Review by Slyderule

Reviewed: 09/25/19

A treat for explorers/adventurers

Introduction

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a 3D open-world exploration and adventure fantasy set in alien worlds, with role-playing (statistics based) underpinnings. It’s fundamentally a single-player game, although you can have a friend drop in as a wing-person using another controller on the same Switch box. There is no network play.

This is a fantasy game, not a science-fiction simulator. There is no attempt at all to maintain any kind of realism. Basic science goes out the window: sounds are heard in space, ships in space coast to a stop when thrust is removed, and all of the planets are about 200 clicks in circumference even though they have wildly different gravities. The graphics absolutely are for a 3D game, not for a simulator.

Although Starlink: Battle for Atlas might appear to be a space-ship game, almost all of the action occurs on the ground. There is some space travel and space combat, but that’s not a major component of the game. As for atmospheric flight, that’s just for travel and occasionally for attacking targets from the air; you have the airspace to yourself, which is probably just as well given the restricted maneuverability during atmospheric flight.

Gameplay

From your ship (shown in third-person view), you explore the seven planets of the Atlas system, plus outer space. The only time your pilot is outside the ship is during cut-scenes. Your ship is multi-modal: it can be used as a hovercraft, as an aircraft, or as a spacecraft. Transition between ground, air, and space is seamless, which is kind of slick.

Your main objective in your travels will be to rid the planets of the big mining machinery (called extractors) that pour out clouds of toxic pollution. In the process, you’ll have to destroy the automated machinery that creates and deploys the extractors, and the many robots that protect the machinery and wreak general destruction all over Atlas. You’ll also encounter greedy outlaws. You can almost always choose to bypass combat or to escape from ambushes, but you won’t get too far in the game if you continually refuse to engage.

It isn’t all about fighting, by any means. There is plenty to explore. You’ll be interacting with people already working in outposts on the various planets, getting them to join in an alliance with the Starlink team. There are large animals to scan, biological samples to collect, and some fairly simple puzzles to solve. And when you want a break from exploring, you can try your hand at the four fast and furious race tracks on the Crimson Moon.

I’d estimate that there are maybe a couple hundred different activities you can engage in. However, I’d also estimate that (on average) each takes a couple of minutes, much of which is travel time. You’ll be doing the same activities many, many times over the course of the game, and there’s not much randomness built into them. Many reviewers have commented on how repetitive the gameplay seems to get. The solution for that repetition is for you to approach things differently at different times. Use different weapons, or maybe a different ship or pilot. Use different tactics or strategy. There usually are many options to choose from.

A key component of the gameplay is the “Starlink technology,” which is like a teleporter that allows you to switch weapons, ships, and even pilots at any time, even in the midst of a battle. You have a wide range of weapons at your disposal (the Digital Deluxe version has 15 weapons in addition to ramming), with most weapons being enhanced by an elemental force: heat, cold, gravity, or anti-gravity. The choice of the right elementals can be important to delivering maximum damage, so you’ll be swapping weapons a lot.

Swapping mods is also important for maximum performance. Mods are upgrades to your ship and weapons that you find, earn, or buy (with game money). There are over 80 different kinds of mods, and almost all of them come in five different power levels. You’re constantly collecting new mods, so you’ll be doing a lot of reconfiguring if you want to keep at the top of your game.

Switching ships is particularly valuable when you’re getting beaten in combat. You can switch to a fresh ship (provided you have one) even if your current ship has been completely disabled. Later you can have all your disabled ships repaired at any friendly outpost, and the cost is mere pocket change in game money. As a result, the only things you’re risking in combat are your ego and your time. Players who enjoy exploring can explore fearlessly, but more combat-oriented players might find that the lack of risk takes the challenge away.

The RP system is complex but seems to be very well balanced. I haven’t found myself stuck in a corner by poor choices, nor have I found a way to produce an overpowered combination. However, there’s little challenge to basic resource management because it’s shockingly hard to run short of game money (electrum). What you do need to carefully budget is Nova, which is needed to unlock features, to create new outposts, and to combine mods into higher-level ones.

I found the controls to be reasonable and to have enough customization for my needs. They are not fully customizable, though. Most of the controls are what they are, and you’ll simply have to deal with them. You can reverse the behavior of a few joystick axes, swap the A and R buttons, and disable a couple of button operations that might become annoying if, like me, you tend to grip too hard during combat and accidentally click the joysticks down. Personally, I’ve found it difficult to control the ship smoothly with the joycons. The joycon joysticks seem to jump from having almost no effect to being full over, causing jerkiness and overshooting that I could do without. I ended up buying the Pro Controller and have been happy with that.

I haven’t actually played in the couch-cooperative mode, but I’ve fooled around with it and it looks quite well done. The second player can drop in and drop out at any time. I was surprised to see that second player can choose the same pilot, ship, and weapons that the main player is using. The HUD screen is split with the main ship on the left and the second ship on the right, while other screens switch between the two ships by clicking the left joystick down (which also gives the option to drop the second ship from the game). The second player has a number of separate options, mainly in control configuration and visuals. The second ship needs to stay reasonably close to the main ship; otherwise, the game gives a warning and if the distance gets too far, the game will snap the second ship back to following the main ship.

