Fans of Nintendo's sci-fi leaning properties seem to live and breathe disappointment. The cast of Custom Robo never got a chance to shine. Captain Falcon feels trapped in an endless void from which no new F-Zero can escape. Fans of Metroid saw anniversaries come and go with nary a mention. Then, there's Star Fox. One spectacular outing on Nintendo 64 has defined the series, and every other game seems to repave that well-worn ground. There's so much more potential in that space than what Star Fox 64 envisioned, and Ubisoft's Starlink: Battle for Atlas seems poised to capitalize on it.
Of course, Starlink has a few advantages over a new Star Fox adventure. Ubisoft publishes on all platforms, and this new IP can create a universe of planets to explore. However, Starlink earns its Fox cameo by taking the gameplay of the classic arcade space adventure and blowing it out into a distinctly Ubisoft open world. Don't just choose planets off a map screen, point your ship skyward and seamlessly blast off into space. Instead of chasing a high score, chase after massive boss fights and a planet full of side quests. If you don't like a scorching dessert wasteland, just fly towards the horizon and reach the dark side of the sphere.
This is all shown in an impressive demo that pairs galactic wonder with familiar gameplay. There are barrel rolls aplenty in Starlink, as well as plenty of rock monsters to roll into. You'll be firing at everything from small imp creatures to giant multi-tier goliaths. Transforming from a starship into a hovercraft for prolonged ground battles and reconnaissance is recommended. After all, you need to slow down if you hope to home in on those giant glowing weak spots.
Even though I was playing on Switch, the game showcased lush visuals that kept up with the arcadey shooting. Character portraits are colorful, with interesting alien species wishing you good luck. The designs are a bit on the childish side, which was a deliberate move by the developers. As the game progressed, more and more mature mechanics fit into place, making the experience feel like something that anyone could enjoy.
Starlink has a varied arsenal of weapons, at least in theory. During my demo, I was able to swap between homing missiles and black hole cannons with ease. Enemies have elemental affinities, so your flamethrower will do better against ice creatures than ones coming out of a volcano. This means that you'll want to be switching regularly, and that extends to your ship. If you fail in your mission, you warp back to orbit unless you have a second ship handy. How do you get more ships? Therein lies the problem.
As great as an open world Star Fox game seems, it's held back by its status as a Toys to Life experience. The default price point is above $60 due to including toys, and you'll need to buy new ships to change up your arsenal. As someone who enjoys many of these toy games, Starlink's versatile customization elements are impressive. You can fly around in a standard layout with two guns and two wings if you like. You can also attach additional wings to weapon slots or turn guns backward to get the jump on pursuing foes. This ship design is doable at any point as you play, complete with a handy pause menu and slick transformation effects.
However, no matter how slick it is, the game seems built upon having a lot of options at your disposal. Even in the small demo I played, there were several points where a certain weapon was way more optimal in combat. You get three weapons in your starter kit, but they don't cover everything, and you might want more. Those options are scattered across a range of expansion sets, most of which were at my disposal for the demo. That's an experience that will cost somewhere close to $200, and I'm not sure that the game's engaging combat is worth that much to anyone.
The toys also limit's Starlink's potential release platforms. The game is slated to come out on consoles (with the exclusive Arwing bundle on Switch), but there's no PC release on the horizon. The developers giving the demo implied that this was due solely to hardware limitations, and they'd be open to a version of the game that could run on PC. That theoretical toyless follow-up could be the one to look out for when it comes to Starlink, even if it's just a pipe dream for now.
My Starlink: Battle for Atlas preview took place at E3 2018 inside Ubisoft's meeting rooms. The starter kit releases on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch for $75 on October 16th.
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