It would be really easy to dismiss Ubisoft’s Starlink as a “toys-to-life” peripheral cash-in, in the same vein as Amiibo and Skylanders. And sure, it has that tilt, because, well, you collect -- and add to -- toys to enhance your gaming experience. But the game itself is also relatively separate to the ‘marketing’ side of the game. And maybe not in totality, because you do
get a better experience with your additional starship add-ons, but you can also buy the base game and never need to buy any additional peripheral content to finish it. And this is important.
The surprise addition of Star Fox and his Arwing, and a general relationship with Nintendo, for the Nintendo Switch release of the game shouldn’t actually be all that
surprising. But you’ll kind of only know this after playing the game. Starlink is a Nintendo-inspired experience that harkens back to Star Fox on the SNES and to Lylat Wars on the N64 (Star Fox 64, for you non-Aussies reading). But it’s also crafting its own niche in the space, and is doing so by bringing the game into modernity. And this is being achieved through technology: true geometry in space is something here that stands-out, because while it does borrow from Nintendo classics, it’s also working to expand on original ideas with what we kind of always wanted with this games: want to literally fly in real-time to that planet while in your spaceship? Starlink gives you this fantasy, because it’s also the team’s fantasy – we’re all on the same page here.
Moreover, down on each planet’s surface, gameplay is relatively simple, but provides a rewarding loop. Challenging puzzle-heavy boss-battles keep you on your toes, while the team has also been careful to ensure the additional peripheral content you do
buy and use, has a meaningful impact. This means you can strategise how you intend to take on various targets and certain weapon combos – ship-to-ship – will reward you with better results. My dev helping me with my hands-on points out that while the game does support co-op, it also has a different type of co-op where maybe a friend, sibling, partner or child plays the physical weapon-swap side of the game with you so you never have to stop playing and put the controller down yourself – they manage your toy, while you manage the game.
Importantly, however, toys aren’t
actually required. You can also buy any of the content you’d like to add to the game, digitally. And there’s a full menu-system that supports this. When you do
use the physical pieces, it’s instant, which does change up your approach (a little), and it should be noted these toys are highly-detailed. So the collectors out there will have a field day with this. You also have different pilots with different personalities, and Ubisoft has worked tirelessly on building out this game-world to reflect, totally, that it’s not
just a gimmick. Naturally there’s a marketing-heavy side of this game that speaks to the Pokemon “Collect ‘em all” ethos, but if you remember back to your childhood, chances are you would have eaten this concept up and annoyed the shit out of your parents. But unlike the adhoc, make-it-up-as-we-go-along approach of so many toy lines from the 80s (thanks, Netflix
), Ubi’s Starlink is thinking game-first, toys-second, and it shows in how the game plays and also in how the team speaks about it.
“The original mandate was to create something completely new – it was very open,” explains Ubisoft Toronto’s Laurent Malville. “[So] there was a lot of iteration and a lot of prototypes [were] being made. And at one point one of the prototypes was about building a starship on top of a… it was actually on top of a motion controller, so [in the beginning] it was motion control. And we liked the space setting. And it was about [creating] a new way to interact with your game.
“Then we realised, ‘we’ve gotta get rid of the motion controller’. [So the game] evolved a lot as we were working on it. [But also] what we realised as we having players come in to test the game; especially young players, is that traditional kids’ games, in general, are very linear – very old-school. [But] players today have changed, and younger players… they’re super-savvy and they have high demands [and expectations]. So we really wanted to provide something that would not talk down [to them] and would be deep and engaging.”
The Nintendo Switch version of the game will be the most sought after, of course. And the Arwing feels amazing in this game-world. Unfortunately, Fox as a pilot wasn’t available to play at E3, but that’s likely due to Nintendo making sure his addition to the game is in line with their own branding and expectation of the character. Additionally, we’d like to note the toys and their components are pretty robust and will take a beating, meaning the studio has also been mindful of my six-year old son who will play with these offline and smash them into one another – so thank you, Ubisoft.
And that’s maybe the second point here: our kids aren’t the nubs we were when we were little – they’re growing up with complicated games, finishing them and have a keener eye than most of us on what tech is doing – and driving – gaming forward. My six-year old has finished Assassin’s Creed Origins (I manage the content he sees, PC police, and always play through games before letting him play), he’s also finished God of War (again, content-managed), Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and continues to build in Minecraft on a daily basis. Among being amazing at many, many other games. But it’s the toys-to-life line that he loves most, and I can’t blame him – if this technology had been around when I was a kid for, say, He-Man, I would have lost my shit. So, kudos to Ubi for being creative enough to create such a product, but to also be smart enough to ensure the base game isn’t gated for parents and kids who might not be able to afford a full buy-in to the full venture.
Starlink genuinely surprised me at this year’s E3, in a good way. The planets are rich in information and content to do, and flying around planet-side versus flying around in space are very different styles of movement and gameplay. Combat is challenging, rewarding and visceral, while the game’s overall tone is child-to-adult neutral. Age be damned, Starlink is for anyone who just likes spaceships and blowing stuff up. This is definitely a game to keep your eye on.