Starlink: Battle for Atlas
Ubisoft is looking to breathe new life in the Toys-To-Life genre with the launch of Starlink: Battle For Atlas. Based off our experience with the game, they very well might bring about a revival for toy based games with their surprisingly addictive sci-fi space shooter. Come inside for my full review!
I’ve been playing Starlink for the last few days and one thing became clear immediately; I can’t stop playing. I love spaceship games, and battling it out in the air with sleek starfighters and have almost since my life in gaming began. It all started with Star Fox for the Super Nintendo and has grown over the years with other franchises (Rogue Squadron, Starfighter, Everspace, etc).
Sadly, the pickings for these kinds of games are relatively slim anymore and when they do come around, the story/mechanics just aren’t as engaging. It’s been frustrating, but that glimmer of hope shone when Ubisoft revealed Starlink: Battle for Atlas at E3 2017. When they showed off even more of the game, and the (optional) toy counterparts at this year’s E3, my hype went through the roof.
It looked like exactly the kind of starfighting game I’ve been looking for, coupled with a story and exploration mechanics that looked like fun. I started playing the game a few days before it officially launched, and I’m happy to say my hype was completely justified. Better yet, it has a lot of potential for expansion and being a great game in the years to come.
On the whole, the story in Starlink: Battle for Atlas, is one that most science fiction fans will be familiar with. In many regards, it's a typical good versus evil story. It takes place in the future where starships and space exploration are commonplace. You're part of the crew of the Equinox (well, unless you're on the Switch and playing as Star Fox) as they embark on a secret mission to the Atlas star system.
Looking for artifacts to further his research, you're leader Victor St. Grand has stumbled onto some impressive technological discoveries...Things that have made him a target of something sinister. Soon after arrival in the system, before they can even get their bearings, their point of contact is suddenly attacked by local raiders. As you go out to help, the Equinox is attacked by the Forgotten Legion, kidnapping St. Grand.
Left stranded the crew must find clues to figure out how to get their Captain back, while learning more about the Forgotten Legion. The Legion are, mostly, an army of robotic warriors controlled by the villainous Grax who've invaded the Atlas system and cause trouble for everyone else as they seek technology from an ancient race called the Wardens. As you explore more planets (seven in all throughout the campaign), you'll uncover the mystery while attempting to save the system, and your commander, from the Legion. Along the way, you'll encounter bandits, people who need your help, and explore a LOT of territory while blowing things up.
While the premise is one gamers and Sci-Fi fans are used to, it adds enough to keep pulling you along throughout. The characters, a diverse cast, from a variety of backgrounds and bringing their own flair to the team, are fun to interact with and watch. They make the world feel 'real' and fleshed out. They're almost instantly endearing, with their quirks and personalities, which means when they bring up missions and quests for you to take on, there's a strong compulsion to help out. Combine this with some impressive cinematic cutscenes and you're treated to a surprisingly fun story that pulls you along until the very end.
If you’re playing on the Nintendo Switch (which I HIGHLY suggest), you’ll get some bonus story missions for Star Fox, along with unlocking the character and his Arwing for play. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the amount of Star Fox content the game gives us. I was thinking we’d get some small cameos and then just get to play around with him in the ship.
This isn’t the case as him and the rest of the crew are integrated pretty well into the game, even popping up in cutscenes with additional dialog and reacting to events along with the main cast. They’re in Atlas trying to hunt down Wolf on a special mission when they stumble across the Equinox and offer to help, getting tangled up in an all new adventure. There’s enough extra content thrown into the Switch version that it really feels like fans are getting the Star Fox game they’ve been wanting for a while. A spin-off of sorts that makes the game almost worth it on its own.
Easy, Intuitive Controls
To be honest, before the game's launch, I didn't think twice about Starlink's story. Hell, I barely paid attention to the story trailer, and was focused solely on that sweet, sweet starfighter action. The gameplay was the big hook for me, and after playing several hours with the game, I still don't want to stop. It's just a lot of damn fun to play. I’ve played a lot of flying games in my time, and not all of them have been good. The biggest thing I look for in these kinds of games are how well the mechanics feel.
