On paper, the entertainment fundamentals of the new PS3 game Starhawk look as solid as a bank ledger. Its imaginative storyline is something of a futuristic western—filled with crazy-eyed outlaws, fortune-hunting prospectors, gunslinging good guys and even Star Wars-like planet battles! The gameplay is a unique blend of third-person shooting, swooping air combat and light tower-defense strategy.
Even the best-looking spreadsheets don't always add up. And to see why, you have to dig a little deeper into the numbers.
It's a Blue Rush
Story wise, the game's short single-player campaign centers around a specifically gifted mercenary named Emmett Graves and his seasoned pilot pal Sidney Cutter. These hired guns are a sought-after team when it comes to handling bad guys in their sci-fi cowboy universe. Cutter hovers overhead in their ship—offering reconnaissance and supplies—while Emmett takes care of business on a planet's surface. That business in this case entails finding a particularly mean and powerful outlaw, and protecting miners who are digging up the universe's most precious resource, a blue-glowing substance called rift energy.
The problem with this über-valuable stuff, however, is that anyone exposed to it for very long becomes corrupted and transforms into an addicted monster called a Scab. It's these Scab raiders that Emmett must blast away at on a regular basis … something he's particularly well-equipped to do because he himself has been infected by the bright rift material.
In Emmett's case though, the rift energy hasn't blown out his brain; instead it's given him special abilities. It allows him to manipulate a blue blade out of thin air for melee attacks. And if he gathers enough of the substance, it gives him the ability to pull prefabricated walls and buildings down from Cutter's ship in low orbit.
That's where real-time strategy comes into play. As Emmett, you have to work against a ticking clock to build up a battle area of assets before a wave of mutated baddies swarm in for the kill. Setting up wall fortifications, supply depots, repair facilities and elevated automatic gun turrets can take a chunk out of the massed enemies at the gate. You go at them with rifle in hand too, but if that's all you do, you'll end up real dead real quick. Strategic planning before and during an attack, then, can make the difference between an overwhelming mess and a rewarding victory.
As the game progresses, you can also bring hover bikes, jeeps and tanks into the battling mix. And you even gain access to a high-powered mech suit called a Starhawk that can rampage around on the ground or take flight and soar into space.
More Rattlers Than Expected
What that all boils down to is a series of build-and-blast battles held together by 2-D comic book-like cutscenes that creatively dole out the story. Scores and scores of mutants are obliterated by knife slash, rifle bullets, rocket zaps and turret-fire explosions in the (mostly) bloodless fighting. S-words and a smattering of uses of "h‑‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n" and "b‑‑tard" dirty the tumbleweed dialogue along the way … which bring back to mind that entertainment tally sheet I mentioned up front.
As does this: After you make your way through the relatively short five- or six-hour campaign story, it suddenly becomes clear that Emmett Graves' crammed-in tale isn't really the game's priority at all. It's all simply a brief primer on how the mechanics of play work so you can take things to a larger scale online multiplayer level.
Now, if you're dying to slap on a headset, choose up online teams and leap into capture-the-flag or kill-the-swarm public matches with up to 32 other players, that might seem to be an appealing prospect. But parents who aren't so keen on their teens leaving the T-rated boundaries (limited though they may be) of a single-player game for a less predictable shootout in an online frontier may not be so happy. In fact, they—and any gamers, actually, who are just looking for some simple sci-fi/Western romping—may well feel like they've been left with an intergalactic snake in their boot.