Toys-to-life died a death. Disney Infinity, Lego Dimensions, and even Skylanders - they all stopped producing games and figures. The main reason is the cost of producing the figures and trying to keep prices down for you, the consumer. So why would Ubisoft try now? Have they got a trick or two up their collective sleeve?
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an ambitious game - part shoot 'em up space battler, part RPG-based planet explorer - and it's all wrapped up with a great story. And some pretty cool tech.
The enigmatic scientist St. Grand has put together a ragtag crew of pilots led by Mason Rana. Mason is the inventor of the Starlink tech, and St. Grand helped him unlock Starlink's potential by utilising Nova, an alien power source, to help boost its range. This gave Starlink the ability to transfer objects across vast distances almost instantaneously, making it possible to swap pilots, ships and weapons mid-combat, giving you a tactical edge whilst battling your foes. Without giving too much of the story away, you'll find yourself in the Atlas System, situated around 431 light-years from Earth, where the evil Drax is commanding the Forgotten Legion to search for ancient tech built by the mysterious Wardens, in the hope the relics they find will transform him into a Warden and unlock the secrets they hold.
All the toys, from the pilots to the starships (and even the guns), are all well-crafted and certainly look the part. When not playing the game they wouldn't look out of place on any toy shelf or even a collector's cabinet too. Rather than using a portal to place the toys on like other games, Starlink uses a unique cradle that attaches to your controller; for both the PS4 and Xbox One these clip around the controller, but for the Switch you place your Joy-Cons into a cradle that acts as the hand grips. When fully constructed they don't feel heavy or cumbersome, although they may be slightly too much for the littlest hands, even if that's not too much of a problem.
First, you have to select your pilot, which in the base game is Mason, although the Switch version also includes Fox McCloud. The pilot slips into the head of the cradle, and next you'll have to clip the body of the ship over the top of them. At first these can be tricky to clip into place and may need to be pushed on firmly, but don't worry too much, as the toys are well-built and shouldn't break. Next select your wings, and again the base game only includes one set that matches your ship, although once you expand your collection these can be swapped (and certain wings can increase your handling, speed, or even armour). Lastly, attach your all-important weapons.
You start the game with two main weapons; Frost Barrage, an icy volley of missiles, and Flamethrower, a huge cone of fire. These two will get you through the majority of the game, but certain tasks and enemies will require different elements. These come in the form of Kinetic, Gravity, and Stasis weapons. All the wings and weapons share the same connectors and therefore can be either swapped or stacked with ease. You can even buy extra ships to bolster your team and weapon packs too, all of which have different attributes that can aid you in your quest to stop Grax and the Forgotten Legion. As you progress through the game you'll earn experience, money, and mods, with each ship and weapon able to have mods attached to help boost damage, resistance, or even how much experience or money you earn.
Once you've attached a pilot, ship, or weapon this will unlock those parts for co-op, and a second player can join you with either their own ships and cradle or they can battle alongside you digitally with just a second controller and the items you've already unlocked. If you wish to pay, you can unlock everything, and while this isn't necessary it will obviously make the game easier in certain respects. Having a second player on screen with you is a definite benefit, and if you keep close together you'll earn a Starlink boost, increasing your overall damage and protection, so it's always worth keeping close in order to take down your opponents.
Now, unlike all other toys-to-life games, with Starlink you don't need to have the physical toys to play the game, as all parts are available to buy digitally, including the base game, and can be swapped in or out at any point.
As we mentioned earlier, the Nintendo Switch version includes Fox McCloud. It's not just the famous character in the game though, as we also see his ship, the Arwing, as well as a whole series of side quests that revolve around him joining the Starlink Initiative. While this is another great collaboration between Nintendo and Ubisoft (see Mario & Rabbids Kingdom Battle) it's a shame that there are no console exclusives for PlayStation or Xbox.
The Atlas system is made up of three sectors with seven planets in total. The Trade Sector - where you begin - has three planets to explore, while the Frontier Sector has two, as does the Dark Sector, with each one becoming more difficult as you make your way across the system. Exploration of each of the seven planets ranges in size, but all are fairly large with plenty to discover and various stations to upgrade.
Space travel starts off quite slowly and you'll need to fly to each planet before you can open a fast travel. However, simply pointing toward the nearest planet and boosting won't work since your path is full of obstacles; asteroids litter the system and space bandits will deploy nets to try and catch the unwary traveler. Once ensnared these pirates will launch an attack on you, requiring some fast-paced space battling. There is also space junk to salvage and you might even find a nice upgrade for your ship. Be careful if you come across a Dreadnought though, as this is a huge Legion spaceship which will cause you issues. They are heavily defended with swarms of fighters and covered canons capable of destroying you in seconds. It takes good manoeuvring and pinpoints accuracy to take one of these down.
Your triggers fire your left and right weapons independently and you'll probably find that keeping certain guns and similar fire rates on one particular side is beneficial. We noted a number of times when we found ourselves feathering the trigger on a heavy machine gun rather than holding it, or keeping the trigger held down on single-fire weapons only because they were located on opposite sides. Thankfully it's easy to swap them over mid-fight.
Space battles can be quite frantic but the controls handle the fighting well. You can dodge, weave, and strafe whilst unleashing a barrage of shots at the enemy craft, as well as flipping your ship 180 degrees and performing barrel rolls, which makes for some fantastic fighting both in space and when exploring planets. Your HUD shows arrows pointing to your foes which makes tracking them during dogfights easier too. In space and on the ground you're also aided by your crew who give you a heads up on whether you're using the correct weapons, or whether you're taking too much damage or just need a pointer. The voice acting is great as well, and never feels forced even if certain characters are quite clichéd. As for the graphics, it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect; the ships and crew look great thanks to their digital cartoon look, not far from anything you might see on Saturday morning kids TV.
While exploring the planets, the Forgotten Legion and outlaw bandits will be your main foes. The Outlaws patrol settlements and taking them out will cause the settlements to rally in your favour. As for the Legion, they're attempting to take over the system under Drax's control, and therefore they're everywhere, usually attacking build sites or around giant extractors (these massive pieces of Legion tech need to be destroyed and will require some clever tactics to take down). Also patrolling the planet's surface are so-called primes; huge spider-like Legions that have heavy armour which is impervious to your attacks. Finding a weak spot and hitting it hard means that the armour makes way to reveal softer areas to fire upon, which is a neat tactic.
It's not all fighting though, as there are plenty of discoveries to be made, since each planet has its own fauna to scan and flora and minerals to collect. Dotted around the planets are build sites where observatories, refineries, workshops, and armouries can be placed, and these facilities are run by allies and traders where you can trade all you find in the wild. The open world exploration is not too far removed from the classic Ubisoft formula, with the observatories acting as your towers to clear the fog of war that covers the planets. There are also caches to find and open as well as hidden relics in the form of rare mods.
As we've said, Starlink Battle for Atlas is an ambitious game, but we definitely think it works. The addition of digital content makes it more affordable and the scope of the game with its varied gameplay elements makes sure that there is plenty to keep you occupied for a long time. The toys themselves not only look amazing but are also really well built, and we imagine a number of these sets will find themselves wrapped up come late December. It might be a touch expensive getting started, but you'll get a complete experience straight out the box, and while you can supplement that initial purchase to add more choice and variety (and, arguably, make things a little easier), you don't need to.