GameCentral plays Ubisoft’s new space combat game, which features a Star Fox crossover, toys to life, and an entire living solar system.
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It’s been over 20 years now since there was a wholly successful Star Fox game, but much as Nintendo has tried to replicate the success of the original SNES and N64 games nothing seems to have worked. There’s rumours of a new title called Star Fox: Grand Prix, but as the name suggests that’s believed to be a very different kind of game to all the rest. But while in terms of space combat Nintendo may have given up, Ubisoft hasn’t. In fact, this new multiformat release may be one of the best games of its type in a great many years.
Starlink was first announced last year, as a space combat game where you attach a plastic spaceship to your controller and take its wings and weapons off manually in order to change them in the game. It all seemed a peculiar hangover from the toys to life fad of a few years ago which, with the exception of amiibo, is now all but over.
We did see Starlink last year and were relatively intrigued, especially given how nicely designed the ship models are, but since it wasn’t playable it was hard to tell whether there was much to it beyond the gimmicks. We can now report that there most certainly is.
One of the many strange things about Starlink is that it’s a game originally designed for kids that’s turned out to be more daring and open-ended than most of those aimed at adults. We didn’t catch the details of the pulpy sci-fi plot but the game features a whole simulated solar system, where alien invaders go about their own business until you interfere with them. They build bases and manufacture troops, and you can go anywhere and do anything with full 3D control of your ship.
Rather than a dumbed down kids game, or the restrictive action of Star Fox, Starlink is more reminiscent of 90s classic Starglider 2 than any modern title.
‘Oh yeah, totally!’, producer Matthew Rose told us. ‘I was a huge fan of X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter and Freespace, and a lot of games like that all the way back to the original Elite; even things like Magic Carpet.’
If you don’t recognise any of those games then the other thing we were reminded of, as we took control of the game and flew from the depths of outer space right down to the surface of a planet, was No Man’s Sky. Except Starlink has actual gameplay too.
We were playing what seemed to be an early tutorial mission, which kept the spaceship close to the ground until you’d picked up a McGuffin/learned the controls. But soon enough we were able to fly around wherever we wanted on a very large and surprisingly detailed planet landscape.
‘The game started off by being aimed at eight to 12-year-olds’, said Rose. ‘But once we met the kids we realised that it was almost easier for us to focus on making a game that we would really enjoy, right now, because that’s what the kids were looking for. We looked at the games they wanted to play and they were games aimed at us. So we kept adding more and more depth while still keeping it accessible.’
‘The vast majority of kids games on the market are trying to be ‘my first video game’, they’re trying to hold your hand every step of the way and they’re usually very linear. A lot of kids these days are growing up with gamer parents and by the time they’re six or seven they’ve completely mastered everything aimed at them. And the next thing in line is something that’s not appropriate for them to play. So for us it’s not really a kids’ game we’re making, it’s a triple-A HD open world experience.’
Playing the game ourselves, our goal was to destroy a giant robot that was laying some kind of energy extractor device. But rather than being locked into a small room with it, or constrained by a fixed camera angle, we were able to strafe it, attack from the ground, or fly off and do something else in the middle of the battle. It still had all the weak points of a traditional video game boss but having it moving around in an open world environment was a rare pleasure and immediately sold us on the game.
‘The thing I’m most excited to share more about is that this is a completely dynamic, living world’, said Rose. ‘Every single enemy, every ally, every animal, on every planet is living their lives simultaneously. They’re always progressing. If you were to sit the controller down that Legion Prime would march around that planet, planting extractor towers, building up reinforcements until they completely overrun the planet.
‘You put down the controller and they will take over the entire star system, which means you are really that agent of change. Your actions directly have an impact. And that means no two players will have the same experience.’
And that did seem to be exactly what was going on, but we also had time to pop back into space and engage in some dogfighting, which felt surprisingly similar to the space combat from Star Wars: Battlefront – including the ability to roll and pitch without any restrictions.
Afterwards, we were able to play the game on the Switch as well, which surprisingly is functionally identical to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 – even down to the split-screen co-op mode. The Switch version has been developed in conjunction with Virtuos, who worked on the Final Fantasy XII and Dark Souls remasters, and has taken a major hit in terms of resolution and texture quality but that’s kept the frame rate solid and the game works exactly the same as on the other consoles.
And as we alluded to in our intro the Switch version also has the benefit of being a Star Fox crossover. An Arwing (the only toy with moving wings) is the ship included with the starter pack and Fox is fully voiced and integrated into both the game and its cut scenes, with an expanded storyline involving tracking down Wolf O’Donnell.
‘The whole Nintendo partnership actually came about one year ago at E3’, said Rose. ‘We had a behind closed doors demo and a small group from Nintendo of America came by to see us. They came in and they were very poker-faced throughout. And at the end of the demo one of the guys said, ‘Do you mind if I bring back a few more people?’ They came by and they introduced everyone: ‘This is the director of Mario Odyssey, this is the director of Mario Party, this is the father of Metroid, and so we did this demo and we were thinking: ‘This is super intimidating! This is amazing!’
‘And we finished the demo and they said, ‘Do you mind if we bring by another group?’ So of course we said yes. And then when Reggie Fils-Aime arrived we really knew something was up. And eventually we found ourselves invited to travel to Kyoto. And so we had the great, great honour to go there and pitch this collaboration to Mr Miyamoto and the entire original Star Fox 1 development team!’
Now that we’ve played it, the only real question hanging over Starlink is whether the whole toys to life element is in danger of dragging it all down. But Rose assured us that you can play through the whole game without purchasing anything else and still upgrade and customise your ship as you go.
You also don’t have to have the toy perched on your joypad if you don’t want to and the game can be bought and played digitally without any loss of functionality – you just have to switch weapons by using the menu instead of swapping around toy pieces.
In the end we found ourselves reminded of the better Skylanders games, which despite appearing to be a scam were actually very good games that did things that you normally never see outside of a Nintendo game.
But Starlink is both more ambitious and less dependent on the toys, which makes us very optimistic about the final experience. And we actually enjoy the irony that the game had to initially be pitched at kids in order to make an old school open-ended sci-fi game that treats its players like adults.
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