Sony Announces Warhawk’s Successor: Starhawk, Coming in 2012

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With a game set deep in the reaches of outer space, on a remote outpost where rough men toil at the impossibly hard work, mining the planet, Sony has, quite possibly, struck it rich. Last week, Sony gathered members of the gaming press to introduce the heir to the Warhawk throne, a game slated for early 2012 release exclusively on the PlayStation 3, Starhawk.

The game pits miners who have been mutated by blue gold, an energy source called “Rift” that they were tasked with gathering, against the main protagonist, Emmett Graves, and his band of human outcasts. Graves, while human, has begun to mutate, but has been outfitted with a device to control the mutation from spreading further in his body. It’s a distant universe and lawless, similar in many ways to the gold rush days of the wild west.

And, unlike last time around, it’s not just multiplayer. There’s a full-blown single-player campaign that is sure to give Warhawk fans and shooter aficionados a lot to chew on. I was able to play a level of single-player and it was amazing. You’re dropped onto the planet from the sky in a protective pod that conveys you to the surface. Once free, you are armed with a basic gun and turned loose. As you destroy the enemy forces, former miners who have been turned crazy and evil by exposure to Rift in the mines, you gain better weapons.

After clearing the first wave of bad guys, you communicate with your allies in ships above via a HUD. This is when you are first exposed to Starhawk‘s most impressive feature, a mechanic that’s been dubbed “Build & Battle.” Basically, as you make kills and destroy things, you bank XP in the form of Rift energy, which can be cashed in for a variety of structures and assets to help you win battles. Your build wheel offers everything from turrets that auto-target enemies to supply houses that have doors that only open for your team and, of course, Hawk launchers. (These are no ordinary aircraft. These Hawks can also be operated on the ground like battle mechs.) The result of this system is a game that is about as far from a standard, linear, shooter-on-rails game as you can get. Yes, there are goals, but it’s up to you to decide the best approach to solving them.

The really cool thing is, because of the versatility of the Build & Battle system, you can play the level over and over and have it play out a different way every single time. Plus, as a nice, little bonus, when you order a structure from your interface, it comes beaming down from the sky like a screaming meteor. If there just happens to be an enemy or two standing in the way, well, let’s just say you’ve saved some ammo.

During my time with the demo, the first time I tried out all of the toys that Build & Battle offered. I built walls to defend, ran around and flew in Hawks, and set up as many turrets as I could. I also generated AI soldiers to assist me. These troops were smart enough to know that we were being flanked and set out to attack the invading forces behind us. On my second run, I tried to complete the level by myself with just a shotgun, rocket launcher and standard machine gun. This was not quite as successful as the first try.

Because Starhawk is the bigger, badder step-brother to Warhawk, you might guess there will be a healthy multiplayer aspect to the game … and you’d be right. There will be an incredible variety of multiplayer options, including extensive clan support, user generated tournaments, and much more. During the demo, I got the chance to play a few games of multiplayer capture the flag. I have to admit, I’m usually not much of a multiplayer fan, but Starhawk‘s multiplayer was my favorite part of the demo. There was so much going on – 4x4s zipping across the battlefield with rear gunners picking off enemies in their paths, Hawks screaming across the sky before abruptly landing and transforming into mechs to help defend or attack, and rocket, sniper and gunfire rained down from all sides – it was absolute chaos. If you die during multiplayer, as I did (repeatedly), you regenerate via a pod insertion. It wasn’t until the second time I respawned that I realized I could affect the trajectory of my pod and I could steer it to land on enemies. BOOYAH!

In our quick time with Starhawk‘s multiplayer, many tactics were tried as both sides tried to probe the weaknesses and strengths of the map. Teams blocked roads between bases with gates, walls, and bunkers and the opposing team tried to knock them down (buildings are destructable in Starhawk) with unrelenting fire. It was all over too soon and everyone seemed to have enjoyed the game, which says a lot because the release is likely a year away — it’s hardly even an alpha build — and there’s still a lot of work to be done.

It was tough to decide whom to trust with the reins to this game, but when the decision was made, Sony had turned to the hill country of Texas — coincidentally, also a place where rough men have done hard work harvesting the earth’s resources for a long time. Lightbox Interactive is working on the development of Starhawk and is made up of former employees of Incognito, who had been responsible for previous PlayStation games Warhawk, Twisted Metal: Black and War of the Monsters.

Dylan Jobe, president of Lightbox Interactive, is very excited about this project and reflected on why they decided to make Starhawk. “We were familiar with Warhawk so it seemed like a logical game to build on. We worked on it for quite a while and we had a much longer than normal pre-production phase. We knew that the shooter genre was very competitive, so we spent a lot of time experimenting on ways to try to stand out with different gameplay experiences. We eventually settled on this method of Build & Battle and we realized we were going to continue the ‘Hawk brand.”

Jobe makes the analogy that the Build & Battle system is similar in some ways to the choices players get when choosing seeds for Plants vs. Zombies. “We wanted to [allow players to pick and choose weapons like in PvZ], but in a multiplayer context, we can’t let everyone pick their own seeds because we don’t have enough memory to deal with the combinatorial explosion of everyone’s variations. I really would have loved to do that with Starhawk, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to do it.” Instead, players will be able to pick and choose from eight different battle assets.

Starhawk has the feel of previous Warhawk games, but it looks better, plays faster and seems grittier. I asked Jobe if he thought the appeal would spread beyond existing Warhawk fans. “We’ve done a number of focus tests in a number off cities and we split up Warhawk and shooter players. We were, thankfully, very lucky, that we got resonance with both groups. The Warhawk fans felt like it was enough like Warhawk that it felt like the spiritual successor, but yet it was a fun enough game that the non-Warhawk players were interested in playing. We’re pretty happy with it so far.”

Will Starhawk stand up to the test? You can find out when the game releases on the Playstation 3 in early 2012.

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