There’s a type of gamer who likes to touch and feel the real world weight of the starship, or champion, or mech they’re controlling. It’s the ludicrously lucrative idea behind toys to life franchises like Skylanders and Amiibo, and now Ubisoft is bringing the genre into the space age with Starlink: Battle for Atlas.
Having created a massive digital galaxy called Atlas, the videogame side of the experience sees you dogfighting in space as well as engaging in ground-based battles over planetary objectives. There’s a wider war at play here, and much like in Mass Effect 3, you’ll dart between story missions while tackling open, anytime objectives to beat back the evil space horde.
For those who want to bring that battle into the physical world, you can have your pilot, ship, and weapons strapped right on your controller while you play. You can mix & match your ship’s physical components as you please, and clicking in any plastic element will immediately be recognised by Starlink in-game.
No Kid’s Sky
The toy element makes it easy to see this as a kid’s game, but we’re not so sure. Starlink: Battle for Atlas has objectives, at least. They’re simple – most missions equate to “go to place, press button on thing,” but there’s a heck of a lot of writing and voice acting surrounding it all to make it feel like you’re pressing that button on that thing for a whole different reason.
The many planets in the Atlas system have their own events and enemies you can take on at your leisure, all of which affect the wider war between the Alliance and the Legion. You can seamlessly exit the atmosphere of one planet, head all the way over to another, and start taking on challenges there (a warp drive speeds things up somewhat).
Starlink also has space combat that feels great. Again, it’s simple, and there’s a generous helping of auto-aim on those homing missiles, but what matters is how fun it feels to play. Easy inputs for barrel rolls and 180 manoeuvres as enemy fire barely misses you does a good job of bringing out that Wing Commander fantasy.
Tougher battles have a dynamic we’re not too fond of where the path of least resistance is excessive barrel rolls until your shield replenishes. Barrel roll, barrel roll, barrel roll, until it’s time to turn around and fire again. Peppy would be proud.
Storms often take away your ability to fly in tougher planetside battles, and here a similar dynamic plays out as retreating behind cover to wait a few seconds for that shield. It’s like Fox McCloud took a few pointers from Master Chief.
Toys to Life
After deciding to buy Starlink, the intimidating question remains of which version. Your investment will affect more than cosmetics, and there’s a lot to explain here.
While grabbing the Starter Pack will grant pretty much everything you need, you’re also free to add to your arsenal piecemeal. Here’s a rundown of what affects what:
- Pilots all have special abilities. One can cloak, one can soak up enemy fire and blast it back at them, one can slow down time, etc.
- Ships have different attributes, but more importantly, more ships means more “lives” in combat.
- Weapons have different elements and ranges. Perhaps the most important part of Starlink is using the right weapon at the right time.
- Mods for both ships and weapons are earned in-game for quests and gathering.You don’t have to buy these in real life.
Game design theory-wise, it actually doesn’t matter if one weapon is “more powerful” than another. In a game where you counter the enemy at hand with an appropriate weapon, having options IS power. Starlink combat is all about applying the right element and range, so flying into battle without a good mix of weapons is kind of a big deal.
Blast a frost giant with your frost missiles, and you’ll actually make it stronger. Bring a short-range flak gun into space, and it won’t do much good. Starlink — the combat, the puzzles, all of it — is about using the right tools for the job.
You’ll get most of these tools with the Starter Pack, though you can, of course, buy more. You’ll also get several ships — having more ships equates to having more “lives” in the field. One ship dies, and you instantly conjure another, and another, until you’re out.
It’s very possible to beat the game with just the starter pack, and it’s also possible to spend hundreds of dollars on ship toys.
Are the Toys Necessary in Starlink?
You’ll want to switch weapons and mods often. The mixing of different kinds of enemies means you’ll want to switch weapons multiple times per battle, but thankfully you can do this digitally without clicking plastic pieces every five seconds.
We’re conflicted on what constitutes a “full game” as opposed to extra content here, but we’ll leave that price/value judgement up to you. Ubisoft is clearly hoping for a lucrative Skylanders In Space, and it’s charging more than a normal triple-A price for the Starter Pack — doubtless with more toys to come. The game itself – with all of the weapons provided to us, it should be said – we’ve been quite happy with. But seeing as certain puzzles require a specific element to solve, it’s not just a plastic toy you’re missing out on, it’s a part of the digital game too.
Other than that, whether or not you get a kick out of having a plastic version of your ship on your controller is also up to you. The innovators among us may have some fun with the multiple-winged monstrosities you can create:
Our word to the wise, no matter which option you may choose, is to go for a variety of weapons to cover a range of situations. Go for multiple elements, and make sure you have both long range (for space battles) and short range (for swarms) weapons.
There’s a weapon pack, for example, with two kinetic weapons. You’re far better off going for a weapon pack with one fire and one frost weapon. If you can grab Judge with the only Stasis weapon, we found that to be highly valuable as well.
Star Fox on the Switch
Multi-console owners have a real choice to make here. Far from just a port, the Switch version carries a few meaningful differences.
There’s the obvious portability, and you’ll want to consider whether space-bound dogfights in handheld mode will make you motion sick. Graphically, the Xbox One and PS4 versions are also more impressive. But the biggest factor here is Star Fox.
For some reason, Nintendo has seen fit to deny us a proper Star Fox game in recent years (same with Advance Wars, which we’ll never stop crusading about). Ubisoft’s chummy relationship with Nintendo, being early adopters of their hare-brained console ideas since the Wii, has resulted in Starlink being the Star Fox game fans have been waiting for.
You might not be setting out from Corneria, but the Lylat system is now officially in the same universe as Atlas. You’ve got Fox McCloud and his gang, you’ve got your Arwing, and there’s a custom questline to pursue Fox’s nemesis, Star Wolf.
Even the controls are similar, featuring the same barrel rolls and quick 180 turns you performed when dogfighting Star Wolf on the N64. It came from an unlikely source, but we have a decent Star Fox game now, and it’s called Starlink.
Is Starlink: Battle for Atlas Good?
Starlink is a simple game, but that’s not necessarily bad. Objectives are a conga line of basic “go here, press a button” quests, but the mountains of dialogue, all with voice acting, disguise that well. Combat is similarly simple, but that doesn’t change the fact that it feels great to barrel roll out of danger, zoom away, and turn around to blast your pursuer.
As far as the toys are concerned, we love the design of the ships, pilots, and weapons — especially the recreated angular Arwing. So for many, this will come down to whether you – or your kids – look at those toys and just decide you want it.
Other platforms will feature better graphics, but we feel there’s a strong argument for Star Fox fans to grab this as the game they’ve been wanting to play for years now. The fact that there’s actual Star Fox quest content in the game is a huge draw.
Combat does get harder later, but it stops short of doing anything new or interesting. But it does its job well enough for a parent to steal the controller of their kid for a few battles. That old rivalry with Star Wolf needs to be settled.