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Starlink review: DIY starship adventure is great, but could get pricey

Building your ship is a lot of fun, especially when you rip off a flamethrower and add gattling gun in the middle of a firefight, and you can also get creative by attaching a gun backwards or adding a stack of extra tall wings in weird configurations to shoot over cover, and it’s all represented instantly in game. The parts also look great, with some engines and weapons actually lighting up, and some ships letting you see your pilot of choice through transparent cockpits. Of course, adding these things to your arsenal can get expensive.

It’s totally possible to play the whole game with just what you get in the starter pack, but buying extra stuff makes the whole experience better. In addition to the variety, new ships mean additional tries if you die, and mixing up weapons can make for powerful elemental combinations that let you solve certain puzzles or take down certain enemies more efficiently. And of course a new pilot adds their own style, personality and voice to your avatar, as well as a powerful unique ability to deploy when the pressure is on. (Props to Ubisoft for the diversity of available pilots, by the way, but it would have been nice if there were both a male and a female option in the box.)

The Starter Pack for Nintendo Switch.

The Starter Pack for Nintendo Switch.

You can get a pack with a new ship, pilot and two guns for $50, and you probably only need one of those, but you can also buy gun packs and pilots separately. If you’re the collecting type, it can get expensive quickly.

The battle for Atlas

Putting the toys aside for a moment, the actual game included here is a lot of fun. Whether skimming along a planet’s surface or flying through space, piloting is a lot of fun, and there’s a surprising amount of depth to dog fights and battles. Managing your shields and thrusters, weapons and special abilities take practice, but allows for some satisfying advanced maneuvers, and the banter between characters can be pretty engaging.

The story is very familiar sci-fi fare, but it’s presented in an endearing and digestible way. You can just follow the main quest from planet to planet if you like, but there are a whole host of side missions to chase after, and those just looking for a world to get lost in for a long period of time will find it here. The more you explore the more and better mods you’ll find, which are a good way of upgrading your gear without having to buy anything with real money.

The seven planets are really diverse and beautiful in a sparse kind of way, with all kinds of native wildlife, flora and weather. There’s also a whole system of trading and harvesting resources, as well as plenty of junk to scavenge in space itself, and outlaws to fight. It can be annoying when you come across an enemy that is clearly better handled with a kind of weapon you don’t own, or when you die just out of reach of an objective and know you could keep fighting if you just had one more ship, but for the most part the game doesn’t harp at you to buy more things. In fact the ice, fire and kinetic weapon included in the starter pack make for some great combos straight out of the gate, although my personal favourite weapon makes a gravity vortex that you can fill with flames for an explosive trap.

Going digital

At any point in the game you can activate digital mode, which is a way of playing without using the plastic toys. This can be handy for playing a quick mission or two, but it will also save you a lot of money if you want all the gear and don’t mind missing out on the physical toys.

Whether you buy digitally or physically, the base game costs $120. But while the physical version comes with one pilot (two on Switch), one ship and three weapons, the digital version comes with six pilots, four ships and twelve weapons. To get that much variety out of a purely physical setup would end up costing you more than $300 total, although of course you’re getting physical toys to play with as well as the in-game benefits.

In digital mode, you have to pause the game to build your ship virtually, or swap out parts, but the advantage is being able to easily see what each part does.

In digital mode, you have to pause the game to build your ship virtually, or swap out parts, but the advantage is being able to easily see what each part does.

It is possible to mix and match between physical and digital, to an extent. For example when you connect a physical item it’s also added to your collection in digital mode for seven days, where you can use it in conjunction with any additional digital stuff you buy too. On the other hand, if you bought the game digitally you can get a controller mount for $30 and start collecting the physical toys, but when playing in physical mode none of your digital stuff is available to use.

Vistitors from the Lylat system

The graphics might be slightly nicer on PS4 and Xbox One, but the Switch offers the definitive way to play. This is not only because you can harvest resources and finish of quests using digital mode on the go, but because the Switch version prominently features characters and ships from Nintendo’s own Star Fox series.

It’s a great fit, and the anthropomorphic animal crew help bring some colour to the otherwise pretty generic cast. I love flying the iconic Arwing, and activating Fox’s ability calls one of his squad to the battle while playing an over-the-top version of the classic Corneria theme, which always brought a smile to my face.

I was actually surprised to find that the amount of Star Fox content here is quite extensive. There’s a Switch-exclusive quest line, in which players track and take down Fox’s arch nemesis Wolf, but you can also use Fox as a pilot at any point in the regular game too, and he, Slippy, Peppy and Falco interact with Mason and the Starlink crew frequently.

Overall this is a streamlined but impressive space opera in a wide open star system, which gives you the freedom to get lost in space but also lets you warp around if you just want to see the story. The physical toy element is a lot of fun and adds a great dose of tactile play, but if it isn’t for you (or if you need to have all the items and can’t justify the high price of the plastic), you’re at no disadvantage for going digital.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is out now for Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Tim is the editor of Fairfax’s technology sections.

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