Games 5/15/12: Starhawk, Prototype 2, Junk Jack

Starhawk
For: Playstation 3
From: LightBox Interactive/SCE Santa Monica/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $60

Taking the entirety of 2007’s “Warhawk” and launching it into space probably would have been enough to make “Starhawk” a perfectly fun sequel. But why settle for one new frontier if you can handle a handful?

For starters, “Starhawk” brings the series — known then and now for its ambitious 32-player online battles — into the single-player campaign space. And diametrically unlike “Battlefield 3’s” dreadful attempt to do the same last year, it doesn’t betray its own gameplay sensibilities to tell a story.

That point becomes quickly apparent, too. Following a brief cinematic introduction, “Starhawk” sets you loose in a wide-open frontier that’s half deep space and half wild west. Within 15 or so minutes, you’ll experience samplings of the on-foot action (loose run-and-gun third-person shooting), the vehicular controls and the impressive scope of the missions and maps.

You’ll also get a small taste of the game’s most pleasantly surprising new addition.

Along with the action on the ground and (eventually) in the air, “Starhawk” offers a modest but satisfying layer of real-time strategy via base-building. Provided you have the resources, you can construct everything from turrets and blockades to buildings that produce additional weapons, allied soldiers and vehicles.

“Starhawk” builds this layer in exactly the right way, too. What you build and where you place it is no trivial matter, but actually doing so is as quick and easy as tapping a few buttons and returning to the action (which continues unabated while you build). The structures form almost instantly, literally dropping from the sky and assembling in seconds.

(The surprisingly fun story — itself, like its surroundings, a mix of dark sci-fi and hokey western — explains why stuff drops in this way, but even if you don’t care, the process is visually awesome.)

Seamlessness combines with scale to produce “Starhawk’s” most admirable calling card, and its large, multi-layered environments accommodate it beautifully. Anytime you want to fight in close quarters on the ground, you can. Anytime you want to hop into a massive mech and stomp on those suddenly-tiny same enemies, you can. And if you want to soar into space and dogfight enemy aircraft circling above, a single button press turns that mech into a hawk, and off you go. All the while, whether you’re airborne or grounded, the base-building features stand at the ready.

(If you played “Warhawk” and are wondering, “Starhawk’s” flight controls are considerably more traditional and, consequently, much easier to grasp.)

Though the campaign never unfairly exploits it, its inevitable shortcoming is obvious: If you want something done — in the air, on the ground and as it relates to base construction — you have to do it yourself. Your A.I. allies are only so useful, so be prepared to frequently be in three places at once.

That’s less of a problem in the game’s four-player splitscreen/online survival mode, where you share responsibilities with friends while withstanding as many waves of enemies as you can stave off.

But it’s no problem whatsoever in “Starhawk’s” 16-on-16 competitive multiplayer, which remains the series’ jewel.

Everything mentioned previously about scope, seamlessness and freedom applies to “Starhawk’s” multiplayer matches, and you’re similarly free to engage in all facets of the battle as you please.

But having 15 teammates at your back affords you the freedom to avoid the roles you don’t enjoy and even dive into a specialty. If you’re weak on the ground, you can patrol the skies exclusively, and if you’d rather avoid combat entirely, you can contribute (and accrue experience points) just as effectively by keeping your team’s base fortified. Human opposition and intelligence makes “Starhawk’s” multiplayer arena far more imposing than its campaign, but there’s no more gratifying facet of the game than 16 players coordinating their talents in the service of a dominant victory.

—–

Prototype 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Radical Entertainment/Activision
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)
Price: $60

From its core out to the fringes, “Prototype 2” has a lot — arguably too much — in common with “Prototype.”

But the one significant change — outside of a new main character, and more on that in a bit — is a good one. This time, all that’s good and fun about “Prototype 2” isn’t completely torn down by the horrifying A.I. and difficulty balancing meltdowns that made its predecessor one of 2009’s most obnoxious games.

Conceptually, it’s business as usual. As James Heller, you’re still taking on both military and mutant forces. And despite filling a new set of shoes, you’re still a superpowered one-man army who can jump 50 feet per bound, sprint up the side of a New York City skyscraper, throw a car like a baseball and fully consume other people to shapeshift into them and acquire their memories and abilities.

This time, you actually get to enjoy these and other abilities. Raising the ire of a single mutant or soldier won’t result in insane waves of reinforcements instantly appearing in such thick numbers that your only recourse is to react and eventually just flee. Enemies still attack in packs, but they’re manageable enough that you can creatively take on a wave or two without a dozen other enemies constantly running interference at the slightest hint of player proactivity.

If anything, “Prototype 2” is too polite. Countering and evading enemy attacks is extremely easy even when outnumbered, and you’ll quickly gain access to some money moves that let you formulate devastating attacks from safe distances without fear of penalty if you miss. Recovering significant chunks of health on cue is as easy as dodging and countering, and if you take on some side missions and tack on the strength and well-being upgrades they pay out upon completion, you can inhale a battalion’s worth of military firepower without even paying that health bar any mind.

The kid gloves hold on for dear life during “Prototype 2’s” stealth segments, which task you with consuming enemies and posing as them to infiltrate restricted areas and shapeshift all the way up the food chain.

In the annals of stealth game enemies, none may be more gullible than this lot. Slowly clearing out a room by literally swallowing people who are standing two feet behind other people raises no alarm. Running up the side of a building and performing other superhuman feats may raise an eyebrow, but as long as you walk away casually, they’ll just shrug and dismiss it. In the rare instance you attempt to swallow a live person in his allies’ unbelievably dim line of sight, the game flashes an alert letting you know as much, and the action is canceled. And the guy whom you just grabbed and nearly swallowed before swiftly recanting the move? He thinks nothing of it. Carry on.

Still, if the difficulty balancing had to lean in one direction, this is preferable by far. Heller’s repertoire is fun to unleash, and “Prototype 2” lets you do exactly that in a big world that’s packed nicely with elective missions to complement the main storyline.

The only real step backward is Heller himself. “Prototype 2’s” storyline is one centered around revenge, and as Heller, you’re actually hunting the first game’s protagonist, whose actions in the first game indirectly resulted in the death of your wife and child.

But noble cause or not, Heller is just wretchedly unlikable — an f-bombing meathead whose character development is about as nuanced as the game’s stealth detection systems. That goes as well for writing in general: It isn’t so bad that you want to skip the cutscenes entirely, but it’s grating enough to turn on subtitles, mute the sound and play some music for a much more tolerable atmosphere.

—–

Junk Jack
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Pixbits
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $3

If the vast, empty, open-world canvases of “Minecraft” are imposing enough to drown out the appeal of building anything you want, some good news: Another happy medium has arrived. “Junk Jack’s” conceit comes straight out of “Minecraft’s” playbook: As the titular character, the game world is your oyster, and you can mine its every resource — trees, rocks, the ground itself and dangerous wildlife, among other elements — and turn them into a new world in which to survive and eventually prosper. Instead of a terrifying 3D world that goes on forever, though, “Jack” bakes this conceit into a 2D sidescroller with a vibrant (and friendly) pixelated graphical presentation. And instead of shoddy documentation, the game arranges a wealth of beginner tips (and even a few crafting recipes) inside a terrific help interface that’s always handy but never in the way. Just don’t let the friendly face fool you. “Jack” is accessible, but its building tree — wherein resources become tools and tools become platforms for creating everything from gardens to machinery and more — runs surprisingly deep. And though its world is smaller than “Minecraft’s” endless frontier, it’s plenty big (and dangerous) enough to accommodate whatever ambition you bring to it.