‘Starlink: Battle for Atlas’ hands-on preview

Flashy yet clumsy, ‘Starlink: Battle for Atlas’ may burn out on the launchpad

Transforming toys into starfighters sounds fun, but ‘Starlink’ feels overly familiar and a bit clumsy.
Transforming toys into starfighters sounds fun, but ‘Starlink’ feels overly familiar and a bit clumsy.
Transforming toys into starfighters sounds fun, but ‘Starlink’ feels overly familiar and a bit clumsy.

Highs

  • Interesting evolution of toys-to-life games
  • Smooth, accessible gameplay
  • StarFox!

Lows

  • Swapping parts on the fly awkward
  • The toys could make playing the game expensive

Ubisoft is making a bet that “toys-to-life” games aren’t down for the count yet with Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Invented by the Skylanders series, games that integrate collectible, physical toys enhanced with NFC sensors were all the rage for several years, but died down after Disney packed up and left video game publishing entirely by shutting down the Infinity series.

Where previous toys-to-life titles translated toys to individual characters, Starlink goes further by having toys not just for each space ship that you can pilot, but also for pilots and interchangeable weapons that snap onto the wings. It impressed us enough when it debuted at E3 2017 that we gave it our Best Hardware of the show award.

This year we went hands-on and tried Starlink for ourselves. Unfortunately, it seems Starlink is cooler conceptually than it is in practice.

Starlink takes place in the Atlas solar system, which includes seven planets and a variety of other points of interest (derelict spaceships, asteroid fields, and so on) for you to explore. Our demo took place on Sonarus, a sound-themed world dotted with large crystals. Starting in orbit, we blasted towards the planet until seamlessly burning into the atmosphere as the landscape below became clear. Seamless exploration of space and alien worlds, each with distinct flora and fauna, bears more than a little resemblance to No Man’s Sky — but Starlink has a more focused scope and bespoke content.

Starlink’s plot revolves around defeating a sinister force which has taken over the Atlas system. An objective guided us towards a large, mechanical extractor which was kicking a cloud of toxic smoke up into the atmosphere. That overwhelmed our flight engine and forced us down into the alternative, ground-bound skimmer mode. The extractor was an alien, mechanical tower surrounded by smaller towers and spawning enemies that shot at us. It was an entirely typical video game boss battle, with glowing red weak spots on the surrounding towers that, when shot, temporarily exposed the glowing red core. Strafe. Dodge large, telegraphed attacks. Shoot the glowing red spot. It was all well-executed, but very familiar. A second boss fight against a large moving alien felt much the same, as I had to take down weak points on its limbs to temporarily knock it over and reveal its glowing red underbelly.

Strafe. Dodge large, telegraphed attacks. Shoot the glowing red spot. It’s all well-executed, but familiar.

In practice it most strongly feels like StarFox 64–or rather, it feels like how we remember playing StarFox 64 felt. The developers obviously felt that way as well, because Fox McCloud and his iconic Arwing are available exclusively for the Nintendo Switch version of the game. They fit right into the gameplay and aesthetics of Starlink, and the plastic Arwing itself is an excellent, nostalgia-laden toy. Unfortunately, the Switch version looked a bit rough around the edges. Worse, it felt awkward to play on the Joy-Con grip after playing on an Xbox One gamepad.

The headline feature of Starlink of course are the swappable ship components, and that’s where the seams started to literally show. As promised, we were able to swap weapons in the game by physically replacing components that click onto either wing. It’s a cool idea to change parts on a physical object and see the immediate virtual correspondence, but we’re not convinced that it added much to the experience. The action paused whenever we removed a component, presumably because of how frustrating it would be to knock a piece off accidentally while playing and lose your weapon in game, but this removed some of the effect’s immediacy. If you must go into a menu anyway, then physically swapping parts starts to feel a little overwrought. The weapon components themselves didn’t look interesting or distinct, either, reducing their inherent appeal as toys.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an interesting evolution of toys-to-life genre and a solid, accessible space action game, but nothing about the hook of swapping ship parts ever elevated the experience. It’s a good idea, and well-executed, but we’re not convinced that it’s more than the sum of its parts — which it needs to be to justify an endeavor with so much more overhead than a typical game.