While Ubisoft have watched the toys-to-life frontrunners fall by the wayside – so long Disney Infinity, Skylanders and Lego Dimensions – they clearly decided that there was some money left in the old ceramic dog money box yet. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is hard sci-fi aiming at a younger market, with a large interplanetary system to explore and a batch of physical toys that tie in with it. It’s a great concept and, for the most part, Ubisoft have done a fantastic job of tying the whole thing together. That said, the game is good enough on its own merits to question whether it really needed any gimmicks to succeed.
Starlink’s initial draw is always going to be the toys. These are every child’s spacefaring dream – I’m not judging if that dream has yet to wear off in those of more advanced years – and they’re brilliantly solid ships that you can physically play with or proudly line up on your shelf when not being used in the game. If you’re playing on Switch you get a replacement Joy-Con grip that features a stand for your pilot and their ship to connect to, while the other consoles get an attachment that clips onto their controller. As you swap the components around, it’s impressive just how instantaneous any changes are, and any extra ships you own function as extra lives if the one you’re in is blown up.
Each ship body has two ports which you can connect wings to, and then each wing has a further port which you’ll generally attach a weapon to. The ones provided in the box are sufficient to complete the game, but there’s a lot of fun to be had swapping them out for others when you come up against an enemy with a different elemental weakness. Alternatively, and assuming you’ve got the ships to do it, you can daisy-chain up to three wings on each side which will improve your ships stats, while also making your controller weigh rather more than you probably want. It never fails to look cool though, whether you’ve just got the main body and a couple of guns or an asymmetrical, semi-backward monstrosity.
What Starlink has done differently though is that if you buy the game digitally you don’t need to purchase any physical ships or weaponry in order to play the game – Digitally for £70 has four ships, six pilots and twelve, while the Deluxe edition adds on top of this solid base. There’s no paywall and no buy to win, as you can opt to play through with most of the craft and most of the weapons. It’s perhaps a touch slower to select what you want to equip to your ship, rather than just clipping things on, but it’s an incredible show of confidence to say that the game is good enough to stand up without the gimmick of the toys. I still expect that once you’ve spent some time with the game you’ll be chomping at the bit to expand your collection, so in essence, Ubisoft have nailed it.
The biggest surprise is how good Starlink actually is to play. The spacecraft combat carries plenty of weight, and the array of weaponry – assuming you’ve bought extra packs or gone digital – allows for some actual tactical thought. Different weapon combinations will have different elemental effects, so you might freeze them at first before blasting them with fire, or trap them in a gravity well before spraying them with hot lead. Some combinations are more effective against particular enemy types than others, so it promotes swapping things out rather than just relying on the same old setup.
In what’s a mild re-appropriation from No Man’s Sky, you can experience the dream of flying your ship from space all the way down to a planet’s surface, where you can then hover along like a heavily armed version of Luke’s speeder. No matter where you are, there are things to be doing. Every planet is beautifully presented and laden with with outposts to save from outlaws, creatures to scan, and alien structures to investigate, though they can still feel a little empty at times. Perhaps the other console versions feature more extra-terrestrial fauna, but either way, it never fails to impress on Nintendo’s plucky hybrid.
There’s almost as much loot here as a dungeon crawler, and you’re able to upgrade nearly everything you come into contact with, from your pilot, ships and weapons through to your home base. On top of that every planet has a number of outposts, whether for research, defense or mining, and you can ally yourself with them, upgrade them, and they’ll then provide you with added support including regularly timed shipments of Electrum for you to spend upgrading everything else. Ubisoft are masters at filling an open world with inane tasks to do, but Starlink seems to avoid the boredom and sameness that so many games suffer from.
Starlink almost falls over itself to provide the best experience possible, and the inclusion of two player couch co-op is a remarkable feat on Switch. One of you can play with the physical toys while the second player can play digitally, with Ubisoft once again surprising everyone by not forcing players to have two full physical setups in order to play together. Additionally, once you’ve used a physical toy, it’s unlocked for seven days, letting you take the game on the go with Nintendo Switch. It’s worth noting that you can only play co-op on Switch while docked, but the handheld’s screen would have been too pokey for this game, so it’s not the biggest loss.
The most questionable thing about Starlink is its story, and at times it’s just too overwrought. It’s pure Saturday morning matinee stuff – this is more Titan AE than Interstellar – and given the younger target audience it probably skews in the right direction. The characters, particularly the alien ones, are likeable, but some of the voice acting, and some of the cutscene animation just feels a little off at times. Fortunately it doesn’t detract at all from the enjoyment of actually playing the game, and I still developed an attachment to at least a few of the crew.
If you’re playing the Switch version of the game you get a whole extra set of missions thanks to the inclusion of Nintendo’s Star Fox characters. Along with the Arwing toy – which incidentally has the best wings – you get to take control of Fox McCloud as he and his squad try to capture their arch-nemesis Wolf. At first their appearance in the game feels like an uncomfortable fit, but once you start to engage with other alien races it doesn’t seem so odd that there’s a giant frog and a talking fox standing around with a bunch of humans.
It doesn’t suddenly turn Starlink into a new Star Fox game, but it does give a glimpse of what direction could work for future instalments in the franchise. I’d totally be onboard if Nintendo handed the reins over to Ubisoft for a full Star Fox release based on this relatively small taster, as the flight mechanics and sense of freedom just feel right. Hell, the whole thing practically writes itself.
If you’re a seasoned gamer you should probably opt for a difficulty setting above Normal. Starlink becomes pretty easy once you’ve got a grasp on how the upgrading system works and which elemental weaponry does the most damage, and while it doesn’t diminish the fun – taking out the massive four-legged Primes never gets old – a tougher setting might keep any feelings of boredom at bay. As an open world game, there is ultimately a lot of repetition, and it’s disappointing there aren’t a few more enemy types, but I didn’t find myself tiring of it before the credits rolled.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a fantastic sci-fi game that’s well worth playing no matter how old you are. The physical toys are attractive enough to adorn any shelf, and robust enough to actually be played with, while a large collection of ships isn’t essential for completing the game, and there’s even an option not to use them at all. It’s a shame then that the story doesn’t quite live up to rest of the game’s promise, but you might be having too much fun to notice.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch – also available for PS4 and Xbox One