Starlink: Battle For Atlas

Starlink: Battle For Atlas

Written by Eric Hauter on 10/26/2018 for SWI  
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Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a fascinating product. It has been extremely difficult to hone my thoughts on Starlink, because there is just so much to consider. At Starlink’s core is a sprawling, detailed, and systems-heavy open world game. Layered on top of that are the physical toys, which lend a tactile aspect to the gameplay and characters. Also under consideration is Starlink’s potential as a platform for further content; no company creates a toys-to-life product with the intention of not making more toys or content. There is also the interesting fact that Ubisoft opted to allow players to opt out of the toys entirely, offering all of the content in a digital-only format. And of course, there is the Star Fox content, which adds an additional wrinkle to the proceedings. My mind is bursting at the seems trying to wrangle all of this information into a readable format, so just let me get this out of the way: I really, really like Starlink: Battle for Atlas.

It is important to remember that Battle for Atlas isn’t just a self-contained game, but rather a jumping off point for further content. While this is a game that is stunning in its scope (though maybe a bit overly reliant on repeated content), it must be remembered that with the creation of this game, Ubi was crafting a sci-fi universe with the full intention of telling many more stories within it. While the “Atlas” in the title refers to the specific solar system in which the game takes place, many of the characters make regular reference to Earth, implying that they have developed interstellar travel. This opens up the Starlink franchise to blow out in any direction, with the entire galaxy (or universe) as its stomping grounds. If Starlink is successful, this is a fun, colorful, and (perhaps most importantly) open-ended continuity to be explored.

The game opens on The Equinox, an interstellar ship led by Captain St. Grand, and crewed by a colorful cast of characters that are mostly - but not entirely - human. Soon after arriving in the Atlas system, The Equinox is attacked by a mysterious cult. With a hole ripped in her side, and her captain kidnapped, the Equinox crashes on a nearby planet. The remaining crew must then band together to unite the system against the cult (known as The Legion). Planet by planet, they fight to push The Legion back and rescue St. Grand.

The Atlas system is a visual marvel. Working from a bright and alien palate, and clearly using a design template to give the planets a shared thematic look, Ubisoft has given each planet its own unique identity and biomes, while still maintaining a visual style that is instantly identifiable as “Starlink”. While life on each planet is limited to three species and various plant life, these elements are well designed (though they don’t serve much purpose beyond some basic “scan this goober” quests).

The space between the planets is just as beautiful. As advertised, players can launch themselves off of planets at any time, seamlessly cutting through the atmosphere and into space. While a fast-travel option quickly opens up, it is much more fun to take the scenic route. The space between planets is littered with asteroid fields to navigate, the wreckage of old ships to investigate for loot, and marauder traps that will pull you out of hyperspace for a fun bit of space battle.

The space battles can be intense, depending on how far you might have wandered, and whizzing about in open space is visually spectacular. At one point, I was fighting at least fifteen enemy ships, and with homing missiles flying in every direction and laser beams lighting up the darkness. I was frankly shocked that the Switch was able to run this game without stuttering. There were certain points that I felt sure the framerate might slow down just due to the spectacular number of moving pieces on the screen, but my trusty Switch didn’t even blink. The optimization team at Ubi deserves a hearty pat on the back for this one.

Approaching new planets is exciting, though the activities on each planet all follow a similar flow. After the first two or three times you do the same missions, the planet-side gameplay becomes a bit rote. There are a variety of outposts that you can assist with fetch quests, which will get them onboard with the revolt against The Legion. Once you have secured enough of those, the nest step is to take out some Legion outposts. Eliminating those will weaken Primes, which are giant spider-like robots. Kill off enough Primes (these battles are pretty entertaining) and you can go after the orbital Dreadnaught. Once that’s done, you have pretty much liberated the planet, and you are free to rinse and repeat on the next. It’s wise, however, not to rush into the fight with the Dreadnaught before weakening it sufficiently. These fights are intense, and Starlink proves that it is not afraid to hand players a bowl full of defeat if they get too uppity. For a game that is supposedly aimed at kids, I sure found myself laughing and reloading a lot.

Of course, you are free to bail on this structure at any time and just go exploring. Each planet has its own little secret areas, many of which are populated with high level enemies. Starlink does not hesitate to let players wander into areas that are beyond their current level capabilities, which can lead to some surprising deaths. Other side distractions litter each planet, so there are any number of derelict ships to explore and bases to liberate from local bandits. But again, once you have done a few of those, they all start to look the same, regardless of which planet you are on.

