Here's the problem with science fiction video games: At some point, you know you're going to run into some alien race that wants to crush humanity. From Halo to Gears of War to Mass Effect, the scenario is so familiar it's become exhausting. One can only save the universe so many times.
So it's refreshing to jump into Starhawk (Sony, $59.99, for the PlayStation 3), where the stakes are a bit more humble. The heroes are just a bunch of working stiffs trying to make a living by mining an exotic substance called "rift energy." The villains -- well, they're human too, except they've mutated into bloodthirsty monsters after being exposed to too much of the glowing blue fuel.
The protagonist, Emmett Graves, falls somewhere in between, part human Rifter, part mutant Outcast. He's been ostracized because of his exposure to rift energy, but maintains his grip on sanity. When his hometown on the planet Dust reaches out for help, he answers the call.
Starhawk has the flavor of a classic Western, with the noble but tormented gunslinger defending a ramshackle frontier town from ruthless outlaws. The twangy soundtrack reinforces the connection; sci-fi fans will be reminded of Joss Whedon's cult space opera Firefly.
Emmett's odyssey is presented as a series of set pieces broken up by comic book-like exposition. One mission might have you storming an Outcast fortress; the next might have you defending the town of White Sands from invasion.
Starhawk adds a nifty strategic element: Killing Outcasts earns you rift energy, which you can spend to build offensive or defensive structures. You can build walls, watchtowers, or turrets to defend your turf, or you can call up garages that squirt out land speeders or fighter jets.
Those jets -- or Hawks -- are essential to the game's best feature: its thrilling outer space combat. Much of the Starhawk development team worked on 2007's flight combat simulator Warhawk, and their experience pays off. Three-dimensional aerial combat can be confusing, but I never felt overwhelmed in Starhawk, no matter how many Outcast raiders were chasing me.
Usually, when a game has so many different elements, some are less successful than others. But I was surprised by how nimbly Starhawk shifts among genres, from third-person shooter to tower defense to dogfighting.
The single-player campaign, however, isn't entirely satisfying. About six hours long, it's stubbornly linear. Despite the intriguing setup, the missions never become a compelling drama. Essentially, it feels like an extended tutorial for all the cool tools you can use in multiplayer matches.
And yet, online competition isn't thoroughly realized either. Starhawk offers a basic set of familiar multiplayer modes, like deathmatch and capture-the-flag, but nothing original. I'm impressed by its sprawling battlefields and 32-player matches, but it remains to be seen how well the PlayStation nation will adjust to its more strategic elements.
As a complete package, Starhawk feels somewhat undercooked. But when you're soaring through space in your Hawk, it's exhilarating.