Starlink: Battle for Atlas
The continued adventures of Star Fox? Don’t toy with us
Ubisoft mashes up Destiny, Disney Infinity, Star Fox, and No Man’s Sky into a spicy dogfighting mélange.
It’s hard to talk about Starlink: Battle For Atlas without mentioning all the games it borrows from. Playing it, you can practically smell the whiteboard in Ubisoft’s Toronto office, marker-pen lines linking ‘No Man’s Sky’ with ‘Destiny’, and a big circle drawn around the words ‘toys to life’. Because, yes, like Skylanders and Disney Infinity before it, this is one of those games that comes with plastic models – in this case, controller-sized spaceships and their tiny pilots – which can be connected to unlock their digital counterparts. Let’s talk about those toys first, because they are really lovely. Each of the six ships has a distinctive and eye-catching design, ranging from a bulbous alien craft to the sharp speedy angles of what is basically an X-wing with the serial numbers filed off.
When you’re handling them, the models have a pleasingly chunky quality that brings to mind another word which surely appeared on that imaginary whiteboard: Lego. While you don’t actually build the ships, they are deeply customisable. Each craft is made up of a chassis and two removable wings.
This means you can snap the wings off one model and apply them to another – backwards or upside down or even on top of the existing wing, if you like. Then you choose your weapons, and stick those on in a similar fashion. As long as it’s all attached to the controller mount, Starlink will recognise the changes and instantly update your ride in-game.
Want to create something that has three mismatched wings piled on top of another on one side, and a single gun, pointing backwards, on the other? The result might not look especially aerodynamic, but you will be able to fly your personalised unwieldy monstrosity around the galaxy.
Clicking a new weapon onto the mount and seeing it immediately appear on screen has a novelty that takes a long while to wear off. But what about the game beneath it all?
Like its spaceship models, Starlink is made up of components that snap neatly together. The game opens among the stars, introducing itself as a space dogfighting game that recalls Nintendo’s Star Fox series. Not least because, if you’re playing on Switch, the starter pack includes models of both an Arwing and Fox McCloud himself. With no official Star Fox game made for Switch – and arguably, no worthy instalments since the N64 days – Starlink is the next best thing. Better, in fact.
These are some of the best dogfights ever to grace consoles, perfectly capturing that X-wing fantasy we’ve all harboured since childhood. The sensation of connecting a brightlycoloured laser beam with an enemy ship, causing it to spiral into space and eventually explode (concepts like
“Like its spaceships, Starlink is made up of components that snap neatly together”
‘realism’ and ‘physics are thankfully cast aside) is brilliant.
To keep space combat feeling fresh, there are plenty of little tricks to discover. Incoming fire can be bounced back using your ship’s reflective shields or dodged with a variety of evasive manoeuvres. Each pilot also has their own gradually-charging special ability, which might call in an orbital strike, slow down time or, in Fox’s case, summon one of his wingmates to help out in the fight.
No Man’s Skylanders
It’s not all dogfights, though. Between combat encounters, you’re free to explore the galaxy, visiting any planet you can see. It’s hard not to think of No Man’s Sky, especially when you arrive on a new world and are greeted with that familiar colour palette, seemingly lifted off the cover of a 1970s sci-fi paperback.
The best moment of exploration is undoubtedly picking out a strange shape on a planet’s surface, big enough to be visible from space, and burning down through its atmosphere to find out what it actually is. The worst is the travel that connects these moments, long stretches of empty starfield punctuated only by the odd asteroid field. You’ll find yourself wishing for the hyperspace traps that space pirates lay down for you, just to break up the monotony.
Like No Man’s Sky, each planet has its own distinctive flora and fauna to discover, and resources to mine. There’s a neat little DNA scanning minigame, where you have to do a full 360° around a creature – often while trying to keep up with it as it tries to flee, or avoiding the sweep of its gargantuan tail.
Unlike No Man’s Sky, though, you never disembark from your spacecraft. You can fly through the skies or switch into a mode that’s more podracer than X-wing. There’s a remarkable sense of speed as you skim across the surface, and a pleasant floatiness to the way any bumps or ramps carry you into the sky. Unfortunately, this makes for a strange fit with some of the ground-level activities, such as opening crates and discovering secret entrances, which feel like they’ve been plucked from games like Destiny. Games that feature player characters who can actually stand still for a second.
It’s a similar story with earthbound combat. This uses the same solid fundamentals as dogfighting, but they’re not as well suited to encounters where your enemies have legs. Because your targets aren’t as mobile, there’s not the same challenge of lining up a single shot. To account for that, the game either mobs you with baddies or makes them bullet sponges, which robs your weapons of any impact.
Starlink tries its hardest to overcome this, through a mechanic rooted in its toy-connected design. Each weapon deals a certain type of elemental damage – fire, ice, gravity and so on – that has a Pokémon-style matchup with enemy types. Trying to freeze an ice giant, for example, might only make them stronger, but hitting them with a flamethrower should be super-effective. It’s a smart way of encouraging you to constantly change tactics by snapping a new gun onto your ship mid-combat – and, cynically, of encouraging you to buy a new pack to get the right weapon for the situation – but it still feels like it’s playing second fiddle to the dogfights.
This, ultimately, is the down side of constructing a game out of borrowed parts. There’s a definite novelty to seeing unlikely components mixed and matched, and they might even click together neatly. But unless each part is carefully considered, you risk ending up with something slightly unwieldy.
Each planet is made up of various colourful biomes, which blend together smoothly, if not especially seamlessly.
The non-aggressive lifeforms you encounter have charmingly alien designs. This is a Vibrosaur.
The crew is based out of the Equinox, which looks like someone tipped the USS Enterprise over on its side.