Starlink: Battle for Atlas, the newest offering from Ubisoft, will launch globally on October 16. GameByte was able to get a preview in London, try out gameplay and talk with Eduardo Hulshof, director of level design at Ubisoft Toronto.
What is Starlink?
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Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an action adventure game for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and PS4. The game casts the player in the role of the plucky young pilot of a spaceship. There are five or six characters to choose from (one extra character if you’re playing on the Nintendo). Of these characters, there are two non-humans, two women and two men, a pleasingly diverse offering.
Once you’ve chosen a pilot you’ll build a ship around them, by selecting the main body of a ship and then attaching various weapons. You’ll spend the rest of this game in this ship, which is a physical extension of your character’s body. Its casing and bolt-on weapons can be swapped around during play to help you meet the various challenges and enemies of different parts of the game.
The game is played in two kinds of space. Some of the time you will be flying through the universe, making inter-stellar trips from one planet to another and exploring the galaxy. There’s plenty to do out there as space turns out not to be empty but is littered with shipwrecks, outposts and other floating detritus which contain valuable treasure. These may be heavily guarded by outlaws, who you may need as allies later in the game, or by the Legion, a generic enemy against which the various minority factions of Atlas are trying defend themselves, with your assistance.
At other times you’ll be playing the game at the surface of one of these planets, skimming over it and encountering various objects and challenges. There could be clusters of minerals or other natural resources which will power up your spaceship when you fire at them. There could be alien structures with glowing red bodies, which you will soon learn to fire at. Doing this will cause crowds of alien defenders to appear and you will gun them all down, using well-signposted controls, and then destroy the building.
In turn, this will earn you the loyalty of local factions who will become your allies as you perform seek-and-destroy missions for them. Eventually you and your new-found friends will come together for a boss fight against the Legion. There’s a main quest campaign which is designed to last about 15 hours but Ubisoft hopes that imaginative play with the game will yield further hours of entertainment as players explore and make up their own stories about their favourite pilots. Starlink is primarily a single player game but has a split-screen option for two-player action.
What is Star Fox and who is Fox McCloud?
Star Fox and Fox McCloud are a beloved Nintendo IP. Through Starlink, Ubisoft formed a partnership with Nintendo so that Starlink players on that platform (but not on the Xbox or PS4) can play as Fox as a pilot and enjoy the spaceship, the Arwing. Which has been made exclusively for the character and includes special weapons and abilities. The Star Fox series of games first appeared on the Nintendo platform in the early 90s, so there will definitely be some mums and dads who played Star Fox as kids and are happy for the chance to revisit Fox McCloud as part of playing Starlink with their own children.
Director of level design Hulshof is himself a parent, with kids aged 8 and 3. He agrees that all parents are exposed to a lot of kids’ entertainment products, from TV shows to toys to children’s movies. This is not always a vastly rewarding experience for the parent. From this personal experience arose a desire to make a game for kids that had enough built in rewards to interest an adult and make the game a satisfying experience for them independently of playing with their children. Hulshof’s other ambition for this game is that kids should feel empowered by it and not patronised. That is why the game feels rather like an adult space-exploration game with an extra bossy GPS system rather than a children’s game that had a bit of sci fi imported into it. Ubisoft may count this as an achievement.
What’s new and different?
Starlink is part of an emerging genre of toys-to-life games. The point of the genre is to cross the divide between digital play and physical play with toys that are capable of communicating with a game. It’s not an easy category to break into, though. The toys industry is extremely competitive and logistically challenging. Disney and Lego both launched toys-to-life products that ended in 2016.
For companies that are primarily about software, physical toys are a challenging and expensive new category to break into. Toys are relatively expensive to make, there’s a lot of testing and Health and Safety compliance that has to be done before you can give toys to kids. The game production process has to change to accommodate the development and integration of toys as the game evolves. You can’t just make a piece of software and then bolt on a toy afterwards, otherwise you’re in the collectibles business and not toys-to-life, so there are lots of practical hurdles that have to be overcome.
Coming to the game as an adult player who doesn’t need to entertain children, Starlink interestingly alters the expected order of events between video games and physical objects. Traditionally you might be a player of RPGs or the elaborate world of action shooters. When you get really heavily into it you might start buying collectables and special editions. This is how things normally go. In contrast, this is game that wants to work in the other direction. It wants the player to have this experience where you begin with a toy and then a game and imaginative universe arises from that.
As for what isn’t new and different – I ask Hulshof to comment on the fact that this game is being called ‘No Man’s Sky for Kids’ by observers who have noticed that the two games at times look very similar. As well as placing the player in essentially the same situation of travelling, exploring and collecting resources. Hulshof won’t be drawn into comparisons. “We tried to make something unique with this game”, he says firmly. The resemblances persists though… and maybe No Man’s Sky for Kids isn’t inherently a bad idea.
What is gameplay like?
It’s easy to see how the game has been built for a young audience: the expected consumer is around 10-years-old. Precautions are built in to avoid kids becoming frustrated. If you attach a cannon to your ship facing back to front, it will work in the digital game, but it will fire backwards. That might not be the effect you wanted but the game will not tell you that you are wrong for attaching peripherals in a particular way. There’s also a lot of in-game direction and instruction. As you are flying around, characters will pop up in your HUD, making conversation and giving you explicit instruction about where to go and what to do next.
