Platform: Xbox One, PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Switch (played through Star Fox questline)
Developers: Ubisoft Toronto
MSRP: $74.99 (Physical Version), $59.99 (Digital Version), $79.99 (Digital Deluxe)
More than 10 years ago, players were shredding to classic rock songs on Guitar Hero, and the plastic instrument fad reached an all-time high when Rock Band was introduced some few years later. The plastic instrument genre lived on for years, providing families with hours of entertainment in their living rooms, being able to live out their rock band fantasies right from the comfort of their own home. Until the fad died, and not even a soft revival with the likes of Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live were able to resurrect it.
The next sensation that swept the nation was the toys-to-life genre, introduced with Skylanders, and followed by Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions. However, just like the plastic rock band fad before it, it wasn’t long before companies decided that it just wasn’t sustainable and left it behind.
So why give this entire fad speech before actually talking about Starlink: Battle for Atlas? Simple, really. Ubisoft dared to resurrect it, but in a way that doesn’t feel like a cash grab mainly due to its implementation, and its toys actually function like… well, toys!
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is the latest open-world game from Ubisoft, but this time, instead of hacking your way through a city, assassinating templars or taking over bases with your squad of Ghosts, players take to space and eventually on a bunch of different planets to save another galaxy from an evil overlord, bent on taking over it by any means necessary. However, it’s also a toys-to-life game which means players will be able to attach ships on their controllers, as well as weapon attachments, that all happen in the game in real time. However, before I get into the nitty-gritty of the toys aspect, let’s talk about the game itself.
If this isn’t your first rodeo with a Ubisoft game, expect the same gameplay loop you’d find in their other open-world titles, though scaled back a bit since, at its core, it’s still a kids game after all. After choosing your pilot and your ship (which will most likely be Mason and the Zenith since those come in the starter pack), you’ll take to space and eventually touch down on one of 7 fully explorable planets. To the art design team’s credit, each planet is very distinct with its own flora and fauna and a specific color palette, which makes touching down on each one for the first time quite a treat.
Players are then presented with a laundry list of activities to do, in true Ubisoft fashion, that they can tackle at their leisure when they’re not connected to the main story progression. There’s a pretty great sense of hierarchy going on in how they work, though still easy enough for kids to grasp relatively quick.
First and foremost, various structures, such as refineries, armories, observatories, and research labs can be found and recruited to your cause. Each one will provide the Alliance with some sort of passive bonus. Observatories increase the visibility on each planet, dotting it with more points of interest, refineries award an increasing amount of Electrum, the game’s primary currency, after a set amount of time passes, armories will spawn more friendly units capable of self-defense, and research labs will award you random mods for your ship as well as let you purchase specialized and rare mods using Electrum.
Later on, players will also be able to build their own structures after defeating Imp Hives, meaning they’ll be able to place one of those four aforementioned stations down, depending on their current need. While largely inconsequential at times, it does add a nice little customization element to each planet. There are also ancient spire locations which require the player to solve a puzzle using a combination of the various elements on their weapons (also more on this later), and these can eventually be used for fast travel purposes, which is something I largely appreciated later in the game.
Then there’s the enemy hierarchy. Later in the game, players will come across spaceships known as Dreadnoughts that spawn giant enemies called Primes on a timer. Once a Prime touches down on a planet, they’ll start to roam around and place extractors which not only harm the atmosphere but also spawn enemies to guard it. Players usually have to work their way up the food chain by destroying enough extractors to find the Prime’s location, and then eventually take down the Dreadnoughts themselves so that they can stop spawning Primes. It’s a neat system which always keeps the safety of all the planets in flux, but one that also ensures you’ve seen it all once you’ve done a few of them.
Starlink isn’t short on things to do, but a lot of it is repeated content. To a younger player, this might not sound like an issue, but for me, I started to see the cracks relatively early on. All the extractors are defeated the same way by shooting three to four red orbs on the side of it, and then one bigger one in the middle. The Primes, while exciting to fight, also face the same issue, needing to shoot one point so they’re stunned, and then repeatedly pelting them with shots when their weak spot is exposed.
Sure, some Primes have multiple phases but those do little to make those fights more exciting. Taking down Dreadnoughts is also identical every time. Shoot the turrets on the top, then shoot the laser beams on the side, then destroy the missile launcher at the end of the ship which opens up a hole to the inside, fly through avoiding laser beams and ultimately destroy the core. This, in a nutshell, is every single Dreadnought fight.