Flight gameplay can be a tricky thing and there are plenty of games that don’t stick the landing (so to speak) when it comes to this. For me, the Star Fox games (N64 and GameCube), the Rogue Squadron titles, and the Starfighter games on PlayStation 2 are the ‘bar’ for me in terms of starfighting gameplay. They strike an excellent balance between arcadey ease of use controls while still integrating extra features that add more depth.
It’s this balance that makes these games work, for me anyway, and some more recent releases try to push too far one direction. The result are games that feel too simplified (almost as if they’re on rails) or with controls that have to be tweaked in the options section a ridiculous amount before they feel comfortable enough to play with. Largely, that’s been my issue with the newer Star Wars Battlefront games and even Everspace.
Starlink, thankfully, manages to strike the perfect balance in the gameplay. From the moment the game drops you into the pilot seat (done entirely in third-person point of view) everything about the flying experience felt intuitive. Without much instruction, I was zooming around the map, dodging lasers, and blasting enemies out of the sky. It’s easy to pick up and play, but as you dive deeper into the game more things open up, giving more experienced players something to work towards.
Exploration Is Key
The game is more than just shooting enemies down and exploration is a big part of it. There are open-world RPG elements thrown into the mix as you'll be able to upgrade your ship and weapons with mods you'll find along the way. The best comparison here is No Man's Sky, and I mean that in a good way. Each planet you travel to is a wide open world with various climates and new materials/creatures to encounter.
Unlike No Man's Sky, however, you're confined to your ship the entire time. You can fly around planets, but get close enough to the ground and you'll enter a low-flying mode that acts more like a ground vehicle. That's how you'll initiate conversations with other characters, and complete most tasks on a planet.
This aspect takes some getting used to and feels a bit odd, but I love how the developers stuck to this idea of keeping the players constantly connected to their ships. One of the biggest complaints gamers had for later Star Fox and Rogue Squadron games were on-foot missions. The idea is solid, but the practice almost never worked, so it's nice to see how Starlink keeps you in the cockpit the whole time.
While it doesn't feature the same amount of depth and resource gathering as No Man's Sky, the similarities are hard to ignore. In some ways, it feels like a more streamlined version of that expansive game, taking only the best elements and throwing more characters/story to keep you going. You'll encounter ruins, science observatories, harvest sites, Warden relics, and a bunch of other things.
Exploring the planet and completing missions opens up more of the map on each planet, which in turn gives you more things to do. The maps on each planet are large and will take you quite a bit of time to get through everything there is to do, which offers some great replay value. I'm not the biggest fan of open world games because, too often they're so big I find myself listless and overwhelmed. There's TOO much to do.
With Starlink, however, I found myself loving the open worlds of Atlas. Each time I felt ready to move on to the next planet and continue the story, I found something else to do close by. For the most part, I think it has more to do with how much I love the gameplay, and even repetitive tasks didn't seem like such a chore because of how much fun I was having.
As in any open world game, there are a plethora of missions/quests you’ll be tasked with. Some of these add a great deal to the story and characters; one early sidequest in particular delivers a wealth of information on your team’s background (making them even more relatable). Other missions, however, are your typical “go here, do this, and I’ll be your friend” type of quests that feel like busy work.
Every game has these, so depending on how you feel about “fetch quests” you may start to feel the grind in Starlink before too long. The good news is, there aren’t many barriers when it comes to story missions, and you’re able to move through the main quest at your own pace without a whole lot of grinding.
I enjoyed revealing as much of the map as possible and hitting up the Warden Spires when I found them. Whenever I came across an observatory or harvesting plant I stopped by to see what they needed. All of those require you to do some sort of mission before you can actually work with them (repair ships, trade materials, and get more missions)...So I made the detours and opened up the world as much as possible.
It won’t take long for you to figure out that many of the quests you’re given (especially if you spend a decent amount of time exploring before moving forward in the story) are VERY similar to one another. This is one the (very) few issues I’ve found with Starlink in my play through. It seems like within a couple planets the missions already begin to repeat, or are so similar in execution, they may as well be the same.
It can be a bit frustrating, but there are plenty of sidequests that delve deeper into the game’s universe/lore that feel unique and worthwhile to jump into. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still PLENTY to do before things all blur together and get “grindy,” but I can understand why some gamers would have a bigger issue with this.
