Review: Starlink

My initial impressions of Starlink: Battle for Atlas proved to be a pretty accurate indicator of how I’d feel about the game as a whole. It remained fun and colorful, and the act of exploring the star system remained a delight throughout, but it was not a perfect game.

As I mentioned in that first post, I opted to play through the game on easy mode, and this meant that combat was a low-risk, low-stress activity. Despite that, some sub-bosses (typically those guarding special relics hidden on each world) proved to be truly challenging, and those fights were the most interesting, largely because I was often encountering higher-level enemies earlier than I otherwise would, and because those fights were often in interesting environments that rewarded navigation-as-evasion in somewhat cramped spaces. But combat as a whole began to feel repetitive. There were certain strategies and weapons to keep in mind with certain types of enemies. The legions of ground troops (pun intended: the enemy robots are in an army known as the Legion) largely fell into only a few different types: fire, ice, and gravity-warping. Figure them out, and it’s a simple matter to address most fights.

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Big bosses were similarly limited in variety, although there was at least an interesting cycle to addressing them. Dreadnought starships are colossal vessels placed around the star system, which release Primes, huge arachnoid mechs, that attempt to corrupt worlds by activating and spreading Extractors, towers that extract valuable resources from the planet’s core. Extractors remotely transmit energy generated from the harvested materials to the roving Primes, making them bigger and more powerful; Primes pass on some of that energy to the Dreadnought stationed within their sector of the star system, thus improving its power in turn. The best route to take to free a sector is thus to clear out each planet in that sector one by one, shutting down Extractors to locate a Prime before moving on to the next world, eventually leaving the Dreadnought weakened. This balance of powers is interesting in concept but boring in execution, since you once more reach a point where you are just dealing with the same three recycled enemy types again and again: surface towers guarded by beam-emitting nodes and occasionally mid-to-high-level Legion forces, mobile spider-mechs (which do at least offer variety through their evolving forms as they grow in power, although this is a linear and repetitive trajectory too), and space battles against fighters and turrets followed by on-rails races to take out the power cores on the capital ships.

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Dreadnoughts will redeploy Primes as time passes, and (in the endgame at least) new Dreadnoughts will eventually enter the system to replace their defeated comrades. Apparently the spread of the Legion is determined by difficulty level, so a higher-difficulty play-through could make things more interesting (or maybe just more tedious). Each world can gain Alliance power, providing you more resources and better resisting the Legion, if you clear out Legion emplacements and build and upgrade structures. These structures are limited and serve specific purposes, like showing more of the planet map, generating revenue, producing mods for your ships, or increasing the defensive capabilities of the planet. The back-and-forth tension between Alliance and Legion provides one of the clearest sources of comparison to Mass Effect 3–though this system at least feels simpler and obviously involves a lot less territory.

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(Actually, Mass Effect feels like a heavy reference point for the game–see the lore entries below for further examples.)

Still, while the game does not offer an extraordinary strategic element, and while its combat and side missions are repetitive, it remained consistently fun. I really liked flying around as Fox. I liked the chatter between the characters on the Starlink and Star Fox teams over the comms. I liked scanning new creatures and discovering new artifacts. I enjoyed simply zipping through the skies of any given planet and observing the unusual terrain and towering biological, artificial, and geological structures rising from the surface.

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All the above fits in with my earlier conception of the game. There’s plenty of good with the bad, and the game itself does not get boring despite the repetition and simplistic elements. But the biggest letdown for me was in the development (or lack thereof) of the characters and story.

The game immediately introduces us to the core cast of the Starlink Initiative. They’re unique, distinctive, and likable. They all bring something to the table, and they all have a lot of flair and personality. When their leader, St. Grand, is captured by the cult that has taken command of the Legion, the team’s heartbreak is real, and I was totally behind their drive to recover this obvious father figure. Similarly, the Star Fox team is characterized such that each member of the team has a clear and unique personality and role: Fox is the pure-hearted leader who will always fight for good, Falco is the cocky ace pilot, Peppy is the overly cautious mentor who’s past ready to retire, and Slippy is the goofy tech genius and support character. They’re written and voiced such that they feel like they’ve actually known each other a long time and are a sort of family of their own; the silly back-and-forth between Slippy and Peppy was exceptionally delightful for me.

