"Starlink not only launches without a hitch into the stratosphere, it also sticks the landing."
Last year Nintendo took firm hold of my attention when they announced their partnership with Ubisoft to create Starlink: Battle for Atlas and one other title for their brand spanking new console, the Switch. I knew I wanted to play it, I mean, this was probably going to be the Starfox experience the Super Nintendo couldn’t manage and what I missed out on the Nintendo 64. Having had the experience of Skylanders, and then missing out on Amiibo - by and large - I decided that I didn't want to spend hundreds of dollars collecting “smart” toys. So, when the Deluxe edition dropped down to 50% of its retail price, well... here we are.
Starlink follows in the tradition - or perhaps genre - of toy dependent games with which you may already be well acquainted. For those who haven't experienced the gimmick, here's a rundown of what the toys can do. By scanning the toy on a platform and/or controller, these toys that can augment gameplay, introduce new mechanics and levels, give bonuses or gifts, or even become AI fighting allies or opponents. My introduction to toy oriented gameplay came strictly in the form of player controllable characters who could be levelled up and upgraded after the tradition of action RPGs. All of your time and effort was stored in the toy, and you could play alongside friends and family, or show off your character to your friends.
That in itself puts this at a serious disadvantage, since none of the toys have any more personality than your average car. It was a big kick to see your toy “come to life” on the screen, a full realized individual, and not even the swankiest of these ships compare. I wonder, did this game land on the Switch intended for another platform? Had they planned to have it land smack dab in the middle of the toy+game craze only to miss the boat? It could explain why the necessity of brand recognition that Starfox brings to the production.
Back to the game. There was only ever one selection I was going to make as my pilot, and of course I was going to give the restyled Arwing a chance to shine. Purists should be forewarned that it emulates how the Arwing would behave in the Snow Drop engine, so don’t go expecting to pull off any “barrel rolls” with regularity. It’s not a hard move to pull off, it’s just largely useless due to the three dimensional nature of combat. Either you’re tracking enemies in six axis space combat, or rooted to the ground using just four axis. That’s not a complaint, just an observation.
Ahem. Thanks to my heavily discounted Deluxe Edition package, a good portion of DLC characters and weapons have been included, more than enough to complete the game, in fact. An introduction does some world building, then some comfortably paced cutscenes introduce you to the Equinox crew and some characters, then things go bad. Really bad. It’s time to hop into your fighter and wrestle with the controls. Technically they’re as tight as can be, and can be reconfigured with easy to understand menus and options galore. There’s also a library that includes write-ups for most everything you’re going to meet in Atlas, if that’s your bag.
Meanwhile, in the cockpit, I discovered that being thrown neck deep into space combat isn’t my idea of a comfort zone, but it did prepare me for what to expect. Fumbling around with new controls in a zero gravity dogfight was awkward, and I was relieved to be sent planetside to do some questing after the fight was over. When you’re not flying, your ship hovers along the ground, controlling with both analogs quite naturally once you grown accustomed to their functionality. The left analog stick will tilt the ship to move either right or left, while the right analog turns it about. This enables you to strafe to avoid enemy fire, scan local fauna or “pluck” objects that you’ll store for future use. The controls are well thought out and quickly become second nature.
On the subject of nature, the Snow Drop engine does an admirable job of maintaining a stable framerate on the Switch. On the very rarest occasion I had the pluck indicator not show up, but I saw no indication of any other flaws or bugs. The Quality Assurance teams did a splendid job, and it is a distinct pleasure to play a game that is so dependable. In spite of how quickly your ship can boost along the ground, I didn’t see a single instance of pop-in. The counterbalance to this is occasionally distracting amounts of Level of Detail graphical adjustments. Unfortunately this implementation of LOD can overcompensate at times by noticeably downgrading the geometry your ship while it is very close to the camera, for example. The tradeoff, however, is minor for the consistent framerate and responsive gameplay, so it feels reasonable to me.
When things in the story go bad, really bad – as previously mentioned - you are introduced to the Legion, who are trying to control precious resources that are in limited supply. Their pursuit and cultivation of these resources irreparably damages the planets they assault, and it becomes your duty to protect Atlas from this threat. This does borrow some elements from games like Star Fox 2, which have you prioritizing targets in order to keep the enemy at bay. If you allocate your time wisely, you can swiftly eliminate smaller threats before they gain strength to become far more dangerous. The difficulty curve itself isn’t jarring, and you don’t even have to tackle every challenge the game throws at you, but it can and will improve your confidence and skill.
