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.
Freedom and exploration are possible thanks to the seamless world (or should that be system), which is inspired by the open worlds from other universes under the Ubisoft banner, such as those from Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs. StarLink's lead game designer Jesse Knapp explained the value the game offers compared to its predecessor in the genre, saying that the first substantial difference lies in this massive open world, in which the player has a maximum degree of freedom in terms of exploration. Although there's a story connecting the whole experience, it's in the player's hands to choose how to move within the Atlas system, choosing to explore the different planets when and how they like. The other interesting thing is that players can be accompanied in their adventure by a second user via a jump-in jump-out co-op system. Thanks to a shared screen mode, which can be activated at any time as soon as a second player enters the game, you can share the experience with a friend at any time.
During our hands-on session we were able to test Nintendo Switch version of the game; the only edition that features Fox McCloud and the model of his spacecraft. As told by creative director Laurent Malville, this exclusive partnership between Nintendo and Ubisoft stems from a desire from Ubi Toronto to help younger players get to know the iconic character, and Fox McCloud is a perfect fit for Starlink. The controls for the Switch version appear rather simple and intuitive, allowing even a younger player to get involved immediately, and the model and character are literally embedded in the Switch controller (as you can see in the picture below). We must admit that we were really surprised by how light it was, even if it was a bit cumbersome.
The real star of the show is the ability to change the various components of the spacecraft at will, allowing the player to make changes to their setup to suit the situation. In the short time we had to try the game we found it fun to be able to tinker with the build - a design feature that should be enhanced by the inventiveness and creativity of younger players - and as for the visuals, Starlink: Battle for Atlas shines with its diverse landscapes, although there were some frame-rate drops during certain battle sequences. The combat system is rather simple, but at the same time it's also well-paced, something which will no doubt boost its appeal. Having experienced only a short portion of the game, however, we don't know how much this part of the game might get repetitive in the long term, even if we found it rather interesting during our limited time with the game.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas puts the player in the middle of it all and does everything to make them feel like they're not only the one and only protagonist but also an indispensable creator of their unique adventure. The concept behind Ubisoft Toronto's new game seems quite promising and is also a way to allow a new generation to approach the world of interactive entertainment, here through a decidedly deep, intriguing, and creative experience. It's not the classic game for children, but a multi-layered experience that will allow little explorers the chance to enjoy an adventure authored by themselves. How much time they'll want to spend in Atlas remains to be seen, but for the moment it has us tentatively convinced. Now all that's left to do is to wait for October 16 for the final verdict, when the game will land on PS4, Switch, and Xbox One.