Starlink: Battle For Atlas review – bottom of the barrel roll

Starlink: Battle For Atlas (NS) – nice toys, shame about the game

Toys to life is brought… back to life in Ubisoft’s sci-fi crossover with Star Fox, but is it worth your time, let alone your money?

The Missing: J.J. Macfield And The Island Of MemoriesGame review: The Missing: J.J. Macfield And The Island Of Memories is very odd indeed

There are a number of things we don’t understand about Starlink. We don’t understand why it’s a toys to life game, at a point in time where it’s been convincingly proven that toys to life is not a sustainable phenomenon. We also don’t know why what is essentially a more action-based version of No Man’s Sky is being aimed solely at kids in the first place. And we don’t understand why, despite having so many interesting ideas and mechanics, the end result is such a frustrating and repetitive ordeal.

We were actually really looking forward to Starlink, and for two very good reasons: we love space combat simulators and we’d played it at Gamescom and had been very impressed. Although in hindsight we can only imagine what sort of tricked out spaceship they must’ve put us in control of then, compared to the near useless crate you start the game with.

What really excited us about Starlink is that it seemed to be a return to a style of game that hasn’t been prevalent since the 16-bit era: the giant open-ended space adventure personified by the likes of Damocles and Starglider 2. Games whose ambition greatly outstripped the technical abilities of the time and yet, with the exception of No Man’s Sky, have no modern day equivalent. At some point that’s probably what Starlink was supposed to be, but it’s not how it’s ended up.

Although the Nintendo Switch version of the game has Star Fox plastered all over it the core content of the game is the same across all versions. The basic plot feels like a failed Saturday morning cartoon pilot and has a lot of very vaguely plotted nonsense about aliens trying to learn the secrets of a progenitor race (why are video game plots so obsessed with that concept?) and a Lost in Space style team of objectionable teens who, thanks to an alien pal, are apparently the only humans with advanced space tech.

What all this boils down to is a solar system (the titular Atlas) of seven planets which you have full freedom to explore at your own pace and try to free from alien invaders. Which, never mind the plot, is a really great idea for a video game. The problem is how all this works in practice.

The good news is that the combat is generally pretty good. Your ship seems a bit too big on screen in space battles but you have full 3D movement if you want it and dogfighting requires some real skill. It lacks the slick controls and tactical nuance of Battlefront II’s Starfighter Assault but the action is generally solid and all the more impressive because you can also fly right down to a planet and fight in the same way in-atmosphere – or cut the engines and skim along the surface as if you’re piloting a hovertank.

Starlink: Battle For Atlas (NS) – the graphics really are very nice

As we intimated though, your ship is extremely underpowered when you start and the game’s actually quite hard. And that’s where the toys to life angle comes in. When you buy the game it comes with a, quite large, plastic model of your spaceship, with detachable wings, weapons, and pilot. Everything can be upgraded and levelled up independently, but if you want an actual new weapon you’ve got to buy it physically, with real money. And a pack of two costs £9.99. Extra pilots, each with their own special ability, cost £6.99; while a new spaceship, with a weapon and pilot, costs a staggering £24.99.

Don’t get us wrong, they’re really nicely made toys – and the designs are actually very good – but you’re looking at over £200 to buy the starter pack and all the extras. And all just so you can stick a toy spaceship on top of your joypad and manually change weapons by fumbling about for the new one and physically slotting it onto the toy. Except you can also use any registered add-on for up to seven days digitally, completely circumventing the whole toys to life gimmick and allowing you to leave the toys sitting on a shelf somewhere back at home.

Why any of this was deemed to be a good idea we can’t begin to imagine. Unlike Skylanders and Lego Dimensions there’s no gated content, and you don’t need anything but the starter weapons to beat the game, but that barely seems to matter when your options are still so constrained. Plus, there’s the fact that when you die, which you will do a lot at the beginning, the only way to avoid starting the mission again is to swap in another £25 spaceship to use as an extra life. The set-up is a special combination of cynical and stupid that we’ve never witnessed before and we’re almost in awe at how wrong-headed it all is.

Starlink: Battle For Atlas (NS) – the Arwing doesn’t work with the other consoles

It all might have been salvageable if the game had made good use of its action elements but the structure around them is badly flawed. The basic idea is a variation on the usual Ubisoft open world formula, where you try to liberate friendly bases on each planet and construct new ones. Building up a network of refineries and observatories is initially very engrossing, but the most interesting element is that liberating a planet usually only leads to more reinforcements and the enemy is always doing things on other planets – so you have to constantly keep an eye on them all.

There’s a great sense of dynamism and life to the solar system but the problem is that your methods for dealing with the constant incursions are so limited and repetitive. The various fetch quests that help you build up resources quickly begin to repeat and soon it all feels like mindless grinding, especially given how few enemy types there are. Even the initially promising boss battles, which are impressive in terms of scale and freedom of movement, quickly disappoint as you realise most of them are just palette swapped clones of each other.

Not even the Star Fox stuff really works. The Switch version (which we were sent along with around half the other add-ons) comes with an Arwing fighter in the starter pack, which doesn’t work with the other versions, and Fox and the gang are frequently inserted into the various cut scenes. But Star Fox is the one Nintendo series where people play it for the gameplay far more than the rather unlikeable characters. Or at least that’s how we’ve always seen it. So all it really adds to the game is a few fan references (there’s lots of barrel rolling) and altogether too much Slippy.

It’s a shame because the graphics are very impressive on the Switch, at least for a game of this scale. The textures are greatly simplified from what we remember the PlayStation 4 version looking like but the frame rate is solid and the game’s scale and attention to detail is consistently impressive. There’s even a co-op mode in docked mode, which is a real technical achievement.

But we just didn’t care, not after the hundredth time completing the same mission, fighting the same enemies, and once again dropping the spare weapons down the side of the sofa. There’s a great game somewhere deep inside of Starlink and the patient (and rich) can eke out a fair amount of entertainment from it even as it is stands now. But to be honest we had just as much fun wooshing the ships about in the air as we did playing with them in the game.

Starlink: Battle For Atlas

In Short: A muddled mess of good intentions and corporate greed that ruins a promising space adventure with needless repetition and horribly expensive toys to life gimmicks.

Pros: The combat is generally good and the scope and dynamism of the solar system battlefield is very impressive. Excellent graphics, given the limitations of the Switch. Great ship designs.

Cons: Every element of the game is very quickly repetitive, especially the missions and enemies. The whole toys to life aspect feels like a scam and the add-ons are staggeringly expensive.

Score: 6/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Price: £69.99
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
Release Date: 16th October 2018
Age Rating: 7

Email, leave a comment below, and follow us on Twitter


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.  Learn more