Dr. Starlink, Or: How I Learned to Stop Comparing and Love the Game

Starlink: Battle for Atlas is an open world space shooter released on the Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch in 2018. The digital version costs $60, and the physical version costs $75 for its optional toys-to-life feature. I played Starlink on the Nintendo Switch with the Switch exclusive Star Fox content.

For someone who loves exploring, I’ve only played two true open-world / sandbox games: The Legend of Zelda (1987), and Breath of the Wild. I’ve never played The Witcher 3, or Skyrim, or Red Dead Redemption. Therefore, my exposure to open worlds is strictly from a Nintendo perspective.

As with many, I played Star Fox 64, loved it, and grew disappointed with the series as I got older. So I’m also approaching this game as the Star Fox sequel I had wanted ever since I played Star Fox 2 on my brother’s SNES Classic. Starlink was in many ways exactly the game I wanted, but it wasn’t without experiencing some culture shock jumping into my first big-budget Ubisoft game.

Breath of the Tame

Nintendo’s approach to open worlds is based on having an organic experience; your exploration is driven by curiosity and discovery. Ubisoft has a… different approach. After the game really began to take off, I opened up my map and felt like I had unleashed a Pandora’s Box of side quests and confusing icons.

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I sighed in disappointment. I wanted that exploration loop of Breath of the Wild, where I saw a cool sight in the distance, made that my new goal, and then got sidetracked by smaller tasks. Instead Starlink had me beeline to a map marker, finish the task, and then find a new marker to run off to. The worlds themselves have a lot more graphical detail than Breath of the Wild, but they are less compelling to explore. Each planet has maybe 2 to 3 different biomes, some big landmarks, and several copy/paste settlements. The worlds are not as lazy as being randomly generated per se, but they’re not much better. While exploring Hyrule felt like perusing a hand-written Illuminated Text, exploring Starlink’s worlds felt more like skimming through a corporate memo. I’ve heard that Ubisoft does this with all their open worlds, which doesn’t exactly sell the Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed games for me.

However, as I went about saving Atlas, I stopped comparing it to Breath of the Wild and enjoyed what it actually was. As I learned what the icons meant, harvested materials for upgrades, and liberated citizens from outlaws, I fell into a zen state of flow. It became hard to put the game down, because I just wanted to do everything. I was following a routine, building up an alliance, and juggling a real-time strategy system across seven planets. After about 5 hours in, I was over my hesitations.

A Perfect Star Fox Formula

I’m going to make a claim and say that this is the best Star Fox game since 64, for the following reasons:

1. They made the Arwing feel fast and powerful. The shooting in 64 is so good because you’re zipping through the level, making quick reactions as enemies fly by. In subsequent games like Star Fox Assault, it feels like the Arwing is flying through Jell-o. But in Starlink you’re boosting around, turning on a dime and dodging enemy attacks. It’s exactly what a legendary mercenary’s ship should feel like.

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2. I think the real-time strategy is a perfect fit for Star Fox. Even the linear, on-rails games felt like campaigns as you progressed from planet to planet, and Starlink’s strategy feels like a natural evolution of that. Mulling over your attack plan gives you some breathing room between the fast-paced combat, and yet it adds a sense of urgency to the overall story.

3. Starlink isn’t yet another retelling or remake of the SNES Star Fox. I don’t know any other series where almost half of its games are remakes. I’m just so glad we’re out of the Lylat system and exploring new territory. Star Fox is a mercenary team after all, right? So they should be able to travel the stars and go on new adventures.

I think Ubisoft is on to something here, especially with the Star Fox content. I still prefer Nintendo’s approach to open worlds, but I would buy a Starlink sequel that ditched the Starlink cast and only followed… Fox…

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