Starlink: Battle for Atlas
PS4, Switch, Xbox One
For a game predicated on playing with toy spaceships, Starlink: Battle For Atlas can feel like bloody hard work at times. As part of a plucky group of pilots, your job is to protect the Atlas star system from an ever-growing force known as the Forgotten Legion, swooping down onto planets to clear out enemies before destroying the alien motherships that produce them. Every so often there are signs of life in this toys-to-life space RPG. Mostly, however, it feels superficial, as you hover over the surface of planets without ever setting foot on them, performing repetitive fetch quests on endless, tedious clean-up duty. Hero? We feel more like a rocket-powered custodian.
It’s heartbreaking, as there’s no shortage of spirit in the concept of Starlink. This is a toys-to-life game in spite of the very public death of the genre – and with plenty of original ideas to boot. Starlink’s modular toys appear in the game when connected to a controller mount: first you snap on your pilot, then clip a starship over the top, attach your choice of wings and weaponry, and away you go. This approach to toys-to-life feels wonderfully fresh – not least because the high-quality toys themselves are so much more than static statues, and great fun to play with without the digital busywork attached. These are Transformers with perks.
Indeed, Starlink’s standout features are undoubtedly its movement and combat. It feels fantastic to cut about in even the most improbable ship creations (we spend an enjoyable hour or so in a ridiculous triple-winged monstrosity). Dodges, barrel rolls, loop-de-loops and bunny hops make the basic act of navigating the seamless star system a joy. And although the majority of Legion enemies are meaningless cannon fodder, blasting them away can be exhilarating. The crunchy impact of the Iron Fist shotgun is enormously satisfying, as is turning yourself into a fiery projectile with the Meteor Mk 2.
But the best results come from elemental combos. With the Flamethrower and Frost Barrage, you can send foes into thermal shock. Siege weapons offer more options: our go-to loadout involves using the Vortex to trap enemies in a gravity well before turning it into a ball of flame with the Volcano gatling gun. We can’t always rely on it – Crush enemies are immune to the effects of gravity weapons, for instance, and we’ve even seen some foes strengthen themselves by triggering a Frost Vortex with their weapons before we can light it up. Efficient shooting, then, has us rebuilding our toy starship on the fly to keep up in tougher battles. Far from fiddly, for the most part, the chunky toys make interacting with Starlink a novel pleasure.
Crucially, they provide a physical, personal link to an in-game world that somehow feels more plasticky than the kit. Take away the toys, and much of the spirit is lost. Unfortunately, it’s advantageous to ditch them. If you want the full complement of ships and weapons – and you will if you’re hoping to enjoy yourself, as each ship functions as an extra life, and having the right weapon to hand is far more convenient than tracking down an elemental canister – it will cost you. Doubtless the well-made toys will be worth the extra expense for collectors. But it’s far more practical to shell out for the (still eye-wateringly pricey) complete digital edition, switching parts via the menu. A game over means calling in a new ship: this is easy to do digitally, but an absolute chore with the toys. And if you only own a couple of ships, you’ll have to respawn literal light years away from a fight and chug all the way back to try again. Basic design oversights like these mean playing Starlink feels less like the toys-or-no-toys choice it’s presented as. Good intentions are there; the execution is not. Likewise, the basic structure of Starlink itself. The loop goes like this: take down Extractors to track down huge, mecha-bug Primes. Defeat enough Primes, and you weaken their origin, the huge Dreadnought ships out in space. Parts of this loop are exciting. Prime fights are brilliant, requiring you to whizz through the many legs of the robot to get at its weak spots, which it tries to hide by sheepishly shuffling in circles. Dreadnoughts are a true test of your dogfighting skills and overall power level. Extractors are less inspired, static towers where you shoot red orbs with inflated health bars while shaking off mobs. The whole process soon becomes prescriptive. With Legion forces always returning, nagging percentage bars on each planet ticking up again as the same Dreadnoughts keep reappearing well into the endgame, patience very quickly wears thin.
Not least because we find it almost impossible to care about Atlas, or any of the characters. The planets mostly feel like lifeless colonisation spheres, as you are made to construct your own expensive resource-mining structures or run dull errands to raise your alliance levels with the inhabitants. Meanwhile, about 80 per cent of the cast is either forgettable (poster boy Mason) or insufferable (vlogging berk Levi), and the story so barebones that we suspect the cutscene budget must have run out early. Indeed, the emotional turning point halfway through the campaign prompts disbelieving laughter, as we are asked to be sad about a character we barely know from Adam. The target audience may skew younger, but this is patronising stuff.
Elsewhere, this isn’t the case: Starlink has meaningfully improved on the fundamentals of toys-tolife, and deserves to be commended for it, even if not all its mechanical bits and pieces fit together perfectly. But without a compelling justification or reward for your heroism, it’s hard to see why we should bother battling the busywork for Atlas at all. It’s a shame that, for all those nifty custom USB sockets, there’s no real connection to be found here.
For the most part, the chunky toys make interacting with Starlink a novel pleasure