The toys-to-life trend of plastic playthings and console games is, by most, considered to have had its day. Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions were the main contenders that, for a spell, caught children's imagination with the ability to unlock in-game characters and track their progress with the physical toy.
But that was in 2015. Therefore, Starlink: Battle For Atlas might seem a little late to the party. However, this new space combat and exploration game from publisher Ubisoft significantly updates the toys-to-life premise for a new generation - and does that with an impressively polished game.
The toys themselves are a combination of spacecraft, weapons, wings and pilots. These four elements are interchangeable. Children can invent their own craft from these pieces by simply snapping on and off the different components.
What's clever is that this is instantly matched in the game. If you encounter an enemy who is susceptible to heat damage you can snap on heat-based weapons and be ready to blast them out the sky.
This is a really neat approach to customisation and is something that's extended in the game itself by being able to upgrade the different weapons and ships. Add to this the different abilities each pilot brings to the fray and it really does feel quite elegant.
The production quality of the ships is really good too. The pilots, although a little less detailed than larger Skylander models, slot into their cockpits satisfyingly. Weapons and wings snap on with a solid click. When docked the ships all have lights, and being able to see the pilot inside their craft is a really nice touch. Even if this was just a toy (with no smart features) children would be quite happy playing with it.
This is an easy aspect of the game to overlook if you don't have youngsters to test it on. As with any toys-to-life game the value comes from the toys as well as the on-screen excitement. Starlink gets this spot on.
The game itself - available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One - offers space combat and planet exploration with an impressively animated narrative running throughout. Ubisoft hasn't scrimped on the production here, with the cutscenes being something to look forward to rather than skip.
As we have seen in games like No Man's Sky, the transition from space to the planets is seamless in Starlink. Blasting down to explore a planet is really satisfying, and the missions give you a reason to explore every inch of the galaxy.
The planets themselves are each unique and have a hand-crafted feel. There's always something else to do or see. This in important not only because it extends the duration of the game, but it's convincing in feeling like a living, breathing ecosystem.
The main story will take most players towards 10 hours to get through, but add in extra content - like the Star Fox components - and this will take you towards 14 hours. Seeing everything in the game will take you longer still.
It's a relief that Starlink lets you access all the content in the game with just the Starter Pack. Unlike other toys-to-life games, it shirks the trend of requiring more toy purchases to see more levels. Other toys are required for weapons and craft, but you don't need certain types of these to access specific areas.
It's worth saying that although Starlink is a game that youngsters will enjoy, some of the enemies and battles will take multiple tries to complete. It gets quite hard in places. When you die, though, you can bring in other ships you own to extend your lives.
Digital or Physical?
One element of Starlink: Battle For Atlas that needs more explaining to parents (particularly in retail stores), is that you can choose to purchase the game in three ways. Physical, digital or a combination of both.
Each of the Starter Packs on Xbox, PlayStation and Switch will give you the full game and a collection of weapons and a ship to get you started. But the Switch version offers more variety: it comes with the Star Fox ship and pilot, plus a digital copy of another ship. This means that playing co-op on Xbox or Playstation Starter Packs, both players have to have to pilot the same ship (one as physical and one as digital mode).
Also, Ubisoft is much more generous with its digital route than Skylanders or other toys-to-life games have been in the past. The digital version of the game gives you a huge number of ships, weapons and pilots.
It also means you can switch between these without having to grapple with the toys (or make more purchases). Many reviewers have found this the best way to play the game. However, for youngsters there really is no substitute to have the toys clipped onto the controller and snapping on and off different armerments.
It's important for parents to understand these options before making a purchase as they will be the best judge of where the value lies for their family.
Starlink: Battle For Atlas is a surprising and welcome return to toys-for-life. The toys themselves are well made and great fun to play with. The generosity of the digital pack is a breath of fresh air.
Most importantly, however, is that the experience feels coherent as a whole so that characters, ships and weapons each contribute to the considerable fun of exploring the galaxy.
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