One of the biggest surprises of E3 was the announcement of Starfox appearing in a new Ubisoft IP called Starlink.
For many, a decision was immediately made. They knew which format to play it on and it didn’t matter that Starlink was releasing anywhere other than on Nintendo Switch.
Having spent three hours with the game, I’ll say two things. The Starfox implementation isn’t just a tacked-on gimmick and as a standalone game, Starlink definitely needs to be on your radar.
Falling somewhere between Skylanders, No Man’s Sky and Destiny, Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a non-linear, space exploration adventure where you can clip plastic ships to your controller and bring them to life in the game.
You can jump between planets, skimming their surfaces with a fine-toothed comb, but also zoom around the galaxy at light speed, uncovering new solar systems and seeking out new life forms. Boldy going where no … well, you get the picture.
After a brief introduction from the development team, I got to spend about 45 minutes playing as Fox McCloud on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, before spending about an hour and a half on Act 2 on an Xbox One X.
So, primarily, Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a narrative focused experience, centered around the Starlink Initiative who have been secretly recruited to learn more about the origins of an alien life form which crashlanded on Earth. My demo began with the team encountering Atlas, an artifact which can help them identify more about the being, but before they can claim it they end up in a big space battle.
Each character in the Starlink Initiative has their own individual quirks and nuances, with Levi being the social media guru and resident influencer, Mason the new-kid and prospective leader-type, Hunter, the badass, and Chase the fearless. Their Captain, Grad, amazingly, keeping them all together.
As all this is going on, the cutscene naturally transitions over to Fox McCloud and the entire Star Fox fleet who are watching on from the sidelines, observing the action as it happens. Something that immediately impressed me is how seamless that transition was. As the Starfox content is exclusive to Switch, it becomes immediately clear their implementation isn’t an afterthought and they are an integral part of the story, even though all the major beats are focused on the Initiative as a whole.
As has been widely rumoured, the entire Star Fox team are in the game, including Peppy, Falco, and Slippy, though only Fox was playable throughout my demo. All the character models look stunning though, and are a natural fit on new gen systems while still managing to really tug on those nostalgic heartstrings.
The team also have their own reason for being there and aren’t just tied to the events of the main narrative. It seems Star Wolf is up to his old tricks and the team are on the hunt. As fate would have it, their paths have crossed with the Initiative, and being the good natured fox that he is, McCloud offers to help out. The rest of the team aren’t quite as forthcoming, though.
What’s also impressive is that Starlink immediately feels like a Star Fox game, the AR Wing flicks and floats in ways which feel authentic and natural. And in many ways, this feels like the Star Fox game you’ve always wanted to play but one that also blends well with modern mechanics. XP is earned for every kill, you have free-roam ability of the map, the action is always fast and furious, but the visuals really pop as you eb, flow, and yes, barrel roll.
You can purchase Starlink in one of two ways, whether you acquire the physical version which lets you swap ships, weapons and pilots out on your controller, or digitally so you can unlock everything in-game over time.
This ties into Starlink’s unique selling point – swapping out weapons on the sides of the ship when in the middle of battle. At any point you can pull the weapon off your vehicle and pop on something different. This becomes essential to your survival as every enemy you encounter will require a unique strategy. For instance, hordes of Imps go down quicker to a flamethrower than they would with laser blasts.
Combat genuinely feels very smooth and surprisingly well balanced considering you have to tweak and change things on the fly. It also means that the game is deep and varied, in many cases requiring you to jump over lasers, time your shots, and sometimes fight from range -or up close – in order to succeed.
As you encounter an enemy for the first time, it’s briefly analysed and from there the game recommends the types of weapons you should use. This only pops up one time though, so we imagine deep into the later stages of the game when you’ve fought lots of enemies, it’s going to get difficult to keep track.
Fortunately, there’s a log book in the menus which you can access at any point to see who you’ve faced, but also the current stats of your ship, what you’ve levelled up and experienced, and where to go next.
As you traverse planets, so you pick up quests, solve puzzles, and can boost your stats and stature at Observatories, while also opening up the map. You can also whip around the surface, earning XP through style points, scanning creatures and wildlife, cutting tight corners and boosting around, all while shooting enemies in the name of victory.
My playthrough with Star Fox mostly kept to the story, beating the main missions in order to progress to the end, but when I got to play Act Two, the game really started to open up. And it’s fair to say that there is an astonishing wealth of additional missions on each planet and a generous chunk of content to get through. You could spend at least five hours trawling a planet top to bottom and that would probably just scratch the surface.
But perhaps the most impressive thing is how good the Switch version of Starlink really is. Playing on an Xbox One X, you’d expect significant improvements in graphical fidelty and frame rate. While the Switch version is definitely second best in those categories, it more than held its own and played exceptionally well, despite all the action happening on screen. While I only got to play this docked, in many ways, it feels like Starlink has been designed for Switch more than any other platform.
Ubisoft games have a reputation for being very expansive and involved. Look at Assassin’s Creed: Origins, for instance, that game has so much to do that it often feels overwhelming. Starlink, however, never feels like it’s giving you too much. It’s paced just about right, with an even spread in each location, but there’s enough going on that you don’t feel shortchanged or at a loss of what to do.
My one concern going in is that perhaps Starlink could be a bit too involved and convoluted. On the one hand, it’s not going the route of an overly simplistic Skylanders, so it might sustain the attention of parents who may want to play with their kids. But there is so much going on that, at first, the prospect of diving in may be daunting.
After a few hours of play, though, I was fully immersed, connected, and aware of what I needed to do and how I needed to do it. In fact, I had to be dragged away from the screen in order to let the next set of people in because I wasn’t paying attention to the time.
Starlink was one of my favourite games coming away from Gamescom and I am eager to dive back in, not only to see what happens next for Star Fox, but also because I had a ton of fun. For me, this might be the most interesting and enriching toys to life experience I’ve ever had with any game.