Starlink: Battle for Atlas is one of the most interesting releases of the year.
On paper, exploring a dynamic open-world universe with a deep array of ships and progressions systems sounds great. Add in physical customizations that are mountable on controllers, and it gets even better.
The "toys-to-life" genre made billions (literally) on innovations such as Skylanders before every major company on the planet seemed to hop on the trend, leading to it quickly dying off. But Ubisoft has carved out a unique new universe for the effort, and the Switch version of the game easily surpasses its counterparts thanks to the deep inclusion of Nintendo fan favorite Star Fox.
Targeting a niche younger audience but capable of appealing to all while rolling the dice on a format seemingly already long gone, Starlink is as ambitious in scope as the digital universe it lets players explore.
Graphics and Gameplay
An open-world universe isn't an easy feat to pull off, so Starlink registers as predictable.
That isn't an overtly bad thing. At times, Starlink's surroundings will blow away a player with some of its most scenic elements. But the Switch port, in particular, takes hits to get everything running smoothly for those looking closely enough, especially when using the console as a handheld, where things can get fuzzy on the smaller screen.
But colorful variety creates distinctive environments, and the planetary exploration can at times give off some No Man's Sky vibes (or at least what that game originally promised) thanks to a mixture of lush fauna, towering forests and random things such as ruins to discover. What would be a monotonous time in skimmer mode while exploring throws in interesting gameplay loops such as pulling off tricks to instantly refill the boost gauge.
A cartoonish vibe was the right direction, too, both for the intended audience and what the expansive game is trying to pull off at good performance levels. This direction also creates the perfect environment for Star Fox characters—and they have never looked better.
Impressively enough, it's all seamless. There are no loading screens or cutscenes, just planet-to-space transitions and hyperdrive at any point that allows players to zip massive distances between planets. Transitioning from a planet's surface to the atmosphere is thrilling every time and something more games should look into doing.
Believe it or not, Starlink sounds better than it looks at times. The voice-acting effort from all is superb, and the ships and other general sound effects are crisp and pack a punch, adding weight to the experience.
The depth of gameplay is where Starlink will pull in and entertain a more mature audience. It's simple enough to get used to the controls, and the visuals make it easy to keep track of where enemies are in outer-space battles. But it tends to throw every system at the player at once, which creates a huge hurdle, but the eventual digestion of it all leads to satisfaction in juggling its complexity.
An elemental-balancing act at its core (heat, cold, kinetic, gravity, stasis), finding the right weapon for the enemy in front of a player is a blast. Even better, there are some creative ways to play if user takes the time to dream up possibilities. One early boss is only vulnerable for a short period—unless players think to switch to a pilot whose special ability is slowing time. Or take out a gravity-based gun and shoot near a shielded enemy, absorbing its fire and sending it back at an angle that bypasses the shield.
The world itself has fun micromanagement things going on as well. Outposts will need to be defended from outlaw attacks, and building armories will help planets defend themselves from the Forgotten Legion while players are elsewhere.
Each gun has its own leveling and mods system. Pilots also level and have individual skill trees. It's a big time sink when adding it all up, but it gives players options in the way they want to experience the game, offers replayability and gives a chance to play the strengths-weaknesses game in fun manner.
The general gameplay loop of the main story mode is repetitive. Clear out mines on the way to fighting Primes, and then encounter massive battles with Dreadnaughts. At the least, the repetitiveness is counteracted by the way it provides an important progression feedback loop for players. And this isn't meant to undersell the first Dreadnaught encounter—it's brilliant in scope and execution. But after a point, the only thing changing is the health bars for each enemy.
Clearly, there is a give and take both in looks and gameplay, though the setbacks are understandable and don't come close to outweighing the positives.
Story, Star Fox and the Rest
The Star Fox crew isn't just some add-on content for the Switch version like a player would expect from say, a DLC offering.
Fox, Slippy, Peppy and Falco are weaved into the story well on the Switch version. From cutscenes to dialogue—an early quip even changes to Fox McCloud saying he's from Papetoon—and beyond, this is a straight-up Star Fox game if players choose to only use him.
