Out of all of Ubisoft’s games, the one that’s the closest to launching is the intriguing space shooter, Starlink: Battle for Atlas. It’s due out on October 16, and after spending about 20 minutes with the game, I’m a little worried.
The floor demo at Gamescom gave people to experience two broad parts. The first was getting to grips with the physical figurines – although as my British colleague Laura pointed out after a closed-doors demo, there are versions of Starlink that are digital-only, if that’s more your style.
But the version of Starlink I played had a slot attached to the JoyCon grip where you slipped your chosen character into. After that point, you picked the chassis of your ship, which went over the top. The wings then affix into the side, and because you’re not restricted to a particular type of wing, you can have all sorts of weird combinations.
The weapons then plug into the wings; each weapon has an elemental or energy type, so you’ll want some consideration here. But the actual process of plugging the parts in is pretty fun, and kids should have no issues putting all of this stuff together.
But then you get to the combat.
My demo started in space, and the nearby staffer quickly motioned to the atmosphere of a nearby planet. Holding down R activates a boost – think No Man’s Sky kind of acceleration – and down to the surface I went.
There’s two types of flight modes: either you’re flying mid-air as per usual, or scooting along the ground, in instances where the atmosphere isn’t suited or enemies have occupied the area.
It’s briefly explained that there’s an extractor in the area, although the build I played lacked the amount of exposition shown in the E3 video above. Still, it’s not hard to identify what you need to do: take out all the enemies, then take out supporting structures on the side, before pumping several rounds of missiles into the glowing red orb in the centre of the extractor.
Eventually it’ll recover, close up, and then you repeat the process three or four times.
It’s pretty derivative as far as combat design, but it does give you plenty of opportunity to dodge, roll and burst your way out of enemies. This part of Starlink is actually fantastic: you can pop X for a quick shield, pop B to jump up (since you’re in the flight mode that’s restricted to the ground), and A gives you an an extra dodge.
Blend the three together and the movement is actually pretty fun. It’s the kind of game you could quite easily play thoughtlessly, just rolling about while you pump lead/missiles/energy bolts into targets. The circle strafing reminds me of playing the old Quake campaigns, just dancing around enemies for fun.
The problem I have with Starlink is the performance. The build I played noticeably struggled to maintain a smooth frame rate, and the visual quality – in docked mode – was low enough that you could comfortably make out jaggy and blocky textures. In instances where you’re fighting larger bosses, where multiple attacks are on-screen and you’ve got the extra effects from shielding and quick dodges, the game looks really low-res.
It’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder if Starlink might not be better suited to a handheld only mode. Games that deploy dynamic resolution on the Switch as a way of maintaining frame rate can often look worse on the big screen, since it makes the lack of anti-aliasing and texture quality more apparent.
You do lose the fun of having the toy attached to the JoyCon grip while you play, although you can download any ship in-game and customise it without having the physical burden. (Starlink will charge users for the digital version of each ship, but from Laura’s reporting it’s not possible to play with a physical version of the ship, save the configuration, and then reuse that without having the ship attached – you’d have to build the ship from scratch in-game.)
From a practical standpoint, playing in handheld and having the physical model – tapping via the NFC chip on the JoyCons – might be the best way to go. For one, the ships are well made and they’re fun to play with. It’s also much faster to customise the ships physically.
Outside of all of this, the demo I played didn’t really give me a great sense of purpose. I blew up plenty of robots without much trouble, and the mechanics were enjoyable enough, but I’m still left without a sense of purpose. The demo didn’t feature any of the exploration elements in Starlink; there was none of the research and discovery that open-world space games thrive on.
So I’m still curious to see how that functions. On the flipside, Switch players can alleviate some of the low-res issues by playing in handheld mode. And while you lose some of the toys-to-life fun on other platforms, Starlink should have no such performance problems on PC or consoles when it launches on October 16.
This is a game that’s perfect for kids though (and Star Fox fans, if we’re being honest). And as a result, the Switch version seems the one they’re most likely to interact with – and for those fans, I’m a bit worried.
But the game isn’t out yet, the dodging and shooting mechanics hold up well, and the traversal from outer space to the planet surface works just fine. I’m not sure how Starlink binds the rest of the game together, but we’ll find out in a couple of months.
The author travelled to Gamescom as a guest of Nvidia.
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