The idea of a weapon in space shooting down an adversary is one of the oldest concepts in video games. A couple of the earliest arcade titles, Space Invaders and Galaxian, pioneered this genre. It's no surprise that many modern games are set outside Earth. There's something breathtaking about exploring the vast reaches of outer space.
Announced at last year's E3, Starlink: Battle For Atlas is the latest game to feature a controllable ship for exploring the galaxy. However, it is also a new installment in the "toys-to-life" genre, similar to Skylanders. Starlink received more attention at this year's E3, when Ubisoft announced that the Nintendo Switch version would be getting exclusive Star Fox content. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an enjoyable game for all ages, with fun combat and neat implementation of toys. It does lack in certain areas, preventing it from being a true space epic, but chances are you'll have a fun time playing.
Starlink's gameplay is from a third-person perspective. In order to buy a brand-new physical copy of the game, you'll have to purchase a Starter Edition for $74.99 (you can get the game digitally cheaper, which for some reason contains more content than the Starter Edition). Using the Nintendo Switch Starter Edition as an example, you'll attach your Joy-Cons to a mount provided. Then, you'll attach the little pilot figurine, and then the actual ship. Finally, you'll be given two special weapons to attach to your ship. You can purchase other ship packs and weapons, either physically or digitally (it should be noted that it's not necessary to use the physical toys to play). From there, the gameplay is similar to shooters: you utilize your different blasters and can boost. You can use a special attack called "Pilot Ability" as well, which reigns down heavy fire on an enemy. Additionally, local cooperative play is a feature within the game.
Starlink's story takes place in a star system called Atlas. A ship called the Equinox is traveling through space but is attacked by aliens called the Forgotten Legion. The Equinox's captain, St. Grand, is taken hostage. The leader of the Forgotten Legion, Grax, wants to take over Atlas, but in order to do so, he'll need a compound called Nova. St. Grand is the only person who knows how to make Nova, and Grax is prepared to use torture to get what he wants. Now, utilizing an initiative called Starlink, the crew must gather allies across Atlas in the fight against Grax. Star Fox will join the fight in the Switch version, and even has his own side-missions where he has to find Wolf.
Starlink is an open world game. You can choose to complete every main mission, but you are free to roam space and the planets in the Atlas galaxy. It's a good system, as a person would want to explore the different worlds and complete side-missions rather than be locked into linear missions all the time. The freedom to explore is fantastic, but the actual planets themselves could have been more diverse. Yes, there is an ice world and fire world, and there is some appealing alien scenery, such as in Vylus. But the worlds are often laid out too similar to one another. In Super Mario Odyssey, a large part of what made that game fun was exploring the incredibly diverse lands. In Starlink, the incentive to explore every inch of every planet is minimal in comparison to Odyssey, because the worlds aren't too different from one another.
The thing Starlink most succeeds in is its core gameplay. It's a fantastic and intense shooter. However, it isn't mindless, as you have to be careful not to get overwhelmed by strong enemy fire. You do have a shield, but it has limits. Even on Normal mode, the game hits a difficulty spike at the first Dreadnought. Often, you'll find yourself using strategy, such as knowing when to barrage an opponent with fire or retreat to regenerate health. Fans of space shooters and open world design will feel right at home in Starlink.
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While the gameplay is great, a drawback is that you'll be doing a lot of the same things during the second part of the story. During the middle act, the goal is to plant three Starlink towers. To do that, you need to make allies and drive back the Legion forces. That's fine, but you'll find yourself beating the same Extracters, hives, and eventually Primes every time. The first couple of times are fun and smartly designed, but in conjunction with the minimally diverse planet designs, the nature of going to each planet and driving back the Legion by doing the same things grows repetitive.
Unfortunately, Starlink's soundtrack is forgettable. There are a few good tunes, but for some reason, the music is low-key. When you go to a planet, it's generally quiet until you run into an Extractor or an enemy. This was a missed opportunity, as a space epic should have music defining each planet.
Regarding the toy mechanic, an older player will feel like a little kid again attaching the ship weapons from the Starter Edition and resting it on the mount. With that, you have all the material you need with the Starter Edition. In the game, you can level up the ship and weapons with mods. You won't need to purchase other ship packs. However, they are useful in providing additional lives in the middle of a tough fight. If you did decide to buy more physical packs, they cost $24.99, which is a hefty price for the product (additional ships, pilots, and weapons are also available physically and digitally if you just want a single item rather than the whole pack). It might be fun to swap out weapons, but it gets too expensive attempting to buy them all.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a fun, open world shooting game. The gameplay is polished and thrilling. There are some missed opportunities hurting the overall experience, however. The planets can lack diversity, and the missions end up being repetitive toward the latter part of the game. Still, there are epic moments, such as beating a Dreadnought and navigating into Grax's base. The story is mostly engaging and the main campaign is about 13 hours long, and afterward, you can go back and save each planet from remaining Legion forces. It's not a bad length, and if you play the Switch version, it makes for a fine Star Fox experience. Starlink is a missed opportunity for something epic, but it's still an enjoyable game.
A copy of the game was purchased by The Gamer for this review. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is now available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
3.5 out of 5 stars.