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Spaceship!!! Ubisoft's Starlink is everything my 10-year-old self wanted (hands-on)

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When I was a kid, I used to build spaceships out of Lego. They'd always be armed to the teeth with nozzles (which I imagined held torpedos) and translucent green antennas (laser beams, obviously!). I'd be ready to battle imaginary enemies wherever they might appear.

Ubisoft's new Starlink toys.

Ubisoft

Today's kids might have it a little bit easier. 

Ubisoft's Starlink, coming late 2018 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch, is a toys-to-life video game where kids can piece together plastic spaceship parts and see the result instantly appear on screen. 

It's a vast, ambitious game where players can explore every nook and cranny of a seven-planet solar system with those toy ships, swapping out plastic weapons and snapping on and off pieces as the situation demands -- say, fewer parts for a faster ship, or your entire collection to build a hulking stationary turret. 

Freeze enemies with ice missiles, then swap to a lava cannon to do bonus damage. Or pop in a pilot to gain special skills, like the ability to slow down time while you take out foes.

Josh Miller/CNET

The coolest part, if you ask me: there's no instructions to follow. While there are four primary ships and pilots as of today, each with their own strengths, any part can attach to any connection point to create unique gameplay -- even with the wings upside-down or the weapons facing backward. 

"We never want to tell kids they're being creative wrong," producer Matthew Rose tells me. 

(Though admittedly, with only two attach points per ship, the possibilities aren't exactly limitless.)

The goal is to "defend against an ancient evil" that's sucking the solar system's planets dry using giant "extractors" that, quite frankly, look like an oil derrick ran into a gigantic chainsaw. They're well-defended, and kids may need to think carefully about how to take their guardians -- or team up with a friend in split-screen multiplayer.

Starlink is Ubisoft's first stab at toys-to-life, and it comes at an interesting time -- Disney Interactive completely shut down its figurine-based Disney Infinity game last year, sales of Nintendo's Amiibo figures have reportedly plummeted, and releases of new expansion packs for Skylanders (by Activision) and Lego Dimensions (by Warner Bros. Interactive) have slowed considerably.

But Ubisoft believes it can do better than competitors by making a deeper and yet more accessible game, one which -- for instance -- doesn't restrict progress until you buy certain toys. "You can play the entire game with just the starter pack," says Rose. 

Little pilot figurines can pop into the bottom of each ship to give them special powers, like the ability to slow down time. (This prototype isn't final.)

Josh Miller/CNET

In fact, you don't need to buy the toys at all. Every ship, every pilot, every modular part will be available to buy and store digitally, and even kids with physical toys can just use the digital versions -- no need to carry a bag of plastic parts to a friend's house. 

The one big question Ubisoft won't answer is how much parents should expect to pay when Starlink arrives in late 2018. Rose would only say that he expects buyers will be able to "achieve" the entire collection, and that the goal is quality over quantity. Ubisoft wants to make each and every ship feel unique.

Says Rose: "We want this to be the most gamer-friendly and player-friendly title you've ever seen in this space." 

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