Here's the problem with science-fiction video games: At some point, you know you're going to run into an 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.

So it's refreshing to jump into Starhawk, 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. Emmett's odyssey is presented as a series of set pieces broken up by comic book-like exposition. One mission may have you storming an Outcast fortress; the next may 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.


RATING T for Teen

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PLOT Part Western, part science fiction

DETAILS PlayStation 3, $60

BOTTOM LINE Soars, with a bumpy landing