Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Starlink: Battle for Atlas (NSW) Review

We now look towards the stars, as Starlink: Battle for Atlas is the next game SuperPhillip Central sets its eyes on for review. Ubisoft's toys-to-life game has hit bargain bin prices, and as the Nintendo Switch version has a big update coming in April, it seems like a perfect time to pick up Starlink and take to the skies (and stars), right? Let's discover that answer with the SPC review.

"Starlink, Report In."

The industry has basically moved on from the toys-to-life approach and business model. Not even the harbinger of the genre, Activision's Skylanders, still... ahem... toys with the premise. That's not to say it's still not cool or anything like that--it's just a tough sell nowadays. However, instead of making characters that come to life, in Ubisoft's Starlink: Battle for Atlas, a variety of ships come to life, allowing players access to them to fight off the Legion menace plaguing the Atlas system. The ability to customize each ship toy with different weapons that can snap on and snap off make for an intriguing premise, but that all turns to space dust if the actual game isn't noteworthy. Fortunately, Starlink: Battle for Atlas manages to not only use the toys-to-life concept in an interesting way, but the overall game proves to be an enjoyable one.

Starlink opens with the titular team arriving in the Atlas system to investigate one of the crew member's past and to search for its home world. This arrival in Atlas is quickly turned to a dicey one, as an alien force known as the Legion, attacks the Equinox, the Starlink crew's ship, and abducts their captain for unknown reasons. Thus, the crew jets out to explore Atlas and track their missing mentor and friend down while putting a stop to whatever the Legion is up to.

The half-dozen or so planets within Atlas each have their own lovely visual identity.
After the opening mission, the galaxy of Atlas is completely open for you to explore. While the game has intended destinations for you to go to in order to advance the story, you can totally ignore those prompts. You won't even be constantly hounded to follow your objective either. The planets and various Outlaw bases and areas on space are yours to discover and embark in and around. The ability to be soaring through the skies of a planet like Haven, and then point your ship's nose upward to eventually seamlessly enter outer space with little obvious loading shown is pretty spectacular and never failed to amaze me. This is especially so as I was playing in undocked mode on the Switch most of the time. The additional ability to fast travel to previously explored placed like past planets and the home base of the Starlink team, the spaceship Equinox, also helped in making for a more pleasant experience.

Space is the place for some hectic and heated action!
Starlink's main focus is its toys-to-life approach, and while for much of the gaming industry, this is quite passe, Ubisoft opted to put it into Starlink regardless. In the Starter Pack you receive two ships (the Arwing of Star Fox fame is physically in the box, while the other is a digital-only addition), two pilots, and two weapons to attach to your ship. Merely linking these to your game once will allow you to equip and use these when you wish, without a need to keep having the toys read each time--like say, Activision's toys-to-life series Skylanders forced you to do. Still, if you're a child or kid at heart (the latter would be yours truly!), it is fun to swap weapons, ships, and pilots on the fly, and the figures themselves are made of a high quality.

With a game that spans multiple toys, multiple figures, and has multiple different ship, pilot, and weapon components to it, the big question to answer is whether or not one needs to obtain as many toys as possible to get the maximum enjoyment out of Battle for Atlas. Thankfully, that answer is no. You can beat Starlink with just the ships, pilots, and weapons provided to you. In fact, when you perish in battle in Starlink, your "lives" are actually the ships you use. Switch players get an extra "life" (or in this case, ship) from the get go with the Arwing that isn't included in the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of the game. Even still, if one does have their ship destroyed in the dangerous Atlas galaxy, you're simply returned to a past checkpoint--in many cases, a safe base or area you've liberated from the Legion horde.

Starlink's fantastic Photo Mode was used to take all of the screenshots in this review.
Yes, Starlink: Battle for Atlas has a liberation mechanic on each planet and in the overall Atlas star system itself. Throughout each planet is an array of outposts, cities, bases, and more that you can persuade the denizens of each to join your cause against the Legion. These boil down to slightly repetitive tasks like defeating all enemies within a specific area, analyzing wildlife, and retrieving items from one destination to another. Other points of interest on planets include Outlaw bases and crashed ships to discover and weed out Legion and/or Outlaw pests.