Clear advice is handed to you about what kinds of weapons you should use to win a particular encounter. As I was flying around I found I wanted to focus on the view of the galaxy or land surface that was right in front of me and it was mildly distracting to have these cartoonish figures keep popping up, telling me what to do and being chatty. If I were 10 though I might appreciate the guidance. There seemed to be an inbuilt tension between the idea of freedom, exploration and imagination.
The penalties for death are inconsequential. I randomly fired at things while ignoring the advice about weapons, got blown up and my ship started working again without a problem.
Is it just for kids? Who else can play?
To an adult gamer, there are obvious things that make this a game for kids. The level of explicit in-game instruction in where to go and how to interact with the environment, its treasures and enemies. The cartoonish atmosphere that seems to allude to the 80s children’s TV shows which Ubisoft producer Matt Rose took as early inspiration for the game. Most obviously, the toys.
Most adult games keep up this pretence of collectibles being an afterthought whereas here the physical toys are front and centre of the game’s total offering. I’m not the type of gamer who collects figurines or model aeroplanes so I thought this aspect would be of limited personal interest but once I got hands-on with the game I was pleasantly surprised. The toys are nice quality – something that Hulshof says was extremely important for Ubisoft – and there are particular moments of delight in handling them, which I hadn’t expected.
The pilot character, which is the first thing you select in the game, physically slots in to the cockpit of the spaceship. This felt like a nice touch because most of the cars, planes and spaceships I had a kid did not have this ability. They were solid objects with no entry or exit points and you just had to imagine that your hero was inside. There’s something quite pleasing about the fact that the character itself is part of this modular toy and, in fact, at the centre of the modular structure you are building.
The second nice moment is when you have slotted the doll into the ship and now you need to embellish it with some weapons. At this point your monitor is showing a scientific-looking diagram of your vessel. As you take a weapon piece with a USB-like attachment and plug it into the main body of your ship, it will instantly appear on the screen. A change that you made to your toy in the physical world has instant, lightning results in the game world. This moment of crossover between the digital game world and the physical world that you are holding in your hands is highly satisfying.
This is, Hulshof agrees, a slightly more complete and integrated experience than getting into a game and then later buying collectibles which don’t do anything but sit on a shelf and look pretty. It’s actually very satisfying to hold a nicely-made toy spaceship in your hand, make physical changes in it and see the digital game world respond to those actions and decisions. These are moments of psychological reward that were not apparent to me before I was able to get hands-on with the game.
Do I need this game?
This game faces obvious and less-obvious challenges. At the obvious level, it is addressing a lucrative but limited market. While there are plenty of young gamers out there who can be profitably served with kid-friendly games, making a game like this inevitably means that the number of adults who play it outside of their capacity as parents is going to be limited. But if we leave aside this initial objection, as clearly a lot of people do want to play Lego Harry Potter and other youthful offerings, then a less obvious challenge starts to appear. The challenge is that in reversing the relationship between game and collectible, where traditionally one would be heavily involved with a games lore and universe before purchasing souvenirs, Starlink is asking us to purchase the collectibles ahead of the emotional investment that gives collectibles their personal value.
Hulshof is keen to emphasise that the digital game and the physical toys are viable independent products that can be played with separately and do not require each other’s purchase. The way the products are bundled for sale though does seem to convey an expectation that players should buy into both. Ubisoft is offering a boxed starter kit, no doubt meant to become a Christmas gift idea, which retails at a slightly eye-watering £70. The box contains game disk, a pilot, a ship, three interchangeable weapons and a mount for attaching everything to your controller.
What this means is that if you are an adult gamer buying this for yourself and not as a gift for a kid, which is a different need and state of mind, then Ubisoft is asking you to invest in collectibles for a game you don’t yet play. That’s quite a lot to ask. Are these toys special enough, on their own, that you would want them anyway, independently of the software? For a lot of adults, even though the toys are nicely made, that might be too much to ask. We’re used to falling in love with our video games first and becoming a collector later.
Ubisoft has tried to keep a lot of options open in this game.
You don’t need to be a child or even a parent.
You don’t need the software.
You don’t need the physical toys.
Possibly, in trying to keep so many options open, it ultimately loses sight of what the normal settings should be and therefore the psychological contract with the customer becomes unclear. Am I buying toys that come to life? Am I buying a video game that has collectibles that are a lot more interactive than usual? If I’m buying toys first, game second, then why am I buying these toys? Do they have a strong enough rationale for existence outside of the ‘and then it came to life in a video game’ mechanism?
Is all of this going to result in enough sales to help support future game development? At £70, it’s not a small investment for the consumer. I left the experience wanting Ubisoft to be clearer about where I should find the emotional connection that makes me spend my money on a brand or product that I’m not already involved with.
All in all though, Starlink: Battle for Atlas has some surprisingly pleasing mechanics and toys. It’s easy to see it as a nice gift for young family members and, most importantly, one that you won’t mind playing when the giftee unrwraps it.