Starlink: Battle for Atlas was far and away the biggest surprise of a recent Gamescom 2018 Ubisoft preview event I attended. In all honesty—and I won’t mince words here—I was expecting it to be a baby game for babies. After playing it for a couple of hours, it’s actually a surprisingly deep, surprisingly fun, surprisingly massive open-world space shooter disguised as a toys-to-life game. The only problem is the toys.
Despite maybe appealing more to kids and preteens than to adults, Starlink has all the hallmarks of a more “mature” Ubisoft open-world game. There are main story objectives, a ton of side activities, and even “tower”-style objectives that will unlock different areas of each planet in the form of giant drills destroying the environment.
It also shares similarities to more “serious” space exploration games like Elite: Dangerous and No Man’s Sky, or even Ubisoft’s upcoming Beyond Good and Evil 2, in that you can seamlessly take off from the surface of a planet, fly into space, and travel to another planet. Unlike those games, however, what you’ll find on those planets is nonstop action. Starlink’s planets aren’t procedurally generated, either, so there’s a sense of craftsmanship as you can your terrain and battle the dreaded Legion.
Most importantly, the actual gameplay is a blast. The Star Fox 64 influence just oozes out of Starlink’s pores, and that’s not just because the Switch version includes Fox McCloud and his iconic Arwing in the starter kit. You can barrel roll, first of all, and the core combat is way more solid than I would have expected. Every weapon has different effects, from standard gatling guns to more abstract ones like a weapon that basically creates a vortex to suck enemies in, or another that blasts them into the air and levitates them in place.
Combining these effects is the key to taking out enemies. Unleashing a vortex to suck in enemies and then blasting it with fire rockets to create a flaming space whirlpool of death never got old, even after the hundredth time I did it. Play it with a friend and you can coordinate your attacks to pull off all kinds of elemental trickery. Each of the game’s half-dozen ships has particular attributes relating to defense and speed that make them unique.
Having unlimited access to all of these tools was definitely the best way to experience Starlink. Unfortunately, that’s where the toys-to-life gimmick gets in the way.
Admittedly, Starlink’s modular approach to the genre is pretty cool. Replacing one ship’s wings with another and having that actually impact its performance is a neat touch, and swapping weapons leads to some interesting mid-combat strategizing.
But having to purchase each of the weapons you want, outside of what you’ll get with the starter pack, is the ultimate drag, especially when different elemental weapons will be better against some enemies over others. The game supplies elemental crates that you can pick up and toss at enemies to compensate for the fact that not everyone is going to buy every weapon, but this slows down combat considerably and takes you out of the flow. You can purchase the physical versions of these weapons in stores, or you can buy digital versions online at a discounted rate, but either way you’re paying extra for items in a game that’s already full-priced.
Maybe that’s where the game stops being for grown adults like myself and leans more towards the kids who are looking for a deep, open-world experience that’s still age-appropriate. If Starlink was around when I was a kid, it definitely would have made my Hanukkah list. The toys themselves lack the brand recognition of, say, Amiibo, and they aren’t quite as adaptable as Lego Dimensions, but they’re decently sized and could function on their own as toys, at least in the sense of trading out pieces and, I don’t know, pretending to make them fly or whatever kids do these days. Given enough of a marketing push, I could see the ships appealing to kids outside of just the game. As an adult, however, what they represent is glorified microtransactions, and buying into a game where the main feature revolves around microtransactions is just something I think I’ve grown out of.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas launches October 16th for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.