In the first few minutes of trying out the Starhawk beta, I had two experiences that solidified in my mind how much this game will be worth a purchase when it releases in early May.
When you first plummet from orbit in a drop pod, and burst forth onto the sci-fi battlefield like a spore from a poisonous plant, Santa Monica’s Starhawk feels very similar to their 2007 PS3-exclusive, online-only Warhawk. The camera angle is the same, the responsiveness and shooting are the same: you walk around and can see teammates and shoot enemies (the shooting seems a little scrappy and imprecise, but works fine). The lack of any sort of tutorial is initially a bit bewildering as there’s a relatively large amount to learn, spread over several game mechanics.
But then the first cool thing happens: you try pressing the Triangle button. The camera pulls back to give you a wide-angle view, and a radial menu appears in front of your screen. In the detail of the radial menu, you can see a selection of vendor buildings and defence buildings; gun turrets, attachable walls, garages, spawn beacons, and so on. When you let go of triangle, your choice highlighted, a blue print of the selected building appears in front of your character, and you can turn around and look around as normal to place it. You press X to ‘Build’. A moment of silence. Then a gigantic crash, as the building plummets down from an orbital station, and with a Transformers-like quality, builds itself right in front of you. A process very similar to the first Dawn of War RTS game, but reaproppriated into the visceral quality of an online action game.
The process feels good, and looks good, but costs energy . Energy you harvest from the centrepiece of your base, a giant glowing tower that is your hub. Energy slowly drips to you from this if you’re in the spawn area, and your team has a maximum building capacity before nobody can build anymore. The first few minutes of a game are usually fantastic to simply sit back and watch: buildings soar down, smoke and explosions envelop the land, and your base (unique every time) constructs itself from nothing.
It was shortly after experimenting with base-building that I had my second defining experience in the Beta. While everyone hopped around building the base, I noticed someone had built some sort of station, and rather than harbouring one of Warhawk’s iconic fighter planes, this Hawk’s outline appeared to be a mech of some kind. “Ooh, mechs!” I spurted with glee. I hopped in and started testing the controls again, stomping around, hopping, shooting my weapons. The player character is housed sitting directly on top of the vehicle, so while you can stand still to do damage with accuracy , you’re extremely exposed to snipers and such. After getting used to it’s movements, I accidentally tapped Circle (crouch when on foot). The Hawk did the last thing I expected. It transformed. Not a skimpy move either, I’m talking a Transformers-quality transition into that old Hawk fighter-jet shape, and the folded legs of the mech became jet engines, blasting me forward at an insane speed, and in the time it takes to say ‘Autobots, assemble’ I was hundreds of feet out into space, swooping and spinning, flying through the Os in doughtnut-shaped asteroids. This was, and still is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in a long time in a multiplayer game.
In the beta, there are only two maps. The one that seems to be less favoured these days was the one I had my first experience on; bluntly named Space, this level is a space platform floating some way away from a pair of planets in a star system. When you hop in a Hawk, transform, and zoom off through asteroids and under the station, the sense of freedom is immense, and the dogfights you can get into top-notch. You feel like Han in his chase through the asteroid belt in no time. The aiming system has been improved immensely and weapon pickups are available from slightly-out-of-the-way parts of the map, for bombing runs or quicker rival Hawk takedowns.
I once, in another very George Lucas moment, took off in a newly spawned Hawk after an enemy, who was in turn chasing one of my teammates. For what felt like forever we went swooping around and evading and nipping at each other; flying under, around and through the pipes and constructs and geology of the Acid Strip map, while all around us flew rockets and buildings and bodies and smoke from the overall battle at hand. It’s testament to the quality of the simulation and its design that at any moment I could have abandoned my teammate, returned to mech mode, stomped back to base, and started protecting our flag by building junk. And had equal fun doing this.
It all just ties together brilliantly. However, after a while of playing, it’s clear that “Build ‘n’ Battle” is the real game changer. I thought it might work before I had played the game, but honestly it’s ingenious. You get Planetside-style bases and defence in moments, the customizability of a Source game, and the strategy of an RTS; at every player’s fingertips. Teamwork and creativity are a fun breeze.
There are no ‘classes’ in Starhawk. You can build a wall with one of your teammates, helping each other out, connecting the edges of each wall to each other’s construct; and then you can both go your own ways, pick up weapons from a supply depot, build a sniper tower or a garage, and blast off to attack the enemy while the other sticks around to build defence. Co-operation is effortless and simple and fun. The first time you look over at your base near the beginning of a Capture the Flag game, and see the base coming into shape, buildings exploding down from the sky and smoke erupting as the base fluidly and dynamically takes shape, while your teammates run around like ants preparing food for the queen, and the whole thing is so smooth, it feels like you really are on a future battlefield. Before you know it, your own unique base has formed, and the battle feels yours. Then it’s off to start tearing apart the other teams base, before they do the same to yours (or you could use buildable Spawn Points to create an offshoot foothold nearer the enemy).
Anyway, enough fangasming. In general I found very few flaws in the Beta. This bodes very well for the full release. I encountered some unstable network code for connecting to other’s games, the aforementioned lack of a tutorial, and some very serious issues while installing and running the game for the first time. The game crashed out when I pressed Circle to quit after it had patched, then wouldn’t work again and repeatedly shut down my machine, until I tried completely erasing it and reinstalling it. I lost about two hours doing this. In terms of network code, I’ve experienced next to no in-game lag, but often get disconnected from games when trying to connect to them (I’ve never been kicked out mid-game).
Graphically, there’s nothing to complain about, it’s all excellent and cohesive, except for the fact that player models sometimes look a little funky running around (either minor lag or just poor animation, I can’t tell). Levels are large and pretty, effects are futuristic and attractive, and the frame-rate only occasionally droops. Probably my biggest qualm about the Beta is that there are only Small maps, and a player cap at 16. These small maps are still huge, and battles feel very full with 16 players. What’s it going to be like with large maps, and the maximum player cap of 32! Incredible!
Anyway, you should all at least download it and try it. I’m geniunely shocked that this series doesn’t exist on PC or 360. I doubt there would be many porting issues, and on PC, with a big player cap, this game would be unreal.
Overall, I’ve had a surprisingly great time with this Beta, and the multiplayer seems perfectly balanced, if lacking in a tutorial. It’s hard to tell how good the singleplayer offering will be as Hawk has always been about multiplayer: but it has promise based on the strength of the multiplayer, as long as they play to those strengths. Not to mention the now-obligatory Horde-Mode-A-Like in the full game, and Starhawk is shaping up a treat. Look out for it mid/early May, and get the Beta now!