The toys are unnecessary, but Starlink: Battle for Atlas is still an enjoyable space adventure.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas feels like it’s trying to crash a party that’s already packed up and moved on. Toys-to-life games like Disney Infinity, Skylanders, and LEGO Dimensions all dominated the toy sections three years ago, but that time has come and gone. That’s not to say that Starlink: Battle for Atlas isn’t good, because it’s a surprisingly rich and ambitious exploration and combat-focused, story-driven experience. But the “toys” part comes off as a little unnecessary, especially when Starlink rewards digital players more than physical ones.
Starlink: is a story of space exploration with a ragtag crew of characters who all bring unique personalities and skills to the table. At the very least, Ubisoft has done a good job of establishing the admittedly generic “Starlink” brand into one I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in future games. Cutscenes are well produced and engaging, feeling a little like watching the latest Netflix Original Animated Series play out.
The core driving mission, though, is the cliche “bad guy wants to take over the galaxy and it’s up to you to stop him” story that has played out a zillion times before. Luckily this is just the bookends of the experience, and it’s the well-written middle portion that’s the most interesting as you learn about the Starlink crew and history of the star system you’re exploring.
Somewhere along the line, Ubisoft seems to have decided not to go “all in” on the toys.
The bulk of Starlink’s adventure has you skimming the surface of planets finding abandoned starbases and wrecked observation towers, claiming them as your own by running side missions or wiping out the aliens that have taken over the hot spot.
This ship-and-weapons play is the rewarding meat of Starlink’s design. Each of the snap-on ships and weapons have their own attributes that are enhanced by mods collected by reclaiming parts of the planet for the good guys. Leveling up your pilot, your ship, and your weapons is integral to success in Starlink, and that means shifting and swapping your craft’s configurations before, during, and after battle to find the best way to take down the enemy threat.
Hot swapping ship parts sounds absolutely perfect for the toys-to-life genre, and the physical tech here is sound. Starlink’s toys recognize the pilot that sits in the ship, the type of ship, which weapons are connected to the left and right wing, the direction these weapons are facing, and any extra wing extensions you’ve added. Need to pause the fight because your heat weapons aren’t doing the job? Just pop off the blaster and drop another in its place.
But somewhere down the development line, Ubisoft seems to have decided not to go “all in” on the toys. If you want to simply play Starlink without them, you can just buy the ships, pilots, and weapons digitally. And while you don’t have the tactile satisfaction of snapping parts on and off, the digital versions reduce the physical clutter and speed up the weapon-swapping mechanic.
More importantly, when you play digitally, you don’t have to run to the local Target to get the one weapon that’ll get you through a particularly tough encounter, or past a door locked behind a specific kind of elemental weapon attack that hides a rather spicy ship perk. On top of that, the Digital Edition of Starlink actually comes with significantly more guns, ships, and pilots than the physical Starter Edition, giving you a big leg up in-game boost at a lower price.
Plus it doesn’t seem like the toys actually store any data to them. So if you put together an incredible configuration of weapons and mods and want to bring your ship to a friend’s place for co-op, all your progress and perks are left behind in your local game’s save profile.
Comparisons between this game and No Man’s Sky are inevitable because it really feels like Ubisoft used that game as the core foundation for Starlink’s overall experience. Instead of a vast randomly generated universe full of galaxies and planets, though, you’re exploring just one, hand-crafted star system with less than a dozen. Each planet has its own habitat and personality, and they all look fantastic across all three platforms, with only slight improvements on PS4 and Xbox One.
Each planet has its own habitat and personality, and they all look fantastic across all three platforms.
Transitions between planet and space and back again are seamless, fluid, and still a delight to experience. Even with the closed system, the feeling of a vast system to explore is well produced in Starlink. And where No Man’s Sky dropped the ball in its narrative, Starlink makes it a core focus.
However, many of the downsides of that inspiration are also prevalent: Starlink’s planetary designs and mission layouts are fairly repetitive, so you’ll experience the same fetch quest, scanning tasks, and base-clearing combat over, and over, and over. Surprises are few and far between when you’ve cleared out an entire planet of missions to complete, blast off to the next planet, and experience it all over again.
And the moments flying between planets aren’t nearly as thought out as the planets themselves. If you’re looking for a great dogfighting space combat experience, this isn’t it. Combat favors fire-and-forget missile-style weaponry over pinpoint accurate blasters, so once you’ve learned you can make it out alive by simply spamming your auto-targeting projectiles at any enemy that whisks into view, you’ll keep those blasters parked. It also doesn’t help that pitch and yaw are permanently mapped to the right stick — a design decision that admittedly makes sense when you understand planet-based combat, but nonetheless feels weird for the first few hours.
The addition of Star Fox for Nintendo Switch players is pretty genius. Not only does it legitimize a generically-branded third party game with strong, established video game characters, it also gives fans of those characters merchandise to buy and content to play. Though you can easily see the places where Fox McCloud and crew have been shoehorned into the storyline and its cutscenes, the fact remains that their inclusion was handled with a tremendous amount of respect. The characters have never looked or sounded better. Just don’t mistake this for a Star Fox game, because it’s not. It’s merely a game with Star Fox ships and characters.
But even in the versions without the Star Fox content, you can easily see the influence in Starlink. Right down to missions where you zip through gigantic starships to detonate their core. Or the All-Range Mode style boss battles on-planet. Or a particularly Andross-like bad guy, right down to its final showdown.
Though the core experience could be completed in little more than a weekend — the campaign took me roughly 20 hours to beat — completionists have a whole Pokedex-like encyclopedia to fill up and hidden locations to discover. If you don’t have an issue plowing through the same missions and tasks, Starlink can be a pretty rewarding experience well after the credits roll.