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REVIEW: “Starlink” gets space action just right

“Starlink: Battle for Atlas” is an interesting gamble. It’s a toys-to-life game, with a kid-friendly tone, that does not lean on any existing popular brands to help sell it. The “Skylanders” franchise spent years at the top of this heap, but that series and its followers have since vanished into the discount bins of history. “Starlink” – a space exploration/shooting game with an attendant wave of toy spaceships – sounds like an idea that has arrived too late after the trend. However, “Starlink” is a robust and impressive experience that offers a unique take on the toys-to-life genre.

The term “toys-to-life” refers to any video game that uses physical toys to interact with the game. Games like “Skylanders” took an all-in approach where piles of extra toys were required to access areas and play as particular characters, but other implementations simply treated the toys as keys to unlock extra, albeit unnecessary, bonuses. “Starlink” runs closer to the former, but makes an effort to minimize stress on your wallet by offering a version of the game that does not require any toys at all.

“Starlink: Battle for Atlas” follows a band of heroes as they stand against an evil force of robots and pirates. It’s very broadly drawn. A couple of scenes might be worthy of an animated kids TV series, but most of it is bland and the characters are all very generic. The cynical rogue. The hopeful moral center. The wisecracking goofball. Media intentionally aimed at children can build greater worlds than this, so it is disappointing to see this part of “Starlink” end up as such thin soup.

But “Starlink” gets right exactly what it needs to get right: flying and fighting in a spaceship.

The game takes place across a solar system of seven planets, and you can fly across the entire surface of each as well as the vast stretches of outer space that connect them. (The planets are mostly just weird plants and rock formations, but it’s still a nice feat to have such free reign.) You can scoot around any planet’s surface like a hovering dune buggy, or hit the afterburners and take off into the sky.

Whether on land or in space, piloting your ship just feels great. “Starlink” is fast and fun, combining speed, combat and flashy effects into a smooth mix that never falters. The game absolutely nails controls and combat, making it easy to cruise past the placeholder drama.

Your activities on the planets are not limited to wiping out evil robots. The overall story of “Starlink” is that you are canvassing to generate local support in the fight against those same evil robots. Outposts are scattered around each planet, and they’ll join the cause once you clear out any nearby pirates or, somewhat absurdly, help them scan a specific local dinosaur species. Outposts will mine resources, trade items, or give you missions. Eventually you can choose and build new outposts, all with an eye towards pushing the enemies’ influence entirely off of each planet. Between the massive pirate starships floating in space and the giant spider-like robots prowling the planets’ surface, there’s plenty of high-stakes combat to be had.

So, about those toys. The clever hook is that the toys are modular, allowing you to mix and match ship bodies, wings, pilots and weapons. You can even stack wings onto wings and create truly weird-looking designs. If you swap parts on your toy, that change is reflected in the game, so you can change your short-range shotgun weapon into a guided missile array quickly and easily. Each pilot (yes, those mostly boring characters mentioned above) has their own special ability and a skill tree for further customization options. The starter set includes one full ship, a pilot or two, and a couple of weapons for $75. Additional ship packs, including an extra weapon and pilot, sell for $25, while smaller packs of weapons or pilots range from eight to ten dollars. Collecting the entire set of toys adds up to around $250, not that you need all of the toys to play the game.

But here’s the kicker: you can buy a digital-only version (as in, you have to download it from your console’s online storefront) that has ALL of the ships, pilots and everything for $80. Or you can choose a digital version that has MOST of the gear for $60. Check your system’s storefront to see what specific bundles are available. So if you do not need a box full of toys, regardless of how neat the modular toys may be, you can still have all of the in-game goodies.

The digital version works exactly the same way and gives you all of the same abilities. You just are not physically popping weapons on and off of your little spaceship toy. It’s great that “Starlink” offers this digital-only option, even if it seems like a sales risk at the game’s own expense.

The game is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch, but the Switch version has a clear advantage: Star Fox. Nintendo’s own classic space pilot joins the “Starlink” team only on the Switch version. Fox – who also therefore gets his own toy figure and ship – is no last-second inclusion either. Fox and his squadmates are fully baked into “Starlink.” They’re worked into the storyline and even have their own exclusive side quest. It’s a heck of a beefy bonus for Switch owners, and Fox is a natural fit into both the story and gameplay of “Starlink.”

As the toys-to-life genre fades, “Starlink: Battle for Atlas” is a great surprise. The controls are so slick, the action is so fast, and the world is so packed with things to do, that this could easily be considered a best in class offering. As a kid-friendly title with plenty of purchasing options, “Starlink” should be on your radar for holiday gift season this year.

“Starlink: Battle for Atlas” is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. This review is based on product supplied by the publisher. Images courtesy Ubisoft.