I was unsure about Starlink: Battle for Atlas going into it. The marketing was good but kind of vague. I was getting some No Man’s Sky vibes from it, which isn’t a compliment, but I was also getting some solid story based gameplay vibes from it as well, which is the greatest of gaming compliments. If I’m honest I have to say that the main selling point for me was that Star Fox is in the Switch version. You have to understand how much I love Star Fox and how long I’ve been waiting for a good Star Fox game. Having played every home console Star Fox game on its original release console, including Star Fox Guard and Star Fox 2, it’s my opinion that a good Star Fox game hasn’t been made since 2005. Star Fox 2 is good, but that was made in 1996. I hated Star Fox Zero. It had some good ideas but the controls were terrible to the point where I struggled just to finish the base game and haven’t played it since. So the prospect of a good Star Fox game was very appealing, but not enough to get me to buy Starlink day one, because this wasn’t made in house by Nintendo. Thankfully I received a review copy and I’m glad I did.
Let me be very clear in saying that I’m only about three hours into Starlink: Battle for Atlas at this point. I plan on playing it a lot more and after the three hours I have played, I can already say that I will absolutely finish this game and possibly go for a 100% completion. But I wanted to write something about it now while it’s new so people who are on the fence can get a better understanding of it so they can make a more informed purchasing decision. That’s why I’m leaving this review unscored and I put “Early Impressions” in the title of the post. I also want to make clear that I haven’t looked at the non-Switch versions of the game at all. I don’t even know how they compare graphically so be aware that this review is only talking about the Switch version unless otherwise stated.
Before getting into the finer details of the game, there are two main things that need to be said about Starlink before anything else. The first is that this game essentially took all the good ideas from No Man’s Sky, layered them over a The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild foundation, and then decorated it with Star Fox paint. That’s what this game is in a nut shell. They took the No Man’s Sky open world, resource management, space exploration concept, added an actual story, dialed back the map to that of large, but not infinite, and allowed players the ability to play an open galaxy space fighter game as Fox McCloud with his crew along for the ride. In other words, they did what people actually wanted rather than try to be overly experimental for the sake of grandeur.
The second thing that needs to be said is that this is not a Star Fox game. The PS4 and XB1 versions of the game don’t contain the Star Fox team. They were added into the Switch version similarly to how Link was added into Soul Calibur II (2002) on the Gamecube version of the game. The difference though is that Fox and crew have been added into Starlink with great care and effort. It’s not lazily done last minute. It’s not a few added cutscenes and no direct interactions. From what I’ve seen so far, Ubisoft took the time to weave Fox, Peppy, Slippy, Falco, and it seems Wolf directly into the plot of the story. There are cutscenes where the Starlink regular characters and the Star Fox team interact directly. Fox and crew enter the Starlink team’s ship during cutscenes and interact with them in dialog during normal gameplay. The point is that while this is not a Star Fox game, you’re able to play the Switch version like it is one, and that’s intentionally how I’ve been playing it so far. In a lot of ways, that might be the future of Nintendo games and if so, I’m looking forward to it.
Visually speaking, Starlink is very good, but it’s still a Nintendo game. I do believe it could look better on a more powerful machine. That being said, in true Nintendo style they’ve crafted a game that isn’t trying to look realistic so it’s fine that it doesn’t have super PC Master Race 4K graphics. The graphics are by no means bad though. The landscapes are beautiful and fairly well detailed. Fox and crew look great as far as finer details go, but they don’t really fit into the art style of the rest of the game. And the game runs very smoothly. The cutscenes look surprisingly good. Or at least the present day ones do. There are also some flash back cutscenes that are hand drawn comic strip style art. They look good for what they are, but they don’t match the rest of the game, that I’ve seen so far, in tone. Mostly though it’s one of the better looking games I’ve seen on Switch. It’s up there with Xenoblade Chronicles games. There are definitely some things that I believe are scaled down from what they would look like in the PS4 version, but not so much so that I feel like I’m being cheated playing on this platform.
