Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a rip-roaring space adventure game for all ages. Due for release next month on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it offers an impressive new take on the toys-to-life genre.
At a recent event we got to go hands-on with the game’s early levels and discover how the toys were created. They are intelligent and work directly with the controller for the respective platform, so it was interesting to see how they work too.
Placing one of the ships on the controller holster instantly makes them available in the game. So far, so toys-to-life. However, you can take these toys apart again and attach different weapons and pilots. This not only makes the physical objects more fun to play with in the real world but is instantly reflected on the screen.
Attaching different pieces has costs and benefits too, not just look funky. That's because they each have different weights and combining the right weapons can make all the different in specific dog fights.
The game itself is set in the Atlas system where you can explore and battle in open space as well as head down to hand-crafted planets. Reminiscent of No Man’s Sky (coined as No Man’s Skylanders, by some online) it all works seamlessly without pauses for loading.
What’s impressive is how populated each of the planets are. The main story takes you through a campaign, but along the way there are all sorts of distractions to collect and strange animals to scan.
A split-screen mode enables families to play and explore together. Trying this out was impressive too, and we experienced no slow down even when the screen was full of bullets and enemy ships.
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Starlink: Battle for Atlas comes in a starter pack (£69.99) which includes a ship, a pilot, plus two wings and guns. You can expand on this with additional ships for £24.99 each that include a pilot, starship and weapon. There are also weapon packs priced at £9.99.
The Switch version of the game includes exclusive Star Fox characters and ships that unlock related content, missions and weapons. This has generated a lot of buzz online in a similar move to including Nintendo characters like Donkey Kong in special versions of Skylanders.
Although you require the physical elements to access them in the game, you are given a grace period where you can use digital versions of these. This will be useful when playing the game out and about on the Switch, or if you don’t want to have a ship stuck to your controller.
That said, even for adults, there is a happy novelty in seeing your on-screen ship in physical form. The placement and weighting of these controller attachments is much more elegant than it sounds. Switching characters, weapons and craft in this way is more satisfying than accessing menus.
At the preview event, we also got a chance to chat to Candian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who was on hand to give his opinion on the game. While he was clear that these ships and experiences were not realistic, he suggested they can play a part in inspiring the next generation of genuine space farers.
"A game like Starlink becomes compelling," he told us. "You can actually imagine yourself doing these things."
Hadfield continued: "The whole purpose of these toys, really, is to open the imagination. If it's just a toy on a shelf, that's one thing but if you can reconfigure it to your own liking, suddenly you're not just an observer. You're part of what's happening."
Starlink: Battle For Atlas does have the feel of a brave new world about it. The combination of the new toy technology and a fully-fledged space adventure could well spark the imagination of youngsters and an interest in space travel.
First though, the game has to prove its worth at retail and in the home. Spending more time with Starlink is essential for a proper verdict. Also, as with any of these toys-to-life experiences, we need more time to fully understand how many toys we need to purchase to experience everything. And the cost that could command.
We were happy to hear that with just the starter pack you could complete the game and have many hours of game-play. This is an important message for parents, who will likely be pestered for more and more of the toys.
On first impressions, Starlink looks like it will be a lot of fun. The game itself has considerable depth and feels great to play. The toys feel well built and of a high quality. It’s an experience we’re looking forward to spending many hours with, and returning with a full review for you.