Amid the luminescent, blue-green plants of some once-forgotten world, my sharp red dart of a ship narrowly avoids ambush. Carrying important cargo that is hefty enough to keep my versatile vessel from being able to take off, I’m left with two choices: flee or dump the ballast to turn and fight.
Those who are familiar with 2016’s No Man’s Sky will undoubtedly notice more than a few similarities between it and Starlink: Battle for Atlas, which created the above scene. The visuals in both are consistently bizarre and otherworldly—they are believably alien in a way the last few decades of serialized television haven’t been able to capture. Both games offer just about free rein to fly anywhere and do more or less whatever you will across the vast reaches of space (though Starlink is limited to a single solar system).
The key difference—aside from Starlink’s additional narrative glue (at least compared with No Man’s Sky at launch)—is that it’s a toys-to-life game, much like Disney Infinity or Activision’s Skylanders. Yet despite the contraptions you’ll need to attach to your controller, the game itself is remarkably accessible and surprisingly entertaining regardless of your age.
Starlink’s narrative setup is straightforward: thanks to a genius astrophysicist and an alien that crashed on Earth, humans are now making their first nascent voyages to the stars. But the fuel humans are using for those trips, Nova, is a rare resource. The aliens of the Atlas star system have long since lost the knowledge of how to make the interstellar fuel, leaving them largely trapped near their home planet.
Local antagonist Grax figures out that the physicist, Dr. Victor St. Grand, knows how to refine Nova, leading to St. Grand being taken along with your mothership’s core. It falls to the rest of the crew to chase the good doctor and his captors across multiple star systems, building alliances with locals along the way to develop trade and the skills needed to take the fight to Grax.
In addition to the initial selection of protagonists, you can take control of any of the aliens who join your adventure along the way. This works either by selecting them once they’re available or by using one of the plug-in figures that comes with the Starlink Starter Kit or any of its expansions.
On top of the pilot figure, which clips to the top of the controller, you can personalize your ship and whatever wings and weapons you’d like by hooking them on in just about any orientation. You can take the crystal-blue chassis of the Neptune, for example, then add the sharp red wings of the Lance and slap on a rear-facing missile launcher and a forward-facing gun. The game will respond with an exact digital replica of whatever arrangement you choose, and the practical and aesthetic considerations involved in those choices end up being a key selling point for the whole system.
These weapons and parts are all hot-swappable in the middle of gameplay, provided that you’ve got enough to swap (though at $ 25 for each optional ship expansion, you may not). Even with the basic kit, there’s a surprising amount of flexibility. The thrill of swapping out some missiles for a siege-canon mid-battle and then watching it materialize and assemble itself on your craft is something else. Even the most jaded gamer can likely find some joy in flipping their ship’s guns backwards to take out some bogies, then flipping it back to re-focus on the battle ahead. Just swapping the bits around to what different weapon combos you can pull off is fun in and of itself.
The ship-swapping system isn’t without its issues, though. While Ars received a large selection for review—including four ships and a variety of the weapons and characters available at launch—most players will need to use menus to swap out guns and parts. This makes swapping as a whole a little less flexible and more time-consuming.
The difference comes up most often when your ship gets downed. If you have another model, you can snap that on and keep playing immediately. If you don’t, you’ll need to choose your loadout, remove the attached model, and then continue. While it’s not the world’s biggest inconvenience, it does remove a little of the magic of whooshing the controller around with the ship as you maneuver through space or floating rock formations on some alien world.
Solid but not astounding
While Starlink is one of the most engaging toys-to-life systems thus far, the underlying game is more of a mixed bag.
Flying, for instance, is a dream. It’s intuitive, quick, and flexible, and the ships are surprisingly maneuverable whether hovering, flying, or flitting between stars. And some stunning visuals are waiting to be found on Starlink’s planets.
Other than that, though, the whole thing seems kind of pedestrian for anyone who has prior experience with space-combat games. Everything works, and everything works well, but there aren’t too many “Wow!” moments for adults.
That said, there are an incredible number of quality-of-life considerations that make playing enjoyable, simple, and consistently compelling. Because your crew just arrived in Atlas and has little idea what’s happening, the game takes pains to explain what’s going on during the chase to get your captain/techno-wizard back, for instance.
Building alliances and working with the locals is a key part of succeeding. Most missions involve taking out an enemy base or protecting an outpost from an attack. From there, you’ll build relationships with specific outposts, upgrading them over time and bringing in more income, support, and weapons for your team.
This system is standard fare for role-playing games, but the rewards are more tangible than normal in Starlink. Characters are a bit more prolific and likable, and the results of helping out are plainly visible on the planets themselves.
The friends we made along the way
Your relationships with these groups are simple but consistent. Build up a relationship just a little, and those allies will seek your aid when attacked. If you really upgrade the relationship as well as the artillery available to your allies, not only will they be able to defend themselves, but they’ll even help you in your own fights.
As the legion increasingly steps up its attacks in the late game, it’s pretty awesome to see groups that were once struggling to get by decked out with shields and elemental weapons of their own. In so doing, you can create defensive webs and systems that mutually reinforce one another. You may see some miners under attack, for instance, but then quickly engage shields and take down their attackers as you watch on. It is little pro-social touches like this that consistently yield positive surprises while adventuring.
Many of the folks you help will also join your crew and continue to give historical context to the events of the game as you play. It’s another small touch that encourages the standard RPG process of helping everyone you can.
Lack of variety
Unfortunately, most of the game’s problems stem from its premise. Starlink is a big game with seven rather large planets and dozens of quests, plus lots of things to do in space and planetside (scanning animals, exploring derelict ships, etc.). Along the way, your core weapon set will likely start to feel tired.
While there are a lot of weapons to collect (and buy, as physical toys), these weapons are limited to one of five types—kinetic, ice, fire, gravity, and stasis. Given that some foes only respond to certain types and that there are even puzzles and other features that rely on type-specific damage, it can sometimes feel as if there just isn’t enough to make each category big enough to warrant the added complexity.
As an example, you’ll often have to switch weapon types to solve puzzles tied to ancient alien ruins. Which is fine. But if you have a limited selection of toys, you may only have a single fire-type weapon. If that weapon has a ramming attack that’s really difficult to use for precise maneuvering and puzzling, you’re just out of luck—unless you buy more toys or unlock more weapons, that is.
At the same time, the puzzles are simple enough that it often seems as if the only complexity is the need to have a weapon of the right type. There isn’t enough variety in the weapons to make that truly interesting, and even if there was, you’d likely need dozens of toys to get the needed effect. While many weapons enable cool combos and special effects that can work a bit differently, the selection isn’t expansive enough to allow for too many of these creative pairings.
That said, Starlink is a capable outing that’s suitable for all ages. I easily lost myself in the game’s exploration-and-battle loop for an entire day, even though I’d thought I’d burned myself out on the entire general premise with No Man’s Sky a couple of years back. Running around, building up outposts, and raking in positive reinforcement and joyous cheers from the folks around you is a good time despite the downsides. And while the conditions in Atlas are grim, it’s nice to be that kernel of hope in the uncaring void of outer space.
- Excellent handling of ships and craft
- Encouraging story centered on building friendships
- Lots of variety to the consistently gorgeous planets and wildlife
- Repetitive weapons, combos, and attack types
- Too many parts! And yet, not nearly enough…
Starlink is a great outing for folks of all ages. The toys are costly but well-made and great fun both in and out of game. Buy it.