The guns have fallen silent in 2007's Warhawk. Not long ago it was a continual cycle of Battlefield-style multiplayer tangles between troops, tanks and futuro-planes. Now, due to our cruel PSN-enforced absence, the Eucadian and Chernovian armies have little to do but share the occasional cigarette, take a football into the no man's land that lies between CTF points and begin to wonder whether they're not so different after all.
In a distant time and far away place, however, new trouble is brewing deep in space. Sequel Starhawk is about to provide a fresh battle in a new universe – a full price game that brings a coherent solo campaign into the mix alongside a fascinating, almost RTS-styled, approach to base-building.
Oh, and aerial combat with Hawks that look like Panzer Dragoon, Transformers and a Peregrine Falcon freaked out and had crazy babies. (Itself a rather uncomfortable experience for what is, let's not forget, an endangered species).
Starhawk takes place on the edge of space – a frontier where a sprawl of moons and planets have a magic blue substance called Rift Energy sloshing around their insides. Something of a Gold Rush has built up around this energy, and many and varied unshaven space-types are laying claim to the Rift Geysers that litter the area. If you've got the Eyes of the Starhawk, you may well notice that this is a game that's very much crossed into full-on Firefly, Borderlands and Bravestarr territory.
Far from being a simple blue splodgey source of renewable power, however, Rift Energy has the power to turn men mad, melt their face, elongate their bones and inflict a somewhat sinister fashion sense.
Those overly exposed to Rift Energy, then, have formed roving Outcast warbands – devoted to seeking out geysers, worshipping them and massacring their former workmates and loved-ones.
It's down to the solo game's hero, Emmett Graves, to travel from space system to space system and geyser to geyser – fending off the Outcasts and securing the energy so his fellow colonists can convert them to filthy lucre.
He can do this because Emmett is the only man alive to have been infected by the Rift with his mind intact. Though it did leave him with a manky right hand and the ability to suck Rift Energy into a handy backpack.
As he runs around various arenas pulling off satisfying and meaty violence on Outcasts (sniping, chucking grenades, machine-gunning and occasionally resorting to actual bodily harm), Rift Energy leeches out of his fallen foes and into his own body.
So far so generic, but the way this energy can be used is genuinely fascinating. It's a gameplay tool well-used in both the single-player campaign and the franchise's familiar online skirmishes.
Starhawk's levels aren't comprised of linear sequences of Outcasts hiding behind explosive crates. They're large circular arenas in which Graves must fight off waves of enemies being beamed into the environment, while he busies himself with various objectives across the map.
From the top-down each mission essentially looks like a Venn Diagram of hurt, with various hotspots of enemy activity appearing and converging to capture geysers and destroy your structures.
Using Graves' stockpiled Rift Energy you can call down defences from an orbiting ship – causing buildings to rain down from the sky, slam into the ground and hastily construct themselves. In essence Starhawk presents a third-person hero with an RTS toolset to fend off his foes. This is essentially the game that EA should have made for Command and Conquer five years ago.
You can pull all manner of neat stuff down from the heavens. Communication towers that provide AI controlled allies to fight your cause, walls that hem the tide of enemy assaults, turrets that safeguard particular areas... And as the warfare escalates then 4x4-harbouring Garages and Hawk platforms will inevitably be required.
Missions generally begin with Graves infiltrating a troublespot on his lonesome, and end with him swooping through the skies in missile-toting mechanical bird, above a map littered with AI-warfare and an RTS base of his own design.
The multiplayer aspect utilises a similarly impressive system, where the 'kill to build and build to kill' ethos rings especially true. Every player can hover a green blueprint over a patch of their team's end of the map, and quickly bring down base-building essentials.
You could, say, block off an access route to your flag with a few walls – then upgrade one so it becomes a gate that will only accept your side's traffic. Alternatively, with a little more juice, you could bring down a garage – complete with a 4x4 for you and your buddies to take on a flag-cap run. This will then allow other team-mates to purchase vehicles from it with hard-fought rift energy.
It's a great system; essentially a streamlined and third person grandson of the all-too-often forgotten Battlezone remake that was released on the PC way back in 1998.
At the moment, however, it also needs a little tweaking – every game should end with colossal bouts between Hawks either stomping around like grumpy robots or careening through the skies, but it's easy enough for a griefer to build a maze of walls instead to fill up a team's building quota (of 16) and deny others the fun stuff.
Buildings can, of course, be demolished – but developers Lightbox still have a job on their hands to ensure StarHawk's constantly changing playing field is also a constantly level one.
Despite the addition of single-player, it's clear that multiplayer still rules the roost – with the developers desperate to throw in every attributable community and gameplay function they can imagine.
Good moderation, great match-making, clans, leaderboards, tournaments, android phone apps that talk directly to what's happening in the game world... It's clear that Sony would dearly love, and perhaps expect, Starhawk to go supernova.
The game's hero and rather contrived back-story don't entirely convince yet but there's little doubt that the game's systems work well – and that when you play with the right people, the multiplayer is even more of a hoot than last time round.
What's more, with a 2012 release date planned, we still have ample time to start a polite letter writing campaign pleading for the DLC to be set on earth, called TerraHawk and have a collection of eighties string puppets as playable characters. And, indeed, time for Sony to get around to turning PSN back on...