There is no doubt that Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a valid title. Let’s say it candidly, we had a lot of fun playing with Ubisoft’s spaceships. Maybe less than we would have hoped for, it’s true. In just twelve hours we completed the main mission, but it was still a very intense twelve hours, during which we struggled to put the controller down.
The problem however arises as soon as we put it down, the controller. When the time comes, that is, to put back in the drawer the slightly naive smile of the child who flies among unknown planets and to wear the frowning look of the meticulous reviewer. A look that inexorably falls on the collection of pilots, guns and spaceships which, as we write, occupies a large part of our desk.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a product that industry insiders love to identify with the Toys-to-life label. Like the now defunct Skylanders, Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimension, the game interacts with physical, tangible objects. Thanks to a special accessory to connect to the controller (the Switch version instead includes a dedicated grip in which to insert the Joy-Con) we can change characters and equipment on the screen by literally setting pieces of plastic together. First we put the pilot on the support, then we position ourselves on the shuttle, finally we select the weapons to attach to the wings.
If desired, on these wings we can insert another pair to modify the ship’s statistics, or mount the cannons in reverse, so as to shoot the enemies that catch us from behind. Every change, every variable, is instantly read by the game and faithfully reproduced on screen. And it is a very beautiful thing. The physicality of the experience is a fundamental element in the success of such a title, and the more we touch the various accessories, the more we handle them, the greater the affection we will feel for them. After all, they are toys, not simple figurines that we scan once and then leave on the shelf to collect dust.
From this point of view, Starlink is perhaps the most successful Toys-to-life. The feeling of control on the spaceship is powerful, if only because you always have it in front of you, perched on the controller. Initially the effect is a bit strange, but within a couple of hours a special relationship is established with your aircraft. Changing weapons on the fly becomes a natural operation, and on more than a few occasions we have tried the irrepressible instinct to swing the pad left and right to simulate the flight of the vehicle.
Fortunately, the mass we carry around with us is never excessive, and sessions for several hours with a fully loaded controller in hand have never caused discomfort or fatigue. Merit of Ubisoft, without a doubt, for having found a good compromise between weight of materials and quality, but it must be taken into account that the Switch version, which we tested, can also rely on the lightness of the Joycons. To be clear, grip plus spacecraft weigh only 50 grams more than the Xbox One controller with nothing mounted on it. As for the other platforms, we therefore prefer not to be unbalanced.
After the initial stages, however, something happened that totally changed the way we experience the game. In fact, during a fight, we died. Starlink works exactly like other similar products: each spaceship in our possession is equivalent to a life, and if we want to avoid the game over we must necessarily replace the vehicle. A simple trick to incentivize the purchase of other kits and especially for the little ones, restarting a boss fight from the beginning to each death can be a little frustrating.
Well, in the starter pack of the Nintendo Switch version there are already two ships, one of which is given to us in digital format. Because yes, in the end, toys are relatively useful. In fact, every time we use an accessory it is recorded in the menu, and it is then possible to equip it without having the piece at hand. An intelligent solution to be able to play the Ubisoft title on a laptop, and in general to not necessarily have to endure the spacecraft that always flutters in front of our nose.
While the design of the original Starlink elements is appreciable, Fox McCloud’s Arwing remains the most beautiful and fascinating spaceship to use.
We are dead, we said, and to continue we had to board our second aircraft. The game didn’t let us do that though, not with the plastic ship still mounted on the controller. In short, it is not possible to play by mixing physical and digital elements. We had to take everything apart and switch to full digital mode. Once the vehicle was repaired we went back to the physical configuration, but then, of course, we died again. It’s still. And again … Switching between the two modes quickly became a stress and in the end we gave up and got to the end credits without touching a single spaceship.
