A block of wood is simply an object of potential, but when you put a face, wheels, and a nice coat of paint on it, it’s a vessel, a pathway out of reality and into your own imagination. It’s now a toy, and when you look at that toy, when you pick it up and move it, you compose the world around it into something new, or rather, the toy does the composing. The blank slate of our imagination is given a nudge, just a simple nudge, to make the world new.
The promise of toys-to-life video games, which combine physical toys with virtual video games, is to replace that blank slate of imagination with a pre-built digital world, full of things to do and places to see. Not until Ubisoft’s “Starlink: Battle for Atlas” has this genre felt like it was anything more than a way to sell merchandise. In “Starlink” there’s the hint of a path forward for toys-to-life that may not inevitably fizzle out, as almost all previous attempts have, and it starts with the idea the toy is the thing to make, not the game, not even the world around it.
This manifests literally in the modular toys themselves. Pop a ship onto the custom “Starlink” controller, and it’ll pop up in-game, then place weapons on the ship’s wings and those will pop in too. You can even swap out the wings of a ship with those of another, leaving room for some aesthetic customization in addition to the functional customization of the weapons. The initial shock of seeing these changes happen in real-time is profound, but eventually the game takes over and you’re charged with surviving as best you can in the Atlas star system. Your eyes are drawn away from the glow of the physical engine held above your hands to the putter of the digital one, and the toy, for the time being at least, is forgotten.
As it stands, “Starlink” the video game works best as a sort of soul for the physical toys, swirling around inside them and making them matter. As a game in and of itself, “Starlink” most certainly works, but that’s about as far as it goes. Ubisoft Toronto smartly drew from some of the most prolific trends in gaming today, all of which are in one way or another designed to sustain longevity in games worlds that might otherwise grow stale. That means looting, resource gathering, and a bevy of other treadmill-like systems that coalesce reasonably well as a roundabout with the toys at the center.
The first step to really understanding what you’ll be doing for the vast majority of your time in the game is to think of Atlas, a seven-planet star system, as a territory war. On the ground level of each planet, you’re taking back land by saving and building friendly outposts, which can do things like increase your currency gain or visibility, or boost defenses on the planet, all the while exploring, flying, and shooting galore.
As the game asks you to swap out weapon types to accommodate different enemy types, whether it’s flipping on the flamethrower to take out an ice cyclops, or using a gravity beam to create a stasis-breaking vortex, you’re juggling in your hands not just pieces of plastic but augmentations that ought to be improved upon and used best. In this dynamic it’s these physical weapons that beg your attention the most, backseating both the pilot and the ship. It’s also in this elemental interplay, which drives the majority of the combat, that the game tips dangerously close to necessitating the purchase of toys not included in the starter pack. It’s certainly possible to get through the game with what you’re given, but when a boss-type enemy might go down easiest with a weapon-type you don’t have, that same resentment you might have for costly experience point boosts in an “Assassin’s Creed” title can crop up.
Once you’ve essentially won over the planet, which culminates in a boss fight or two, you’ll hop on over to another one and do it again. Take over enough planets in a sector of the system, and you’ll weaken a Dreadnought, lording in open space over those planets, enough to take it on. What this actually looks like in-game is a large map with percentages, waypoints, and ominous structures bundled together, pulling you along. All the while you’ll be gaining mods for your weapons and ships, readying up for a more difficult planet in a more difficult sector. That you can travel seamlessly from the surface of one planet, to space, and to the surface of an entirely different planet really keeps you cogently aware of the entirety of the Atlas system, all the while working towards those larger goals in every step you take.
But to take a toy and think, I’m really in need of a concrete goal and a sense of progression, and then literally piece together a mechanism for that through art and code, is perhaps a very adult instinct. It’s a way of replacing a lost capacity for unbridled imagination with, at the very least, something to do (and perhaps it’s only the adult that can really afford it). Altogether, “Starlink’s” territorial loop does provide a unique sort of drawn out crescendo, with loot rewards along the way. As a result, unlike a Nintendo amiibo toy or “Disney Infinity” figure, imposed with a bookshelf-destined iconography, it’s easy to find oneself wooshing these spaceships through the tumultuous atmosphere of a living room. That’s certainly a testament to their impeccable design, but they are also helped along by the game itself. There’s a reward to the territory loop that feeds back into the toy. That’s a literal award, of course, in the form of ship-enhancing loot, but it’s also abstract, a sense of accomplishment and history with the toy that leads to that aforementioned wooshing.
And to further reward, or at least attempt to, “Starlink” teaches this loop to you through its campaign, matching ever-intensifying plot points and frankly gorgeous cinematics with beats along an initial run of the system-wide crescendo.
This campaign could best be described as a three-part Saturday morning cartoon season finale, stripped down to it’s most climactic moments and then distributed across fifteen or so hours of game. There’s a lot of plucky characters standing in large groups in science-fiction-looking rooms exclaiming about some dramatic plot development, and it frankly begs a full, honest season, where the characters get to do more on their own. Given a decent measure of financial success for the “Starlink” property, one can imagine we’ll see just that down the line. It just so happens that the game at hand went with an “Avengers” before it went with an “Iron Man,” and we all know how that went for DC films.
In the Switch version of the game we’ve even got a great example of how Ubisoft might integrate future, more personalized storylines. Nintendo’s iconic Fox McCloud leads his Star Fox crew to track down the less iconic but far cooler Wolf O’Donnell. It’s a quick blush of added missions and plot points scattered around Atlas, a great little nostalgia boost, and a fine excuse to get Fox and his Arwing into a game for which he’s a natural fit. Ubisoft even managed to get the team’s banter just right, which really does spell promise for future content, where the development team isn’t tasked with throwing what feels like sixty characters at you in the span of thirteen seconds.
Atlas exists in service of these toys. That in itself is a wind change from toys-to-life games past, wherein Disney and Nintendo iconography, for example, which sell themselves, were also tapped to help sell games. The irony of Nintendo characters being tapped to sell this game is that the rest of “Starlink” seems to resent the ephemeral thrill of an iconic toy with nothing to do. “Starlink” would rather deliver the prolonged thrill of a personal toy with much to do, and lots of ways to change. It would rather put the burden on its world and allow the toy the space to breath.
And yet, from a longevity standpoint, there’s little in “Starlink” that doesn’t end up being repetitive, by nature. You’ll see the same enemies and bosses, the same sorts of trials, over and over again. This sort of platform sustainability, or living world, always comes up short in any sort of cinematic thrill. But as a means to make something of your ship and your weapons, it’s just enough fodder with just enough of a traction in your movements to keep the treadmill going.
As the game’s campaign wrapped up, most of which completed using the Arwing included in the Nintendo Switch’s starter pack, a small prick of desire to do more arose. What motivated this thought wasn’t altogether the endgame stuff, where you’re tasked with cleaning up the star system after toppling the campaign’s villain. The desire to return to Atlas was stoked by a new ship, the Neptune, and another pilot, an alien called Judge, and maybe fine tuning ship weapons just a bit more. In this way, the game did manage to successfully birth a soul into those pretty pieces of plastic. Players will want to nurture them, and Atlas is a fine enough place to do just that.