- Release Date: October 16, 2018
- Platforms, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
- Developer: Ubisoft
Coming to PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch on October 18, 2018
Lego Dimensions: shut down. Disney Infinity: Disney closed the entire development studio. Skylanders: dormant, with no signs of life aside from the Netflix animated series. With the previous titans of the toys-to-life craze all gone, launching a new property that overlaps video games with physical toys feels exceedingly risky – but Ubisoft’s Starlink: Battle for Atlas was also one of the most fun games I played at E3 this year.
As a video game, and unlike those earlier examples, Starlink skews toward a slightly older audience. Think a toned down Mass Effect in fact, with explorers in the distant Atlas star system ambushed by a mysterious force known as the Forgotten Legion. Using their mothership Equinox as a base, the explorers are drawn into a conflict for possession of ancient technology left by a progenitor race referred to as ‘The Wardens’.
With its deeper story, human and humanoid alien characters, and a built-in vein of conflict, it immediately feels more mature than its comedic antecedents – and that alone could be key to Starlink’s success. It’s family friendly in the best way, with enough complexity to keep the attention of teens and parents, without being inappropriate for – or worse, talking down to – younger children.
Starlink is also more of a shooter than any previous title in the toys-to-life field, with its systems and mechanics all revolving around its signature spaceships. Each one has three traversal modes: space flight, atmospheric flight, and ground hover. The first allows for fully 3D manoeuvres in the void of space, where you’ll frequently come into conflict with space pirates and the Forgotten Legion.
The combat is snappy and exciting, not so challenging as seen in Ace Combat for example, but requiring more attention and skill than just pointing and shooting. In space, you’ll also be able to use hyperdrive engines to travel between the game’s numerous planets.
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Down on the surface of those worlds, atmospheric flight allows for nippy transportation, while hover mode will be used when precision is required – such as targeting weak points on colossal monsters, or hitting well-shielded vulnerabilities on enemy installations.
The E3 build provided examples of both challenges, bringing down a polluting mega-structure, then tracking and disabling a gigantic beast that wouldn’t look out of place in Monster Hunter World.
The toys factor in when you start following those beefier quests, with swap-in, swap-out modules that affect powers, weapon elements and ship functions. You’ll build your craft – which sits on top of your controller – in three stages: pilot, vessel, parts.
You’ll slide a figure of your chosen pilot on first, the main character being Mason Rana, creator of the (in-universe) Starlink technology. Others will include Chase, a 16-year-old racing champion from Brazil; Hunter, a former black-ops soldier turned wandering shaman; ex-pirate Shaid; and mysterious alien, Judge. Each has his own unique pilot skill, which can be unleashed in battle.
You’ll then place a spaceship over them. Each character has their own default ship, but all fit into any other ship, and each vehicle has its own merits in turn. For instance, Mason’s personal craft is the Zenith, a durable and heavily armoured cruiser, whereas Chase’s Pulse is modded for pure speed, but you may want to use one pilot’s skills with a particular type of ship.
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Finally, you’ll add on weapons, which is where the game starts getting really fun. Each has an elemental attribute, but it’s not just the classical four. Instead, there are seven types – Kinetic, Stasis, Heat, Gravity, Vortex, Fire, and Cold – and their effects can be combined.
Using a vortex weapon might create a miniature black hole around an enemy and do a decent amount of damage, but throw some fire blasts into it as well and it becomes a raging flame storm, doing considerably more. Quick tactical thinking of which weapons and elements to use against which enemies – some of whom have their own elemental weaknesses – keeps each mission and combat encounter fast-paced, and resources earned in-game can be used to power up weapons for more devastating effects.
Starlink’s toys also feel more engaging than previous toys-to-life offerings. Both Skylanders and Disney Infinity preferred relatively static maquettes that just sat on their respective summoning plates, and while Lego Dimensions tried to address this with its reconfigurable kits, it almost went too far in the other direction, feeling fiddly.
Here, any weapon, ship part, or pilot can be swapped out whenever you like, with the game dynamically updating your rig based on your current build. The ships also feel like they have some play value away from the game – I can easily imagine kids running around the living room, enacting space battles with the Starlink spaceships.
Unlike Skylanders et al, though, save data is stored in your overall game save – so any weapon upgrades won’t carry over if you take the toys to play on a friend’s games.
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There is something of an elephant in the room when it comes to Starlink, however – or rather, a fox. A Starfox, in fact, with the reveal that the Nintendo Switch edition of the game will exclusively feature the heroic Fox McCloud and his iconic Arwing.
The physical Arwing model is, simply put, really cool too, and it controls like a dream in-game, with all the weapons and barrel rolls fans of the Starfox series will expect. It’s going to be a huge draw for a lot of people, so much so that it almost feels like self-sabotage when it comes to the potential of other formats.
On whatever format you might get Starlink, pricing of the toys will be key as to whether this follows in the footsteps of previous toys-to-life pioneers, or kick-starts a new wave of excitement for the genre. There’s definitely potential here, and with interesting toys and a satisfying quick-shift mechanic, all centred on a more rewarding and inventive core game, I can’t wait to play more.