The latest game to attempt to conquer the toys-to-life market is Ubisoft’s Starlink: Battle for Atlas. An open world game about exploring and conquering space, it’s actually a lot of fun. But its toys just aren’t necessary.
The game sees you play as a pilot from the titular Starlink. Your galaxy – Atlas – is in danger of being taken over by the evil Legion, and so it’s up to you to fight against them, reclaim the planets of Atlas and restore peace and order to the world. You know, the whole good versus evil thing. Starlink’s story isn’t exactly revolutionary, nor is it particularly deep; it’ll only take you about eight hours to see it through to its end, if you stick to the main questline. But it’s in Starlink’s open world and freedom and exploration that you’ll find most of the game’s beauty.
Don’t be put off by the short running time of Starlink: Battle for Atlas’ main story, because completing that barely scrapes the surface of everything the game has to offer. There are seven planets in total, each with a wealth of quests to complete in order to reclaim the planet from Legion’s control. You’ll destroy enemy towers, take over refineries, complete quests for local settlers, search for materials and reclaim or build new outposts – all in the name of strengthening Starlink and weakening the enemy. Finishing the main story left me with two planets I’d not even discovered, and at least two others I’d barely explored. It’s a shame more exploration wasn’t tied more intrinsically to the story, but it means there’s plenty of end-game content to get stuck into.
Sure, Starlink’s gameplay loop is somewhat repetitive; just like any open world game, it’s made up of a number of similar tasks that, after a while, can begin to get a little arduous. But it’s kept entertaining thanks to the game’s colourful cast of characters and its fantastic design. Each of Atlas’ planets has its own unique style, and each is an absolute joy to explore. When you land on a planet that’s totally overtaken by Legion, it’ll be dark, gloomy and dusty; you’ll be flying through a thick red mist without much visibility. But as you slowly overturn the enemy by destroying their structures and reclaiming outposts, that mist begins to lift, revealing a gorgeous, colourful planet underneath.
A vast and beautiful galaxy
I’ve spent about 15 hours in Starlink so far, in which time I’ve visited every planet and reclaimed about half of Atlas. I’ve not once got bored of exploring a new area; every part of the game’s world is a delight to fly around. Each planet has its own unique flora and fauna, as well as a handful of species to discover. The designs of these creatures are brilliant – it’s almost a shame they’re not a more intrinsic part of the game. Still, tracking them down and learning about their species is a fun distraction from the war on Legion.
If you’re playing the game on Nintendo Switch, you’ll get bonus Star Fox content. Along with the Arwing ship and Star Fox as a playable character, there’s also a series of Star Fox-themed missions. They’re okay, but if Nintendo Switch isn’t your format of choice, it’s not worth purchasing that version over any other. Unless you absolutely want your own Arwing, of course. The questline itself takes only about 45 minutes to complete, and it’s padded out by making you travel between a number of planets in quick succession. It’s not as strong as the game’s main story, but if you’re planning to pick the game up on Switch anyway, it’s a neat little bonus at least.
Combat, of course, makes up a big part of Starlink: Battle for Atlas, whether you’re playing through the campaign or just flying through the galaxy of your own accord. You’ll frequently come across groups of enemies, and for the most part, fighting them is a lot of fun. Modding your ship with the weapons of your choice is a key element to making the most of the game, although if you’re playing with physical ships, you’ll be limited to the add-ons you’ve purchase. If you buy the game digitally, you’ll have a wide range of weapons at your disposal. The way different weapons work together is interesting, and finding a combination that works best for you – or what works best against the enemy type you’re up against – is highly rewarding. Using fire and ice together, for example – thankfully a combination included in the game’s physical starter pack – sends most enemies into thermal shock, dealing massive amounts of damage.
My only quibble with Starlink’s combat is that there’s no way to lock onto an enemy. This isn’t so much a problem when you’re grounded on a planet; keeping track of your foes is fairly straightforward. But out in space, when travelling between planets, it’s another matters. Enemies can surround you 360 degrees, and with no lock-on, you’ll find yourself constantly revolving, and it’s easy to become disoriented. Then again, I guess that’s one of the quirks of outer space.
Forget the toys
The only other major gripe with Starlink isn’t so much with the game itself, but how it’s been presented. Ubisoft is heavily marketing this as a toys-to-life game, but I’ve played through the entire thing without even taking any of my physical ships and accessories out of their packaging. I wrote about this in more detail in a separate article last week, but Starlink: Battle for Atlas is best enjoyed as a digital experience. It’s just a shame that it’s priced quite highly compared to other games on the store. It makes sense – since even the standard digital version comes with most ships, pilots and weapons – you’d be looking at around £200 to buy it all physically – but it’s undoubtedly a factor that will put people off buying.
The physical ships themselves make decent toys, but not much more. They’re a little flimsy, and considering their price – £25 for a ship, pilot and weapon – don’t feel particularly great quality. The tiny pilots – £7 each – feel particularly cheap, their small size not allowing for much detail. In contrast, having a selection of ships, weapons and pilots ready to change right on the menu without having to mess around with putting together the physical items is a much easier, and pleasant experience.
A whole new world
But if you do buy Starlink, either physically or digitally, you won’t be disappointed. Especially not if you’re a fan of open world adventures, and enjoy a good bit of space exploration. Starlink manages to cater to a wide range of players thanks to its difficulty options, and its easy-to-grasp systems manage to be kid-friendly without being too simple for more seasoned gamers. I didn’t expect much from Starlink, but it’s surprised me in a good way. It’s the type of game I’ve looked forward to relaxing with after a long day at work; it turns out that exploring the galaxy is a great way to unwind.
With a gorgeous visual design – even on Nintendo Switch, it’s a striking-looking game – an enjoyable gameplay loop, fantastic audio design, and a lively cast of characters, there’s plenty to like in Starlink: Battle for Atlas. It’s a game I can see myself coming back to for a long time yet.