It takes guts to try and revive a dormant genre, especially one that burned bright in the zeitgeist before extinguishing itself just as fast. Activision and Harmonix tried such a feat with Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4 back in 2015, but their hopes of a resurgent rhythm-action craze never found the spark it needed.
And yet, here we are, in 2018, with a new toys-to-life game from Ubisoft. With Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions now banished to bargain bins the world over, and Skylanders on an indefinite hiatus that’s seemingly destined to endure the same fate, in swoops Starlink: Battle for Atlas with its plastic weapons and modular ships.
But while Skylanders always struggled to feel like a proper action-RPG experience beyond the gimmick of its expensive peripherals, Starlink’s use of NFC-chipped spaceships doesn’t define it. In fact, the need to rely on this physical items is entirely optional, but the different versions available for purchase do somewhat muddy the waters regarding what you actually get. The Starter Pack, for example, only allows you to play as two pilots (thankfully one of those is our boy Fox McCloud), and with two ships. The standard digital version unlocks more but naturally without the toys, and the deluxe digital version unlocks everything from the get-go (again, without any toys). Luckily, it just so happens to be an engaging and rewarding mixture of dogfighting and space exploration, right here on Nintendo Switch. Plus a certain thing called Star Fox...
In practice, it’s what No Man’s Sky should have been when it launched in 2016. A vast open planetary system of planets, asteroid fields, outlaw outposts and cosmic secrets. You can hold ‘R’ to enter hyperdrive at any time while in space and you’ll instantly zoom through blankets of space rock, burn through a planet’s atmosphere and touch down on its surface in real-time. No loading screens or cutscenes (unless you fast travel, that is), just the transition from dogfighting to exploration in a matter of moments. You can’t ever leave your ship, but even confined to the cockpit of various vessels the sheer scope of its setting evokes a real Mass Effect vibe.
Powered by the Snowdrop Engine - the same one used for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle - exploring the titular Atlas System is a cosmic dream. Developer Ubisoft Toronto (of Splinter Cell: Blacklist fame) has had to make some noticeable graphical sacrifices to get a multi open-world sandbox such as this working on Nintendo Switch - including noticeable downscaling in places and rasterised edges on a number of assets - but it’s entirely worth it for a game with little slowdown. It does look a little visually inferior to those iterations found on PS4 and Xbox One, but it’s still a strikingly vibrant place to inhabit.
Sunsets still glare with amber effervescence on the horizon, and planets hang like beads of glass amid an ocean of stars, gas and detritus. Ports are always going to have to make some visual sacrifices to operate on Switch, but with skies that turn from red to blue and draw distances that are impressively broad, Starlink is far from a broken counterpart to its PS4 and Xbox One siblings. Planet topographies can sometimes become a little repetitive - there are only so many rocky valleys and flowing dunes you can glide across before you’ve seen them all - but every hand-designed world still has its own distinct character. There are seven planets in total to explore in one large planetary system, which technically makes this Ubi's biggest open-world yet.
Its story isn’t the most memorable of plots, and is easily the weakest link in Starlink’s armour. You’ll play one of seven pilots who find themselves serving as the only defence against the zealous plans of nefarious baddie Grax, who - in true bad guy fashion - is using an army of alien robots known as the Forgotten Legion to take over the universe. The story might be quite cliched in execution, and some of the characters are never properly fleshed out, but thankfully the voice work is decent so it’s an enjoyable (if predictable) ride.
This is where the toys-to-life aspect comes in. If you’re buying the Starter Pack on Switch you get a ship and a pilot (the Switch-exclusive Arwing and Fox McCloud - don’t worry, we’ll get to that little bundle of joy momentarily), a copy of the game, two additional weapons and a special mount for your Joy-Cons. The wings are detachable, so you can mix and match the parts from multiple ships and weapons by simply snapping on each modular part with a tiny click.
There’s no getting away from the fact that playing with a controller that has a toy ship strapped to it is, at least for at least the first hour or so, rather awkward. This is a game specifically designed to be used in either tabletop or docked mode when using the physical toys since the game needs to be able to communicate with your Switch and the peripherals at the same time. You can, however, play in handheld mode if you’re playing the digital version, or opt to ‘Play Digitally’ if you do happen to own some physical ships and pilots. You can even play via drop-in/drop-out co-op - Starlink simply lets the other player access a digital ship instead.
Considering every other toys-to-life model was built around the expensive prerequisite of buying lots of characters and add-ons, Starlink makes it possible to have all six ships, all seven pilots and all 12 weapons instantly available from the game’s menus, provided you spring for the Deluxe version, of course. The only caveat is that if you do switch back to using the toys, you’ll be restricted purely to the ones you own in physical form. Thankfully, your hands are never restricted by even the bulkiest of ships (we tested four of the designs during our playthrough), and they’re not heavy enough to affect your comfort, but you will look a little mad controlling a game while a toy spaceship lights up on the tip of your controller.
Pilots snap onto the front of the grip, and serve as traditional character builds with their own skill trees and levelling systems. Pilots even have a unique ability that can be a real lifesaver in battle - being able to call down another Arwing for support as Fox (complete with Star Fox music) never fails to bring a smile to our faces. Ships, on the other hand, are more like lives (much like Skylanders’ models) and can only take so much damage before they’re ‘defeated’ and can no longer fly.
If you’re playing digitally, you can just swap one vessel out for another, but if you’re playing physically with the Starter Park only, you’ll need to warp back to your giant starship in orbit - the Equinox - and start over. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long to traverse the game’s surface, and with a handy map of each planet that slowly reveals itself as you explore, you rarely feel like you’re having to backtrack too far to reach the battle you lost previously.
