Review by MTLH
When a game features enough stuff to make even Atlas himself buckle at the knees.
A few years ago the notion of having toys and figurines interact with games, a concept known as toys-to-life, was riding high. Activision's Skylanders may not have been the first but it was the one to open the floodgates. Others followed of which the best known are probably Disney Infinity which involved it's own characters but also those of the other franchises they have acquired such as Star Wars and Lego Dimensions which used the company's trademark little figures in combination with properties ranging from The Simpsons to Doctor Who. Then there is of course Nintendo with their Amiibo line of figurines which, in lieu of a truly dedicated title, mostly unlocked various things across a wide selection of games.
At present, the whole toys-to-life craze has died down considerably, to put it mildly. While Skylanders is still around, to a degree at least, and Amiibo remains somewhat of a thing, the rest has since been shuttered. This however didn't stop Ubisoft from diving in with Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Released for all the major consoles towards the end of 2018, the game was accompanied by a slew of little spaceships, figurines of their pilots and separate weapon packs. Seeing how quickly the game and the toys where discounted at retail, it's safe to say that Ubisoft's ploy hasn't paid off. A pity really, as the game itself isn't too shabby.
If Starlink has one thing going for it, it's that the game looks absolutely lovely. Each of the planets has a certain lushness to them and can, on more than one occasion, even look positively breathtaking. From the deserts of Kirite with it's scorched bones and abundant cacti to the mysterious ruins of Sonatus, there is always something to marvel at. Whenever you see the clouds drifting through the air while the land below is soaking in the rays of the setting sun, it really is a moment to take in and savour. This effect does not disappear when in space, flying though an asteroid field for example or spotting a planet in the distance with large gaseous clouds looming behind it in deep space. The ships and structures inhabiting this universe are furthermore nicely detailed while Atlas' flora and fauna also manage to please the eye. The cutscenes, while admittedly not being particularly exceptional, nonetheless do look good, possessing a pleasant Saturday morning cartoon vibe.
The soundtrack is certainly epic sounding and wouldn't feel out of place in any overblown big budget sci-fi film. It's mostly atmospheric in nature and deceptively low key but manages to become nearly all encompassing whenever something important or big is happening. My favourite of the bunch is the tune accompanying the Dreadnought battles, sounding both sinister and menacing yet also alluringly heroic. The sound effects deliver all the oomph you'd want and more while the voice acting is actually quite good, with the actors delivering their occasionally cheesy lines with gusto and conviction.
When the pilots of the Starlink Initiative arrive in the Atlas system looking for answers about one of their own, a mysterious alien named Judge, the team quickly finds itself under attack by the Forgotten Legion. This nefarious faction, led by an enigmatic villain called Grax, are after the artefacts and knowledge of the Wardens, an extinct race who possessed great power. Having both their leader and the core of their flagship snatched from underneath their noses, the team subsequently find themselves drawn into the conflict between the Legion and Atlas' population of prospectors, scientists and miners who are united the banner of the Alliance.
The story is primarily told via the main missions and the cutscenes surrounding them. Taking into account the game's open universe and all that entails, it is delivered in a rather haphazard manner. A lot of it is dumped on the player at Starlink's start and a good deal at the end, leaving the space between these points feeling rather barren. In a sense, there doesn't seem to be enough narrative here to support the majestic epic Starlink so desperately tries to be. Amidst exploring Atlas' planets, fighting off the Legion and all the other things you can do in the game, the impact of the various plot strands possesses remarkably little weight, comparatively speaking.
A well realised sense of place could have compensated for this, filling in Atlas' universe with little titbits, the occasional observation and plenty of lore to get lost in. While the game does try, this isn't really taken far enough. All these planets look wonderful and the sense of mystery and wonder they elicit is great but, all in all, Atlas still feels somewhat empty and strangely uniform. It probably doesn't help that the only people you actually see show up during the cutscenes or as portraits, with literally no one actually leaving their ships and bases in-game, and that a lot of the information, situations and remarks are being repeated and recycled just a tad too often.
However, despite these flaws there is still a lot to like about Starlink's narrative and world in general. With the possible exception of main protagonist Mason Rana, who really is a bit of a wet blanket, the Initiative's pilots are fun characters to spend your time with while Atlas' universe is an interesting location in itself. You could even say that in spite of the issues mentioned, the story does tell a good yarn which makes it relative lack of impact all the more regretful. What also helps in the grand scheme of things, if you're a Nintendo fan at least, is the inclusion of a certain Fox McCloud. I will, however, touch upon his inclusion later on in the review as there is plenty to discuss about this addition.
