Starlink: Battle for Atlas preview

Remember the heady days of 2011, when the first Skylanders game came out, sparking the brief (but extremely lucrative) reign of ‘toys-to-life’ games that grew to include Disney Infinity, Lego Dimensions, and Nintendo Amiibo? The genre seemed all but dead, but apparently no-one told Ubisoft that.

After missing out on the genre’s first wave, the French gaming giant is hoping to single-handedly bring it back to life with Starlink: Battle for Atlas, an arcade-y open world shooter that lets you mix and match pilots, ships, wings, and weapons to create a toy - and in-game craft - that’s unique to you.

We spent almost three hours playing the game at Gamescom 2018, including with the Switch-exclusive Fox McCloud and Arwing from Star Fox, and here’s how it’s shaping up.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas: Price and availability

Starlink comes out on 16 October 2018, releasing across PS4, Xbox One, and Switch - but not on PC.

The starter set for every platform is £69.99/$74.99, which gets you the main game, a controller mount for the toys, and your first ship and pilot. For PS4 and Xbox you get main character Mason, along with his fighter the Zenith and a choice of three weapons.

On Switch, you’ll still get Mason but will also get Fox McCloud along with the iconic Arwing ship from the Star Fox and Lylat Wars games, though the tradeoff is that you’ll only get two weapons to choose from.

Beyond the starter set you can buy new ships, each of which comes with a pilot and weapon, or just pick up pilots and weapons individually. All of these will also be available as digital purchases, presumably for a lower price, if you'd rather not clutter your house up with a load of plastic toys.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas preview

It’s convenient that Ubisoft has partnered with Nintendo for the Switch version of Starlink: Battle for Atlas, because the Star Fox series really is the natural comparison for a lot of the core gameplay.

Just as in the Star Fox games you fly around in a small space fighter, sometimes on planets and sometimes in the vacuum of space, pew-pewing your laser guns at large groups of enemies and occasionally big bosses with conveniently glowing weakspots.

You’ll spend a little more time on the ground and a little less winging it through space, and the open world is much less linear than classic Star Fox level design, but otherwise the base mechanics feel comfortingly similar - the first mission even comfortingly teaches you how to do a barrel roll, as if to hammer the point home.

The comparison obviously springs to mind strongest while playing as Fox, which nets you extra dialogue between him and his team (neatly and carefully woven into the story, we’re glad to say, rather than crowbarred in for a spot of fan service) but really this feels like a game that took inspiration from Fox et al. long before Nintendo ever stepped in to license its characters.

Still, Starlink is more ambitious than a simple Star Fox reskin. For one, there are the toys. Each ship is about the size of your hand, and features interchangeable pilot, wings, and weaponry, allowing you to mix and match to your heart’s content - with corresponding in-game results. You slot it into a custom controller attachment, meaning you do have the added weight of the ship on your gamepad, but you can make whooshy spaceship noises and move it around as you play, so there's that.

For starters, each pilot comes with their own dialogue for the story, along with a special pilot ability on a timed recharge. The alien Judge can slow time down for his opponents (bullet-time, essentially), while the rock-inspired Razor can trigger a mini rhythm game to deal extra damage to enemies in bursts.

You can have mismatching wings and weapons, grab a pilot from another ship, and even stack multiple wings to create gargantuan Frankenstein ships - though speed, balance, and handling will all shift depending on your choices. Best of all, the changes are seamless - swap one weapon for another on your figurine and the same will happen immediately in the game, encouraging players with enough kit to adapt their loadout on the fly for each fight.

That’s naturally exactly what the game expects you to do, with different enemies susceptible to certain elemental damage types, and different weapon combos (one for each wing) yielding new effects. Shoot your flamethrower immediately after your vortex gun to trap enemies in a swirling orb of fire, or pair ice and fire weapons to stun enemies with the sudden temperature change.

It’s a lot of fun switching between different weaponry on the fly, and it certainly encourages experimentation, but we had the luxury of a full set of Starlink’s accessories to play with, and it’s hard not to wonder how much less fun the game might be with just the starter set - this might not be pay-to-win, but there’s at least a risk that it’s pay-to-have-fun.

So that’s the toys-to-life side of the game, but this is 2018 and we’re talking about an Ubisoft game, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there’s a heavy open world element to Starlink too.

You’re tasked with exploring (and battling for, we guess) the Atlas star system, in which you can seamlessly travel between the various planets. And it really is seamless, letting you fly up from the surface until you break orbit, and vice versa, though in practice we suspect you’ll just start fast-travelling everywhere as soon as you can anyway.

Each planet (and, to a lesser extent, the space between them) is loaded with side quests, loot, and hubs to unlock in a way that will feel pretty familiar to any Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed veteran. These all feed into various upgrade systems to improve your ships, weapons, and main hub, but there are also little tidbits of lore to explore, include the ability to scan the local flora and fauna for insights into the locale.

Each of these finds will trigger comment from the game’s larger cast of characters, and this might be where older players begin to pull back a little. The tone is distinctly ‘Saturday morning cartoon’, and some characters *cough* Levi *cough* are probably going to grate on you very, very quickly.

Playing as Fox on Switch helps, as at least some of the chat is swapped out for Fox and friends (not the right-wing kind), but even there you can’t entirely escape the banter. It’s not necessarily badly written, but it undeniably aims for a younger crowd, and doesn’t make much effort to appeal to adult players too.

Still, it’s probably unfair to hold that against a game that has been marketed at kids from the get-go. Starlink is clearly intended to be a lightweight, arcade-y experience, albeit one with enough flexibility and open-world content to keep players going for a while.

SHOULD I BUY STARLINK: BATTLE FOR ATLAS?

From what we’ve played of Starlink: Battle for Atlas it’s a fun, arcade-y revival of the spaceship shooter that’s been filled out with a lot of extra open world stuff - both the good and the bad.

The big question mark is how much game you’ll really get if you aren’t willing to fork out for the extra ships, pilots, and weapons - and whether anyone can justify buying it on anything other than the Switch.