This, sadly, extends to the planets as well. As much as I praised the diverse look of each planet, the fact of the matter is that they’re all interchangeable. Every planet has exactly three species that can be scanned and cataloged and four different samples to be collected. There’s always five spires to find and one world wonder to complete once you’re level 20. Once you’ve seen one planet, you’ve essentially seen them all.
Oddly enough though, I still very much enjoyed my time with the game, mostly because it doesn’t seem too bloated with that side content. I was able to get through the game in around 16 hours, which is relatively short for a Ubisoft open-world game, let alone one that lets you explore 7 different planets.
So I’ve spent a good deal talking about the game itself but not its other major selling point, the toys! Well, that’s largely because the game is better experienced without them. Ubisoft was kind enough to send me the physical edition of the Switch version, as well as three extra ships, some extra weapons, and an extra pilot. However, instead of the physical cart, they provided me with the Deluxe Digital Edition code.
Let me just get this out of the way first, the toys are absolutely stunning. They’re large and actually function as toys unlike Skylanders and Disney Infinity toys, which were essentially statues. Toy enthusiasts or collectors should buy these even if they don’t own the game, that’s how awesome these things look and feel when playing with them. However, when compared to the digital offerings, it doesn’t make sense to use them at all.
I will admit that stacking different wings on each ship, rotating them so they face backward, or even stacking wings on top of wings, was genuinely a delight, since all of that is represented in the game immediately. You can even point your guns backward if you want, and they will in fact point that way and shoot. It’s a little crazy just how wild you can make these ships look, creating a Frankenstein of a starship with different wings on each side, but the fact that it works and is fully represented in the game is pretty magical.
The novelty of all of this wears off quickly, especially once you find out you can do all of this so much quicker using the digital items. This is especially true when you need to switch something quickly to combat an enemy with a certain elemental weakness. The game’s menus also allow you to stack wings on top of wings and face them backward so you’re not limited to needing the toys themselves to create whacky combinations.
However, the biggest point to go digital over physical is value. For $75, the physical starter pack comes with the Zenith ship and Mason. Those on the Switch get a better deal since they get the Arwing on top of a digital version of the Zenith, as well as Fox and Mason as pilots, essentially doubling the amount they get for the same exact price.
However, those buying digitally for $60 get about 90% of the game’s content, save for one ship, a few pilots and weapons. The Digital Deluxe edition, which costs only five dollars more than the physical starter edition, comes with literally everything. Knowing this, I can’t recommend for anyone to buy the physical version, and rather buy all of the ships separately if you really want to own the toys.
There’s a big asterisk to my last statement though. If you have to buy a physical edition of the game and have a Nintendo Switch, then that version is absolutely, without a doubt, the definitive edition of the game. The Arwing as a toy is amazing and makes for a great showpiece when you’re not using it for the game. I’ve already mentioned that you get two ships and two pilots for the price of one, but on top of that, you also get a separate main quest for Star Fox and his team as they’re trying to look for and take down Star Wolf. While it’s nowhere near as long and fleshed out as the actual main campaign, there’s real production value here, with extra cutscenes and full voice acting by Fox and the team.
Then there’s also the topic of upgrading your pilots. They, themselves don’t have traditional XP bars but instead gain levels as they gain mastery of different ships and weapons, meaning the more of those you have at your disposal, the faster they’ll gain those levels. While I did at first think that this incentivizes players to purchase additional ships and weapons, it turns out that defeating Dreadnoughts that continually respawn in the late game, will keep awarding you with skill points regardless. So while it could take longer, you can definitely max out your character’s skills with only the starting equipment.
Where it gets more dicey are the elemental weapons. The game ships with a fire weapon and an ice weapon, a good combo when dealing with many of the enemies that belong to one of those two elements. The game is certainly beatable without needing to rely on the gravity or stasis element, however certain Spires which unlock as fast travel points require them to solve, meaning that unless players get their hands on them, they can’t 100% some of the later planets. Not a deal breaker but certainly something to keep in mind.
Despite the repetitive nature of Starlink, I still mostly enjoyed my time with it, and I think that’s partially because it doesn’t feel bloated content-wise. I also have to commend Ubisoft on the toys-to-life integration. Bringing back a genre that’s mostly dead could have had disastrous results, but allowing gamers to have the option to play the game entirely digitally opens the game up to a much wider audience. With that said, I think the toys are rad and could easily be given to someone as a gift who doesn’t even own the game. In the end, it’s a game made for a younger crowd of gamers, and if I put myself in that mindset, Starlink is one hell of a good time.