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But the characters don’t really evolve! Brilliant scientist Mason Rana, who designed the swappable Starlink tech, has the most presence on screen and is given the clearest arc, which makes sense; he’s the default pilot for the player. That arc is somewhat mundane, ultimately: he gains in confidence and steps out of his mentor St. Grand’s shadow to become a capable leader in his own right. Everyone else is largely in the background of this surrogate family, just glad to be along for the ride. But that surrogate family keeps growing, with more and more alien pilots, some of them having brief introductory interactions to explain their appearances, some of them apparently just showing up in the background of cinematic cutscenes. I didn’t know who everyone was by the end, but long before that I stopped understanding why so many of the new characters bothered to join. The game’s moving too fast and loose to bother nailing down these points.

The pacing of the plot doesn’t really lead anywhere, either. Here’s a very spoiler-heavy summary of the plot: the team recovers St. Grand, who was used by the Legion cult to make the rare refined fuel Nova (since he had rediscovered how and the secret was lost to most of the galaxy); St. Grand dies, apparently as a result of the side effects of the mind control he’d been briefly placed under; the team seeks to avenge St. Grand and liberate the star system; and at the end, the cult leader becomes part of some mech or something and a lone fighter shoots him a lot to save the day. I’m leaving out very little, mostly some side quests meant to dole out character background information, which for some reason is presented in cutscenes that are in a motion-comic style, instead of the cinematic scenes used for the main plot.

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Sadly, the Star Fox storyline is also abruptly rushed to a conclusion. Spoilers again: Wolf intends to build an army of Primes to take over Corneria, but Fox and friends figure it out and blow up his interstellar ship before he can escape, leaving him to flee in a damaged fighter with his tail between his legs. The team then decides to stay on with the Starlink group to clear the system of the Legion threat.

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The game ends all too quickly, and you’re allowed to keep wandering the star system, exploring more and clearing out remaining Legion encampments. Surviving Legion captains will continue to launch Dreadnaughts into the system to create a perpetual loop of combat scenarios. There’s stuff to do, but it all feels rather empty and pointless.

The thing is, these weaknesses are so predictable, at least in retrospect. It’s a toys-to-life, open-world game. The goal of the game is to provide a playground for kids to zoom around with their toy collection. It’s going to provide a variety of pilots and ships and weapons to encourage players to buy more and more of the toys, even if you don’t need to buy more to beat the core story. (Some of the elemental puzzles you’d have to unlock to 100% the game would require other elemental weapons or at least a lot of tedious transportation of canisters between sites). And because the game company wants you to buy lots of pilots and ships, they’re going to give you glimpses of those pilots and ships–really unique ship and alien designs can provide those glimpses without requiring a lot of time spent on characterizing these additional pilots in the story. This also means that there can’t ever be any real narrative stakes for the characters: killing a character or blowing up a ship can only happen if that character or ship won’t be available in the player’s toy box, to swap in at any time.

The open-world endgame feels empty because it’s there to let the player throw in different pilot and ship combinations without having to start the game from scratch. You can build on the RPG-lite leveling of pilots and ships, the modifications of fuselages and wings and weapons. And the ever-present potential for the recurrence of an external threat always presents the possibility of additional content to purchase in the future.

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This does not make the game bad. But it is unappealing to me. And it should have been obvious to me because that’s what the game’s basic design model would require.

So at this point, I don’t think I’ll play through the game on a higher difficulty. And I don’t think I’d increase the difficulty in my current save just to see what the higher Legion threat looks like in the endgame. I could see myself returning to Starlink at some point in the future, just to cruise about the system. For now, the 20-ish hours I’ve put in seem sufficient, and I’m not particularly hungry for more.

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That said, what I really want is to see an open-world Star Fox game that scraps the toys-to-life model and focuses on a meatier narrative set in the Lylat System. Starlink shows that this should work, and I think it also shows that good characters and good gameplay can only take a game like this so far; there still have to be engaging narratives (in and out of the main story) that make player actions feel worthwhile.

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