Starlink is essentially an open world space shooter with some light strategic elements. Strapping him- or herself into the seat of one of the Initiative's ships, the player is tasked with exploring the Atlas system, halting the advance of the Forgotten Legion, fighting off outlaws and, more generally speaking, build up the Alliance infrastructure so it can actually help Starlink achieve those goals. In short, the game tasks the player with liberating an entire star system, one planet at a time. That may seem like quite the endeavour and, appropriately enough, Starlink features a multitude of different systems that are connected in various, often hierarchical ways.
Exploring a planet reveals it's surface and leads to the discovery of different landmarks, resources, outposts and other places of interest. Those outposts come in various forms. There are the observatories that map in large parts of the surface, mining installations that provide the vital resources the Alliance needs, armouries to maintain militias and workshops where enhancements called mods are created. Enlisting these bases involves doing a job or other for them, building new ones or rescuing when under assault. Places of interest include towns that need to be liberated to ruins which hold some information to Atlas' past. Uncover enough of a given world's map, convince the encountered outposts to join the Alliance and liberate towns and the natives' resistance against both the Legion's incursion as well as the outlaw raids grows stronger.
The Legion's invasion is conducted in various phases. On the ground you encounter Extractors which tend to be heavily defended and cover large swaths of a world with an ominous cloud which prevents ships from flying. These are planted there by Primes, large bipedal machines who may initially ignore Starlink and their allies until provoked after which it can and will strike back with a vengeance. These are in turn delivered by Dreadnoughts, essentially functioning as the Forgotten Legion's flagships, which are accompanied by a compliment of fighters and naturally also posses numerous weapon systems. The manner in which these are all connected is mostly a matter of numbers. Destroying a Prime becomes much harder when there are more Extractors around while blowing up a Dreadnought likewise is a bigger challenge the more Primes are ambling about. While it's true that cutting off the head of this particular snake will make life less difficult on the planets themselves, it's often much more proficient to simply work your way from the bottom up. Another form of Legion manifestation are nests which spawn Imps, little pests who attack in groups. These structures are easily destroyed though, after which you can build new outposts on their foundations.
Defeating the Forgotten Legion requires the aid of the Alliance while in turn it's build-up relies on vanquishing the enemy. This creates a nice little loop as you have the Starlink team travel the width and berth of the Atlas system, targeting the worst infestations while letting the natives contain the minor incursions which may occur in the meantime. Point is, while it takes quite a bit of effort to remove the Legion's presence when already established, after you've kicked them out and bolstered that planet's defences it becomes nearly impossible for them to regain a proper foothold. While the Alliance ultimately relies rather heavily on the Initiative to really cleanse a world, their militia is more than capable to deal with the less powerful Legion forces.
Resources come in two variations, electrum and nova. The first can mainly be obtained by either enlisting the help of refineries or building new ones but you can also for example sell items at the various outposts. The second type is much rarer and is usually acquired by destroying the Legion infrastructure and performing missions but, again, selling stuff can also yield some nova. Both resources can be used to purchase upgrades of various kinds, ranging from those that affect your ships, pilots and the like to setting up and improving outposts. As a general rule, the best upgrades cost nova and seeing that it's harder to come by, it's easy to see how it plays a role in controlling the game's flow. The player is prevented from becoming too strong too soon thus effectively gating off parts of Atlas until the story is ready to progress further.
I mentioned missions in the previous paragraph. These can involve things like liberating towns, scanning some wildlife, setting up radars and turrets and dispatching the local cadre of outlaws pestering the natives and tend to be given by an outpost or your team mates. On the other hand, these are usually activities you can also do at your own discretion anyway. Besides these, there are also wrecks to scan, minerals to mine, items to collect, outlaw bases in space to clear out and simple elemental based riddles to solve that can be found amongst the ruins. There is never a dull moments, it would seem.