The overarching story is cookie-cutter material anyway. Humans expand to the outer reaches of space after a brief encounter and discover a baddie is using his Forgotten Legion to take over everything. The game starts with a kidnapped captain and a spaceship crash, and away players go. Funnily enough, although it's because they have been so fleshed out over the years, Fox and crew are the only non-generic characters in the experience and the narrative doesn't do much to establish the new faces supposedly serving as the lead acts in this new universe.
The physical shipbuilding can be funny. Slap a gun on the wrong way and it will show up that way on the screen, even shooting enemies behind the player. Stack a few wings on one side with a gun up top and one side of the ship has enough height to fire from behind cover while it skims a planet.
Keep in mind, though, playing the game physically will limit the player to what they own physically, so digitally purchased ships are a no-go. And playing digitally allows quick switching between ships when one is incapacitated, whereas playing physically means flying back to base and swapping out first. In other words, available ships are used as lives.
From an overarching sense, this is, well, a Ubisoft game. That's not a knock, but gamers know what this means: The open world is gigantic and cluttered with almost too many things to do. It's not overwhelming here like it is in some efforts from the company, and the variety—considering players never get to leave a spaceship—is impressive. But just know what umbrella it falls under.
As an aside, it's a little weird to see a multi-platform title have a serious leg up on the Nintendo console's version, but so goes the power of a unique character like Star Fox. One would think Nintendo might see this as a blueprint, leveraging its unique characters for monster third-party releases.
Speedrunning Tips and Appeal
A game with a broad skill gap and intricate systems to juggle will always be worth a speedrunning look.
The idea applies here, as the best speed runs in Starlink will see a player seamlessly fly through the elemental options and have to choose the right upgrade paths across various weapon types, ships and pilots.
Brute force works early in the game but eventually, foes and bosses require more nuance. Finding those three or four weapon sets to level up throughout will help make breezing through the game easier. At least one from each element makes sense.
From a pilot-progression standpoint, differences between the 10 boil down to their unique ability. Slowing time with Judge or having unlimited boost with Chase is nice, but Fox might be the most overpowered of them all thanks to his ability to call in a member of the Star Fox team to fight alongside him.
The nice thing from a speedrunning perspective is players can challenge encounters much higher than their level, leaving an opportunity for sheer skill to win out. And a lack of variety in boss encounters is a positive from a speedrunning standpoint. Learn the patterns once, and the only thing changing is the health bars associated with levels, requiring a grind to pass.
But grinding won't always be necessary. Players can breeze past plenty of mobs and generally ignore them in boss fights. And if not for some reason, that's where Fox's pilot ability can come into play. Generally, a speedrunner can focus the bulk of their attention on the main quest and skip side affairs, which range from side quests to even side space battles against massive opponents. Completionists will want to discover all the obtainable loot, but a fairly standard speedrun will simply focus on beating the game at any percent.
Skill of traversal will come into play. Pulling off tricks in space keeps the boost meter full, and pulling up out of skimmer mode while exploring a planet and pulling off tricks while in the freefall also refills it. The more players can pull off the feats, the better the speedrunning numbers.
Like the game's journey to release, the speedrunning element might take off more than expected. The joy of watching a speedrun is seeing a player master the various systems at his or her disposal and apply it to one grand attempt. The endless-seeming levers available to players here and the format of a game that permits skill-based encounters while generally bypassing some grind makes Starlink a fun streaming or otherwise speedrunning candidate.
Outside the physical shipbuilding, Starlink doesn't do anything too mind-blowing. There is a standard gameplay loop and progressions systems. The characters and story are generic. But somewhere in there is a didn't-know-we-wanted-this experience worth a player's time because it's enjoyable, and a further expansion on everything included down the road could unearth something special.
Of course, it could also raise some eyebrows at Nintendo and encourage a new official Star Fox release, too.
Clearly aimed at the too-young-for-M-rated-games crowd, Starlink takes a bold step on the physical side, does systems from various other games well and puts a good effort into a new universe worth another visit. But the physical side isn't even necessary, as the game is plenty enjoyable in traditional form.
Repetitive but fun, Starlink is a welcome, if not under-the-radar addition to the Switch's library and gaming landscape as a whole.