It’s easy to imagine the customizable toy ships that come bundled with physical copies of Starlink: Battle for Atlas taking flight. You can easily snap a weapon onto the left or right wing of a ship—an exclusive replica of the classic Starfox Arwing for those playing on a Nintendo Switch—and once you’ve acquired other models (sold separately), you can even snap the wings off one and “Frankenstein” them to another. But once you’ve docked that ship on its custom mount, thereby transporting it into the Atlas galaxy, and you’ve slid your JoyCons into the side grips, allowing you to fly the vessel within the game, you’re literally and figuratively locked into Ubisoft’s adventure, a paint-by-numbers affair that refuses to allow players to color outside the lines.
All games, even sandboxes like Minecraft, are structured around limitations. But most do a far better job of hiding those artificial barriers than Starlink. Sure, if you swap out a weapon or a wing on your mounted real-world ship, that change also occurs in-game, and that’s a cool embellishment on the toys-to-life genre. In practice, it’s a clunky, action-breaking endeavor, one that takes you right out of the game’s sense of immersion while you fumble around in the real world for the right armament. Starlink simply isn’t built for meaningful interaction, as evinced by the fact that the game’s one creative concession—allowing players to rear-mount their weapons—makes the actual game all but unplayable, given the critical role of precision targeting.
The Starlink experience improves slightly if you download the game, as you don’t have to fiddle with expensive, real-world components. However, while both come packaged with the same base game, the physical and digital versions provide only a limited number of weapons, ships, and pilots, and things are significantly harder without additional microtransactions. For one, each distinct ship in your collection serves as an extra life—that is, if one gets shot down, you can swap in a fresh one as opposed to having to respawn elsewhere. (It’s a bit like an old-school quarter-crunching arcade game: If you’ve got money, you can continue, but if not, you’ve got to start further back.) It’s also important to have a varied arsenal, as each weapon provides a massive damage boost against a specific foe. If you haven’t bought an ice weapon, it’s going to take a long time to whittle away a Fire Giant’s health bar, and you’ll be even more efficient if you use the burst damage from the Freeze Ray Mk. 2 as opposed to the icy Hailstorm gatling gun.
Because the physical toys are optional accessories and the combat is essentially pay-to-win, Starlink‘s only appeal as a video game is the promise of exploring the open worlds of the seven-planet Atlas system. Sadly, despite seamless orbit-to-surface transitions ripped straight from No Man’s Sky, those bespoke planets are about as lifeless as the empty stretches of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Sonatus is, no doubt, a sumptuous world, with long purple stretches that dazzle the eye as you streak across them, the sun catching the horizon just so. It has various biomes, like freezing mists or giant crystalline forests that appealingly beckon you toward them. But this creativity follows a blatant template. Each planet has three scannable fauna, like the space buffalo Uratasaur, and three harvestable flora, like Space Pops. These are largely decorative organisms, and the game’s database tells you far more than it shows, somehow both leaving little to the player’s imagination while at the same time showing very little imagination on Ubisoft’s end.
Adding insult to injury, each planet recycles the same exact tasks. For Ubisoft, this is a display of regression at its worst: This may be one of the studio’s best-looking games, and it may feature a lot of under-the-hood technology to keep things running smoothly, but the script and progression are a throwback to all the flaws of their very first Assassin’s Creed. There are liberation missions, in which you travel to one of four different model structures, killing everything there. There are base-building missions, in which you travel to one of four different allied structures, performing a basic fetch quest. And then there are resistance missions, in which you fight your way up a hierarchy of Legion crafts: kill extractors until the prime appears, kill enough primes to weaken the dreadnaught parked in that sector, then kill that. Fail to move quickly enough and the dreadnaught spawns more primes and the primes spawn more extractors. Before you know it, Starlink turns playing with toys into something that feels an awful lot like work.