It's safe to say that there is a lot to do in Starlink. Reactivating workshops, aiding refineries and observatories, collecting minerals, performing some odd-jobs, fighting the Legion by taking out their infrastructure while building up the planets' resilience. It can all initially be a bit confusing and even daunting at times as the game doesn't exactly go out of it's way to explain things, either properly or at the most opportune moment. This leads to situations where you are doing things without knowing why only to stumble upon the reason at a later date. This is especially prevalent during the game's opening section which is much more linear in nature than the open world tug of war Starlink eventually expands into yet at the same time doesn't really confine the player accordingly. Despite all this, don't worry too much and just go with the flow and you will eventually get the hang of it. However, that sense of bewilderment as the amount of systems and activities continue to pile up, seemingly without end, never really goes away.
Another sensation that eventually pops up is the dawning realistaion that you're basically building up a routine and going through the resulting motions. Sure, the game may offer a truckload of things to do and several different worlds to do them on but what you're doing will roughly stay the same throughout. If you've taken out one Dreadnought or Prime, say, solved one puzzle or liberated a planet for that matter, you've basically seen all these kind of mechanisms have to offer. That doesn't mean that Starlink becomes boring as the sheer amount of things to do will keep any player busy yet that doesn't prevent the whole enterprise from eventually growing a tad stale.
After having discussed all these systems and concepts, you may be wondering how Starlink actually plays. Well, like a third person shooter, believe it or not. Although it's possible to fly anywhere you please, take off into space and travel to another planet, most of the time you find your ship hovering slightly above the ground shooting at enemies that tend to walk. It's even possible to jump while gliding behind a rock or other piece of cover is a viable strategy. Reflecting incoming shots back via the ship's shield is arguably more rewarding though. Be all that as it may, as a shooter Starlink is very enjoyable and at times even exhilarating, especially when battling foes in space. It's a pity however that you don't really get to engage the enemy in the air, dogging it out with other airborne vessels above a planet's surface.
The weapons vary from homing missiles and shotguns to lasers and machineguns and they are also imbued with an elemental effect such as fire, ice and gravity. This has some obvious benefits, enemies will float up for example or are frozen, while combining them can lead to effects such as raging firestorms. Then there are the enemies who are more vulnerable to a particular element such as a cold based gun doing more harm to a heat based foe. Experimenting with the weaponry really is very enjoyable, either coming up with your own favourite combinations or figuring out which gun is the best choice for a given situation.
Experimentation in general plays a big role. All the ships have different characteristics as do the pilots and even the wings. It may not always be especially revolutionary, one ship is for example quick yet fragile while another is bulky yet slow; one pilot's special is a large laser beam while another can crash into enemies with abandon, but figuring out what works best for you is all part of the fun.
The toys-to-life aspect of Starlink revolves around the vessels. The game comes with a special controller in which the Switch's Joycons are placed and on which a ship and pilot can be bolted on. These are interchangeable and that also applies to the wings and weapons. It's possible to attach several wings onto a ship, leading to some spectacularly monstrous creations, and the guns can even be placed backwards to take out those enemies coming from behind. It must be said that the toys really do look very good and form pleasing display pieces in themselves. The ships, guns and pilots all feature plenty of detailing and paint applications and are sculpted surprisingly well. It isn't all that difficult to imagine these things working great as their own entity seperate from the game, being purely a toyline with a swap based gimmick.
It's initially quite mesmerising seeing those toys come to life onscreen yet after a while the whole process can't help but lose some of it's lustre. It's simply much more convenient to just select the various parts from a menu. Unfortunately, in order to keep all the stuff available from said menu, you still have to link up the toys every few days or so to keep them activated. If you play Starlink mostly in handheld mode, thus without the special controller, or perhaps rather use the Switch's pro-controller when docked, this requirement can become a tad tiresome. Especially so when you own more than a few of the things and have to go through the whole routine again and again.
Besides possessing their own specific characteristics, in a way ships also act as lives so when one goes down you must pick another. Running out of available vessels leads to a trip to the last save point. This is rarely too far away but can nonetheless still be a bother if you just want to jump back into the action and find yourself respawning in the planet's orbit. If you don't own more than the two that came with the starter's pack, chances are that this will happen often enough for it to become slightly more aggravating. On a related note, while you're able to upgrade your ships, weapons and pilots in quite some elaborate ways with the mods and general upgrades, they never really radically change. An ice based gun, for instance, remains an ice based gun whatever you do. So again, when you only stick with the things included in the set, you're missing out on the varied play that can make Starlink such a joy.
