The greatest asset in Starhawk's arsenal is that it's capable of doing what no other shooter can. Starhawk creates a kind of chaos, unpredictability, and extraordinary spectacle that can't exist in any other shooter. This speaks to something more important. Starhawk dares to do what many others aren't: It subverts convention with original ideas. Starhawk is an action game that's comfortable in its own skin and carries itself with confidence.
It doesn't let struggles slow it down, and it makes the most of a mechanic that changes how you'll think about shooters on large-scale and microscopic levels. It throws caution to the wind and goes all in on a risk, betting that players will be receptive to something other than what they're used to.
Starhawk is as much about strategy as it is action. The Build & Battle system plays a significant role in what you're able to do within the confines of a third-person action game. As you acquire Rift energy, a lucrative but dangerous substance, you can call in orbital drops to change the flow of battle. In some cases, orders even affect level design. You can build walls and mount them with turrets if you're holding out in one area, call in a supply bunker for heavy weaponry, or summon vehicles from space for usage on the ground or in the air.
This is a simple idea, and it's not as mentally demanding as a real-time strategy title might be, but it contributes enough unexpected variables to deepen Starhawk in a major way.
The single-player campaign is, perhaps unsurprisingly, absolutely meant to prepare players for the online multiplayer. This isn't a bad thing in terms of structure; it eases you into a system new to the shooter genre in an effective way. A mission emphasizing tanks, for instance, shows their strengths and weaknesses against various enemy types, while holding out to protect your base forces you to learn the best means of defense.
That said, there really isn't a singular solution for any objective. Starhawk is flexible. This is where multiplayer starts bleeding into the campaign, and Starhawk is a rare example of multiplayer design benefitting single-player direction. Missions are more contained than wide-open multiplayer maps but they're no less open to your experimentation. Yes, you're there to learn, but it's an explosive, entertaining class.
Even Emmett's pistol packs a punch.
The story is Starhawk's deepest flaw. Even though it's not a dealbreaker, it's disappointing to see the debut of this sci-fi western world struggle with such potential.
As someone insecure about his past and presently seen as an inferior being, Emmett Graves is an interesting main character for Starhawk. He's a minority, and not because of any racial classification. Graves is infected by Rift energy, the sentient substance subject to Starhawk's space gold rush. He's resisted its impulses but bears its glowing blue scars. In the eyes of those around him, Graves is as the same as any of the other mindless, violent "Outcasts" under its control. The most prominent of these people is Emmett's brother Logan, a man back from the dead and leading the charge against mankind.
This societal rejection could have created some incredible conflict between the Graves boys. Emmett just doesn't develop, and the storytelling dances around the cool world he's part of. Some questionable writing also knocks down his personality a few pegs. During gameplay, he's a cheesy action hero whose witless one-liners cement how aroused he is by his own violence. Meanwhile, comic book cutscenes portray a Graves unlike the one we play, not that his greed and disinterest in other people here makes him any more likable.
Predictably, Starhawk is at its best online, and this is where it outshines everything else on the PlayStation 3. This is one of the strongest, most enjoyable multiplayer options available, and once again the credit falls on the simple innovations. In the campaign, Emmett is the only man with the power to pull down pieces to help defend, or vehicles to take on the attack. In your typical match, there are 32 builders.
That's 32 individuals who are considering their play constantly and intelligently, and 32 people who feel extremely powerful at all times. There's nothing random about the way you play Starhawk because it's a deliberate process. What's more is that these 32 players are each changing the course of battle with every action, whether they're building an impenetrable fortress or enabling other players to take a machine-gun mounted truck for a joy ride.
Starhawk disrupts multiplayer standards such as Capture the Flag, which becomes a more intense back-and-forth. No flag point looks the same because each enemy team defends it differently. If you play the role of flag capturer, you have plenty of options to get in and out, not the least of which is the Hawk ship, which makes a powerful escape vehicle in its walking tank mode (because of course you can't fly it with the flag in tow).
This is one of the most chaotic and empowering multiplayer games on any platform. Any number of tanks, gunners, turrets, and Hawks can rip buildings to shreds or take each other down. Somebody might get the jump on you for a vicious knife kill. Maybe you'll conquer a control point in Zones on your own without anyone knowing where you are. Eventually, you'll unlock that new paint job for your Razorback truck, a set of pants for your online avatar, and an equippable XP bonus.
You'll always see something on the move, a trail in the sky, a hail of bullets. There is always fire, and there is always a reason to build something. If you're smart about it, maybe your Shield Generator will hit a Hawk or land on a man as it tears through the atmosphere and smashes into the ground.
Whatever happens in the moment-to-moment action of Starhawk, you won't soon forget it.