The toys-to-life fad that fuelled the likes of Disney Infinity, Lego Dimensions, and Skylanders died out years ago, didn’t it? Apparently not, because here we are in 2018 with a brand new product line on the market. Starlink: Battle for Atlas, from French behemoth Ubisoft, releases alongside a slew of physical space ships, characters, and weapons, but is there a quality experience to be found among all the plastic? Does this space odyssey dare to explore uncharted territory, or is it more of a grounded trip to the moon? Whatever the answer, at least we don’t have to put up with Star Fox!
With the vast Atlas star system to rummage through, of course it’s the leader of your own mothership that is taken hostage by the Forgotten Legion. Led by illustrious foe Grax, the faction attempts to harness the power of an extinct race known as the Wardens, and your captain is the key to unlocking it. This kick-starts a rescue mission that will have you exploring the deepest reaches of space in order to rally support, resources, and troops for an assault on the army’s base.
It’s a fairly straight-forward plot that acts more as a vehicle to whisk you from planet to planet than anything else, but it works. A cheerful bunch of characters support the main mission from your mothership, the Equinox, and it’s their banter and backing that’ll get you through the more tedious moments. It’s by the numbers, unlikely to surprise, and playing it particularly safe, but there’s enough there to spur you forwards.
Perhaps the aspect that interested us most prior to release was what sort of shape would Starlink: Battle for Atlas take, and what would be the mechanics that hold it together? Now, we can answer that. Spread across seven different planets, you’ll explore the Atlas star system and everything in-between, recruiting aliens, helping the cause, and ridding each land mass of enemy corruption. It’s not too far off from a No Man’s Sky-like experience. You’ll accomplish all of this from the cockpit of your ship, with exploration on foot strictly forbidden. There’s other menial objectives you’ll have to complete in the early game, but the back half of the title revolves around building up enough support and backing on each planet to mount an offensive.
And unfortunately, it’s here where the game falls into a repetitive trap. In order to progress past a certain point, you’re required to construct Starlink Towers on multiple planets, and these use up a huge amount of resources. On top of that, you’re going to need to own 50 per cent of the land before you can even think about building one in the first place. This creates a loop of destroying Harvesters, enemy machines that dig underground, in order to locate Primes that roam about in search of something to annihilate. It’s fine the first few times, but once you’re locating a third and fourth Prime, things start to get a little too stale as you repeat the same process over and over again.
This creates a rather large juxtaposition between the two halves of the experience. The first chunk had us wondering what wonders we’d encounter on our travels, while hitting light speed in space never gets old. Coming across new species sends the brain racing, and landing on a new planet for the first time is a visual treat as colourful vistas come into view once the gravitational pull takes hold. In contrast, the latter half’s objectives do away with this sense of wonderment in order to build towards an end-game. It doesn’t work, going against the mystery and excitement of space travel.
And of course, there’s the toys. Attached to the face of the controller, you can select your character, the ship you wish to use, and the weapons it’ll wield depending on which ones you’ve purchased. Everything is easy to clip together, with weapons able to be switched between on the fly, and it’s this aspect that comes into play most often when the plastic is concerned. Each and every enemy is resistant and weak to certain elements, and so having every type of gun at your disposal makes selecting the right one for the correct situation a breeze. Simply pop off the weapon you want to replace and slide the new one on, and the game will replicate that change in-game. It’s a nice feature that adds a bit of novelty to the experience, but it’s probably the most you’ll interact with the ship atop your controller, and this highlights the biggest flaw with the title’s adoption of toys-to-life.
For as much time and effort has gone into making replicas of each and every ship and weapon, the game itself doesn’t lean into them anywhere near enough. You’ve got this fabulous looking ship planted on top of your DualShock 4, and it feels like you hardly every interact with it. You’ll replace weapons when you need to, but it’s not enough to justify the price tag nor the requirement to have them all on hand. The game would have been far better either ditching the concept entirely, or leaning into it in a much heavier fashion whereby you’re making many more intricate changes and tweaks to your physical space ship.
Funnily enough, it’s the former where the digital version of the game lies, which doesn’t require any of the toys at all. And so when the deluxe edition on the PlayStation Store offers better value for money and gutters your entire selling point, for the better, it’s hard to recommend playing the game with the toys that are made to feel like plastic clutter. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a better title without its ties to toys-to-life.
Elsewhere, it’ll take you roughly 10 hours to make your way through the main campaign, with one or two side quests littered about to increase that length. Optional content nearly doubles the game’s length, though, with large Dreadnoughts to take out, outlaw ships to conquer, and combatants to repel. If you go looking for it, Starlink can provide you with a good 20 hours’ worth of typical Ubisoft gameplay.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas can’t decide whether to take its toys-to-life concept seriously, or drop it completely. It has a good, if somewhat repetitive, open world experience to offer, but it’s held back by mistakes that aren’t entirely its own fault.