License To Build

The third-person shooter Starhawk is a bit like an outer-space Lego set.

By Anthony John Agnello • May 15, 2012

The common complaint that Legos aren’t about creativity anymore—that kids just follow the instructions to make a Star Wars spaceship instead of using their imagination—is bullshit. Legos were always about ready-made objects. One of the first sets the company ever sold was a truck made of plastic bricks, designed to be taken apart. The bricks have endured for nearly a century because of their flexibility: They provide both a prefab fantasy and a springboard for free-wheeling invention. Sony’s third-person shooter Starhawk has that Lego spirit in its dusty guts. It’s a box of bricks used to tell a meager space opera and to stage improvisational free-for-alls with other players. 

Starhawk’s protagonist is Emmett, a space cowboy on a journey of redemption and revenge in a frontier solar system. The plot is 1970s porno-thin—there’s just enough setup to justify the game’s loud action—but it’s serviceable. Emmett and his buddy Cutter protect mining operations for Rift Energy, an abundant, glowing blue power source with a bothersome side effect: It turns some folks into evil space monsters called Scabs. At the beginning of the game, Emmett is called back to his old hometown, and the past comes back to haunt him in the form of the king Scab, the Outlaw, who used to be his brother. Shooting ensues.


Emmett and Cutter’s Scab-killing tour of the local planets opens up Starhawk’s particular box of bricks. Success in battle yields blue energy, which can be used to build everything from hover bikes to beacons that summon reinforcements. It’s a little weird to see a garage with a Jeep in it fall from the sky and build itself, but it’s also satisfying. Discovering each new tool is a treat, especially early on when you get access to the titular Starhawks—walking tanks that transform into spaceships.

At their very best, Starhawk battles surround you with enemies on all sides, leaving you to determine which tools in your arsenal will best handle the situation. Your energy is limited, and experimentation is rewarded with tense but fairly balanced shootouts. The game restricts what you can access in any given level—sometimes you can build hover bikes, sometimes you can’t. When you’re playing through the story, you have to build what’s pictured on the box. 


When you’re playing with other people, however, you can make whatever you want, whenever you want. The multiplayer mode is broader in every way than the story, with capture-the-flag matches, simple versus modes that pit monsters against miners, and cooperative portions where you must defend an energy source from computer-controlled aggressors. You can place limits on what tools are available if you like, but the game shines when you have the whole arsenal at your disposal.

This sense of freedom is reined in by the game’s arbitrary progression system. Playing multiplayer earns you experience points, which grant you new skills as they accumulate. The points system feels tacked-on. A better approach might have been to give you an open set of tools that are always available, but have to be mastered through use. You don’t automatically know how to build a Lego model of the Guggenheim when you first crack open a box. You start simple with a little square house and learn from there. If nothing else, Starhawk deserves kudos for attempting to do some creating in addition to its run-and-gun destroying—and for giving you some measure of freedom, even when you’re building its prefab adventure.

Developer: Lightbox Interactive
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 3
Price: $60
Rating: T

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514 Responses to “License To Build”

  1. Effigy_Power says:

    Industrial security killing Scabs? Man, those Unions sure know how to put a threatening subtext into games.

    But seriously, I checked out the webpage, looked at some videos… It’s all fine, but it once again doesn’t feel like a full-priced game. If this were a XBLA game (or whatever the PS3-version of that is), this might go over very well, but for a full $60 I simply expect more. I expect, and maybe I am spoiled, great voice-acting, riveting story-lines, a huge amount of features… This just doesn’t feel as though it offers any of that.
    And the fact that you have some freedom and can spend a ton of time on it doesn’t really win me over either. Bejeweled offers plenty of that too, but nobody would pay $60 for it. Heck, Freecell allows me to customize and constantly replay and that’s free. So I don’t know if this is really something that adds to the sense of value, at least not for me.
    I think for $20 this would have looked like a great bargain, but I doubt that it will gain a big following at its steep price. There’s a lot of games I don’t have yet that I could buy for $60 if I really had to before I’d even give this a glance. It just seems like one of those games that sits on the shelf and appeals to nobody, maybe other than the occasional grandmother wanting to surprise their grandkids and being pointed to games like this by ruthless sales clerks.

    PS: Anyone else get the vibe as if they took the vehicular aspect of Red Faction and “cranked it up a notch”?

    • Aurora Boreanaz says:

      Ooh, I was sold on “Lego set in space”, but yeah…the $60 price tag is a bit much.  I’d say $30 or less for me.