To confuse the cards on the table even more, by purchasing the game from the eShop, at the same price as the starter pack we buy in the store, it is possible to get a package with five ships, seven pilots and twelve guns: a series of contents much higher than that of the physical bundle. Of course, we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of touching everything with our fingertips, but is it a pleasure that justifies the outlay of 30 € per kit? Especially when we just scan the pieces and then leave them on the shelf to collect dust?
Hence the reason for the frown. Something wrong, the accounts do not add up. The economic model set up by Ubisoft makes us turn up a bit, and this duality between physical and digital, which in theory should have been a strong point, leaves us perplexed. After the initial enthusiasm, we began to feel an increasingly sharp detachment towards these spacecraft. A shame, considering that, as mentioned at the beginning, we liked the game itself.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a delightful open world adventure set among the planets of a distant galaxy. The protagonists of this interplanetary odyssey are the crew members of the Equinox, a terrestrial spaceship captained by the distinguished scientist Vincent St. Grand. The latter, after coming into contact with a particular alien technology, has distinguished himself for being the only being from one end of the universe to the other capable of synthesizing an ancient form of energy, the Nova.
Although the planets do not have many points of interest, the color palette and the light effects offer enchanting views.
His talent places him in the sights of Grax and his Legion, an evil army with expansionist aims but low on fuel. As soon as Equinox arrives in the Atlas system, Grax doesn’t miss the opportunity to kidnap St. Grand to put him to hard labor. Having learned the secret of the Nova, the bad guys can once again fill the tanks with their powerful armaments and set out to conquer the cosmos.
It is up to the crew of the Equinox to rush to the rescue of their captain and the entire galaxy. St. Grand had gathered around him a motley group of adventurers, all skilled at the controls of an interstellar fighter. Although the drivers are one of the fundamental elements of the title, their personality does not surprise us that much. The authors have limited themselves to superficially sketching a handful of stereotypes, which are limited to carrying out a narrative without ups and downs.
Difficult to become attached to any of them in particular, and the choice of who to equip, among the figurines we have available, depends exclusively on their special skills in battle. In fact, each pilot has a particular power to unleash during clashes, from the ability to slow down time, for example, to the ability to call allies on the field. When upgraded properly and used at the right time, these powers can turn the tide of a fight.
The real stars of Starlink are the spaceships, from which, after all, we never get off. The controls are clean, facilitated by a well-calibrated aiming system that hardly misses the target. In the more properly aerial phases, despite the dodges, changes of direction and enemy fighters whizzing in all directions, we never lose our sense of direction.
Given the vast size of the game universe and the absence of uploads, some sacrifices have been made on the Switch from a graphic point of view. The definition is rather low, while the frame rate is good, stable at 30 fps with rare drops in the most excited moments.
Deep space, amidst stellar glows and asteroid belts, is the stage for the most epic clashes. In some cases our fleet will have to take down gigantic cruisers, protected by defensive turrets and swarms of enemy fighters that force us to dance among the laser beams. They are exciting and adrenaline-pumping moments, which have nothing to envy to the space battles seen in the cinema.
On the surface of the planets the gameplay changes dramatically. Turning off the engines, our ship begins to float a few meters from the ground, combining the gameplay with that of a third-person shooter, complete with jumps and dodges. It may happen that you have to face real (however short) platforming sections. Perhaps the only naivete from the point of view of the controls, a little too nervous and snappy for the kind of precision required.
The ground combat is very dynamic and made more exciting by the elemental system of armaments. Each cannon that we hook onto the wings of our ship causes a particular type of damage, more or less effective against a particular type of enemy. Very intuitively, for example, thermal guns are the best tool against cryogenic monsters. A system that works and has fun, thanks above all to the possibility of creating combos between different types of weapons. For example, we can freeze an enemy with freezing rockets and then finish him off in no time with the flamethrower.
Precisely at this juncture, however, Toys-to-life nature comes to put a spoke in the wheel. Because all in all it matters relatively little who we use as a pilot or which spacecraft we equip. Weapons, however, are an element not to be underestimated, which gives depth and variety to the gameplay. The right cannon at the right time makes life easier, and it bothers to know that we have to fork out money to get it.