What’s nice about this galaxy is that it’s both diverse and lived in. There are a lot of different settings and landscapes, even on individual planets. It’s not just dessert planet, lava planet, water planet. One planet, of which there are several, has multiple habitats. Wild life is native to certain regions and not others on any given planet. There are abandoned cities, skeletons littered across deserts, active settlements, roving bands of outlaws, and ancient ruins. It’s not a world(s) that exists for you. They just exist and you happen to be there.
There’s a lot going on in the full HUD. I haven’t turned anything off yet, but I’ve already considered it. It’s all useful information, but it just takes up so much of the screen. Depending on what’s happening, there are times when like 50% or more of the screen is covered in HUD data. Thankfully, you have the ability to toggle off and on each individual part of the HUD and two of the options can be set to appear only at specific times. I like the menus. They’re very simple and easy to understand. They have a very space age tone to them but they still come off very Nintendo. Smooth edges, interactive pictures, and easy to read text. I also really appreciated that you can set the subtitle text size, language, and backing opacity. You can even set the temperature readout to Celsius, Fahrenheit, or Kelvin. I don’t know if I’ve played any other games that have Kelvin as an option. Enemies, target objects, and bases all have floating life bars as well, so you can always see the status of things. This is really helpful and I’m glad it’s there, but it also adds even more HUD to the screen. I guess the best way to describe Starlink overall is that it looks the way it’s supposed to. I don’t think I’d change anything about it visually other than giving it more power so the details could be even crisper in the landscapes.
The sound is solid. The effects are limited to user interactions, which is a bit of a disappointment, but you don’t usually notice it during normal gameplay. What I mean is everything you do has a sound effect, but only certain things you do things to have a reaction sound. For example, if you shoot a canister that’s meant to be shot, you will hear your weapons fire and you will hear the canister explode. But if you shoot a wall, that’s not meant to be shot, you will hear your weapons fire, but the wall won’t make a sound. Essentially there are a limited number of sound profiles and interactions in the game. But again, most of the time you won’t notice this unless you’re actively shooting things you aren’t meant to shoot. Your ship has sounds for everything from boosting and jumping to changing out weapons. And the things you’re supposed to interact with all make sounds as well. The quality is clean and mostly clear, but it can get drowned out by your weapons fire. You do have the ability to set separate volume levels 1 – 100 for speech, SFX, music, and ambient sounds as well as change the audio mix between three sound profile options.
The dialog audio is good. There are many different characters that speak in this game and they all have their own voices. That includes NPCs like shop keepers and outlaws. All speaking characters, including outlaws, have individual names and their talking avatar shows up on your screen during dialog. You will never see any characters walking around though. Every sentient being is in a ship at all times. Only wildlife and enemies are just walking around the landscapes. The wildlife have their own sound profiles as well, which is always a nice touch.
The gameplay takes some getting used to. It’s essentially an all-range mode fighter plane game that takes place both in space and on the ground. You have the option to free fly between space, the sky within a planet’s atmosphere, and at ground level. You are always in your ship, but the way you move is determined by the flight mode/space you’re in. In general, the controls are fairly straight forward. You have up to two weapons mounted at any time, which you control with the triggers. You can boost, shield, jump, and interact with the four buttons (A,B,X,Y) on the right joy-con and you use the shoulders and arrow buttons for special commands. When in ground flight mode, you have a lot more control and don’t have to worry about altitude. But you also have limits to how high up you can jump. What is interesting though is that the game seems to have dynamic jumping, meaning it tends to make you jump as high as you need to go rather than having a limited jump height. There is a max limit though before you have to change to flight mode, which you do by holding the right shoulder. My biggest complaint is that the buttons aren’t customizable. I wish I could swap the boost and jump buttons and make the shield a different button as well. I pretty much never shield during combat because of where the button is placed.