Story

Astrophysicist, adventurer, and apparently bazillionaire Victor St. Grand encountered an alien who’d crashed on Earth. The alien — a collective intelligence — doesn’t remember where they came from. St. Grand set out to find where they’re from. He learned how to create a substance called Nova that can generate huge amounts of power, and learned how to make the spindrive that allows navigation across the stars.

As the game opens, St. Grand’s interstellar ship Equinox IV is arriving in the Atlas system in the Pleiades. Some bad guys forcibly board the Equinox and snatch both the reactor core, which is jam-packed with Nova, and St. Grand. Its power gone, the Equinox falls out of orbit and crashes on a nearby planet. Its fighters lose power to their flight engines, and they follow. The crew of the Equinox then sets out to recover St. Grand, but first they have to restore power to the Equinox.

In addition to the main story, Ubisoft has provided an archaeological storyline about the Wardens. The Wardens are mysterious beings who used incredibly powerful technology to shape the Atlas system. The Wardens disappeared long ago, leaving behind their horde of robots. There’s also a historical storyline about the Electrum Rush (think gold rush) that brought people to the Atlas system, a period whose glory ended when those abandoned robots suddenly reactivated. Neither of those storylines figures directly in the main campaign; they seem to be provided as background, for color, and perhaps to make you think.

As you explore Atlas, you’ll get detailed descriptions of Atlas, its planets, its inhabitants, and its flora and fauna. These seem to be entirely for color.

In addition to the main campaign, there are four side campaigns, plus one more if you buy the Star Fox Team Pilots DLC to unlock it. There are two more side campaigns that just serve as introduction to the amusement activities — racing and arena combat — available on the Crimson Moon.

The situation and story appear to have been designed to keep ethical concerns to a minimum. You’re not killing anybody -- you’re destroying robots, unmanned machinery, and outlaw ships (forcing the outlaws to use their escape pods). You collect a lot of valuables along the way, but they’re either long abandoned or come from defeated enemies. Rather than simply conquering the Atlas system, you set out to create an alliance of friendly locals.

Cultural diversity is rather limited, though. Among the human characters, white Americans predominate. Hunter is Samoan and Chase is Brazilian, but both have relatively light skin. There are a number of female characters, but except for Fern Wilder (available in DLC), they’re all “kickass” women.

Graphics/Sound

The 3D graphics are responsive and satisfactory. There is a rare “flash” where objects get replaced with outlines for just a moment, but I don’t find that particularly annoying. Sometimes moving objects in the distance aren’t visible until you get a bit closer, then they pop into view.

There’s an odd mixture of impressive detail in the moving parts (like the ship operations — thrusters, weapons, etc.) combined with a lot of broad strokes and repetitiveness in the fixed landscape. The planets are always the same; they aren’t randomly generated.

The graphics are game graphics, not simulation graphics. There’s no attempt at producing realistic imagery. The apparent sizes of objects are chosen to make them easily recognizable, not on any sort of logic. Objects of interest glow or emit beams of light, and weak points on opponents are marked with a fiery glow. It’s totally unreal, but it all works well in service of the game.

Color-coding plays an important role in many aspects of the game. There are display options to compensate for the six common color vision impairments. I have no idea how well they manage to compensate, as I have normal color vision.

My big complaint with the graphics is that the information overlaid on the HUD screen is sometimes illegible, especially white on white. For example, when you select a destination on the starmap, a pip appears on your HUD that shows which direction your destination lies and how far away it is. That pip is always white, and it’s virtually invisible on planets with a lot of white (the ice planet Tundria is the worst). There are a number of other items that appear in white on the HUD and thus are very hard or impossible to make out in some locations.

The amount of information shown on the HUD, the outpost interaction screens, and especially the starmap is staggering, and I don’t know of any place where you can learn what everything is. It took me a long time to figure out what much of it was, and after more than a thousand hours of play I’m still finding stuff I don’t understand. Basically, you’ll have to ignore the parts you don’t understand until you figure out what they are.

The cut-scenes can be quite lengthy. The opening runs more than 10 minutes, but that does include a few minutes of letting you engage in a space dogfight. Despite the length, there’s an inscrutability — an intentional vagueness — in the cut-scene content that I found to be off-putting. If you don’t already know what’s going on, the cut-scene isn’t going to be all that enlightening. Graphically, I think the cut-scenes are rather clunky. Motion-capture combined with a minimum of facial expression makes the characters seem more robotic than the robot hostiles are. Well, maybe I exaggerate, a bit.

For those who like making screen captures, there’s an excellent “photo mode” feature that gives you the ability to produce a custom capture from almost any angle and distance. Which is a good thing, since ordinary screen captures will always show the butt end of your ship. A number of effects can be applied to the captured image.

