Years after the Toys-to-Life bubble burst, Ubisoft took the bold step into the deserted space with Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Unlike Skylanders or Amiibo figures, Starlink takes a modular approach with its toys. As such, you can customize your loadouts by strapping a unique pilot, ship, and weapons to your controller before entering warp speed. It doesn’t hurt that the Nintendo Switch version gets access to console-exclusive Star Fox content, including a sweet-looking Arwing toy. Is the game worth the trouble of slapping all of this extra plastic onto your Joy-Con controllers?
Before we talk about the game itself, we should cover the toys. You do not need them in order to play the game. You can buy the game digitally and play it the same way. In fact, I’ve heard you actually get more content in the base digital game than you would from the base physical version.
While you may get less stuff, you do get the physical toys and the special controller grip for the Nintendo Switch. This grip is used to attach all of the toys to your controller. No, you cannot attach these to a Pro Controller.
The toys that come with the game are really nice. As a longtime Star Fox fan, having a toy Arwing is a real treat. It looks awesome, has a few moving parts, and its engine at the back lights up when you plug it in. Though I don’t see the gameplay benefits to it, you can even attach the weapons on the ship backwards to fire behind you. Silly, but neat touch.
That said, all of this can be done digitally. The online version of the game unlocks your base items right out of the gate. For the physical version, once you plug in the toys once to unlock them, you don’t have to play with them attached to your controllers again. Personally, I like the physicality of snapping pieces onto my controller, but you’re welcome to play it either way.
Now let’s move onto the game. Taking place in the Atlas star system, the crew of the Equinox mothership is attacked by the Forgotten Legacy. They’re able to fight off the onslaught, but not before its captain is kidnapped. Meanwhile, the Star Fox team was on their way to take out Star Wolf when the fracas broke out. Everyone decides to join forces in order to take care of the Forgotten Legacy and Star Wolf as one cohesive unit.
Knowing that this game is also out on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, it’s really clever how the Star Fox content weaves in-and-out of the main story. You have to be really looking for the seams, as they’re otherwise baked into the main game in ways that make a lot of sense. I don’t know if it actually makes the game better, but I wouldn’t have given this game a chance had it not been for their presence.
Though I came into Starlink knowing that it wouldn’t be a traditional Star Fox game, I did not know how different they would actually be. While both games feature aerial dogfights and more grounded skirmishes, at its core, Starlink is an open-world action game, not unlike Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry. Outer orbit and the planets within the Atlas star system act as hub-worlds filled with main missions and side-quests.
At times, the mash-up of being a spaceship in an open-world game is a bit odd. When grounded, your ship essentially has a jump button, which you will use quite liberally. Why does my ship have to jump? Furthermore, there are instances where you’ll actually need to jump on platforms to climb towers due to reasons explained within the game. It’s a bit silly to be platforming as a space ship, when you’d normally assume that you could just fly to the top, but fine.
Even with its quirks, this format does give the game the opportunity for an extended life-cycle. Flying through linear shooting sequences would wear out quick, so making it work as an open-world action game opens the door for players to do a lot more. Beyond shooting, you have the ability to collect items, or solve puzzles to unlock bonuses, which does help add a bit of variety to the proceedings. My favourite aspects of the game are its boss battles, which are bombastic affairs that harken back to the old days of shooting weak points for massive damage.
It’s at this point where the modular weapon systems really shine. Each weapon has an elemental type, which makes certain weapons more effective than others against certain enemies. You can also score damage bonuses by combining specific weapons. For instance, there’s one for freezing something with ice, followed by hitting it with a blast of fire. On top of all that, the game has a deep upgrade system that allows you to modify the properties of your weapons. The base fire gun would be forced to recharge after only two shots, but with mods, I can fire it many times in rapid succession, making it a much more fierce weapon in my arsenal.
Though it has the framework to offer much more, it falls short on giving players enough unique quests or quest formats to sustain its entertainment value. So much of the game boils down to the same few quest archetypes that it does feel repetitive after only a few hours of play. Pirate traps in outer orbit are the most problematic, as they trigger the exact same fight multiple times over as you try and fast-travel to a planet you’ve never visited before. Once you’re in orbit, you end up running through the laundry list of building bases, destroying extractors, dueling with the spider-like Prime bosses too many times over. The problem only gets worse the further you progress, especially in the hair-pulling final act where I found myself having to do dozens of busy-work missions just to unlock the final fight. While they could have done so much more, I ended up just main-lining my way through the game as much as I could to minimize burnout.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is not the next true successor to Star Fox. They’re very different games. Had Ubisoft populated its quests with more variety, this would have been a killer package. Instead, it’s a okay game that had the potential to be a great one had it gone a few steps further with its quest design.
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