The fact that you’re always in your ship is a good thing. It makes for a more streamlined experience. You travel around planets and mine for resources, among other tasks, but things don’t require as much nitty gritty work. Boxes are scattered around the worlds that contain Electrum, the equivalent of gold/money, mods, and other useful things. You just have to shoot or blow them up to open them. The items contained within the boxes are automatically collected. This saves you so much time. At first I didn’t realize collecting was automatic so I went up to every box and manually collected things. But once I realized I didn’t have to I started sniping boxes from far away and saving tons of time farming. There are also resources that need to be mined from nature like plants and metal ore. These do need to be picked up manually. They can be sold at outposts for Electrum. NPCs will often task you with collecting things for them as well a number of other types of tasks like deliveries, scouting/exploring missions, and hunts for enemies and objects. You use Electrum and special resources to upgrade the main ship, your general skills/perks, and outposts. Your weapons and fighter ships are upgraded through perks rather than individually. But each weapon, ship, and pilot has their own experience gauge and leveling, so it pays to play with various loadouts so you’re developing your entire crew as opposed to just one set. I will admit though that I haven’t been good about that myself just yet. I’m pretty much only playing as Fox in the Arwing and I tend to use the same two guns a majority of the time. In the long run though I will change them once I max them out, otherwise it’s just a waste of XP.
The game lets you change your loadouts, including ships and pilots, on command. At any time, including in mid-battle, you can just go to the menu screen and change your load outs. Ships and weapons also have mod slots, which matter a lot. Mods can affect a number of things like base damage, elemental damage, healing speed, movement, and so on. You have a limited number of slots for each piece of gear, but these can be expanded a finite amount with general upgrades. The ability to change loadouts in real time is useful because you can create loadouts for multiple scenarios and hot swap them based on the situation rather than having to re-spec your ship for every encounter. Loadouts matter because different mods and weapons work in tandem for the best results. For example, using fire and ice weapons concurrently results in a “Thermal Shock” damage scenario. You freeze enemies susceptible to ice damage, causing them to literally freeze in place and sometimes fall over. Then you burn them with fire ammo. The resulting reaction between the two types of ammo causes additional damage and effects to enemies. There are several types of weapons combinations that have special effects. This is why preparing multiple layouts is so useful.
The Ubisoft Club rewards for Starlink are some of the most useful I’ve seen in any Ubisoft game. The four rewards give you a collection of strong mods that will greatly enhance your performance. I don’t know if these mods will be that useful down the road once you’ve started finding higher level stuff and creating your own via mod merging/crafting, but early on the rewards mods are extremely valuable. I recommend buying them right off the bat if you have the Ubi coins to spare. And since the game has more coins to earn than to spend, you still make a net gain if you complete all the rewards tasks, many of which are pretty easy.
The game, at least at this point, is not too difficult. That’s not to say that it’s easy, but more that it’s fair and rewards you for playing both smart and dynamically. If you just sit in one spot and fire away you might win, depending on the difficulty, but chances are you will struggle. To master the game you need to understand how weapons combinations work, which enemies require which weapons, which the game helps you with, which mod combinations work the best for your play style, and you need to master maneuvering. You also need to pick the right pilot for you. Each pilot, of which there are at least 10, some of which I found later in the game, has their own strengths, weaknesses, and special moves. Fox, for example, summons Peppy, Slippy, and/or Falco to battle. They only stay for the duration of the battle, but it’s a useful technique. You can do this at ground level or in space. Once you get the hang of the game, you will push yourself to harder challenges. I started at normal, but after only two hours in I changed it to hard. I haven’t tried very hard yet. You can also turn friendly fire on or off. I keep it off though personally.
Enemies have levels and you aren’t aware of how big a difference those levels can be until you challenge something way out of your league. My Fox is level four and I haven’t struggled much, but I have had a ship blow up a few times in the normal course of play. But when I discovered a level 16 special enemy, it whipped my ass. Something to come back to later. That’s the nice thing about the game. There are things you know you’ll want to come back to later. The death system is interesting in Starlink. I think it works well for the type of game it is. Your ship has a life bar that heals automatically after a certain amount of time without taking damage, but if you take too much damage too quickly your ship will blow up, but this isn’t game over. You have a total of at least six ships. Each one has its own stats as one of four classes that I’ve seen so far. When you lose a ship, you can just swap out another one and use that one for as long as you want or until it also blows up. Then the next time you get to a repair shop you can spend Electrum to repair all your damaged ships. This system is really convenient because it means you rarely have to stop play even if you got a ship blown up. This also means that there is no stoppage in normal play. You can get hit with multiple battles back to back. Outlaws can attack at any time. You can fly into a nest accidentally. When you go to the menu the game is paused so you don’t have to worry about dying while trying to re-spec. But you never truly know what you need to be prepared for.