      I’m still hooked on Minecraft myself.  Working on a second castle in Survival mode, and starting to fiddle with bigger creations in Creative.  Oh, and the XBox version came out today.  I hear it’s got distinct advantages and disadvantages for a console port (better crafting menu, but much harder inventory management).

    • HobbesMkii says:

       To be fair, there are plenty of big-budget AAA titles that don’t deliver “great voice-acting, riveting story-lines, [and/or] a huge amount of features.”

      • Effigy_Power says:

        All of which should be noted when reviewing them.
        All of which makes me like them less.
        $60 is not a small amount of money and I expect some value for that. People would be pretty upset to get 8 episodes and no bonus features in a DVD-boxset costing $60 and I think games should be held to the same standard.

        • HobbesMkii says:

          I totally agree with that (see my reply to Eric Leslie, below). I just wanted to point out that some people seem to think games like Gears of War is worth $60, regardless of the fact it lacks all three of those things.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

      It does seem like blanket acceptance of the $60 price tag on games is eroding.  I’d say the single best quality of this gaming generation is the rise of excellent downloadable titles.  Between that and the diminishing wow-factor of console releases due to our familiarity of this generation, $60 seems like a rare pinnacle for a game to be worthy of.
         This theory might too-tidily coincide with my own parenthood, and subsequent lack of time and disposable income to spend on games, but even Skyrim, which by volume alone merits the money, was a discount purchase for me.

      • caspiancomic says:

         Totally agree that unquestioning acceptance of a $60 price tag is going to vanish before long. I think some games will continue to cost that much, but as @Effigy_Power:disqus suggests, I think only the tippy-top of the A-list will be charging for that maybe even within a few years. I think boxed releases are going to begin to show a wider range of prices, with some retail copies going as low as $30. While we’re at it, I think the price discrepancy is one of the reasons handheld gaming is having such a moment these last few years. I could buy a DS game, new, for two thirds or even half the price of a PS3 game, and get just as much enjoyment out of it or more. I payed $60 for Arkham city and $40 for Professor Layton and the Last Spectre, and while I loved them both, I still play Professor Layton but haven’t touched Arkham City in months.

    • I actually thought the very same thing at first, but after spending time with it, I’d say Starhawk is absolutely worthy of its retail disc status. 

      I considered it side by side with Double Fine’s Iron Brigade, or Trenched for folks with long memories. They’re very similar games, running and gunning with some strategic elements thrown on top. 

      What distinguishes the $15 game from the $60 game here is scale and smoothness of play. Iron Brigade is an incredibly fun game, but it’s also rough around the edges and its arenas are very cramped. Starhawk’s maps, both in single player and multiplayer, meanwhile are sprawling and the game plays smooth as butter. 

      I wouldn’t say that one game is better than the other because of these disparities, but one was very clearly more expensive to make and, as such, is priced accordingly.

      Monetary value isn’t really the point of a review though, hence why it didn’t come up.

      • Eric Leslie says:

        “Monetary value isn’t really the point of a review though” – out of curiosity, why not? I would think that for most consumers, the primary reason they’re reading reviews for a game (unless they’re just confirming their own opinions) is to help answer the question, “Is this worth my time and money?” Money being half of that, it seems relevant to address.

        • I don’t necessarily think that a review’s purpose is answer the question of whether something’s worth time and money. In Consumer Reports, sure, but outside of that context not so much.

          I think a review’s chief purpose is to illuminate something’s values. What those values are–this game captures some fundamental human experience, that game is funny, that game will make you despondent because of all the violence–change with every single work.

          If the critic’s shown a proper light on something, then the reader can make their own decisions about time and money.

        • HobbesMkii says:

           @facebook-1362601810:disqus I recognize that such things are largely an editorial call and a sort of philosophical approach that the Gameological Society has eschewed in favor of the experiential review model without assigning games a score or grade, which is fine by me because that’s the model I’m used to reading and one that I like.

          But, I think Eric makes a pretty valid point, even given the experiential model. I do read reviews hoping to see something of what I’ll experience playing the game, and specifically to decide if that experience is worth the price of the game at the given moment. A lot of times, it’s not worth $60, which I think might be an easier price-point for some reviewers, especially if they get review copies (I have no idea whether that’s true for Gameological or not). And I recognize that’s it’s also extremely hard to gauge what any given reader might be willing to pay. But I think some of it could be hazarded a guess without controversy.

