Despite its massively wide appeal, the toys-to-life concept has considerably died down as of late. With Skylanders taking a much needed break and both Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions packing up shop, Ubisoft seemingly believes that there’s still some healthy value to tap into via their release of Starlink: Battle for Atlas. I’ll admit, I didn’t house much expectation here – still reeling from the expenses of the aforementioned titles, though after diving in and getting hands-on, I can safely say that Ubisoft may just have brought toys-to-life, back to life. There’s underlining problems, of course, but credit given when due.
Let me tackle the fundamentals first. Starlink: Battle for Atlas can be enjoyed in its entirety through both its physical version and its digital version. You’re also able to complete the entire game using just the starter pack. The major mechanical difference between Starlink and the former three franchises, is that Starlink offers a kit that mounts onto your controller in place of the traditional console-connected portal. There’s certainly a weight issue to contend with during the first hour of play, especially for the younger players, but for me, this added weight became unnoticeable before too long. Still, something I wanted to note.
Using the mount alongside a range of ships, weapons and pilots, players are free to swap these pieces and pilots around to achieve unique and specific builds. These builds aren’t just cosmetic. Each and every part comes with its own distinct attributes and abilities, giving you (should you fork out the dough) a wide range of traits to tap into. Speaking of dough, one drawback that’s understandably hard to avoid is that the physical versions cost more than their digital counterparts, despite offering the exact same content. This may not sit too well with most, but again, it’s a very hard angle to criticize given the difference in ownership value.
The most impressive aspect here is that when using the physical pieces, everything is instantly plug and play. Want to swap out your left wing’s chargeable Imploder for the gatling Volcano? It takes little over a few seconds to pull the gun from your controller’s ship and put something else in its place. Perhaps you want to take the wings off the Pulse ship and attach them to your Lance ship? Again, it’s immediate. All of the ship’s components as well as all of the available weapons can be interchanged in anyway that you see fit. The same can be said about each pilot, not one of them being tethered to a specific build.
This level of accessibility and customization is top-notch, and although hardly groundbreaking, it never gets old watching your physical differences propagate to the screen in rapid succession. There’s a total of nine pilots to select from, five ships and five weapon packs. The latter broken down into distinct outputs; Kinetic, Stasis, Heat, Cold and Gravity. I have to commend the design of each physical ship, weapon and pilot, too. They’re all solid, well detailed and solidly built – yet light. One of my few gripes actually sits with the mount itself rather than the pieces it holds, being that it can feel somewhat obstructive.
Nevertheless, if you’re not one for physical purchases, you can rest assured knowing that you can indeed achieve everything that the physical version offers when playing digital. You’ll buy your packs from the Microsoft store and if you don’t have a mount attached, the game will ask you if you want to play digitally, to which you simply access the customization hub and make whatever changes necessary using the digital parts that you own. It’s a relatively simple process to follow, but I dare say that the physical version offers the best way to play as far as immersion is concerned. Either way, the choices are there for you.
Fundamentals aside, what exactly is Starlink: Battle for Atlas all about? Centered around the aforementioned pilots and based within the fictional Atlas star system, the game opens with the player’s mothership, Equinox, being ambushed by the Forgotten Legion, led and controlled by the evil Grax. Grax is on a mission to harness the power of a technology left behind by an ancient race known as the Wardens, and it falls to you and your crew to dominate the Atlas star system and put an end to Grax’s nefarious ways. It’s a simple enough plot to digest, but one that’s surprisingly engrossing and engaging at the same time.
What I especially enjoyed about the story is that although it’s clearly aimed at the younger player, it’s not a story that’s too immature that adults cant enjoy it too. On the contrary in fact, there’s a great blend of action, humor and character growth that ties it all together quite nicely. In any case, that’s the premise and after that opener has been and gone, you’ll patrol the system in a huge effort to turn the tides of the titular battle that you’ve put yourselves in the middle of. This typically consists of fighting back the Legion across each of the game’s planets, advancing each planet’s civilization, and taking on a range of quests.
The game does a good job at feeding you into the basics of play throughout the first planet that you start your adventure on. You’ll learn how to scan creatures to get more insight, how to farm materials to better your income and relationships with NPCs, how to participate in combat, how to get to grips with the game’s element system and much more. There’s a fair bit to take on, but Starlink never throws too much on your lap in one go, lending the game a nice and fluid pace. Missions and assignments can be toggled through via the D-Pad, allowing you to deviate from the campaign missions to step off the beaten path.
That said, even side missions feel very relevant in the grand scheme of things, oftentimes sending you to interesting locations you wouldn’t otherwise travel to (per-location) when simply progressing the overall plot. The main aim of the game, as well as its many side objectives, collectively has you recruiting the population of each planet and building structures that aid both you and them. There’s the standard aspects you would expect to see here; outposts, varying vendors, workshops, dynamic events, map sections that you’ll need to liberate to gain more control and cover additional ground, and so on and so forth.
Each planet has them, with certain locations being slightly more interesting than others. There’s a very No Man’s Sky feel to the game, albeit it with more focus on storytelling than anything else, make of that what you will. Regardless, you’re always rewarded for the effort that you put into Starlink. Each planet has a chart to the right that will relay how much control the Legion have over that overall location and by fighting enemies, destroying towers and so on, you’ll free the planet of their grasp little by little. On the flip-side, installing stations will progress the natural inhabitants’ grasp of the planet; very tug of war-esque.