There are also a number of mini-game and puzzle mechanics scattered throughout the game. Some are quite simple like pulling/plucking things. When you want to harvest plants or open doors, you have to grab them with your ship’s cable and then pull. But you have to pull the right amount. There’s a meter that you need to fill with enough pull pressure before the object will release. You aren’t allowed to over pull it though. It has to be properly measured or the object will remain attached. It’s hard to explain in text form, but as you find more important items, the pull min-game becomes harder. Some puzzles involve shooting targets with certain types of ammo or in a certain order. There are door puzzles that require you to figure out a sequence of locks in a specific order. I also really enjoy the ways you can interact with wildlife. You have to scan them to add to your database and learn more about them. Scanning one isn’t enough though. You need to find and scan three or four of the same species to get full data about it. You can also help animals, which I really like. Sometimes you find animals that have infections and you can help remove them. This will make that particular animal act friendlier towards you. To be honest I have yet to see any wildlife act with hostility towards me unprovoked, but I have had them show fear. The game is so much more than just flying around, collecting, and shooting.
While Starlink is a story driven game, it’s also an Assassin’s Creed style open world game. There are tons of side activities, special requests, hidden treasures, and random encounters you can seek out. You can spend a seemingly unlimited amount of time developing your team and resources without touching the main quest. It’s like No Man’s Sky with the option of meaningful gameplay. Overall, I’m very happy with the gameplay experience. There are some control issues you have to get used to and as with all resource games, mining will most likely get old. But as a whole, this is a great experience that I’ve only scratched the surface of.
As I said, I’m not super far into this game yet. Less than four hours total. So my understanding of the story is still very limited, but I can say that unlike with No Man’s Sky, this is a narrative driven open world(s) game. And that includes Star Fox’s role in the game. You are actively pursuing narrative based goals. You meet characters and develop relationships with them. Outlaws have grudges against you and/or members of your team that they’ve had past interactions with. You’re not just flying around space collecting resources so you can build better ships. The game does have lots of mining opportunities and developing/upgrading your ships and other things in the game are a core part of the gameplay, but this is a single player, story driven experience with a finite amount of content. That more than anything is why I like this game and was almost completely disinterested in No Man’s Sky at release. The story is what makes the game worth playing.
The writing works. It’s not Naughty Dog level storytelling, but it’s a fairly large cast of characters, real social interactions between them, developing relationships, villains, heroes, mysteries, and side characters that you grow fond of. Now again, I’m still very early in. It’s quite possible that this is all just strong foundation to hook the player in early and then it will eventually devolve into a boring mining collectathon with little story. But it doesn’t seem to be going in that direction at this point in the game. So far I’m happy with the characters, I’m happy with the plot, and I’m especially happy with the fact that all the Star Fox team members are an active part of the story, even though they were added in later.
I’m not gonna speak much on the replay value of a game I’m only three hours into of this seemingly high amount of content. What I will say is that there appears to be quite a bit of content and I assume there will be some future DLC as well. Because of the way the game is structured, there are multiple ways to play and approach things, which means there is the potential to want to replay the game using different pilots, load outs, and tactics. You also have four different difficulty levels. But because you can change difficulty, loadout, ship, and even pilot at a whim, I see no reason to replay the entire game at this point. It makes more sense to just change things around as you play your first playthrough fairly often and make the most out of a well-rounded experience. So at this point, I can’t say whether or not the game makes sense to replay, but in general there appears to be a lot of content anyway so that’s fine for me.
I’m really happy that I’m playing Starlink: Battle for Atlas. I’m not far in yet, but I’ve enjoyed it a lot so far. I’ll admit that my bias towards Star Fox plays a factor. It’s the game that I think many people wanted No Man’s Sky to be with the tradeoff of a finite amount of content. Finite doesn’t mean lacking amount though. A game doesn’t have to be infinite and in my opinion shouldn’t be. I enjoy the fact that the game has a lot to do but still has defined end goals. As I said, I’m not going to score this game so early in my experience with it, but I do recommend it for people who like open worlds, space fighters, and customization options in games. You can also check out some gameplay on my YouTube channel. I’ll be streaming the game via Twitch on weekends as well.