Hands-on / Rejoice! Starhawk’s campaign isn’t a multiplayer tutorial

Single-player focused titles with tacked on multiplayer modes are all too common these days, look no further than BioShock 2 and Dead Space 2 for proof of that. And while we don’t hear of it anywhere near as often, the problem works both ways. Counting back the years on my hand, Unreal Tournament III comes to mind as the last multiplayer shooter with a ‘tacked on’ single-player campaign. What should have been an intense fist-bumpathon from the Gears of War creators ended up being little more than multiplayer maps filled with bots and dressed up with cutscenes.

That’s not a single-player mode, that’s just cheap.

It would seem however that – based on a hands-on at this week’s Eurogamer Expo – Lightbox Interactive are adamant that that’s not what Starhawk will be. This third-person shooter may be treading the risky ‘mutliplayer gone single-player’ ground (while still retaining its own online offerings), but it’s doing things differently. That much is obvious in the first few moments of my recent hands-on with the game. Cowboy-esque hero Emmet Graves makes an unusually cinematic entrance for a game of this structure, crashing down onto a dusty, desert-like planet surface like a probe droid dropping onto Hoth. Such an entrance actually sets that same feeling of the unknown that the early scenes of the Empire Strikes Back create so well.

Given the game’s multiplayer roots in its predecessor, Warhawk, I was half expecting to suddenly spawn on the map with that “oh, I’m alive again” feeling that I get around 50 times per Call of Duty match. From there it would be a simple case of sinking a few rounds of bullets into aimless bots that try desperately to act with the quick-footed skill of human players as I endlessly take a flag back and forth across a map until victory was achieved. But that’s not how Starhawk plays at all.

And so as Graves emerged from the smouldering wreckage of his transport, I was pleasantly greeted by a pack of enemies that weren’t running around the map in zig zags, but were in fact standing perfectly still. Like they didn’t know I was there yet. Like they were guarding their base, like they owned the place. Not like bots, but like normal enemies, the kind I actually get enjoyment out of murdering.

And so murder I did. Combat is another part of Starhawk that holds some nice surprises. It’s no shock to learn that the shooting handles about as well as you could hope for, but it is refreshing to discover the spring in Graves’ step as you go about your business. Starhawk’s characters are light on their feet rather than plodding war machines, perfectly capable of sprinting up to an enemy knocking him down with a melee kill and then high-tailing it out of there, all the while maintaining steady accuracy in firing a weapon in any direction. Think about all those desperate run-and-gun moves you’ve made as Nathan Drake and combine it rock-solid aiming that would make you think Marcus Fenix was holding the weapon, while throwing a dash of Cole MacGrath’s quick-footed nimbleness in the mix too.

The controls stick to the basics, making sure that within seconds of picking up the controller you’re darting about the battlefield, making short work of the enemies. It can admittedly get a little too chaotic if you don’t watch your back – get straight into the mix and you’ll be surrounded quickly. Instead I hang back, move from cover to cover picking off baddies as I go. It makes short work of them.

An introductory objective out of the way, then, so it’s time to get into the game’s build and battle system, which looks to be more robust than just vehicle depots and gates. Given the right amount of variety, this feature (which lets you call down structures from space to land on the planet surface) could really separate Starhawk from the rest of the pack. Bringing up a selection wheel to lay down some turrets reveals a good ten or so empty slots for structures yet to be discovered. If the game offers the kind of base-building options usually seen in RTS titles then that could really be something special.

For now I’ll just have to settle for turrets, walls, and spawn points. You’re given an impressive amount of freedom as to where to place buildings on the map, letting you quickly turn the tides with additional firepower should you start to be overwhelmed by the enemy. Before long I’m up to my neck in gunfire again but this time I have the support of allies, making the battle feel more like a small scale war than the previous one-man army approach.

I’m sadly pulled away from the game before I can dive into planes, trains and automobiles (I’m even sadder to learn that there are no trains), and I’d be interested to see if hopping into a Humvee evokes the same sense of freedom and control over the battlefield as Halo’s warthog, but that’s for another time, I guess.

But it’s with strategic elements like build and battle mixed with the fun gunplay that gives me a lot of faith that Starhawk’s campaign will be anything but a watered-down online mode. I don’t feel like the story will be a poorly-translated online mode, rather something that will be worthy of standing up next to said mode come the time of release.

Much remains to be seen of this promising shooter, and now that I’m sure single-player will be a blast, I want to know why multiplayer will be even better.

Look for Starhawk on PS3 in 2012.