Starlink is a great toys-to-life game, but its toys might be holding it back

Commentary: You don’t need to buy toy starships to play Starlink: Battle for Atlas. But they’ll still dictate how you play the game.

Sean Buckley Social Media Producer
4 min read
CNET/Sean Buckley

The first time I played Ubisoft's StarLink: Battle for , I was impressed. It seemed to be something I'd never played before: A toys-to-life game that didn't suck. 

This was an evolution I wasn't expecting. Using NFC-enabled toys to change characters in games such as Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions had always been novel, but the games themselves were usually shallow, simple experiences aimed at younger gamers. As an adult, I liked the toys, but I was bored by the games.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas might have the opposite problem. It's an action-packed space adventure with open-world planets to explore and modular toy starships that control everything. Want to change weapons? Literally rip a cannon off the side of the ship mounted on your gamepad and slap on a new weapon. Bam. Wrap that in a universe of exciting combat and you have what's easily the best toys-to-life game I've ever played. But it leaves me with the nagging feeling that it would be even better without the toys.

Don't get me wrong:  Starlink's toys are actually kind of great. The modular starships are incredibly versatile. Want a faster ship? Put on a pair of high-performance wings -- or remove them altogether for a lightweight but less agile build. Try putting a cannon on backwards to shoot at enemies behind you, or stacking a missile launcher on a tower of wings to fire over a rock. It's a satisfying, creative toy experience that feels deeply integrated into the gameplay.

Screenshot by CNET/Sean Buckley

If you don't like the toys-to-life gimmick, Starlink lets you do without it: Every modular part, ship, weapon and pilot can be purchased digitally and accessed through the game's menu (going digital is even a better value). Giving players this option is one of the game's best features. It also makes it obvious how much the game's framework was designed with toys in mind.

Every weapon change, wing modification and ship swap brings the action to a grinding halt. Halfway through a battle, you might find you need to switch from your ice cannon to a flamethrower to take down a fire-resistant enemy, and you might need to change back when an Ice Cyclops leads the next wave of opponents.

When you're actually using the toys, this makes sense. You have to pause the game to physically wrangle the model starship sitting on top of your gamepad. Reconfiguring your ship without the toys, however, is more cumbersome than fun -- equipping a new weapon means pausing the game, opening the load-out sub-menu, moving the cursor and selecting the weapon slot. Then you have to find and select the weapon you need before backing out of the menu.

When you just need an ice-based weapon to solve a puzzle, this isn't a big deal. But it can feel tedious in the heat of battle. Not only does this stop the action but it nagged at me as a reminder to players to buy more toys or DLC ship parts.

Screenshot by CNET/Sean Buckley

This feeling hit every harder every time I died in-game. Your number of extra lives is dictated by how many spare toy or digital ships you have. In other words, the toy system doesn't just decide the kind of spaceship you're flying, but how many lives your character has. It directly affects the difficulty of the game: Buy more ships for more tries in each battle.

It made me thankful I was playing the $79 (£90, AU$120) digital deluxe version that came with all ships, parts and pilots. Players collecting the physical ships will need to pony up $25 per ship (those are some expensive extra lives) plus $10 for each weapon pack and $8 for extra pilots not included with ships.

The longer I play Starlink, the more the effects its physical DLC has on the core gameplay nag at me. Every time I have to change weapons, I wish there was a button I could press to instantly select one of four favorite loadouts. Every time my ship exploded and I was asked to select a new one, I cursed design that encouraged buying toys over maintaining the flow of battle.

Watch this: Starlink could be 2018's must-have toy

I'm griping through every parsec of the Atlas system -- but I'm not going to stop. Misgivings aside, I genuinely like Starlink: Battle for Atlas, and my initial impressions still ring true. It may be the best toys-to-life game I ever played.

It's true that Starlink's digital-only package is hampered slightly by the game's commitment to its physical component. But excepting that, it's a great open-world space shooter. It has a huge solar system of diverse planets to explore, a cast of fun and interesting characters and tons of side quests to take on. And if you're playing on Nintendo Switch (like me), it can briefly transform into a Star Fox game. 

Best of all, it's a complex enough game to hold my attention. I always liked Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions, but I never once forgot that they were "toy games" aimed at children. When I play Starlink, that realization only crosses my mind when I'm playing as Levi McCray, the annoying YouTuber character.

If you love toys-to-life games, Starlink's playthings will surpass your expectation. If you're hungry for a Star Fox game that Nintendo's simply not making, it'll tide you over. If you just want a fun romp through an interesting solar system that lets you blow up aliens, fly through asteroid belts and explore lush planets, you'll probably be happy too. Just be ready to wrangle your way through some menus.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is the best toys-to-life game I've ever played. It just won't let me forget it.

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