Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a homage to the sci-fi games of right this very second. Or, you could also choose to see Starlink as mostly a rip-off. Or instead, maybe as a really cute entry point into planet spelunking spaceship genre. After some hands-on time with the game at the San Diego Comic-Con 2018, we found that the game is actually a little more than those things. And perhaps a little bit less, too.
The absolute first thing you’ll notice is the fact that you’re holding a giant toy in your hand. That’s the ideal set up, anyway. Let’s be honest here - it’s really hard to not enjoy yourself while holding something like this in your hand. It’s bulky but very lightweight, and you can easily play the game using the controller as you normally would with the toy hovering above your hands; it didn't feel like it was impeding our enjoyment during our short hands-on with the game.
There will inevitably come a day when all the necessary pieces of plastic to play this game are lost to time, like a Rock Band playset or MechWarrior joystick, but latching a giant Arwing to your controller is exactly the kind of thing that sets the experience apart from other games you might compare it. It’s not just silliness, it’s actually pretty dang neat. More on this later.
Our expedition started in space, the red spaceship we had locked onto our controller represented identically on screen. Ubisoft told us to follow a little yellow mile marker, which meant we had to pretty much immediately dive right down to pass through a planet’s atmosphere. (This is not as fluid nor as pretty as in No Man’s Sky or Star Citizen, it just simply is.) Once you arrive on the planet, then begins the bulk of the gameplay: zooming along the ground, collecting blue stuff, and shooting red stuff.
It’s also the part of the game that, frankly, takes some getting used to. There’s just something about remaining in your ship while also exploring that seems a touch unnatural. Yes, the game is forgiving, insofar that you can’t properly crash. And thank heavens, because we found ourselves clumsily scooting around for some time, bonking into things, and just sort of being unsure if we were flying or driving. (If you’re wondering, hold “R” for a few seconds to switch between modes.) It lacks the intuition you may have gained from No Man’s Sky or Astroneer (or Star Fox 64, for that matter). If we were at a space DMV, let’s just say we wouldn’t have passed on the first trip.
The great news is that if you don’t like how things are going (or you die), you can just slide off the plastic toy from your controller base and slip on another ship with different specs. Want to add a different weapon? Two slots exist on the wings of your ship that you can mix and match to give yourself some weaponized variety. The toys-to-life element is in full force here, but minus a load-out screen that happens when you slide stuff off, the whole thing is rather seamless to accomplish. Good for Ubisoft, and good for you (if you have the cash).
So what are you shooting at? On the planet we were on, it was a little creature that held shields and shot some type of laser beams. A parry mechanic exists where you can deflect shots right back at them with a timed button press, which, thanks to the generous lock-on mechanics, is relatively satisfying. Or you can just shoot back at them, which was moderately satisfying at first, but less so the eighth or ninth time.
Our overall mission, as told to us by on-screen cartoon characters to the side of our screen display, was to find outposts, meet up with planet inhabitants that task you with missions, then zoom off towards yellow dots that tell you where they’re located. The biggest of these involved a massive boss character that lasted a solid 20 minutes and forced some fairly demanding gameplay out of us. There were at least two deaths during this long-winded battle. Thankfully, there were enough toys provided to cover for us for the damage.
Which brings us to maybe the most important takeaway from our hands-on preview. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a game that begs to be compared to other big productions, but is absolutely childlike in most ways it presents itself. The colours are bright, the characters are Saturday-morning-cartoony, and the whole thing just feels like it’s for a slightly younger audience, especially while holding a big honking toy in your hands. This game is aimed at kids. And that’s great.
But this game isn’t exactly easy. The demanding menus, convoluted plot points, decently tough battle mechanics, and a relatively advanced quest system is the stuff “adult” games are made out of. Should games aimed at younger audiences be inept, soulless, or insipid? How awful you must be to accept that type of experience for your younger loved ones. But as a game caught somewhere in between a very accessible space shooter and a deep exploration of seven full-sized planets connected by an interstate solar system, we wonder: who is this game really for?
The demo ended with us flying back out through the atmosphere, switching back into the familiar Switch-exclusive Arwing, and finishing off an easy dogfight between some pretty easy enemies. (Important sidenote: Fox McCloud retains the same voice actor and has great on-screen cockpit animations; it is promised that a side mission which explains his involvement in this Ubisoft universe will be forthcoming in the final game.)
The demo was fun. We mean, it was no No Man’s Sky. It was a little bit cooler, but a lot lesser of an experience. But also, it was, well, different. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is, by the feel of this build, a pretty strange blend of a lot of things. But as we said before, we're not entirely sure what its target audience is.