Previews

Do a barrel roll! — Hands-on preview with Starlink Battle for Atlas

Recently, I took a moment to sit down with Ubisoft Toronto to get a much closer look at Starlink Battle for Atlas.  Before we kicked things off, we had a quick chat with Matthew Rose, Producer for the title. Starlink Battle for Atlas represents the first new IP built by this particular studio, and to assist in that mandate, he was given a completely open canvas to build something entirely new.  From humble beginnings starting with a Wiimote, consumer electronics, and LEGO building blocks (and a whole lot of wire), the team instantly noticed that people made the connection with what they were trying to build. They saw that when people snapped a part onto their concept rig they started adding their own sound effects and imaginations caught fire, both for the people playing, and for the designers themselves.  They started to think about what people want in their game, and how they could bring something completely different to the kids game genre. Before they could do that, however, they wanted to do something even more radical – they wanted to redesign what it means to be a “kids game”.

They found that the kids game genre is not only an underserved market, but also one that is not well understood.  The generation of kids that are coming up now have the advantage that mine never did – parents that are also gamers.  They progress faster, mastering games that are labeled as “kids games” and quickly discovering the same thing that Ubisoft Toronto did – there is a vast desert between age-appropriate titles and games aimed at adults.  In between these two spaces lies a wide array of games that are either entirely inappropriate for that age group, or that miss the mark and “talk down” to their audience. Ubisoft Toronto wants Starlink Battle for Atlas to bridge that gap.

The idea behind Starlink is to make something that isn’t a kids game, but instead an awesome open world action sci-fi RPG that can appeal to both core gamers and kids alike.  True to Ubisoft’s guiding ethos, it should also be built to allow gamers to enjoy the game the way they want to play it, letting players shape the world as they see fit. They wanted to build a world that is reactive to the player, but also one that continues to evolve without them.  As I listened to Rose outline his goals for this game, I couldn’t help but be impressed with his team’s ambition, but wary of just how impossible all of it sounds when wrapped in the package of my preconceived notion of what a “toys to life” genre game could be. It’s nice to be wrong every once in a while.

Before we dig into the gameplay, I have to take a moment and talk about the highlight of the show – the toys – they truly are amazing.  To ensure they delivered on this aspect of the game in a big way, Ubisoft didn’t just partner with toy manufacturers, they built their own team from scratch.  Recruiting from some of the biggest toy companies in the industry, they wanted to create something modular on a scale never seen in the toys to life genre before.  We’ve seen other titles that have toys, and even ones where you can even swap out pieces, but they are a mostly stationary affair lying in state on a pedestal until the game is over.  Ubisoft’s Starlink toys are an absolute masterpiece, blowing away anything else on the market.

I was very happy to hear that the hotly-anticipated Nintendo Switch exclusive Star Fox content was not simply a cameo appearance by Fox McCloud and friends.  Instead, Fox and his team are fully voiced, animated, and have a unique story written just for them. There are even additional exclusive missions exclusive to the Switch.  The best way to demonstrate this is for us to do a barrel roll and dive right into the Star Fox portion of our demo:

As you can see, you’ll select a hero (in this case, Fox McCloud) and slot him into the custom clamp that mounts over the top of the Nintendo Switch Joycon controller.  With your hero chosen, you’ll drop the Arwing body over the top of the hero, putting them in the cockpit of the ship, creating some instant immersion. Strapping the wings of the Arwing onto the left and right of the ship body finishes up the assembly as Fox’s ship comes pre-equipped with blasters.  If you were building a different ship (or if you wanted or needed to switch things up, as you’ll see later in the video) you’d need to attach weapons at this point.

I played with the Arwing in a fairly stock loadout, other than pulling in elemental weapons that can be used to create powerful charged attacks, but it got me thinking about what would happen if you start stacking other goodies on top of the Arwing’s main body.  Well, wonder no longer:

There is a limit of three wings before your ship’s in game weight becomes too much to be maneuverable (the real-world physical weight of these toys are perfect – despite playing for two hours straight I never noticed the extra bit of weight on top of the controller), and you can only have two weapons mounted at any time.  That said, if you want to create a wing-on-wing configuration that pushes a far higher handling for space, that’s not only viable but encouraged. If you are struggling to defeat a boss, you could also strap on a pair of armored wings to push your defensive capabilities. If you wanted, you could even strap on four of them.

If you are worried about your wallet, I have fantastic news – all of what I just described is entirely optional.  You heard me correctly; there isn’t a need to buy a single toy. While you will miss out on the incredibly satisfying and tactile joy of building your own modular starship and reconfiguring it on the fly, you could simply buy the game digitally and select the options you want from menus.  Absolutely nothing is locked behind plastic parts. In fact, if you do own the toys, you can loan them to your friends for a time-limited unlock for them to try out weapons and wings they might not yet have uncovered for themselves.

