Hands-on with Star Fox in Starlink: Battle for Atlas

We're not gonna do a barrel roll joke.

One of the most surprising announcements of E3 2018 came from Ubisoft, when it wowed fans revealing the inclusion of Fox McCloud and his trusty Arwing in Ubisoft Toronto's upcoming toys-to-life space shooter Starlink: Battle for Atlas. With toys-to-life seemingly on its way out as a genre, Ubisoft seems to be thinking that adding a bit of star power to the game will be the shot in the arm it needs, particularly the Nintendo Switch version.

I tried the Arwing in Starlink during the show, and I’m delighted to report that Star Fox is a perfect fit for this new action-adventure game.

As mentioned, Starlink’s bread and butter is its proprietary toys-to-life technology, as these are not merely NFC-compatible toys like Skylanders or amiibo. This is brand new tech built from the ground up specifically for this game, each starship programmed to recognize any changes made to it on the fly. The Arwing is no exception, as I was able to add new weapons or a separate pilot to it with ease.

Also impressive is how the Arwing connects to the controller; the base plugs into the controller’s receiver while also clamping on via a plastic securing mechanism, then Fox McCloud the pilot and the Arwing itself snap right onto the base from there. Once the base is secured to the controller, every change made to it, whether it be a new ship, a new pilot, or a new gun, is immediately recognized and changed in-game. Somehow the addition of the ship and its base adds very little weight to the controller, still feeling comfortable in my hands despite all of the extra accoutrements. This is an ingenious piece of technology, one where hours of ergonomic and accessibility research were obviously well-spent, and it works exactly as Ubisoft hoped it would.

Actually playing Starlink with the Arwing is a joy as well, one that takes me back to the glory days of Star Fox 64. The Arwing specifically is best played without any of the extra weapon attachments that come with Starlink, as its own laser cannons, charge shot, and smart bombs are perfectly suited for these missions. I can fly in space from planet to planet, taking on missions as I seamlessly enter that planet’s atmosphere and head to the surface to explore and fight. There’s an air of No Man’s Sky in Starlink’s planet hopping, though the game is not nearly as large as that, and there’s always something to see or do while on the way to place to place. I expect that missions will play out very differently for each player, creating a personal experience that will only make the game better.

The mission in the demo asks Fox to search for and take out a giant spider-like creature that’s interfering with official business on the planet, so I fly right down and begin my search. Once I find my quarry I initiate combat. In that moment, it’s as if Starlink takes off a mask Scooby-Doo-style and reveals itself to have been Star Fox 64 all along. The boss has certain weak spots that only become vulnerable after certain attacks, meaning I must bob and weave the onslaught from this menace and its minions while finding an opening and attacking. After a while the creature begins to retreat, leaving me to think I was victorious, but it turns out the baddie was simply moving to a more advantageous position and the battle begins anew.

Box art for Starlink: Battle for Atlas featuring Fox and the Arwing. Box art for Starlink: Battle for Atlas featuring Fox and the Arwing.

Firing the Arwing’s laser cannons is as simple as pressing a shoulder button, the left shoulder shooting the left laser and right shooting right, and charging the laser just means holding the button down. Maneuvering the Arwing through the skies and on the ground never feels cumbersome or awkward, the starship proving to be easy to control. This is made even more impressive considering the giant piece of plastic stuck to the controller, which I at one point managed to forget about as the battle raged. I cannot stress enough how little those massive plastic toys hindered my gameplay, it is truly remarkable and must be experienced to be believed.

There is a lot to be impressed with in Starlink: Battle for Atlas’s Star Fox collaboration, the latest in what has become quite the bromance between Nintendo and Ubisoft. The Arwing and Fox McCloud himself fit right into the world of Starlink, the two offering powerful new weapons and a sleek new way to fly. The physical ship is a marvel as well, seamlessly becoming part of the experience without getting in our way as we play. Some may scoff at the toys-to-life approach and call it outdated, but if the final version of Starlink performs as well as the E3 demo this could usher in a whole new era for toy-based gaming.

We’ll know for sure when Starlink: Battle for Atlas launches October 16th. Of course, Fox McCloud and his Arwing will be exclusive to the Switch version.