Starlink: Battle For Atlas (Switch) review

Ubisoft / Ubisoft Toronto
Switch, Xbox One, PS4 (Switch version reviewed)

This review is available in both written and video format. Naturally, the video shows the game in action while I read the review as a voiceover. If you watch the video, then, you don’t need to read the written review that follows since it’s the same ‘script’.

It’s fair to say the toys-to-life genre is on its arse.

What began as a craze when Skylanders appeared seven years ago has burned out: plastic figures now replace plastic guitars in this generation’s second-hand game shops.

Skylanders may not officially be dead but considering Activision hasn’t released one of its annual games since 2016, it’s safe to say it’s been benched indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the death of Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions – two games much better than Skylanders – showed that not even two of the world’s strongest child-friendly IP could stop the toys-to-life boat sinking.

The only thing still hanging in there are amiibo, but that’s because they’re video game themed – not Disney, Lego or original creations – and many gamers (like myself) collect them for display purposes.

It’s a little odd, then, that as toys-to-life finds itself lying in a coma, Ubisoft’s turned up at the hospital with a crate of beer looking for a party.

Continuing the plastic guitar analogy, Starlink is the DJ Hero of toys-to-life, turning up late in the genre’s life and offering one more inventive way to breathe new life into it.

I know what you’re thinking. I was thinking it too. But before you roll your eyes and say “too little, too late”, do consider that Ubisoft has made a very clever decision that could make all the difference to you:

You don’t need the toys. In fact, the game is much better without them.

For those new to it, Starlink is a space combat game in which you play as a ragtag group of adventurers who’ve all been brought together to explore space in a huge ship called the Equinox.

Before long, their leader is kidnapped by the Legion, a group of evil aliens whose leader Grax is hell-bent on finding and using ancient technology left behind by a mysterious extinct race called the Wardens.

It’s up to the remaining members of the Equinox to team up and explore the Atlas star system – comprising of seven large planets – in order to find their leader, rescue him and give Grax a hefty toe up the hole for good measure.

Oh, and if you’re playing on the Switch, they’re also joined by a little-known chap by the name of Fox McCloud, who’s exclusive to the Nintendo version. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

The general structure of Starlink is fairly straightforward. You take on a variety of missions whole travelling between the game’s seven planets. For the most part these tasks are what you expect from any other Ubisoft game: follow a waypoint to a certain area on the map and fetch/destroy/explore whatever’s there.

What makes this less of a slog than it sounds is just how well everything’s been designed. Your current mission is always listed at the top-right of the screen and you can flip between them by pressing left and right on the D-Pad, with the game instantly updating its waypoints accordingly.

It also tells you whether your selected mission is a main story one, a side mission or one of the Switch-only Star Fox ones. And, if you aren’t happy with any of your current tasks, you can request a new side-mission to distract yourself from the main journey at hand.

The way each mission plays is relatively pain-free, too. Fetch quests, for example, aren’t the pain in the arse they could be because each planet has a bunch of other things you can do en route. There are outposts you can liberate (usually by killing the enemies roaming around them), relics to find and local wildlife to scan and add to your little in-game creature database.

Combat sections, meanwhile, are great. The game’s various weapons are all deeply satisfying to use, turning everything up to eleven: equip the rapid fire Volcano gun and it’ll unleash a huge stream of red lasers, while the Levitator stasis weapon fires beautiful big glowing yellow homing missiles.

Get involved in a huge battle, then, and the screen becomes a sea of colour as beams and blasts of all types fly around. Think the glory days of Rogue Squadron on the GameCube.

The planets themselves are a treat to explore too, mainly because they look so lovely. Naturally, the Xbox One and PS4 versions are going to be the best looking examples of this but I’ve been playing on the Switch and graphically it’s no slouch either, as you can see by the video and screens on this page.

This game will inevitably draw comparisons with No Man’s Sky and to be fair it’s not hard to see why. Its first planet alone has a very similar style and colour palette, and I’d be stunned if Hello Games’ experimental adventure didn’t have some sort of influence here.

That suspicion is even greater when you take into account the seamless way you can fly into space, head towards another planet and land on it in one smooth journey with no loading screens.

No Man’s Sky may have done it first (and done it better: there’s a clear transition point here as your ship burns up entering the atmosphere), but it’s still an impressive trick nonetheless and really helps drive home the feeling of not just an open world game, but an open galaxy one.