Speaking of your friends, Starlink Battle for Atlas supports cooperative play.   While we didn’t get a chance to try it out for ourselves, the game will support two-player split-screen drop-in/drop-out cooperative play at launch for all platforms.  The overweight multi-wing nearly-immobile overpowered configuration I mentioned earlier might just become viable, if you are playing with a friend who is playing with an agile ship and drawing fire while you lob heavy fire into an enemy base.

The pilots underneath the canopy all have distinct backstories, as well as being fully voice acted.  They also have their own roles, super powers, and abilities. Like the ships, you can swap them out at will, even mid battle, though using ships, weapons, parts, and pilots earns bonuses for frequent use, so figuring out a favorite is encouraged.   The special powers are useful in a pinch, with Judge (the giant blue alien character) being able to slow down time for a short period, Shaid being able to briefly cloak her ship, and Hunter can use a ninja-like power to teleport around the battlefield, cutting down his foes.  There are a total of ten pilots (including the Switch exclusive, Fox McCloud), but there is nothing preventing the team from releasing more if there is demand.

Weapons in the game use a paper/rock/scissors system.  You will encounter ice foes that are best countered with fire weapons. It’s when you start stacking things together that the game really takes off.  For instance, using a fire weapon on one wing and a vortex weapon on the other creates a fire vortex that is devastating to your foes. Similarly, using an imploder with a shredder (as you can see in the video above) is a brutal combination.  This system creates a sort of deckbuilding engine that is as much fun to discover as it is to use.

There are a total of seven different worlds to explore in Atlas, and each one has flora and fauna to discover.  Clearly the Ubisoft Toronto team is hanging out with the Ubisoft Montpellier team as they also feature a seamless ride between space, upper atmosphere, and the planet surface, all without loading.  If this sounds familiar, it’s also going to be a staple of another highly-anticipated Ubisoft title – Beyond Good & Evil 2, and that’s good company to keep.

When you hit the planet’s surface, every living creature on it is fully simulated and happily living their own lives, regardless of what you are doing.  Creatures roam about, factions clash, and enemies will attempt to overrun friendly outposts. Some missions are time sensitive, and if you don’t act in time, they may be lost.  Similarly, on more than one occasion, I ran into a conflict already in progress that required my assistance, lest a research base be overrun. Time continues to march forward, but conversely, if you are ahead of this time curve, you might be able to place defensive turrets ahead of a mission or attack, making it far easier when the enemy arrives.

It’s not all just rescuing research stations and doing favors for friends in Starlink, you’ll also occasionally have to take out Warden Spire Extractors. These spires create a powerful fuel source called Nova, but also spawn enemies and generally wreak havoc on the area.   Taking them out requires a bit of fancy footwork and finesse, with later ones respawning previously-destroyed towers until you finally destroy the core. You can see one of these battles for yourself below:

As you can see, the Xbox One X version of Starlink Battle for Atlas looks gorgeous in 4K / 60fps, and no matter how many foes I encountered on the screen, I never saw any drop in performance.  In the video below you can see a space battle where I tangle with some entirely random Legion bandits after playing with various ships, pilots, mods, and random wings and weapons. In this combination, I used a missile that paralyzed the target, then a kinetic weapon that allowed me to cut through them like a blade.  While it’s purpose built and very effective on the ground, it’s shockingly effective in space.

In the last Xbox One X video, I went all out, trading out weapons, wings, pilots, and ship chassis all willy-nilly, just to see how effective they might be against the enemy.  It even concludes with a boss fight with a Fire Giant that kicks my butt, destroying my ship. At this point, I could respawn back at base, or simply swap in another physical ship.  Naturally, I chose the latter, but my team did the heavy lifting for me while I was swapping in my new ride. With the boss dispatched, I retrieved what I needed to upgrade the nearby Arbor refinery, and snagged a second tier mod for myself in the process.

After two hours with Starlink Battle for Atlas I feel very safe saying that any comparison to the toys-to-life genre are completely unwarranted and inaccurate.  Matthew Rose and his team at Ubisoft Toronto have created something entirely new. While we have a little bit of time before the game launches, it feels safe to say that they are hitting their goal.  They’ve managed to somehow fill the wide gap between games for kids and adults, and they’ve done it with something that’ll appeal to both audiences, while talking down to neither. I feel like it’s going to be the surprise hit of the holiday season.

Starlink Battle for Atlas is releasing on Xbox One, Xbox One X, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Pro, and Nintendo Switch on October 16th, 2018.  Stay tuned, and “Good Luck!”

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