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August 2020

Starlink: Battle for Atlas

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Release Date: Oct. 16, 2018


Switch Review - 'Starlink: Battle for Atlas'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 15, 2018 @ 4:00 a.m. PDT

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an open-world action-adventure space saga that features Smart Building Technology empowering players to assemble and customize real-world physical starships.

Buy Starlink: Battle for Atlas

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is set in the not-so-distant future, when a genius named St. Grand discovered a crashed alien spaceship. As any genius astrophysicist would do, he somehow parlayed this into the creation of an interstellar spaceship, the Equinox, and hired a crew of the most elite (and eccentric) pilots and crew to fly it among the stars. During one such trip, the Equinox is attacked by a group known as Legion, who kidnaps St. Grand and steals the Equinox's power source. The remaining crew members must rescue St. Grand and recover the ship's core so they can return home. Joining them for the mission is the famous Star Fox team, who has traveled to the Atlas system to hunt down the mercenary Star Wolf, who has dastardly plans for the secrets of Atlas.

You're placed in control of one of the Equinox's Star Fighters and are given a remarkable amount of freedom in how to move around. You have access to free flight almost from the very start of the game. While on a planet, you can swap from the hover-tank skimmer mode, which is good for combat, to flight mode at the touch of a button. You can also leave the planet at will by flying up into space and then going to any other planet you can see. The controls are simple and straightforward, and any kid should be able to adapt to them.

The titular Starlink feature is one of the cooler gameplay mechanics. In essence, your spaceship is comprised of a core, wings, and weapons. You can swap out any of these, or even stack multiple wings on top of each other, which changes the stats of the ship. You can go for a light and maneuverable ship armed with missiles or a heavy tank of a ship armed with powerful railguns — or honestly, anything your heart desires. You can also swap out these parts at any time to deal with sudden changes in your enemy lineup. Each core also counts as an extra life. As long as you have an undamaged core, you can continue the fight if you're destroyed. You also can swap out pilots, each with a distinct special ability, such as slowing time, becoming invisible, or summoning the rest of the Star Fox team.

The various components are not unlocked in-game. Instead, there are two ways to get them. The digital version of the game comes with a fair number of them by default, and more can be purchased afterward. (The cost is somewhat hefty at $13 for a ship, $5 for weapons, and $4 for a pilot.) Starlink's defining feature is its toy starships, which go along with the in-game starships. If you bought the physical version of the game, the starships unlock their respective features in-game and can be attached to a special included Joy-Con mount to let you swap pieces on the fly by changing the physical toy.

As far as the mostly dead Toys In Game genre goes, Starlink has the best assembled toys. They're large, weighty, and nicely crafted. It's very easy to imagine a kid playing with these. It helps that they're based on starships and not living creatures, so the lack of articulation feels less noticeable. The mix-and-match parts and weapons are a cute feature, and it's tremendously easy to imagine a child having as much with the plastic toys as the game.

However, this brings us to the most critical point: The toys add absolutely nothing to the game. Perhaps at one point in development, they were intended to be more central, but at release, they certainly aren't. They're neat collectibles, and they're surprisingly large and durable, but there are a number of small design decisions that seem to only exist to support the toys. Using the toys makes it a slow, superfluous, and tedious process. The digital version can be played without using the toys at all, and on a portable system like the Switch, that's a boon. The specialized controller dock for the toys is awkward to use. To the game's credit, once you've swapped out a physical version, it remains "unlocked" in the game for seven days, so you can go toyless while you're on the move. A parent should spring for the $59.99 digital version rather than the more expensive physical starter kit, and they can get the toys if their little one seems engaged enough to be worth the cost.

Having a wide variety of weapons is important because Starlink features weapon combos. Every weapon in the game — except Star Fox's laser weapon — belongs to one of five elements: Cold, Gravity, Heat, Kinetic, and Stasis. Enemies have elemental weaknesses, and certain weapons work better (or worse) on specific enemies, with Kinetic being a good catch-all weapon. Additionally, if you use two weapons of different elements on an enemy, it can have different effects. Using a Cold weapon and then a Kinetic weapon can cause the enemy's armor to shatter. A Gravity weapon and a Fire weapon creates an area-of-effect damage for a short time, and so on.

Combat takes some getting used to, and that's because you'll want to mix and match your weapons to suit the planet you're on. You can have three loadouts, and it's probably best to dedicate two to the planet you're currently exploring and one to space travel to avoid minimal fidgeting with the interface. In ground combat, it's best to focus on heavy-hitting weapons that make good combos, and in space dogfights, weapons with good tracking are useful, like missiles.

I went back and forth on combat. At first, I really liked it, and then I got frustrated with the swapping, but by the end, I figured out a way to make it feel comfortable. If the Starlink interface were faster and better integrated, I would've adored the combat. It's a great feeling to swap in a new weapon in the middle of combat only to blow away that tricky dogfighter who kept getting ahead of you. The weapon combos are fun, and while there should be more weapon variety (an unfortunate side effect of the toy design of the game), it's still fun to play.

There aren't too many ways around the basic idea that Starlink is the fairly standard Ubisoft open-world loop. You go from place to place, completing the same basic sort of missions you've seen in a lot of other Ubisoft games. Take out enemy bases, unlock more of the map, find a bunch of different collectibles to power up your character, and so on. Most of these come in the form of mods, which let you further customize your character's stats and abilities, including changing up some elemental combos. It's all very familiar. With that said, the context of it being based around a space flight game certainly provides it some extra life. It's a lot more fun to zoom across the planet to scan some animals and then take off into space to dogfight some pirates. This is probably the most kid-friendly of Ubisoft's open-world games, aside from the potentially costly way to unlock new ships, pilots and weapons.

The characters in Starlink can be fun, but they feel rather artificial and bland. For example, one is a military ace pilot dropout/metal musician/spaceship second-in-command. As strange as it sounds, the standout was actually the guest character. The Star Fox team makes a cameo in Starlink, but the team members are included in the story and have their own dialogue. In this way, it resembles Star Fox Adventures more than a usual cameo. It's also a great representation of the Star Fox team, and I never swapped away from Fox as my main pilot when I could avoid it because it made Starlink feel like the Star Fox spin-off I wanted to play. The Star Fox content is significant enough that the Switch version is perhaps the best iteration of the game for that alone.

Starlink: The Battle for Atlas is a solid and very enjoyable space-fighter themed take on Ubisoft's traditional open-world formula. It has a good amount of content and is a genuinely fun experience. The only thing dragging it down is the vestigial toy system, which works against the rest of the gameplay. Fortunately, the digital version of the game allows you to entirely side-step that trouble and contains enough content at the regular retail price to make it worthwhile. It's a good purchase for kids, and some adults (especially Star Fox fans) will find a fair bit to like here.

Score: 7.5/10

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