The first battle with a Prime is memorable. After about ten we will make the callus.
Starlink’s intelligent open world mechanics intervenes to unite and amalgamate the different game phases. In many ways, Ubisoft’s title is reminiscent of a miniature version of No Man’s Sky. Crossing the atmosphere of a planet and dashing towards space without any solution of continuity gives the same feelings of freedom that we find in the Hello Games space simulator.
The same graphic style and flamboyant color palette help to reinforce this parallelism. If we exclude some settlements scattered here and there and the remains of an ancient civilization, the surface of the planets is almost untouched, covered by an evocative vegetation, populated by strange creatures that graze blissfully.
The feeling of freedom, however, does not only concern movement, but acts more in depth. Once you have passed the introductory phase and have entered the heart of the adventure, the player will take the reins and unravel the unfolding of the events at his own pace and needs. The developers have been very skilled in simulating a real interplanetary war, and to get the better of the Legion it is not enough to complete the mission and take out the enemy on duty.
Starlink is enriched by an interconnection of elements that are difficult to simplify in a few words, but we will try anyway. Each sector of Atlas is attacked by a very powerful cruiser. This cruiser sends arachniform monsters, called Prime, to the various planets in the sector. The presence of these monsters further enhances the cruiser. The Primes roam the surface of the planet to plant extractors, devices that suck energy from the underground and enhance the Prime that installed them. The more extractors there are, the greater the influence of the Legion on the planet.
What should the player do? Simply destroy the extractors, thereby weakening the Prime. Then destroy all the Primes in a sector, so as to weaken the cruiser. Then attack the cruiser and clear the sector once and for all. A feat easier said than done.
Fortunately, on every planet we can create outposts, thanks to which we will increase our influence. In practice, we will set up our own small army, which will help collect resources and keep extractors and Primes at bay on a planet while we take care of the neighboring one. A fundamental help, because if we don’t hurry, the cruiser takes a moment to send a new monster back to a recently freed celestial body.
It is an intriguing system, which in the long run perhaps shows a little side to a certain repetitiveness. Despite that, the great growing system manages to keep things interesting until the very end. Each element in the game gains experience and can be upgraded to your liking, and if we can assign skill points to the pilots at each level, we can equip a series of mods that we find during the game, mostly dropped by enemies, to weapons and spaceships.
Some of these mods are very rare and are obtained by completing certain missions. This leads the player to experience that classic desire for completeness typical of the best RPGs, and when we are strong enough we can also try to vary the formula. Attacking a Prime without first destroying the extractors will see us involved in a more challenging and exciting battle, and towards the end it is very difficult to resist the temptation to attack a fully operational cruiser, with all the Primes supplying it with energy.
During space combat, laser beams are certainly not lacking …
Twelve hours to complete the main story isn’t long but to be honest we played the second of four difficulty levels. Given the young target of the product, it is normal for the degree of challenge to be calibrated downwards, and as experienced players we flew through the final stages without worrying too much about collecting the sea of upgrades that awaited us around the galaxy.
Once Grax is defeated, however, there is still a lot to do on Atlas, other storylines to follow and other planets to explore. A run at the difficulty level most suited to our skills, which aims to complete everything 100%, can keep you busy even for twice as long.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a promising new IP dedicated to younger players, allowing them to explore a vast and fascinating universe. Despite the not very incisive story and a certain underlying repetitiveness, the addicting gameplay managed to win us over.
By limiting some aspects, the future of Starlink could be rosy, but the decision of the French company to want to plunder our wallets by selling us each single element of the game separately may not find favor with the public. Especially considering that the ability to play digitally makes pilots and spaceships mere plastic DLCs.
It would be a shame not to see this series evolve and reach its maximum potential in the years to come. But if that happens, the blame can only fall on Ubisoft.