Starlink Preview: The Closest We'll Get to Starfox on Xbox

By Sam Quirke, 22 days ago
The toys-to-life genre seems to be dwindling, particularly following Disney's decision to scrap their Infinity series and the Skylanders Series series seemingly on hiatus. Yet Ubisoft have chosen this moment to release their own hybrid of physical toys and virtual gameplay. Rather than resurrect the genre in the same mold, Ubisoft are looking to shift the perspective to the stars, and the spaceships that can take players through it. We got hands-on with the game and the various plastic gadgets that come along with it. So far, it seems like a blast.

Here's some footage of the game we took at Gamescom:


The player controls a number of pilots and their ships on their quest through the Atlas system, defeating an ancient enemy while trying to save a friend and secure a powerful source of rocket fuel. The player explores Atlas' worlds and the spaces in between in a fighter ship that exists on screen and also perches on top of the player's controller. One can swap the ship, the pilot, the wings and the wing-mounted weapons by taking the controller-mounted toy apart and slotting in new pieces. Any changes will be reflected in the ship on-screen.

The most satisfying thing about the whole experience is how solid and chunky those physical ships feel. A Ubisoft developer told us that they have play-tested with some pretty unruly kids to see how much of a beating the ships could take, and we can believe it — the toys are solid and ergonomic to hold and to slot together. The pilot is attached first, and then the ship is pressed down over the top so that you can see the pilot through the cockpit window. Wings and weapons both have the same simple slot-and-key method of attachment, and you can snap everything together with reasonable force without worrying about any little bits pinging off under the sofa.

Starlink

The level of customisation is exciting without being overwhelming. Each pilot has a special ability, each ship has basic stats. Each wing type adds a buff of some sort, whether that's speed or defence or something else — and you can apply more than one wing on each side to stack effects. On top of that, each wing weapon can be customised; this is where the game really comes into its own. The weapons have a colour code; blue for ice, red for fire, purple for gravitational/vortex weapons and yellow for stasis. Blue opposes red and purple opposes yellow, so a lot of the game's exploration and combat relies on simply combining weapons in cool ways. If a player comes across red rocks blocking a path, they'll need to slot in their ice weapons. If a chest in space is jammed shut with purple minerals, they can blast it with a yellow weapon. When fighting enemies, players can get to know which weapons are more effective and which combinations can have devastating effects. When fighting a fiery tank of an enemy one might wish to go for two ice weapons to exploit its weaknesses to the full. But put a purple Vortex cannon on one side and a Flamethrower on the other, and you can end up sucking enemies into a giant ball of flame. Firing weapons around a Vortex even showed a noticeable amount of trajectory curve as the bullet went around the vacuum — this isn't the kind of rudimentary combat system one might expect from toys-to-life, but a well-designed feature with a whole bunch of variety.

Whether skimming along a pretty planet surface scanning local wildlife or diving past looter traps in an asteroid belt, flying the ships is a joy that recaptures the magic of Rogue Squadron or Starfox 64 — after getting hands-on with the aerial combat it was no wonder to us that Fox McCloud himself will appear in the Switch version of the game. The rest of us will have to make do with some less recognisable ships and characters, but luckily those seem well thought out as well. Each ship recalls some classic sci-fi fighters while retaining some unique flavour of their own, while the plucky group of young pilots are diverse and entertaining enough to be around. It certainly seemed like a 10-year-old would have a blast with the game's simple but exciting narrative, and parents won't find it too grating either.

E3 2018 screens

That's a good thing, because the game has local cooperative play. During our preview, heading up into the vast solar system seemed a little overwhelming and daunting — especially for a game aimed at families. Yet the local co-op makes it so simple for an experienced adult to drop in and get a loved one out of trouble by blasting some bad guys or just leading your co-pilot to safety or a point of interest. The second player can jump in without any kit of their own and immediately get the same equipment options as player one, which is likely a relief to the bank accounts of many households. It also means that families and friends can get unique individual kits, bring them all to a game night and share use of a whole bunch of different ships and weapons. If a kid needs to have it all, everything can be bought digitally as well as physically. As a developer pointed out, no content in the game is completely locked out just because the player doesn't have a particular weapon; there might be barrels or containers nearby that provide the same elemental attack which can be flung into the fray. Ubisoft were keen to emphasise that the game is designed to be playable and accessible by anyone.

The world itself is very Ubisoftian, with a lot of icons and points of interest across a vast space-scape. Yet here it seems more appropriate than in several of the company's other titles, given that the game's focus is on exploration and discovery in a changing world. Much like later Far Cry and Assassin's Creed titles, there is no definite level-gating blocking access to certain areas — but enemies will have varying degrees of combat prowess depending on how strong their hold is on a particular planet. During our preview we gunned the engines towards the centre of the solar system and the planet near to it, only to find that the enemies were massively over-powered. Though it's not a recommended route for the young ones, adult players will likely enjoy the increased difficulty. Careful weapons customisation and planning can help the player take down even the strongest of enemies, if players are up to the challenge.

E3 2018 screens

Overall Starlink looks like a very promising and unique experiment that hopefully won't break the bank for parents this holiday season (pricing on the physical kits doesn't look too terrible unless your inner or outer child demands absolutely everything). While it's a surprise that Ubisoft are making a late-stage gamble on toys-to-life, their competence in open-world design and simple yet satisfying combat loops is a good match for creating a sci-fi adventure the whole family can enjoy. Here's hoping the final product can shine beyond our first few hours among the stars.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas launches on October 16th.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been a Newshound since 2016. He's also been gaming long enough to know what a text parser is. When not hopelessly lost in the latest open-world epic, Sam is busy devouring books and podcasts or trading Pokémon with his wife.