My favourite moment in Starlink: Battle for Atlas occured when, muddled and in the heat of a fight, I attached a weapon the wrong way around. Ubisoft's latest is a very late entry into the toys-to-life marketplace: when you play it, your controller houses a little mount upon which you slot a pilot, a star-fighter, and various weapons that then appear in the game.
This being 2018, everything on that mount is a repository for levelling. Those pilots come with their own special abilities and their own skill trees, while ships have their own handling and stats, and can be modded, as can the weapons, to gain all kinds of incremental boosts and flavours. Fine. But you can also put the weapons on backwards, in which case - and to the game's infinite credit - they will then shoot backwards.
Not just that, you can remove a ship's wings and slot on the wings from another ship. And you can even slot wings into the first set of wings' weapon slots, until you're going into battle with four wings hanging off each side of your craft and weapons slotted in only at the very edges. You can make real Frankenstein's monster stuff. It's all a bit pointless to do this, sure, but it's quietly pleasing nonetheless.
The wider game is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster itself. Building on its toys-to-life core, Starlink chucks in Starfox style dog-fighting and racing-over-planets-blasting-everything (along with Fox himself and his Arwing if you're playing on Switch). And then it grafts on the Instagram-friendly planet aesthetics of No Man's Sky, along with that game's endlessly thrilling planet-to-space transitions as you boost from the surface of some colourful globe and zip off to explore a compact start system of seven planets.
Underneath all of that, though, the most surprising revelation is that Starlink also finds time to be a classic Ubi-game. There are maps to uncover, resources to collect and spend, buildings to place and upgrade and MMO-style mission markers and missions to complete as you take out surface Extractors, and then the waddling mecha-scorpion Primes that lay them, and then, in space, the floating Dreadnoughts that lay the Primes. This is a game dog-fighting and shooting-the-glowing-weak-spots, certainly, but it's also about a plucky and generic team of space heroes taking it to an evil empire out there in the wilds of the cosmos. Outmanned and outgunned, you spend a lot of proceedings in Starlink grinding your way across the surface of the different worlds available to you, winning over the local population one new outpost or one other interchangeable task at a time, and pushing your enemies back on an influence metre. Seven planets, then, but after a short while they all start to feel rather similar.
The fiction may not be particularly inspired, but the toys are nice: chunky starfighters that snap pleasingly into place and look gloriously weird when you mix and match the parts of them. My favourite is the squat and bulbous ship belonging to Judge, a top-heavy alien with a fishbowl helmet. His ship, which is a bit of a tank, has a fishbowl component to it, too, and when it's in position you can peer through this rounded dome and see good old Judge at the controls. The back part has fins made of flexy plastic. Another ship is zippy and bright red and looks like an F1 car. You can mix and match on the fly, swapping out everything from the pilot upwards and the game will accommodate you pretty much instantly.
Judge, who's probably also my favourite pilot, has a neat special ability that allows him to slow down time, but everyone has their uses. (Fox's special allows him to summon a member of Starfox to back him up for a minute or so - he's OP, in other words, but nostalgically OP.) Weapons and enemies are elementally flavoured and the game's pretty good at telling you when to trade fire for ice, say, to make the most of the forces you're up against.
In the heat of the game, I find all this stuff quite interesting and clever, but I'm also aware that my review code came with a box of spaceships and pilots and different parts, and the prices for this stuff online are actually pretty shocking. Even skipping the checkout as I am, I think it's a bit gross that when you take too much damage in battle you can stay in the fight if you snap on a different ship - if you bought one, mate. Some battles see me working through a fleet of four ships before I grind out a victory. That kind of design adds up, as does that fact that if you buy the base game and no more, you're going to be pretty lonely out there.
Is it worth the investment? Not really, I would argue. I want to love Starlink because it's so weird and audacious to go all-in on toys-to-life just as the market elsewhere seems to reject it - and to go all-in with a fresh new IP too! But the IP isn't actually that fresh - after hours of play, the entire campaign behind me, I can't tell you too much about any of the characters in Starlink, even Fox himself, who rather sticks out as the graft he is. And the universe here really is the universe of No Man's Sky in terms of its palette, in terms of its cloudy space-scenes and in its lumbering beasts that slowly crawl across the gorgeous horizons. Beyond all that, the action is pleasantly nippy but the structure is a bit of a slog, and the levelling and character/ship/weapon progression is fairly standard stuff.
There are moments, though, where it flickers to life a bit. The first time I won a majority of a planet's population over to my cause and planted a final outpost structure while the sun rose overhead. The first time I took on a huge dreadnaught in planetary orbit and chugged through waves of primary and secondary defences before sweeping inside the vast ship itself and ducking laser arrays as I headed for the explosive core? That was quite a thing, and it was genuinely weird to see my ship weaving and dodging on-screen, guns on backwards and too many wings obv, while it was also sat on my controller.
So there's something here, alright. There's a nice mindless blaster with lots of colour and energy. But it's a bit hidden by busywork in the menus, endless upgrading and meter-watching on the planetary surface, shameless creative borrowings in the art department - and hefty bills at the Amazon checkout.