoot you with the killing gun he’s unlocked. This caste system helps players find their places in the world. It keeps things orderly. It channels the chaos.
After the jump, Starhawk will have none of that
Starhawk isn’t big on limits. It’s trivially easy to plop down onto the map and jump into a flying mech. Starhawks for everyone! Make a quick circuit through the supply bunker and now you have every heavy weapon in your pocket. Grab a tank if you feel like it. Maybe build some defensive turrets. There are no rules here, no classes, no special equipment. If I don’t like the base my team is building, I’ll deconstruct it and build it the way I want. I’ll put these walls here and those turrets there. You boys have fun going out and fighting the war. As a trained tower defense specialist, I hereby appoint myself base den mother. At least until someone tears down what I made. In which case I’ll go build a base somewhere else. In fact, one of my favorite ways to play Starhawk is to set up a defensive hitch out on the map, tripping up the players who want to zip past in their starhawks on the way to the front. Sure, I die a lot, but I also bleed off some of the attention that might be focused elsewhere. I am a Starhawk partisan.
In other words, Starhawk is anarchy. It plays a lot like Section 8, another shooter that takes place inside a real time strategy game, but it’s entirely missing the limits that channel the action in Section 8, or the tough choices that make Section 8 a game about character builds. It’s a faster and looser Section 8. There’s something almost charmingly naive about how Starhawk lets all players have everything. Sheer folly, right? It will never work. The sorts of dudes who play team shooters need rules and structure. They can’t be trusted to actually play a game. Every capture-the-flag match will turn into two teams of 16 people circling around in starhawks, trying to shoot each other down. Then one of them will remember it’s a capture-the-flag game and he’ll carry the flag to his base while everyone ignores him. Reset and do it over again.
But after a few weeks of watching the community settle into a comfortable routine, those fears are unfounded. Without a strongly guided unlocking system or meaningful leveling up, Starhawk has a liberating pointlessness. You realize there’s nothing to do except, well, try to win the match. All those rules that give other games structure also give them a system to be gamed. Without that, well, what else are you going to do? Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to do but try to win.
Starhawk works best in its capture-the-flag and zone scoring modes. Capture-the-flag matches turn into two teams banging against each other’s defenses until someone punches a decisive hole. It can get tedious. But the zone scoring mode makes great use of these larger maps, letting the action roam into unexpected places, perfect for us Starhawk partisans. The team deathmatch is just a matter of which team has the most clueless players feeding the other team kills. Furthermore, some matches have a set of allowed vehicles and buildings that determine how they play. For instance, a blitz variant has no defensive structures and a ground war variant has no starhawks. Take some of the toys out of the toybox, and you’re playing a very different game.
A leveling system feeds into cosmetic unlockables, including paint schemes for your vehicles, but you’re almost never close enough to see these things. Unlockable abilities are so buried you might not even know they’re there. You have to accomplish achievements to unlock abilities, and you can only equip one at a time. These range from useless (extra ammo) to oddly powerful (anyone can spawn on my location) to totally unfair (permanent radar invisibility!), but they give Starhawk a touch of personal reward and asymmetry.
But because everything else is always available to everyone, Starhawk takes a papier-mache approach to base structures and heavy vehicles. In other words, because everything is powerful, nothing in powerful and everything is frail. It’s a necessary design choice, but it makes the action fast and disposable, with none of Section 8’s tough exchange of firepower, or Halo’s shielding tactics, or Mag’s battle lines. The pacing feels a lot like Quake Wars, where you should never get too attached to a vehicle because it’s going to get blown up any minute.
Starhawk puts extra emphasis on the starhawks by littering the skies with powerful (and undocumented) power-ups. To play the game as it’s intended, or to at least understand why that one guy keeps killing you, you’ll have to figure out the uberbomb, floating mines, and invisibility power-ups. Can someone at least get that stuff on the wiki already?
The biggest problem with Starhawk — and unfortunately, it’s a doozy — is a crushing lack of identity. The starhawks themselves are standard-issue mechs, the heavy tanks look like moon buggies, the characters look like…well, you never really see them given the scale of the game, but if you could, they’d recall Brink’s colorful mismatched whimsy. The weapons are as rote as could be, which makes them easy to figure out (starhawk power-ups excepted). The buildings look like any base from any RTS you’ve ever played. The maps are standard sci-fi arenas. The single player game attempts a Serenity-esque Western in space vibe, but it’s hardly noticeable given the tedium of the missions. The same tedium is also part of the disappointing horde mode. There is no support for bots in matches. Starhawk has a disappointing lack of personality, all in the service of just shunting you into multiplayer games already. It’s all game design without character, but at least it’s a refreshingly laissez-faire approach to a team-based multiplayer shooter.