Starlink: Battle for Atlas was once picked on for arriving to the toys-to-life party much too late. But thanks to some innovative ideas and a lot of narrative charm, it ends up being our favorite of the short-lived genre.
Remember toys-to-life (TTL) games? Disney Infinity, LEGO Dimensions, and Skylanders were once the bright star of the family games market, but their star burned out fast.
Arriving late to the party, even too late to be a success, or so it seemed at the time, Ubisoft’s Starlink: Battle for Atlas forged ahead with an innovative TTL approach. For one, the toys are connected directly to your controller, like stylish spaceship trophies standing tall between your shoulder buttons.
More importantly, though, is the fact that the toys, which may have been relegated to dust collectors within weeks for many players, are totally optional. You can play the game digitally if you prefer it that way. That’s how my son and I played it, and we loved every minute of it all the same.
In a sentence, Starlink is a very Ubisoftian No Man’s Sky. Color palette, interstellar flora and fauna, and even the iconic spaceships all feel reminiscent of Hello Games’ controversial, don’t-call-it-a-comeback exploration game, but the overall world design is much more streamlined in a way we find inviting. No Man’s Sky is great at what it does, but it’s also extremely daunting. It constantly feels like we are near death and it can be exhaustive just to boot up the game sometimes, knowing what’s ahead.
Starlink, meanwhile, doesn’t have that glaring problem, and thus is a much better game for many more families looking for some fun co-op time. We bought the game months ago but due to the endless backlog, didn’t play it much until this past weekend. We loved it so much, we played it to completion, including the achievement list, and if Game Together was around in 2018, Starlink would have been our Game of the Year frontrunner.
If there was ever any doubt the game is designed for kids, that quickly washes away when you meet the characters. As diverse physically as they are emotionally, they all also feel like they’re primed for a Netflix animated series, with one rather grating (for adults, at least) standout being the young boy who streams his experiences in outer space. But that’s definitely going to happen in the future anyway. We loved the cast and art so much we even googled whether a spinoff series was in the works because the art design and the cast seem so perfect for such an adaptation. We’ll keep crossing our fingers for that one.
While the familiar Ubisoft do everything approach is on display in Starlink, none of it feels lacking or tacked on for padding. You can complete missions for mods for your fully customizable ships, collect various resources for some light basebuilding mechanics, and perform a long list of main and side quests that have you training an intergalactic resistance to topple the stars’ fiercest tyrant. My son and I loved doing any and all of it, including when we were messing with the beautiful photo mode. Planet hopping across varied terrains and fighting massive robot-like enemies in split screen co-op is a ton of fun, and the game recently received a free update that added racing and horde modes too.
Ultimately what Starlink does the very best and the reason it’s won our weekly accolade can be found in its deceptively friendly design. With resources to gather, multiple huge worlds to explore, and potentially a host of physical toys to attach to your controllers, it could be more intimidating than its worth for the young audience for whom it’s designed. Instead, it feels more like My First Ubi Sandbox. Kids that enjoy the exploration in this game will likely go on to enjoy stuff like Ghost Recon or Assassin’s Creed when they’re of appropriate age. It’s really an indoctrinating game in that way, and we don’t mean that as a bad thing. Fair play to the publishing giant.
It’s worth mentioning too that while we played the game on Xbox, as we tend to in our household, if you play it on Switch, there is an exclusive Starfox campaign and character pack, so on top of everything else it does so well, it’s also the first kinda-sorta Starfox sequel in a few years, and the most recent good one in much longer.
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Switch, Steam
Genre: Open world, arcade flying, space combat
Price: $59.99 for the base game, DLC options are wide-ranging due to TTL aspect
Co-op Modes: two players in local split screen
ESRB Rating: E10+ (fantasy violence)
Developer: Ubisoft Toronto
For years, Ubisoft has made a name for themselves by creating open worlds that keep people invested for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours. Starlink maybe won’t last your family that long (unless you really like racing), but it serves as a fantastic introduction to gaming sandboxes for the kids playing, and that’s a mission we hope Ubisoft undertakes again someday soon.