The quest system is broken down into categories that extend laterally from the main storyline, consisting of location associated objectives that have you performing a range of actions that ultimately guide you toward game completion. Reclaiming a town, recovering precious technology, hacking a crashed ship, destroying valuable enemy towers for valuable resources can theoretically be repeated forever, if you allow the Legion to move unchecked. On that note, I need to point out that at the start of the game you can choose how quickly the enemy faction will spread. Being unsure of the circumstances, but confident about my reflexes, I chose the “normal” speed, and that worked out just fine for me.
There’s absolutely no shortage of quests, collectibles and randomly spawning optional instances of combat and friendly interactables to keep you hooked. It is a fact that you’ll hear the same voices at your Outposts, but if and when boredom sets in, you can just lock onto another point on the map and pursuit that instead. Everything not directly assigned by the main storyline quests is optional, which is nice if you’re impatient or don’t have much time to spare. Fortunately what is here is of exceptional quality, and even though it does come across as trying a little too hard at times, it is good fun.
Ubisoft has on their hands a starship upgrade space defense simulator, but has worked hard to balance that with the well acted story that gives you motivation for all of it. By my estimation they fall short of a Pixar cinematic experience, but do supply more than ample cause for your rebels. Having the Star Fox crew along for the ride may seem like a discredit to the story, but it does give the youngest players and inexperienced parents a comfortable means of taking part without asking them to learn too much in one sitting.
In aid of this, each pilot as a unique special ability tailored to your playstyle. Having played Star Fox and Shaid, I was able to employ their abilities “Rock and Roll” and “Vanish”, respectively. The former has one of Fox’s teammates fight alongside you for a brief duration, while the latter has your ship become undetectable for a fixed period. The duration, effect and potency of these abilities can be upgraded, but Fox’s ability has the marked advantage of giving less grizzled players - like me - much needed assistance.
Destroying things is easy enough once you learn the rock-paper-scissors elemental mechanics, but you can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, or worse, a poorly configured ship. With the intended purpose of having kids collect toys to play, there are some things you need to be aware of. If you have just one ship and it is defeated, your only resort is to respawn at the nearest Outpost, giving up all your progress in the quest you may be pursuing. More ships will enable you to continue exactly where you are and hopefully win, but it does give me an edge when all my ships are digital, and I have six at my disposal to heap on my target.
Levelling up your pilots, ships and weapons will make things much easier, and to that end there are a number of “low hanging fruit” quests that will give you valuable experience, but you need to learn more than how to fly and when to dodge in order to complete the game. The element system itself is simple: Fire and ice are natural enemies, just as gravity and stasis are. Mixing one of the former with either of the latter creates a very effective combo that will drastically increase your damage output. If it sounds like a lot to deal with, don’t worry... I used just four weapons altogether, and only switched when things weren’t easy enough or the quest required something else.
In point of fact, to take it easy on my hands I used auto-locking missile launchers for the majority of my playthrough. This was extremely useful as space combat was pretty headache inducing, initially, and I wasn’t into the idea of having to lead my targets if I didn’t have to. Exploiting the game’s “any weapon type can win” mechanic made it convenient for my intended mode of play: Strictly casual. If you want to play harder, you can, but it’s nice to have options. There are plenty of weapon types to choose from to suit your style, so chalk up a point for Ubisoft.
The most useful mechanic of Starlink is modding, without a doubt. Your ship and weapons have mod slots that will improve the performance of said system when a badge is applied. There are boosters for every attribute, and performance modifiers for every preference. The Arwing is considered a Performance Class ship, but with the right mods can be transformed into a lumbering Landmas—er, tank. Your weapons, meanwhile, can be similarly adjusted, and upgrading the Equinox will grant you the ability to apply more mods. There are, all told, five grades of mods, each with more bonuses than the prior in addition to higher bonuses overall.
For those who love to manage inventories, Starlink has you covered, but also makes it simple enough so that you’re not having to dedicate too much time to organization. I was impressed how little time it took me to configure a new ship I had never used before to replace the one I’d just gotten smashed up in combat. UbiSoft deserves all the kudos for how streamlined this game is, especially considering how the variety of systems involved and gameplay styles its accounting for.
The greatest achievement of Starlink: Battle for Atlas is that you can choose to play the game the way you want, acquiring necessary resources in the way that’s fun for you instead of ticking off a list of rote objectives. Some things cannot be avoided, that much is true, but for a game that can run in excess of sixty hours, it did a fine job of communicating its value to me. I have hope that future third-party partnerships like this one will bear fruit as meaty and sweet as this one. As a well balanced example of entry level gaming, this one not only launches without a hitch into the stratosphere, it also sticks the landing.
Community review by hastypixels (June 07, 2019)
At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.
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