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The toys to life phenomenon had already run its course and burned out – leaving huge piles of plastic in its wake – quite some time before UbiSoft decided to roll the dice and enter the market with Starlink: Battle For Atlas in 2018. Parents, burned one too many times even by brand behemoths such as Lego and Disney prematurely abandoning their – admittedly great – products, as well as another case of Activision absolutely running their own success into the ground with far-too-frequent releases for Skylanders, perhaps understandably stayed away.

Which, as I’ve only just found out for myself, is a crying shame. As with Lego Dimensions and Disney Infinity – even with the earlier iterations of Skylanders before the horse was well and truly flogged) – the actual game part of the equation is really, really good. What’s more is that the game has a more mature feel than any of those previously mentioned games. That’s not to say that those previous toys-to-life franchises didn’t have universal appeal – both Lego and Disney released toy packs that were deliberately targeted towards nostalgic adults – but that the actual game of Starlink is a relatively deep and less obviously childlike experience, which could also have been a further nail in the coffin; without the overt appeal to kids in-game, how could they have expected the game to be invested in by over-cautious parents?

I think perhaps the final issue here is the lack of immediately recognisable characters (Starfox and the iconic Arwing aside, for the Switch version only of course). As cool as the ships look and feel – both in-game and in toy form – they don’t have any brand recognition. And when you consider that Lego Dimensions failed with a frankly astonishing number and variety of playsets – covering a mind-boggling amount of franchises across a broad spectrum of pop culture properties – and even Disney pulled out despite releasing not just Disney, but also Marvel and Star Wars themed products, perhaps the lack of commercial success isn’t that much of a surprise.

Coming back to my earlier point – it definitely is a shame. I’ve only managed to take the plunge myself because a much-reduced Starter Pack was bought for me as a gift; however, in the four or so hours I’ve spent with Starlink on the Nintendo Switch, I’ve had an absolute blast and I’m very much looking forward to progressing even further into the story and exploring more of the brilliantly realised universe.

There’s more than a hint of the UbiSoft game design philosophy here. You know the one: open world, lots and lots of different icons on a gradually revealed map, towers to scale (which usually reveals more of the aforementioned map), plenty of nicely implemented combat and skill points to spend on upgrading your character(s). The main thing that sets Starlink apart (although it does share this characteristic with Ubisoft’s ‘The Crew’ series) is that you’re always in your vehicle; there’s no on foot traversal or combat here.

The other is that here, rather than exploring an island (Far Cry), a single city (Watch Dogs, most Assassin’s Creed games, The Division) or even a whole country (The Crew), in Starlink there’s a galaxy to explore. Numerous planets with nicely varied environments and wildlife, some of which can be surprisingly deadly. There’s an awful lot to do, it seems, which – even by UbiSoft standards – can feel pretty overwhelming at first.

Before we get to that though, there’s a great opening sequence, told via cutscenes, that really shows off the high production values that you’d expect from a company such as UbiSoft. The voice acting, character design and animation all demonstrate that no expense has been spared in putting Starlink together. Something else that really surprised me, when playing the Switch version, is how deeply and seamlessly the Starfox content is interwoven throughout the story and game itself, especially considering it doesn’t appear on any of the other platforms that Starlink is available on. I’d feared that the inclusion of Fox McCloud and his Arwing would be a cheap way to bump up Switch sales, but that’s definitely not the case; UbiSoft definitely went the extra mile to ensure that Starfox and his crew feel like part of the overall tapestry of the Starlink universe.

It’s not perfect, however. The decision to make probably the most bland and uninteresting character – Mason Rana – the leader of Starlink feels like a misstep. I get that there’s probably logic in making the other characters incredibly appealing to sell more ships and/or pilot packs, but it does feel a bit daft to have such a boring character as the one you get first (especially as he comes packaged alongside Fox McCloud in the Switch Starter Pack – why would you choose to use Mason instead of Fox?).

The actual part swapping of the ships, done via adding and removing weapons, wings and the pilot using the toys, is tactile and pleasing, but just sends you straight to a functional menu screen in-game as soon as you remove a part. This definitely feels like a wasted opportunity; there could have been a much more dynamic screen here, which would have made a lot more sense and would have encouraged a lot more experimentation with ship customisation.

Another issue – and really, this undermines the entire toys-to-life concept that are the biggest cause Starlink’s commercial failure in the first place – is that, from day one, you could have opted for an all digital version rather than get involved with any of the toys – and a lot more content was on offer for a much cheaper price. Though that price difference is gone at the moment due to heavy discounting of the physical products, it does smack of a lack of faith in the concept right from the start.

I mentioned the multitude of icons on the map being overwhelming at first; there’s an awful lot going on, on every single planet, and for at least the first few hours it’s a bit bewildering to make sense of it all. I found solace in avoiding combat at first; flying around, exploring the environments, scanning new creatures and collecting minerals and other items to sell.

With the amount of content included even if you don’t invest in any other toys or digital items, there’s certainly plenty here to keep you going for quite some time. In fact, further content has been added in the last week that also increases the value and longevity of the base game.

The toy concept has been abandoned altogether now; UbiSoft have wisely opted to release a whole new collection of pilots, ships and parts as digital-only items. Though it would have been cool to see more of these physically, the toys can’t have been cheap to produce and there are countless piles of them unsold in every game shop I’ve been into recently. The right decision has definitely been made regarding the game’s future.

There’s even been more Switch-specific, Starfox focused paid DLC released – which, though I’ve yet to get to, I hear is apparently very well done, if a little brief.

So in short, though the toys-to-life concept seems to have caused confusion and actively harmed – rather than helped – Starlink from the beginning, the underlying game is solid, incredibly enjoyable and has high production values throughout. It’s definitely a game I’d recommend, especially now that Starter Packs can be found at almost criminally low prices.

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