Actually, I say you can ‘land’ on a planet, but in reality you can’t: even when you get there you stay on your ship. It’s an interesting choice by Ubisoft to decide you can’t explore on foot – especially when it makes such a big deal about the different personalities of each of its pilots – but it gets around this by tweaking your ship controls to make it feel more like a third-person adventure. It may sound odd, but it works, and the fact you can zoom through the more open sections of a planet at top speed makes it far more enjoyable than if you were legging it across a big desert instead.

Of course, as previously noted, the Switch game gives you the option to play as Fox from the Star Fox series, along with his trusty Arwing ship.

This isn’t just a rushed cameo that’s been jammed in there at the last minute, where a Ubisoft intern has been asked to quickly knock up a new character and ship model to keep Nintendo sweet. This is the real deal.

It all starts from the opening cutscene. There’s a shot that shows all the characters blasting off into space: on other versions of the game the scene would end, but on the Switch the camera pans back and Fox’s Arwing comes into view. Curious, he decides to catch up with the others and see if they need any help.

What this ultimately results in is this: you can play through the entire game as Fox, just as you can with any of the game’s other ‘main’ characters. And, just like they do, he has his own bespoke dialogue and voice acting (with the added bonus of his own Star Fox side-missions, where he tries to track down Wolf).

To all intents and purposes, then, Fox is a fully-featured character in the game. If you only want to play as him you can, and if you want to pretend this is the next Star Fox adventure – in which Fox encounters a bunch of hapless humans and decides to do all their adventuring for them – it’s very easy to do that. That’s what I’ve been doing for the most part.

I’ll tell you what I haven’t been doing, though: using the toys. Now, bear with me here because it’s about to get confusing, but I promise it’ll all make sense by the end. Yer man Scullion will sort you out with the details you need.

The physical Starter Pack for Starlink comes with:

• the Arwing ship
• a Fox figure
• a figure of Mason Rana (another pilot in the game)
• a fire weapon
• a frost weapon

You also get digital-only versions of the Zenith ship and the third weapon you get in the other versions’ Starter Packs (because it would be unfair to ask you to buy a PS4 set to collect every ship on Switch).

It also comes with a controller mount, a chunk of plastic similar to the Joy-Con Grip that comes with the Switch. You slide your two Joy-Con controllers into this, insert a pilot figure into the provided slot, then place a ship on top of them. You then take the two weapons you want to use and place them on the slots on each wing.

Like magic (well, like a bespoke connector system which isn’t actually the NFC you thought it might be), your pilot, ship and weapons will appear in the game.

Naturally, at any point you can swap out different aspects of your setup by physically removing them and adding them to your mount. You can take the wings off one ship and swap them with another ship’s wings, or even attach one ship’s wings on top of another to make a big Frankenstein’s monster of a ship. It’s a cool idea, but you’ll need to buy more ships before you can do that.

“Ah,” you’re probably thinking. “I see. That’s where they get you. This is going to be another money-sink where I fill my house with plastic toys, isn’t it?”

Actually, in this instance I’m going to say no. See, in order that I could do this review, Ubisoft sent me the Starter Pack along with a bunch of other ships and weapons so I could try them out, and I’d be lying if I said that swapping out them out all the time didn’t feel like a bit of a chore after a while.

It’s particularity annoying during the harder battles: if your ship blows up you’re offered the chance to replace it with another one to keep going. This was irritating when it happened in Disney Infinity, but at least that was a case of swapping characters on a base. Here it means taking everything off the mount, attaching a new ship and attaching the weapons to it.

The controller mount also means you can only play the game – in this physical form at least – on your TV or in tabletop mode. If you want to play in handheld mode you’ll need to switch to a ‘digital’ option in the game. Here you can turn any toys you own into physical versions, but only for seven days.

This is presumably to stop kids scanning all their pals’ toys to get them in their game forever, which is understandable: but won’t be so fun if you’re going on a long trip and will be locked out of your game after a week unless you bring the toys with you.

The thing is, as well as the physical Starter Pack, Ubisoft also sent me a code for the Deluxe Digital version of the game, which makes all the vehicles, pilots and weapons available permanently. This is an option for gamers who don’t care about the toy element of Starlink, and for me it’s a far better experience (not to mention better value for money).

