Ubisoft does what Nintendon't.
It isn’t often that I play a game that is thoroughly unlike anything else currently on the market. Starlink: Battle For Atlas, from Ubisoft Toronto, initially drew comparisons to games like No Man’s Sky for its seamless space to planet exploration. When it was revealed that Fox McCloud would appear as a playable character in the Switch version, a fresh set of surface level comparisons surfaced with the Star Fox franchise. While these games almost certainly influenced Starlink’s development, in its final form Starlink is something quite different.
Our story opens on the crew of the Equinox arriving in Atlas to search for information regarding the origin of their alien crew member, Judge. Things quickly go off course when their local contact arrives tailed by ships from an evil force known as the Legion. If you’re playing the Switch version (as God intended) here is where the Star Fox team joins the fray. While this opening sequence plays out in a pre-rendered cutscene, most of Starlink’s story unfolds in real time as you play. Well animated character portraits materialize to develop the plot without interrupting your gameplay. In fact there are only a few points in the entire game where control is taken away from the player. These rare cutscenes are saved only for the most dramatic plot points. Due to their rarity they feel more like a special treat than an interruption of gameplay, as so many story heavy games often do.
While each character is excellently portrayed and designed, the real stars of Starlink are the ships. Starlink is a new take on the toys to life genre. The physical version comes with a controller stand along with Fox McCloud’s signature Arwing. Fox himself, the Arwing, and its weapons, can be attached to the controller mount for use in the game. What makes Starlink different is the customizability of the ships. I quickly found that placing the wings of the Arwing upside down on the fuselage of another ship called the Lance resulted in an awesome looking ship. The question of course with any toys to life game is how much of the game is gated behind buying additional toys. The answer to this question is somewhat multifaceted. Can you complete the game with just the starter pack? Yes, the weapons included in the Starter Pack will allow you to complete the game. That being said, having additional ships essentially gives you extra lives. If you’re shot down, attaching a different ship allows you to jump right back in where you left off. Otherwise you will respawn at your last checkpoint, usually the last building you visited or the orbit of the nearest planet. Switch players have a distinct advantage in their Starter Pack as it includes not only the Arwing, but a digital copy of the Zenith starship (The ship that's included in the Xbox One and Playstation 4 Starter Pack). This means Switch players get two ships where other platforms only start with one. The difficulty does feel like it’s balanced to lightly push you towards buying additional ships, but this can be easily overcome by a little extra leveling up or by simply lowering the difficulty.
The Atlas system is completely open to the player. Once you complete the opening segment of the game, the entire map is open to you with nothing gated off. A large portion of Starlink’s gameplay is built around understanding the hierarchy of the Legion. Large space cruisers called dreadnoughts deploy giant creatures called primes onto planets which in turn build structures called extractors on the surface. Each unit feeds into the power of the unit above it on the hierarchy. Going straight for a dreadnought can decimate all the units under it, but each of those units adds to its power, meaning you’re in for a tough fight if you don’t work your way up the hierarchy from a lower point. Fighting extractors, primes, and dreadnoughts, are all fun, but you’ll find yourself doing it a lot. There is some variety introduced by how powerful an enemy has grown in the form of different attack patterns, but even these eventually become somewhat predictable and repetitive.
The Star Fox content is a major selling point of Starlink to many Nintendo fans, myself included. Ubisoft has taken a remarkable degree of care to faithfully represent these characters. Early in the game Fox references his home planet of Papetoon, a planet which was created for the Star Fox comic which ran in Nintendo Power to promote the original SNES release. Outside of being mentioned in the japanese version of Star Fox 64, and one ending of Star Fox Command, it barely exists in the Star Fox canon. The fact that the team at Ubisoft hunted down that nugget of lore speaks volumes of their respect for the franchise. I could, and probably will, write a whole other piece on just the Star Fox content in Starlink. But for the purposes of a concise review, suffice it to say that the content is excellently implemented, with great character interactions, fantastic music arrangements, and its own cutscenes. This carries over to the main game, in which Fox and pals are well implemented with the rest of the cast. I would have appreciated a few more direct interactions during cutscenes; Fox is usually relegated to standing in the background. But for what it is the Star Fox team fits in nicely with the Starlink team.
There is a real time strategy element to Starlink that I didn’t expect going in. On each planet you’ll find a few observatories, refineries, and occasionally an armory, or a workshop. Each of these structures serve a specific purpose and will also buy different items. Each one produces units who will help to serve the purpose of that building but can also aid in fighting off encroaching Legion forces. The armory in particular will produce squads of fighters which will actively hunt down legion targets. These groups are active even when you are away from the planet. At one point while in space fighting a group of outlaws I got a notification that my forces on another planet had actually managed to take down an extractor all by themselves and improve our standing on that world. The more you build, the more these planets feel alive. Conflicts take place around you which you can either join in on or leave to your forces. All of this feeds into the high degree of freedom presented to the player in every facet of the experience.
One surprising but welcome feature is an option for split-screen, local cooperative play. At any point another player can hop in and play right alongside you. They can even use the same ship as you. This option is only available during docked play, likely due to the limited power of the Switch. Starlink presents a visually impressive world. Rendering it twice works out remarkably well, though there does seem to be a drop in resolution when playing split screen. The only real drawback is that the second player can never go too far away from the other. That being said you can journey a substantial distance before the game will pull you back in. This means you shouldn’t run into any trouble teaming up to take down the Legion, but you can’t exactly go off exploring on your own and leave your partner behind.
The core campaign took me about 10-12 hours to complete. Add to that the additional Star Fox missions and other side quests, the length of which will depend on your level when taking them on, and reclaiming every planet in Atlas, and Starlink will likely last around 20-30 hours. While I wouldn’t have minded a longer campaign, I also appreciate that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Starlink is a fascinating experiment that feels unlike anything Ubisoft or anyone else is currently making. As a new IP, this premiere entry certainly has room for improvement. However I sincerely hope Ubisoft continues the franchise. Of course I’d love to see Fox make the long trip back to Atlas again for a sequel, but I’d be just as happy playing as any other member of Starlink.