So if the gameplay is the same from planet to planet, what keeps Starlink: Battle for Atlas from becoming a slog? The ability to change out characters, ships and weapons at will. The interlocking progression system. The entertaining and good-natured Saturday Morning Cartoon storyline. And toys, of course. Toys elevate everything.

The toys that come with Starlink are pretty great. Everyone knows by now that when playing Starlink, you can change out your ship, it’s wings, the weapons you are using, and your pilot any old time you like. You simply snap off what you don’t want, and slap something else into place, and it magically shows up on the screen. It’s incredibly nifty, and a lot of fun in practice. The toys are solid and have a fun level of painted detail. They are also light weight enough that they don’t distract from gameplay when they are attached to your controller via the game’s linking device. What they don’t tell you is that each little bit has its own progression system, so when you are in a jam you can take your underpowered weapon off your ship and replace them with some of your more leveled-up guns and just go to town on some chumps. If it sounds fun, that’s because it is fun.

For those that are not interested in the collectible aspects of the game, Ubi offers everything in digital form. It is possible to buy a version of the game that contains all current content digitally, forgoing the toys-to-life aspect of Starlink altogether. It is actually far less expensive to go the digital route. Having played both ways, I can attest that they both work just fine. Adults may be interested in the digital version, but if I were to buy this game for my kids, I would get the toys. Toys elevate everything.

Almost everything in the game has a progression system. Characters level up as you use them, ships level up as you use them, and weapons level up too. Characters each have their own skill trees that you can sink points into, making them all feel distinct. In addition to their various skills, the Starlink team has designed a set of fun and accessible characters, period. Each personality in Starlink is distinct, and the game takes the time to give you a little background on each of them if you bother to seek it out. My favorite is Eli Arborwood, a sentient tree that wanders around talking like an Old West prospector. I had to force myself to stop using him to experience the game with some of the other characters. If I weren’t reviewing Starlink, I likely would have played through the whole game with Eli.

The ships feel distinct from each other as well. Ships level as you progress, though the progression is less noticeable than it is with characters. This is compensated for through the use of mods. As the player progresses through the story, the game tosses mods at them at a very liberal clip. These mods can be added to ships to enhance a number of different stats, like defense, handling, or XP gain. Each weapon has its own mod slots as well, and the UI to shift them about from weapon to weapon is streamlined and easy to comprehend.

While you can upgrade your pilots, ships, and weapons, Starlink still isn’t done giving the player ways to progress. The Equinox itself can be upgraded using the steady flow of in-game currency that the player earns while performing other tasks. The skill tree hidden in The Equinox is frankly enormous, offering such varied upgrades as the ability to fuse mods into stronger configurations and the ability to carry additional supplies and cargo. With all of these progression systems in place, the player is always given something to strive for, and the planet-side missions feel a lot less redundant. Some players may balk at the same-ness of the Starlink’s late hours, but I was greatly entertained by the quest to push The Legion from Atlas, regardless of how many times I had to repeat the same missions.

The Switch version of Starlink: Battle for Atlas has the added bonus of having Star Fox as a playable character. The Starter Pack for the Switch comes complete with Star Fox and the Arwing, an association that Ubisoft makes the most of. Star Fox is not just a throwaway skin in Starlink. Star Fox and his cronies are fully integrated into the game, appearing in cut scenes with the rest of the crew. Of course, most players are aware that the Star Fox team were spliced in for the Switch, but it is a very smooth and seamless splice. It is entirely possible to play through the entire Starlink campaign using only Star Fox as your pilot, potentially making Starlink the longest, most intensive Star Fox game ever. There is also an entire side campaign for Star Fox and his buddies, following them as they hunt down Wolf, who has conspired with The Legion. This side story is no throwaway, and like the rest of the Star Fox content, it is surprising in its scope. If you have the option, the Switch version is absolutely the way to go for Starlink.

In Starlink: Battle for Atlas, Ubisoft has created a new and exciting universe to play in. There are some concessions to be made with repeating content, but the number of achievements here far outweigh the drawbacks. Frankly, it’s a technological miracle that this thing works at all, and I refuse to be so jaded as to not acknowledge that. Starlink is fun and engaging, and a promising start to a new franchise.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a stellar achievement. Through its fun and accessible cast of characters, solidly made toys-to-life component, and beautiful graphics, Ubisoft has hit the ground running. With the addition of a healthy amount of Star Fox content, the Switch version is definitely the preferable way to go, but regardless of your system Starlink is a remarkably entertaining game, and an auspicious launch for a new gaming universe.

Rating: 9 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a 45-year-old dad with four kids, ranging in age from 1 through 17.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs).  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on PS4, PSVR, PS Vita, 3DS, Wii U and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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