Personally, I didn’t mind as much, simply because of how much I enjoyed flying around in the game. For the most part, those fetch quests can be done while en route to exploring other areas of the planet and finding new stuff. In that way, it didn’t seem as much of an issue.
The Toy Factor
All of this review and I haven’t even TOUCHED on the toys-to-life aspect of the game. Strange, right? For a game that’s being marketed as another step in the toys-to-life genre, it may seem odd that I’ve spent the bulk of this review talking about everything but that element. There’s a good reason for that.
By this point in time, just about everyone already has their opinion on toys-to-life as a genre. More than likely, that opinion isn’t a particularly positive one. It’s easy to look at Skylanders as a “kids game,” Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions weren’t around terribly long, and even Nintendo’s amiibo aren’t emphasized as much as they once were.
For some gamers, it boiled down to the idea of having to spend extra money on top of the game in order to play, and the extra cost in finding everything couldn’t be justified. I get it and, honestly, I’ve felt the same way. The only reason I ever bought Disney Infinity toys were because they launched Star Wars figures, and that’s all I bought! I didn’t even HAVE the game.
Frankly, the toys-to-life aspect of the game was the thing I worried about most. Blessedly, Starlink makes the genre more accessible than ever before and could lead to a new era for these type of games. If you haven't seen my previous post where I unboxed the Star Fox Starlink toy sent my way, know that these toys are ridiculously cool. There aren't a lot of spaceship toys out there right now, and these are incredibly slick.
Unlike other toys-to-life figures, these toys aren't stuck onto bases that limit movement and play potential. Instead, they snap onto controller adapters and pop off as needed. So if you wanted to, you can zoom about the room and play with them like normal toys (which my kids have definitely enjoyed). Combine that with the weapons you can swap out and the ability to mix-and-match the wings, there's a lot of fun you can have with the toys on their own.
In terms of using them in the game, however, things are pretty easy. You get a controller mount for your console of choice. Pop a pilot on first (each has their own special abilities to use in game), and then put the ship on top. The ships have transparent cockpits so you're able to see the miniature pilots inside; a small, but really cool, detail. From there, various weapons and extra wings can be snapped onto the ship in modular fashion.
Swapping items out instantly pauses the game so you're not getting shot up while you're changing weapons out. Each of the various weapons deal different types of elemental damage which affect how much damage certain enemies take (some puzzles/obstacles require the right type of damage as well). Changing your weapons up will be a fairly common thing depending on your current mission/battle. Finding combinations with your weapons is part of the fun, as opposing elements can provide damage boosts and other unexpected bonuses.
Power of Choice
Unlocking new weapons and ships in the game is as simple as connecting the appropriate toy to the controller, so yeah, the more you buy, the cooler you can make your ship...however, the best part about Starlink: Battle for Atlas is that the toys are OPTIONAL.
That’s right, you don’t have to buy a single toy to enjoy the game. The digital versions of the game can be played entirely without any of the toys, instead you can swap things out from the regular pause menu. Some weapons can be found and unlocked during the campaign, but to get everything, they can be bought digitally as well (there’s a special digital version you can buy for $80 that has everything unlocked).
The other benefit of this is that if you DO get some of the toys, once you connect them to the game, they’re permanently unlocked digitally. If you feel like playing the game without dragging the toys out, you’ll still have all the weapons and ships available. For players on the Nintendo Switch (like me), this is fantastic, as the controller stand and all the toys aren’t exactly ideal for portable play.
Beyond a fun story, with a diverse cast of characters, Starlink features highly addictive gameplay. Battles are fast and fun, with the weapon swapping feature adding a surprising amount of depth to encounters. While some of the missions get repetitive after a while, the gameplay alone will keep you playing for hours and hours. Having the toys-to-life aspect be optional makes for a nice compromise, while still delivering some of the coolest toys/features the genre has seen so far.
Best of all, is the amount of potential in the game. Being toys-for-life set in the vastness of space, there’s a lot of room to grow down the road, by adding new planets, ships, and stories to the base game. It’s already a great game that’s hard to put down, but the potential for it to become even greater has me eager to see what Ubisoft has in store for Starlink next. In an already crowded release season, this is a game you don’t want to miss out on.