E3 2018: Starlink: Battle For Atlas — Toys To Life With A Twist

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“Toys to life” is a fraught term these days. With Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions canceled, and Skylanders being unusually quiet, it seems the genre might have run its course. But when Starlink: Battle for Atlas launches this Fall for PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, Ubisoft is hoping there’s room for one more toys to life game in the market.

The game itself is like a kid-friendly version of No Man’s Sky. You control a team of star fighters who traverse a far-away solar system to stop the spread of the Forgotten Legion, an alien force that wants to stamp out life on all seven planets.

The toys that accompany Starlink are space ships that mount right on your controller. They’re modular, which means you can swap out their parts while you play. If you have enough models from the toy line, you can mix and match pilots, wings, and weapons in real time. Remove a weapon from the ship, for instance, and the game pauses, bringing up a customization menu, with an image of your ship on screen. Attach a new weapon–like a flamethrower to fight an ice enemy–and the gun materializes on your ship in the game. It’s a satisfying effect and benefit, one that could inspire players to collect all of the models Ubisoft plans to release.

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Starlink’s starter pack costs $75 and comes with the game, a controller mount, a hero character named Mason Rana, and his starship. The ship can hold two weapons at a time, but it comes with three: a flamethrower, a frost barrage, and a gatling gun called “Shredder.”

Naturally, you can buy more Starlink toys, each of which grants you additional in-game gear and abilities. Starship packs come with a ship, weapon, and pilot for $25. Weapon packs are $10, while pilot packs cost $8. Each of the weapons I used felt distinct in the game and were useful against different kinds of enemies. The ships also have their own sets of stats that affect how they control. For instance, a tank-like ship can absorb lots of damage, but takes longer to slow down and make turns. As you play, you’ll also acquire mods you can use to tweak your ship’s loadout.

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Which pilot you use matters as well. Each one has a special ability that gives you an advantage during combat. Mason Rana can summon an attack beam from your mothership, which flies overhead during your missions. Shade is a sneaky character whose ship can turn invisible for a limited time. My favorite was Razor, whose ability initiates a Guitar Hero-like mini-game that sends shockwaves out from your ship when you time your button taps right.

While the typical age group for a game with an accompanying line of toys is about 8-12, the development team at Ubisoft Toronto hopes Starlink will appeal to adults as well. And if toys aren’t your thing, you don’t actually need them to play–you can buy and play the full game digitally, swapping between ships and parts from the menu. It’s unclear at the moment how much the digital ships will cost.

Based on the 45 minutes I got to play, the game itself seems enjoyable enough to keep adults entertained. The technical achievement is certainly impressive. Just like in No Man’s Sky, you have total freedom to explore the region of space that contains the seven-planet solar system. Ubisoft promises each planet is fully distinct, with its own hand-crafted flora, fauna, and geographical features. You can fly to a planet, land on it, go exploring, and then take off again to sail through space and visit the next planet over. The whole thing is seamless, with no loading screens interrupting the flow. Just watch out for space pirates.

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I only got to play on the planet Sonatus, but it offered plenty to do. As I explored, I found puzzles to solve, resources to mine, animals to scan and identify, and Forgotten Legion forces to fight. The planets are also dotted with faction outposts, where you can run missions and build alliances that grant you useful upgrades and abilities. As I explored, I found an observatory belonging to the Expedition faction, made up of scientists studying the planet. Allying with them granted me access to their data, which cleared a large area of my map, giving me a better idea of my surroundings without having to explore every inch.

Is the market hungry for another toys to life game? I’m not sure that it is. But I enjoyed the time I spent playing Starlink: Battle for Atlas. It controls great, the combat is engaging, and the urge to continue exploring alien planets in its expansive universe never went away. And it’s great to have the option to not purchase the physical toys. Starlink is shaping up to be an impressive game that’s well worth looking out for–whether you’re into toys-to-life games or not.

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