One of many tasks you'll be accomplishing ad nauseum: eliminating Imp Hives.
It's really rewarding to start out with a planet in total control of the Legion, and slowly whittle their influence away by acquiring outposts and liberating bases. That said (and as previously stated), a lot of the liberation efforts amount to a checklist of all too similar tasks and objectives that can make for some tedium for any extended period of time. Just seeing a planet's map and seeing all of the tried and true, infamous "Ubisoft open world design" map of icons to go to, boxes to check, and things to do make for a less exciting experience, especially due to how similar all of the tasks are.

Thwart these Legion forces to reclaim this town in the name of the Alliance.
There is a Legion hierarchy to the Atlas star system. Dreadnoughts are the gigantic space vessels that send Primes down to each planet. Meanwhile, each Prime is powered by Extractors. While it is indeed possible to go straight for the top of the chain and take down a Dreadnought in an epic outer space showdown, without taking out the Primes and Extractors will result in a much more difficult encounter. Of course, this is remedied by raising a given pilot's level to high numbers through gaining experience for using and mastering different weapons and ships.

These Primes might look tough, but you know what they say about the bigger they are...
If "do I need these toys to see most of the content, much less beat the actual game?" is a primary question potential purchasers of Starlink: Battle for Atlas probably have, then the followup for Switch owners interested in buying the game would probably be, "How's the Star Fox content?" And I'd have to say, it's pretty good. For one, the interactions with the Star Fox and Starlink crews are very natural. Their dialog goes together well, though in most of the game's cutscenes, Team Star Fox takes a backseat, or don't appear at all. That said, in the totality of Starlink: Battle for Atlas, there were less than ten cutscenes total that broke up the story. Everything else played out in real time over-the-air chat with well executed character models being shown as each spoke. The missions pertaining to the Star Fox team are available to the player as the game progresses, and new missions appear as the plot advances.

With Team Star Fox aboard, you can say that again!
Starlink feels great to play. Most planetary combat is limited to hovercraft-style controls with your ship floating a few yards above the ground. It's when you're in space that you can fly in all 360 degrees, U-turn, barrel roll, and much more. The left analog stick moves your vessel around, while the right stick controls the direction your ship faces. Weapons are mapped to the back shoulder buttons, while each pilot's special ability--in Fox McCloud's case, he calls upon one of his Star Fox wingmen to assist him in battle--can be used with a press of the L button when the gauge is full. The R button switches between ground and full flight settings, and the other buttons are used for boosts and interacting with things like other ships, treasure containers, and more.

Inside said treasure containers are a host of interesting items, such as Electrum, the primary currency of Atlas, and Mods, which can be equipped to your ship and both of the weapons on your wings. These can perform actions such as adding bonus elemental damage to your weaponry, increasing the experience you gain from completed objectives and defeated enemies, boosting your ship's defense, among other beneficial bonuses.

Another city, another batch of enemies to vanquish. Rinse and repeat.
Starlink is one of the few third-party releases that shipped day and date with other platforms, so a question you might be pondering is... "How does Starlink run on the Switch?" It's my pleasure to respond that Battle for Atlas runs like a beaut on Nintendo's system. In docked, the clarity and crispness of the environments are a sight to behold, and even in undocked form, the Switch can handle the immense size of Atlas well. Only in particular heated and heavy encounters with many enemies on screen at once causes stuttering frame-rate issues, but overall, I was darned impressed with how Starlink performed on the Nintendo Switch.

All in all, Starlink: Battle for Atlas may not have set the galaxy on fire in sales--quite the opposite, actually--and that's a true shame. What Ubisoft has here is a game that boasts a creative take on the toys-to-life genre (even if it's a few years too late to cash-in on the toys-to-life fervor), superb gameplay (though not without some repetition), and Star Fox content that is organically interjected into the main story (and obviously the special missions meant specifically for Fox McCloud and his team). Starlink: Battle for Atlas reaches for the stars, and succeeds in deliver an engaging game, though not one I was totally over the moon with joy on 100% of the time.

[SPC Says: B]

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