It pays off to familiarize yourselves with the stations that you can build throughout, as each will reward you in different ways. Workshops, for example, will allow you to purchase mods (of different rarity) that you can then attach to your ship’s part and hull to better the stats of each component. Refineries, on the other hand, will generate Electrum. Electrum is Atlas’ sole currency and can be spent on upgrading your structures, improving the Equinox, and indeed, purchasing goods from vendors. The loop may indeed sound basic on paper, but it gets the job done nicely and never really falls to the shores of repetition from start to finish.
Each planet houses a wide range of landmarks, distinct fauna, missions, useful items, chests and more. My only gripe is that the mission variety is somewhat lacking, consisting of little more than object retrieval and combat. Still, with that to the side, I cant really say that I wasn’t always having fun, it just would have been nice to see more diversity on this front. Throughout your time with the game, the pilots will dynamically banter with one another, dishing up quite a bit of character and growth to the fields of play. The dialogue is well written for the most part, and aside Levi’s erratic dude-tone, each character is decently voiced.
The most alluring part of the game for me was exploration, and boy howdy, is Starlink one hell of a beautiful game. Each planet houses its own theme, life, wonder and danger. Pulling up the world’s map of each planet is usually gated until you explore or gain ground from the Legion, throwing in a sense of mystery as a result. Creatures of all shapes and sizes will go about their own routines, and on top of the ability to scan them, you can aid them by pulling off foreign objects that are causing them grief. There’s a dynamic system at play here, too. On one occasion I was being chased by bandits, however stopped to help a creature in need.
Once I removed the object from its neck, it started to help in my fight against my immediate opposition. It was a nice touch and gave off a very bonded feeling when the proverbial dirt settled. I would certainly encourage taking the time to soak up each planet. Several times did I stumble upon sweet loot or giant treasure-holding structures that can only be opened via using specific elemental firepower. Not to mention the flora and goods that I could harvest, pick up and take back to an outpost to sell for varying prices. There’s more to this than meets the eye, and it will easily take tens of hours to uncover all of the game’s secrets.
Moving from ground to space is as easy as breathing. You’ll simply aim your ship to the atmosphere, trigger your boost, and off you go. You’ll do this often when you want to pay a visit to the Equinox, and although you can indeed fast-travel to and from locations that you’ve already traversed, doing so will close off aspects of the game that you’ll really want to explore. Space, although daunting, is a beautiful void to travel through. Here, there’s usually heaps of well-hidden abandoned structures or objects to engage with. There’s also space pirates that you’ll need to be mindful of, in which they’re freakin’ everywhere.
You can indeed accelerate in space at breakneck speeds through hyper-drive, but you’ll lose a degree of control and movement as a result. Space pirates will often throw up nets (think Firefly) to stop you in your tracks before ambushing you with a small fleet. During these moments, you’ll need to rely on reflex and quick thinking to get through the small holes in each net in one piece, but due to how amazing the dog-fighting is, I allowed myself to get caught every single time. Combat is as fluid as you could hope for it to be, encouraging swift movement and precise shooting at every passing second. It’s an empowering session.
Much like any enemy in the game, bandits have weaknesses and strengths based on the elements within. You’ll need to fast-swap your build to exploit your opponent’s weakness if you want to make it through without being destroyed. When you do bite the bullet, so to speak, you’ll be unable to use your ship until you reach an outpost to repair it. If this happens, you’ll need to swap to a different ship in the meantime. Nevertheless, there’s no bashing the game for its handling nor its accessibility. For a brand new IP, Starlink is a fantastic installation and a brilliant effort that takes toys-to-life to greater heights.
Whether you’re unraveling the mysteries of each planet or charting the depths of space, Starlink’s controls – and technical performance – remains robust and smooth from the outset. I also commend the enemy variation too. More often than not, you’ll be tasked with destroying Legion grunts left, right and center. However, gloves are off when you’re face to face with towering enemies that require not just brute force, but tactical thinking. The ability to mix and match your ship, together with the weapons and mods that you can purchase and unlock, as well as your pilot’s unique abilities, makes for a very enjoyable ride.
Starlink’s customization isn’t just about finding what play-style suits you best, it’s about using your creativity to utilize all of the game’s tools in order to create your own adventure. There’s a grind later in the game once you start to come up against higher leveled enemies, but this is almost part and parcel of any RPG-light affair. The bottom line in all of this is that Starlink is a stunning game that packs a great deal of visual diversity and with no shortage of things to do, you’ll easily lose track of time on your quest to rid the Atlas system of Grax and his Legion. Revolutionary, no, but an adventure that’s well worth your time and attention.
The gameplay loop, despite its lack of mission variation and the need to grind later in, offers an empowering, captivating adventure from the outset. The game’s ingenuity is its strong suit, combining its core concept with combat, exploration and customization to great effect. This is further upheld by a collection of worlds that are as diverse as they are stunning. The bottom line, Starlink brings toys-to-life, back to life.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.