Ever since visiting Ubisoft Toronto to get hands-on time with Starlink: Battle for Atlas, I’ve been eager to get my hands on the game. From the moment we learned how the series began from Creative Director Laurent Malville to learning about how the Star Fox mashup came to be and seeing the Arwing in person, this was a special game for the team. See, Starlink: Battle for Atlas is Ubisoft’s attempt at bridging toys-to-life with their new IP. I wasn’t completely on board with the idea of using toys to play games once again, back in 2015 we had several properties pushing their products including Skylanders, Disney Infinity, and Lego Dimensions.
Do a barrel roll!
In Starlink, players take on the role of a pilot who lives aboard the Equinox, a ship exploring the Atlas system. Within this system, the Grax and the Legion are your enemies and it is up to you and the Starlink team (and Star Fox!) to destroy the Legion’s hold. Captain St. Grand, who is capable of creating a resource called Nova needs to be saved before the Legion finds him and uses his knowledge of making Nova to their fill their needs as it powers their forces.
With Starlink, there are several options available for purchase. If you’re purchasing the starter kit, this includes one ship and pilot, a few mountable weapons and a controller mount to connect everything. This is explained in-game as the Starlink technology, where swapping pilots, weapons and starships happen at any point. It’s a neat way to explain the technology driving both the game and the team within.
I was worried about whether these pieces would break easily – after all, you’re encouraged to swap weapons on the fly, or change your ship when it’s damaged and can’t fly. The connectors used on each ship and weapon slot can handle the constant swapping. This was something I asked both Laurent about as well as a representative from the factory where the toys were assembled in China.
Build a starship
Of course, if you wanted to get the best experience you needed to purchase individual pieces to get the most out of the game. I received the Star Fox Starter Kit for Nintendo Switch as well several the ships to use recently, and while I really enjoyed playing with the ships and weapons – they aren’t needed to enjoy the game. What the ships are though is detailed and something I’m leaving on display on my shelf for when company comes over.
See, each ship can be customized from the wings to the weapons and whatever you decide to include will show on the screen. Seeing your creation come to life on screen the first handful of times is neat and takes no time, but after that, you want to jump back in with the correct weapon set and ship for the mission at hand. Pilots connect to the included control if you own a physical copy, and the starships docks over them creating your desired combination.
Weapons on weapons
Each weapon is different and feels great when you’re firing them at a locked target. Weapons come in a variety of elemental combinations, too. Throw out a fire-based missile and team that with a vortex-based blast and you can paralyze enemies who are weak against those elemental types. Sometimes, getting the right combination requires you to swap out weapons until the right selection is made. You can even shoot weapons backward to cover your flank and every weapon is easily identifiable by elemental type.
I spent the better part of an entire day playing with the toys and connecting them, disconnecting them and taking the builds for resistance tests. Pulling on pieces, apply force, seeing what it would take to break them – I was pleased seeing them work and hold up, as I was told last month at Ubisoft’s office in Toronto. Marketed towards children, I was worried that the ships wouldn’t last, and droves of angry parents would follow. Thankfully, this is further from the truth and you’re getting quality ships and pilots.
Also, of note is by purchasing a physical starter kit, you’ll only be able to purchase more physical pieces. Mixing digital with physical isn’t allowed, so if you one day decide to purchase a weapon-type online, the game doesn’t register you did that. This segregates players who were hoping Ubisoft allowed this.
Dogfights in space
Combat is exciting and frenetic and the way weapons work by changing them on the fly is what keeps the gameplay enjoyable. Discovering the mechanics behind how weapons interact with each other and against the various enemy types is fun to discover. Learning if a hot weapon or a cold weapon deals more damage comes down to experimenting while ensuring you don’t enter cooldown status invokes a good sense of management.
Ships are precise and feel great when flying across the galaxy or across the surface of a planet. Ubisoft nailed the gameplay mechanics here and I found myself spending more time exploring than almost anything else. Flying the Arwing as Fox McCloud throughout almost the entirety of the playthrough was exciting. I swapped my pilots intermittently and found each of them enjoyable, I had a blast playing as Chase, Shaid, and Razor – serving up their own flavour.
Sorry to jet, but I’m in a hurry
Seeing the Star Fox Squadron make their debut on the Nintendo Switch version of Starlink is genius. Speaking to Laurent, we learned that this was something his team wanted to do from the start and the choice paid off. The inclusion helps build a new IP for Ubisoft and of course, Ubisoft does a tremendous job integrating the squad into the Starlink team but there are moments their inclusion felt out of place. Understanding that these iconic Nintendo characters are merely part of this game and not a core aspect of it, makes their inclusion easier. There’s a fantastic mission where Fox McCloud and company end up chasing down Star Wolf in a series of missions that put a massive smile on my face.
Just like last year’s Snowdrop engine ran the fantastic mashup Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, the same engine returns to push the Nintendo Switch’s graphical capability to the limit. Whether playing in docked or handheld mode, the system handles the engine well and aside from minor pop in, everything from planet to starships is beautiful.
As I finish writing my review I wonder how well Starlink will succeed. I’ve grown to love the world building set up in the game and even though the story is somewhat by-the-books, it’s good. I learned to like the cast and want to see where things go in the future. Of course, the toys are neat and detailed, but they aren’t necessary to experience the game. If anything, the toys are made for hobbyists who enjoy collecting while the game is made for those who enjoy exploring. With the physical toys, you’re limited by what you own but buying the game digitally you’re able to have access to more ships, pilots, and weapons. As a new intellectual property for Ubisoft, this has the tentpoles of a franchise, but going forward the need to decide whether the toys are truly necessary for success.
[A copy of the Switch Starter Kit and various add-ons were provided to us by the publisher for review purposes.]