When Ubisoft's E3 trailer for Starlink: Battle for Atlas , I was delighted -- but I wasn't impressed. The sound of Fox McCloud's distinctive radio chatter spurred my nostalgia, but my initial impression was the same. Ubisoft's space-faring toys-to-life game wasn't going to be .
It wasn't until I played the game for myself at a preview event that I realized how true that prediction really was. Starlink: Battle for Atlas isn't a follow-up to Nintendo's beloved space shooter -- so far, it's better.
This thought rattled around my head as I played the Nintendo Switch version of the game's opening moments (it's also on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One). Flying Fox's Arwing fighter through a field of asteroids, taking on an enemy squadron and crash landing onto a planet of open-world exploration gameplay felt like fanboy sacrilege... but it also felt right.
That's partially because of how deeply Star Fox was integrated into the Starlink universe. I expected the tie-in to feel tacked-on, like an extra piece of DLC that didn't quite sync up with the game's lore. Instead, I found a game that treated Nintendo's characters as an integral part of the story, naturally fitting into the game's opening cinematic, gameplay and cutscenes as if they were always part of the ensemble cast -- to the extent that, if you intentionally play the game with Fox, it feels less like a cameo, and more like a full-on third-party Star Fox game.
Matthew Rose, the game's producer, says that's intentional: "It was important for us that it wasn't just a guest appearance, it wasn't just, 'here's a character you can play with,'" he said after the demo. "If we were going to invite Star Fox characters into Starlink, we wanted to do with the utmost respect for that brand." (You can.)
When they first appear in the game's opening cinematic, the Star Fox characters are conflicted over helping the cast of Starlink. Ever the hero, Fox wants to help people in need -- but Peppy Hare wants to focus on their own mission: searching for Star Wolf. It's dropped like a flimsy excuse for the cameo, but it's also a plot thread that kept returning.
The more I played, the more hints the game dropped. Fox and his crew, investigating for hints about their rivals, or talking with the Starlink crew about how to improve their Arwing fighters to get the upper hand, all the while integrating themselves into the narrative of this completely different open-world space exploration adventure. My time with the game was short, but when I stepped away, I couldn't help but wonder if Ubisoft had created a more engrossing Star Fox story than Nintendo ever had (though, to be fair, I never did play Star Fox Adventures).
That alone was impressive, but it wouldn't matter if the game itself fell flat. It doesn't. With or without Star Fox, exploring the planets of the Atlas system is genuinely fun, with unique creatures wandering the landscape, gorgeous vistas to take in and dozens of missions scattered across each planet's surface. Starlink's producer likes to say that the game benefits from Ubisoft's experience of making complex, open-world games likeand -- it's a bold claim to make of a toys-to-life game, but at least during the early demo, it holds true.
That's probably because it doesn't play anything like toys-to-life games we've seen before. Starlink may be an all-ages experience, but it surpasses the tropes of the "toy" genre.-- it feels like an open-world adventure with giant planets to explore and an abundance of branching side-quests. The gameplay is fairly complex, especially for a game targeted toward a younger audience, challenging players to master on-the-ground tank-like gameplay, atmospheric flight and free-range space combat.
The result is a game that sheds the baggage of Disney Infinity, Skylanders and Lego Dimensions -- and one that offers a hybrid between space combat and open-world adventure games.
But Starlink's Star Fox features have a glaring weakness: they're limited to the Switch. Moving to the Xbox One version of the game felt lacking. The visuals were kicked up a notch, and the modular, transforming ships were still fun to play with -- but suddenly, the game felt like it was missing something.
Gone was the banter between Falco and Fox. Slippy no longer talked with Starlink's crew about how to improve the Arwing. Ubisoft integrated Nintendo's characters into the game so well that the game felt almost incomplete without them. Starlink may be designed to stand on its own as a new franchise, but it seems like there's just more to do in the Nintendo Switch version of the game.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas may not be a Nintendo-developed Star Fox game, but if you play it on the Switch, it can be something a Star Fox game never has been -- a big, open world adventure with complex storylines, modular, customizable spaceships and divergent gameplay. A Star Fox game with new ideas.
And given how recent entries in the series have fared, it's about time.
: We talk to developer Matthew Rose.
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