Thus taking into account the whole ships are lives approach and seeing that part of the fun stems from experimentation, you really want more stuff to play with and that means forking out for additional toys. Alternatively you could also opt for the digital version which includes all of them, does away with the swapping and linking up malarkey and is also cheaper to boot. Still, I can't shake the feeling that the whole toys-to-life angle doesn't do Starlink much favours. The game feels a tad neutered in it's vanilla state and while it's perfectly possible to play through it without pulling out your wallet again, it's also markedly less fun. It's rather paradoxical, really. The toys-to-life element has been integrated remarkably well and adds a lot to the overall joy yet at the same time it can also form a hindrance to that enjoyment.
Perhaps Ubisoft could have included a few digital only ships, weapons and pilots in the base game to be unlocked while adding some extra incentives to the physical toys, an extra planet for example or exclusive missions, to make them more desirable on their own. Ah well, I can't really fault the publisher too much for the approach that has been taken. Those toys do need to have a tangible purpose in a toys-to-life title after all, why buy them otherwise, so perhaps it simply comes with the territory.
And lastly we come to the aforementioned inclusion of Fox McCloud. For a while now, Ubisoft has enjoyed a healthy and robust relationship with Nintendo which culminated in 2017 with the rather splendid Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. In the case of Starlink this cooperation has resulted in the inclusion of Star Fox related content. What this means is that you can play as Fox McCloud himself, control an Arwing and partake in a few additional missions that has the team going after perennial nemesis Wolf O'Donnell. The ship is furthermore equipped with it's traditional blasters while Fox's special attack sees him calling in one of his teammembers while, in a genuinely wonderful touch, the original Corneria theme music plays in the background. Essentially, you can play the entirety of Starlink with Fox and his Arwing which does a lot in granting the game something of a Star Fox vibe.
Does this mean that the game can moonlight as a proper Star Fox entry, perhaps even be reclassified as Star Fox and friends: Battle for Atlantis? Well, I certainly wouldn't go that far. The entire campaign to hunt down Wolf, interspersed into the main campaign as it is, is over before you know it and, even more tellingly, while Fox and company do show up during the regular cutscenes, they rarely if ever rise above the status of background characters. More often than not, the team doesn't even make an appearance at all. And yet, while you could say that the whole enterprise is somewhat tacked on, it doesn't actually feel that way. At least not to an old fan like me who has been waiting for ages for a proper sequel to Lylat Wars. Starlink isn't that but I take what I can and the game does manage to scratch that Star Fox itch.
Starlink: Battle For Atlas is an ambitious game. An open world space shooter that has the player engaging in a tug of war between the local inhabitants and a powerful invasion force, fighting over planets and winning them back one at a time. A myriad of interlocking and often tiered systems with which to frame this struggle. A star system in which you can go everywhere you want by just pointing the ship in the right direction and hitting that afterburner. Attempting to bring back the whole toys-to-life craze contrary to all the evidence suggesting it's time has well and truly passed. And finally, to top it all off, shoehorning Nintendo's Star Fox into all of this and somehow make it work.
Beginning with Starlink's shortcomings, it's fair to say the game has a few. While there are a lot of things to do in the Atlas system, there is not much variation within a given activity which can cause Starlink to grow stale after a while. The systems holding the whole thing together can become a rather convoluted mess, featuring just a few too many. Another issue is that the story is told in a rather haphazard manner, featuring heavily at the game's start and end while remaining rather barren in-between these two points. The toys-to-life angle, while implemented as well as could be expected, does interfere with Starlink's flow. Experimentation, lives and ease of use are all compromised to various degrees.
And yet, despite all of this, Starlink does generally work. The act of shooting and flying has been realised well, it's third person shooter-esque take turning out to be a lot of fun. The war itself between the Alliance and the Forgotten Legion puts an exciting spin on things, adding a good deal of pressure and strategy to the proceedings. On a related note, the plethora of systems coupled to the rarity of the resources can lead to some interesting choices. The inclusion of Star Fox has been handled well, turning what is essentially a tacked on element into something that will certainly appeal to most Nintendo fans. And let's furthermore not forget that Starlink is also something of a looker while the audio is also not to be sniffed at.
Ultimately Starlink is not everything it could have been, despite it's ambitious nature, where a bit of careful pruning would have gone a long way in tightening the game's focus. As it stands, Starlink offers an enjoyable and interesting experience albeit one that also tends to drag on a little.
OVERALL: a 7,0.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Starlink: Battle for Atlas (Star Fox Starter Pack) (EU, 10/16/18)
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