It’s curious, given the PS3’s relatively threadbare accommodation for online multiplayer, that it’s Sony, and not Microsoft, that proves the more creative and adventurous when it comes to the development of online games.
While Microsoft backs reliable, but by now formulaic, bets like Halo, Gears Of War and Call Of Duty, Sony has tested the limits of the online FPS with MAG, taken confident strides towards establishing the PS3 as a viable platform for MMOs with DC Universe Online and, with Starhawk, is yet again attempting something different within the online space.
Where its predecessor, Warhawk, was essentially an ultra-accessible, console-friendly answer to Battlefield, Starhawk lends the formula a great deal more depth by adding a thick layer of RTS-esque tactics into the mix.
In addition to placing auto-turrets and commandeering vehicles, each player can now construct buildings and walls using rift energy earned by killing enemies, destroying their buildings or simply hanging about near the hub of your own base.
The construction of buildings is an enormously important part of the game, especially in objective-based game modes, and the outcome of each match depends as much, if not more, on which team spends their energy most wisely as it does on which team is the most skilled in direct combat.
It’s a great concept in principle, but recent history is full of great concepts for online games that collapsed into dysfunction the moment they’re exposed to the harsh realities of online gaming and the shower of selfish, cheating, unsportsmanlike bastards that populate it. Not you, dear reader; you’re one of the nice ones.
The multiplayer in the last two Assassin’s Creed games, for example – great concept, doesn’t work in practice. Then there was Sony’s own MAG – 256-player battles are so appealing in theory, but in practice, again, just don’t work.
Dogfighting seems less prominent in Starhawk than it was in Warhawk, with the jet mode used mainly to get behind enemy defences fast.
There’s a reason Microsoft holds stock in tried-and-tested online multiplayer formulae. It’s hard enough for even a relatively straightforward multiplayer game to gain traction and maintain an audience, so going to market with an idea that might, at a pretty fundamental level, not work is risky to the point of seeming suicidal.
But one thing Sony can always be applauded for is its ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ attitude. And maybe, just maybe, Starhawk could be one of the risks that pays off.
It’s certainly polished, well-balanced and cleverly designed, and while it’s certainly a deeper, more strategic experience than Warhawk, the simplistic, console-friendly design principles of its forebear are still in evidence.
The number of different weapons and buildings available is minimal and the differences between them clear. It’s still a lot to take on board at first, but once you do start learning what the purpose of each weapon or tool is, putting that understanding into practice is mercifully straightforward. At least, it is on an individual level.
Playing as a ‘lone wolf’ you’ll soon learn where you want to spawn and which buildings you want nearby so that you can quickly collect your preferred vehicle and or weapon. But Starhawk isn’t really designed for such an individualistic style of play.
To play effectively, your team needs to agree how best to use resources and where best to place facilities. If you’ve played online games before, we’re assuming alarm bells have now started to ring. Yes, your team needs to agree.
The basic assault rifle is useful, but you’ll usually want to pick up some better weapons to enable you to adapt to different situations on the fly.
Starhawk really is a lot like playing an RTS with up to 32 players on each side, which means that the single, focussed strategic vision that shapes the gameplay of a regular RTS is entirely absent.
Moments of cooperation and teamwork aren’t unheard of in Starhawk, but every member of a team playing according to the same plan certainly is, which is potentially problematic when resource management and base design are such key aspects of gameplay.
There’s a danger that all but the most skilled players will just end up feeling like pawns in someone else’s game, which could rather tarnish the accessibility on which Starhawk wants to be sold. Still, without a bit of danger we’d just be swamped with Call Of Duty and Gears Of War clones, so here’s hoping the risk pays off.