While the Starter Pack costs £69.99 and gives you two ships, two pilots and three weapons, the standard Digital edition costs the same price and gives you five ships, seven pilots and 12 weapons.

All of these are as freely interchangable as the toys are, thanks to an in-game menu screen where you can arrange parts as you see fit. You can even save up to three loadouts so you can quickly switch between different setups in seconds instead of having to swap toys over.

Meanwhile, if you want to go crazy the Digital Deluxe edition will set you back £89.99 and give you everything the game has to offer: six ships, 10 pilots and 15 weapons. That said, the standard Digital edition will be enough for most.

I get that this is all very confusing so that’s why I’ve put together this handy flowchart for you to follow. I’m nice like that. This is obviously based on the assumption that you’re fine paying the Ubisoft Tax™ of £69.99 for a normal digital version of a game, of course: if you aren’t this is a non-starter.

So far I’ve been full of nothing but praise for Starlink but do bear in mind it isn’t perfect. It can initially be a bit confusing and it doesn’t really do a great job of telling you how to do certain things: I had to head to Google to find out how to empty my inventory, so I can only imagine how kids would struggle to figure it out (the solution: liberate one of the outposts on a planet and you can then sell them your goods).

Another really annoying niggle is when you’re playing with the Arwing. If you want, you can remove the weapons from it entirely, because it has a bonus feature: the ability to fire lasers in a classic Star Fox style. It’s lovely: you can charge them up and everything.

The problem is, if you want to do this, the game constantly pops up a message telling you to attach a weapon, because it thinks you’re unarmed (like you would be with any other ship). This is something a patch could fix, of course, but for now it’s irritating enough that I decided to attach weapons instead.

It does also suffer from the Ubisoft effect, where you’re given a huge world map (or seven world maps and a galaxy map, in this case) filled with a load of icons and can feel overwhelmed as your completionist mindset tells you that you have to sort them all out.

It may not have ‘towers’ in the Assassin’s Creed sense, but each of the seven planets does have a bunch of spires, ruins, wrecks, wonders, species, sites and samples you have to find before you can consider it ‘cleared’, and that’s before you go into space and discover all the hidden shipwrecks and outlaw bases to find and plunder.

Finally, do consider that if you only buy the physical Starter Pack there will be some things in Starlink you can’t destroy. The game has an element based weapons system: each of its fifteen weapons comes in fire, frost, gravity, stasis and kinetic flavours. While the Starter Pack’s fire, frost and kinetic weapons will be enough to beat the game, there will be some objects that can’t be destroyed because you don’t have the right gun.

Granted, these will just lead to bonus pick-ups like money and the like that aren’t really important to beating the game, but it does still serve as a faint reminder of the bad old days of other toys-to-life games and their ‘you can’t get in without the right character’ policies.

So there we go. Imagine if No Man’s Sky, Rogue Squadron, Mass Effect, Star Fox and Watch Dogs were all in some sort of unholy orgy in which all five of them were somehow able to spawn one child. Starlink would be the godless offspring they would create… in a good way, mind.

It can’t be ignored that Ubisoft’s been a little cheeky with its digital edition by pricing the standard game at £69.99 – the same price as the physical edition, which comes with a ruddy big toy Arwing – though because it adds more ships and characters this standard digital edition does feel like the best place to start, especially because it doesn’t tie you to its controller mount gizmo meaning you can play it in handheld mode (or with a Pro Controller).

Besides, if you still want the Arwing I’m sure you can get it second-hand one day or wait for shops to inevitably sell it off at a lower price like they did when Disney Infinity died out.

A very long story short, Starlink is overpriced, its toys are fiddly and it’s confusing at first. And yet, despite all that, it’s an utterly fantastic space shooter and I’ve had a blast with it, especially on Switch.

For the avoidance of doubt, if you’re a Star Fox fan who’s still desperately waiting for the next legit adventure, it’s already here. You just have to weigh up some options before you get it.

Starlink: Battle For Atlas is available now on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PS4. You can buy physical versions from Amazon UK (Switch, Xbox One, PS4)

In order that I could write this review and cover every configuration, Ubisoft sent me the Starter Pack, three extra ships, two extra weapon packs and the Digital Deluxe version of the game.. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.

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