The history of the toys-to-life genre is undoubtedly one of the most tormented, as after all the early enthusiasm and plenty of success among younger players (but also among the most enthusiastic collectors of figurines) the flame that had distinguished the genre - in games like Disney Infinity, Lego Dimensions, and Skylanders - soon faded, leading to the failure and the subsequent closure of the projects. One of the factors that held the genre back was the cost of keeping up with the collectible side of things, with prices sometimes failing to represent the value offered to the player.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas, Ubisoft's new sci-fi game, is coming in a few weeks on three different platforms, and it starts with a similar concept to those mentioned above, while at the same time looking to bring the gaming experience to a whole new level. Starting by addressing the mistakes made by its predecessors, Ubisoft's new game aims to offer something much deeper. "Create, explore and discover" is clearly the mantra that distinguishes Starlink: Battle for Atlas, but the game also rewrites the script for toys-to-life in a different way.
The project has been in development since 2013, when Ubisoft Toronto decided to test itself with a new and ambitious venture; to create a video game in which kids could build their own spaceship, just as they can with Lego bricks, customising details like the engines, weapons, wings, and even the pilot. Using the toys-to-life concept, this physical figure would then be reproduced in the digital space, letting players use their creation to explore the game world. After several prototypes and discarded models, eventually the developers were able to find a setup that suited their needs and allowed young players to dismantle and reassemble the various components of the spacecraft at any time. It's a neat setup, and as we discovered during our time with the game, these components add an important tactical element to the experience too. However, it should be noted that it's possible to play without the model ship, even if it's obviously encouraged to ensure your adventure is even more personal.
If the essence of the experience looks similar to previous toys-to-life games, in reality what distinguishes Starlink: Battle for Atlas is the scale of the exploration and the freedom offered to players, who can explore the Atlas system without necessarily following the underlying plot that otherwise stitches the experience together. At the base of the story there's a very simple narrative which pushes explorers to discover different planets, learning about different landscapes and the flora and fauna present on each one. At the beginning of the game the Equinox space station - with the heroes of this adventure on board - is dragged into a planet by an organisation called Forgotten Legion, the captain of Equinox is kidnapped by the villain called Grax, and it's up to the pilots to rescue their commander. Grax also wants to find an ancient race called the Warden, who apparently own an ancient technology he wants, so of course we have to thwart his plans too, allying with other alien races.
The alliance system is a very important part of the game, as it enlists new races to the cause, changing the structure of the game world and - consequently - the final experience. Another element that allows you to change the gameplay is the presence of different characters, all usable through statuettes that are placed inside the model of the spacecraft. In addition to having different backstories, they also have different skills and play styles that allow you to experience your adventure in new ways. This of course affects the gameplay and enriches the journey by providing greater depth, leaving the player with a high level of freedom when it comes to approaching different situations.