          I’ll give you an example. I picked up Alan Wake’s American Nightmare at its full $15 (but I had to spend $20 to get the Microsoft Points to pay $15 for it, thanks to XBLA’s “convenient” pricing scheme). Now, that was a bargain for me: I got an Alan Wake title for 15-20 bucks. But I also loved the first game, which held value for me largely because I loved Sam Lake’s writing from Max Payne 2. So my experience was shaped by factors outside the game itself. If I were recommending it to someone who had never played the original or either of the Max Payne titles, I would not have recommended that they purchase it at $15. There are serious flaws with AW:AN (it’s clearly padding out its length through repetition and the story is heavily reliant on familiarity with the plots from both the preceding game and that game’s DLC), and I would have recommended that someone new to the IP pay closer to $10 or $12, whenever it went on sale.

          I guess what I’m saying I don’t think that a well-reasoned recommendation as to whether a game ought to be a purchase (at full price or sale) or perhaps even just a rental seriously undercuts the reader’s ability to decide for themselves what a game is worth.

        • John Teti says:

          Anthony put it very well. We’re not writing consumer recommendations; we’re writing commentary that sheds light on a game from one critic’s perspective. We include the price of the game, and we tell you what we think of the game. That is all anybody can honestly do.

          If you want to make a buying decision based on that one critic’s subjective view, that’s cool, go for it. Different readers have different takeaways and priorities. The consumer angle just isn’t the primary goal of the writing here. We’re less about consumption and more about conversation.

          Our review philosophy is explained in a little more detail in the FAQ.

        • caspiancomic says:

           I understand how some people would like to get a basic idea of the cost to enjoyment or cost to quality ratio of a given title in a review, it always makes my skin crawl to see people claim that $15 is “too much money” to pay for something like Braid or Journey.

          The pure monetary “value” of a game is important, especially for those of us on a fixed budget (read: all of us), but certainly not the only metric by which these things ought to be judged. I think by offering a glimpse at the foundations or motivating thesis or idea of a game, rather than the ratio of fun had per dollar spent, it not only acts as a more fulfilling critical examination of a work (something games journalism needs desparately), but is also illuminating in its own way on the subject of whether a game is worth the asking price. A lot of the people in this very thread read the review, looked at the price tag, and were able to make the informed decision that from their perspective, the game was not worth the money.

        • Effigy_Power says:

          These are all valid points.
          In the end a good game is a good game is a good game and a bad game is a bad game is a bad game.
          I don’t think any sane person would judge a game solely on the aspect of monetary value and I don’t think anyone alluded to that.

          That said, getting a great game at a great price will make me consider myself a lot happier and luckier to have gotten this. A bad game, in contrast, will appear like a much greater waste of money if it was expensive.

          I can download a bad game for $5 and dismiss it with a quick shrug. But to be conned into buying an unfinished crap-fest for as much as they tend to go for will make me feel ripped off.

          As such, while the cost of the game is unimportant for the quality of the game (especially since the price is set by distributors and retailers, not the developers), it can have very negative connotations if cost and perceived value don’t add up, just as it can have surprisingly positive connotations if one receives a bargain.

          EDIT: With all the talks about the artfulness and glory of gaming, we shouldn’t forget that we are buying games usually in good faith without really knowing them, that they are still a commercial product and that few of us can afford to just throw $60 into the wind.

        • Damn_Skippy says:

          What I’m liking about this site is that it focuses on actual criticism in the reviews, which is still fairly rare for games. It seems people have been able to decide for themselves, based just on what was written, what they’re willing to pay for it without a proclamation either way whether it’s worth it’s price. Which is kind of the point of good criticism, it leaves you with enough good prose to decide for yourself.

          Anyway, just rambling and late to the discussion anyway. I get the gist though, as I rarely pay full price for any game at this point; I think the last one was Skyrim. Though I have thrown $15 at about 5 Kickstarters in the last few months and bought handful of games for less than $20, and a few things from steam sales, so I still spend way too much money on this stuff.

      • Effigy_Power says:

         I agree with Eric actually. A sense of value is a pretty important factor for me. If I feel as though I have been ripped off, I will bear a long and arduous grudge against the game and judge it more harshly. If I got the game for a bargain, I will probably overlook a few issues.
        Value is an important thing for people, as the recent HBO/GoT debate on the AV Club showed.

  2. Snowdens says:

    Nobody seems to mention it in the reviews, but isn’t this meant to be a sequel to the game Warhawk?