To go with the screen captures, there are over a hundred different paint jobs that you can collect and apply to your ship. About half of them can be bought in the shops on the Crimson Moon, while the rest have to be earned. The paint jobs are identified by a name and a circle containing four colors, but there’s really no way to guess what one will look like except to apply it and use the Photo Mode to see what your ship looks like with that paint job. Furthermore, the paint jobs can look very different under different lighting conditions.

The music and sound effects do a fine job of keeping you aware of what’s going on. I’m not an aficionado of music in games, so my opinion on the quality of the music wouldn’t mean much. The music does give good cues as to the presence — or absence — of danger, and the sound effects are readily distinguished from each other. I’m not a fan of the “breaking glass” sound used for touchdown on a planet, though.

The voice dialog is frequently thoughtless and occasionally buggy. Story points are discussed while you’re in the middle of combat when you can’t spare the attention. Dialog lines are left out, especially if you’re traveling too quickly and arrive at your destination before the script finishes playing out. The dialog is “canned” in a way that doesn’t take into account how much you’ve actually done in the game, just how much you’re expected to have accomplished at that point. Sometimes the dialog is just plain wrong. The Sage ship-based AI system is almost always running way behind, telling you stuff you no longer need to know, and providing the same long-winded details hundreds of times. One small thing that really annoys me is that when missions send you to a spot “in your area” or “nearby,” much of the time it’s actually on the far side of the planet.

The unnamed inhabitants of Atlas all seem to be voiced by just one person, with the pitch shifted to try to provide some variety. I found the pitch-shifted voices to be grating, and the game sometimes has trouble keeping a constant shift for a given person. It’s just not pretty.

The major characters do all get their own voice actors. Eli is great, which is a good thing considering you’re going to hear a lot from Eli as he relates his memories of the Electrum Rush era of Atlas. The cynical, and frequently sardonic, Shaid is also great. But the rest struck me as rather generic, and the electronic voice of Judge (the alien that St. Grand found) sounds way too much like HAL 9000 for my taste.

Play Time/Replayability

Charging straight through the main campaign will take maybe 15 to 20 hours. A proper exploration will take maybe 50 hours or more. Bringing everything to 100% completion could take maybe 100 hours, with much of the extra time spent running around simply trying to figure out what you’re missing. [These obviously are very rough estimates, as it depends on the difficulty level you choose and your gaming skills.]

The first replay is pretty good, at least for the early phases of the game where you didn’t really know what was going on the first time around. Starting with a different pilot can sometimes give a different perspective on the story, especially if you play Shaid. Replayability in the later phases relies on you choosing to do things differently: different pilot, ship, or weapon choices will help, but the biggest changes will come from employing a different strategy. But by the time you’ve done a few replays, the early phases tend to drag, because you’re mostly stuck in the training script for an hour or two before you can try something really new.

I’ve personally put over a thousand hours into playing Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Those hours are spread over more than a hundred different restarts, using different strategies and different pilots and equipment. Of course, some starts were more successful than others. I’ve only completed the game a couple of times, because I didn’t find the boss battle to be very satisfying. I’d rather go back and start over in a different way.

Final Recommendation

I rate Starlink: Battle for Atlas at four out of five stars. The continual problems with dialog messages and the occasional issues with parts of the HUD being unreadable drag the rating down, but overall Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an amazingly rich game. Players who enjoy exploring and adventure should be very pleased.

Players who probably won’t like Battle for Atlas: online gamers will have no use for it, dedicated twitchers will probably find it too easy and over too soon for the money, and anyone who absolutely demands proper science in their games will be outraged.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is available in a number of different editions. If your finances permit, I recommend the Digital Deluxe edition. This offers the greatest variety of pilots, ships, and weapons. While it doesn’t seem to offer that many more pilots, ships, and weapons compared with the basic Digital Edition, the three added pilots are needed to unlock some of the “Equinox upgrade” items, and the Nadir ship is the only one that can use certain armor mods.

For those with tight budgets, it’s possible to finish the game using nothing more than the two pilots, two ships, and three weapons of the physical starter pack. The starter packs are discontinued and are often being sold at deep discount as this review is being written. With just the starter pack, the game will be a tougher challenge and you won’t be able to complete everything to 100%. Note: adding the Collection 1 Pack to the starter pack gives the same capabilities as Digital Deluxe, and that pack is sometimes put on sale.

The Star Fox Team Pilots Pack DLC unlocks the second Star Fox side campaign. It’s not very expensive, and I think most people would find it worthwhile in order to be able to play that campaign, when the time comes. You have to finish the main Star Fox campaign before you can start the second campaign.

The Collection 2 Pack DLC adds five pilots, three ships, and an assortment of weapons. Only four of those weapons are new, and one of those was previously available with the retailer-exclusive Scramble Starship toy pack. The other seven weapons are just Mk1 or Mk2 versions of weapons already in the Digital Deluxe edition, so they aren’t very compelling. No new campaigns or capabilities are unlocked by this pack, which makes its price difficult to justify unless you can get it on sale. Parts of this pack are available as separate DLC.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Starlink: Battle for Atlas (US, 10/16/18)

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