As far as the whole “toys to life” genre of video games go, I thought the industry was ready to move on from this particular experiment. But here were are, in 2018, with Starlink: Battle for Atlas, the latest in a line of video games that use physical toys as a gameplay mechanics. And although I was initially skeptical given how both Skylanders and LEGO Dimensions came and went (and blocked or limited content behind specific toy figures that had to be purchased separately), Starlink piqued my interest for two reasons: one, the gameplay portion feels like a more story-heavy version of No Man’s Sky and two, the starship toys look really, really cool.
When you buy the starter kit version of Starlink, you get a copy of the game, a ship, one pilot, and some customizable weapons. For the purposes of the demo, I got to try all three of the initial toys being prepared for the game’s release. The demo began with my ship placed a few light years away from a closeby planet. Punching the hyperdrive, I quickly closed the distance and, to my extreme delight, found that the game offers seamless transitions from space to the planet surface. I’m so pleased that video game technology has advanced to the point where we no longer have to sit through load screens when moving to and off the planet. As a matter of fact, everything I did in the demo - from landing on a planet, chasing and defeating a boss, blowing up terraforming towers, hopping back into space to pick a fight with space pirates, and going back to the planet to fight some ice robots - involved no loading screens, icons, stuttering or any other visual indication that the game was struggling to keep up with my activities. And that’s when I got really, really excited.
As an arcade-leaning space sim, Starlink feels comfortable to play. The flight controls feel great and responsive (not too heavy and not too sensitive, it’s just right), both in the flight mode and the hover mode, which turns your starfighter into a tank-like land skiff so as to better engage ground targets. What’s really neat is how the plastic toys interface with the game. After attaching a special base to the game controller of your choice, you place the pilot figure on the base’s reader, which I suspected was RFID. When I asked about this, I was told that the technology is proprietary, which may explain the near instantaneous response I got from the game after attaching a set of guns (or a completely different ship) to my toy spacecraft. You’re free to swap out weapons, pilots, and ships any time you want without having to travel to special areas or wait for on-screen prompts before you pull apart your plastic ship. This allows you to roll with the game’s dynamic gameplay, as some enemies are immune to certain elemental attacks.
I’d like to take a moment to talk about the toys themselves. As someone who loves toys and spaceships, these are some of the best looking and well-constructed starfighters I’ve seen. Of the three ship types available at launch, each is designed in such a way that you can look at them and instantly glean the personality of its pilot and the story behind its construction. And they are really sturdy, too. While replacing one ship with another, I was nervous about breaking the toy because it seemed locked tightly to the base. My assistant was a little more forceful, which told me that these ships were designed to be manhandled by younger kids. At launch, Starlink will feature one starter ship with the two additional ships (with pilots) available as expansion packs for about $25 – and given the high quality of the toys, that’s a price I don’t mind paying. The most promising thing about Starlink was that the game can be played from start to finish with just the starter pack, so you don’t need to run out and buy the additional expansions to beat the game. The expansions exist as options that open up new levels of customization (you can even pull the wings off one ship and add them to another!).
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is being made for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It’s also coming to the Nintendo Switch and its starter pack will ship with the most gorgeous 3D version of Fox McCloud’s Arwing. I took a picture of the ship and showed it to my nephew which caused him to flip out and immediately run to his dad to ask him to buy it. The Arwing can also be customized with different weapons and wing types, which is surprising given Nintendo’s usually tight reign over its intellectual property. Starlink performs just as well on the Nintendo Switch as it did on the Xbox One demo station I was on, though I noticed that the graphics weren’t as sharp but because the gameplay feels strong, I doubt if many will be too bothered by the difference. If they’re like me, they'll be too busy fondling the toys to care.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.