You can swap wings and weapons at any time, whether with a physical toy combination or via menus, and it’s here that players of any age can get creative with their imagination. Snap a weapon on backwards and it’ll shoot awkwardly in that direction on-screen. Twist a wing in an odd direction and your ship will show this unique take on modular design on-screen. You can even add multiple different wings onto one another, creating some absolutely ridiculous-looking machines that can actually be surprisingly useful in practice. It’s very silly, and it's reminiscent of Skylanders: Swap Force’s take on combining characters. Swapping wings and bodies will also affect the stats of your vessel (Hunter’s Lance ship is faster and has a longer boost, while Judge’s Neptune is slower but built to endure more punishment).
Weapons come in multiple varieties - ranging from frost-based missile launchers to cannons that create gravity vortexes - but the real fun comes from combining these attacks into one. With the Forgotten Legion often coming in their own fire/ice-based forms, you’ll need to mix up which two weapons work best in tandem. Firing a gravity vortex with a fiery Gatling gun will take on ice-based enemies in seconds while hitting them with their own element will only empower them. Swapping out these weapons can be a little awkward - whether you’re physically snapping them on or doing so via the menus - which can serve to take you out of the moment.
Now, let’s talk Star Fox. Back when it was first announced at E3 2017, the use of Fox and his Arwing felt like a cool (if slightly soulless) product of Ubisoft’s growing partnership with Nintendo, but in reality, you’re getting more than just an excuse to play with an Arwing toy. Fox isn’t just some side-quest tucked into the corner of Starlink’s universe like a DLC add-on - the game weaves him and the rest of the gang into the main story with full dialogue and cutscenes, so you can play the entire game with him from start to finish.
There are some exclusive missions you can follow at any time as well (you cycle between missions by pressing left or right on the D-Pad), with Fox and co off to track down Wolf and uncover how the furry villain phases into Starlink’s wider universe. But it’s in how seamlessly the Star Fox licence - and the smooth controls of its flight model - mesh together that makes this the definitive version of the game.
From that unique real-time transition between space exploration, dogfighting, on-land combat and missions to the empowering setup of its control system, the integration of game and licence is so seamless it’s hard to imagine playing Starlink without an Arwing. It’s a far cry from the awkward control scheme of Star Fox Zero and is easily the most enjoyable entry in the series since Lylat Wars. If Nintendo isn’t making a new Star Fox at this stage, the incredible work Ubisoft Toronto has done evoking the classic days of the franchise should be all it needs to fast-track its proper return on Switch.
As we’ve mentioned, gameplay flits between space-based dogfights and planet-based exploration. You’ll need to use your hyperdrive to reach new far-off planets, which avoids any sort of monotonous wait by periodically presenting you with a potential pirate ambush. The purple-ish vortex you’re travelling through will turn into a wall of energy and you’ll need to fly through gradually smaller holes within to avoid the trap. If you do get caught, you’ll then need to fight a squadron of enemy fighters.
Flight controls are incredibly easy to master and it’ll be mere minutes before you’re looping the loop and zoning in on the other ships to blast them into atoms. Enemy ships are always clearly marked and there are always other markers and signposts on-screen to ensure you always know how many enemies are left in a given battle. You can even take on much larger Dreadnoughts, which serve as space-based bosses, making for some epic encounters that will test your flight skills time and time again.
On land, your ship will assume a hover mode, where you’ll be able to skim across a planet’s surface exploring and engaging in combat and other activities. This is where you’ll spend a vast majority of your time in Starlink, and it’s here a few of the cracks begin to appear in its gameplay loop. As you’d expect from a Ubisoft game in 2018, Starlink has plenty of RPG levelling mechanics, and you’ll need to encounter enemies with gradually higher levels as you push further and further into the game.
However, in order to meet these levels, you’ll need to grind, and that means defeating Imp Hives which can then be turned into outposts. Outposts can then be used to access missions, which in turn nets you XP and money to spend on upgrades. But in order to utilise these upgrades, you’ll need specific resources found on every world, so that means defeating tower-like structures called Harvesters. These Harvesters are periodically ‘planted’ by a roving boss called a Prime (think the Reapers from Mass Effect), which serve as another kind of mini-boss you’ll then need to defeat in order to free the planet of enemy control.
You’ll cycle through this loop quite often in Starlink since the game is all about the see-saw of power between these alien invaders and each world’s natives, but it can become a little predictable after a while. Thankfully, Harvesters (which have their own defences you’ll need to dodge) come in multiple forms, and battles with Primes also have multi-stage phases that will see you travelling right across a planet to bring it down, but 15 hours in and you’ll have repeated this slightly variable cycle many times over.
It’s indicative of a modern RPG-lite experience, and something that fits Ubisoft’s design ethos to a tee, but it ends up relying on this loop a little too much for its own good. However, even with this grind, there’s just so much to keep you entertained along the way. Soon you’re discovering little subsystems such as scanning local wildlife, enemies who gain a temporary resistance to a certain weapon type if you use it too much or the ability to pull off little tricks with your ship of choice. What might seem like a cheap reason to sell toys in the run-up to Christmas soon reveals itself to be so much more.
With its exclusive use of some substantial Star Fox content, you’re getting the best version of Starlink: Battle for Atlas on Nintendo Switch. And with a more accessible and ultimately enjoyable version of No Man’s Sky's gameplay mechanics and Mass Effect’s original vision, you’re getting one of the best dogfighting/space exploration games you can buy outside of Elite: Dangerous. Its gameplay loop does run out of steam after a while thanks to the required grind, but with a surprisingly ungreedy approach to content access and toys-to-life integration, Starlink really could be the spark that reignites the genre’s renaissance.