It’s fair to say I was excited about getting my hands on Starlink: Battle For Atlas. What I found through a couple of weeks of gameplay was a good concept with some flaws in its execution that’s ultimately saved by its wildly fun co-op mode.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an open-world, space-based action adventure, where the player leads a heroic team of pilots from the mothership Equinox to free the Atlas star system from the Forgotten Legion, an evil force hell-bent on stealing Atlas’ resources. Early in the game, Equinox is attacked by the Legion and their captain is taken hostage. Through a series of quests involving battling Legion minions and making allies of the locals, it’s up to the Equinox team to free Atlas of the Legion’s grip and save their captain.
An interesting component of the game is the real-life toys; pilots, starships and weapons which you can mix and match on the Starlink controller mount in whatever configuration you want to play with in-game. I was absolutely jonesing for them at first, breaking open my Starter Pack to see how they fit together. But as predicted, they made the controller way too heavy to hold comfortably while playing. The cumbersome gimmick controller was relegated to the abyss of the TV cabinet drawer within 15 minutes. Thankfully a normal controller works just fine. The toys add nothing for me – they’re obviously intended to make the game more appealing to kids, which they absolutely will. This will be a hot choice on Christmas wish lists, which I’m sure was Ubisoft’s intention given the release date, but expect to see ACC claims for hand cramp go through the roof in January.
The world of Atlas is a vast star system with an array of planets in between asteroid fields, starship wrecks full of loot and outlaws preying on unlucky travellers who get caught in their hyperspace nets. As a player, you have free reign to explore whatever part of the system you like, although the difficulty varies by area, so you’d be wise to do some level grinding before you stray too far into danger. When you venture to the planets, you’re greeted with weird, colourful flora and fauna unique to each planet, as well as resources to mine, locals to befriend and bad guys to exterminate. The artwork and design of the Starlink world is beautiful and quirky, and I often found myself getting side-tracked from my active quest to go check out a new planet and see what kind of acid-trip animals they had over there.
There’s no getting out of your starship to explore on foot though; all gameplay takes place from the driver’s seat in third-person view. That’s not a bad thing, but the starship physics are bloody weird and sometimes frustrating. You’re either flying or hovering, and when you’re hovering you have to effectively “jump” your starship up onto platforms or objects to move vertically. I just about rage quit while playing a mission that forced me to clunkily jump my god damn flying machine up to the top of a 6-storey building.
Another reason I would often get side-tracked is that it was hard to care about the cliché characters. Each cartoony one of them definitely has a TV tropes article that describes them perfectly. The annoyingly chipper Starfox McCloud, a classic Nintendo character resurrected exclusively in the Nintendo Switch edition along with his teammates, is reminiscent of an unironic Mr Peanutbutter from Bojack Horseman. Maybe I’ve just been spoilt by grittiness and magnetism of Geralt, and all the dark, tangled, lustful webs he weaves in The Witcher 3.
The most disappointing thing about Starlink: Battle for Atlas is that with the $118 Starter Pack, you don’t get the full game. You only get three out of 15 weapons, two out of 10 pilots and two out of 6 starships. You want the rest? That costs extra. At a price of $118, it’s fair to expect you’re buying a whole game, but apparently the value of the Starter Pack is in the toys mounted on the controller. Call me crazy, but I don’t consider the Hand Cramp 3000 a fun feature. My advice: screw the Starter Pack, get the digital version.
Despite some disappointments, Starlink’s shining redemption is the split-screen co-op mode. It was hard to convince my partner Chris to get on board at first; he likes his space games hyper-realistic because he’s a massive astro-nerd, so the cartoons and silly physics really put him off. But in a moment of drunken weakness and some guilt tripping on my part, he finally agreed to play it with me. And like a classic romance novel, we fell together into a rabbit hole of addictive, fast-paced space shenanigans. Tale as old as time…
With double the fire power we pulverised enemies, liberated outposts and looted the shit out of shipwrecks at speeds I’d never been able to achieve on my own. Yes, it’s less challenging with two players, but the quickened pace of quest progress and the sharing of the experience made it so much more fun. I went from playing occasionally to going on extended Starlink marathons, and now I only want to play it in co-op mode.
Overall, Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a reasonably decent new offering from Ubisoft. It won’t be for everyone – if you like your games hyper-realistic with relatable, interesting and believable characters this probably isn’t for you. But if you like the idea of goofing around in cartoon space with your beloved co-nerd, I reckon it’s worth a crack. Just please don’t fall for the fucking toys.
– Louise Beuvink