Starlink: Battle for Atlas made me confront the unfortunate, painful truth that I am not Starfleet material. I am not the diplomat Picard. Diplomacy is slow, complex, and harrowing, particularly when conducted with alien species that don’t understand your biology let alone your culture. I have no patience for Elite’s demanding spacecraft simulation. The never-ending neon spreadsheet that is No Man’s Sky? Not my cup of hot Earl Grey. Both are anonymous; there’s no humanity, no pilots like Starlink’s afro-ed Chase with her love of discovering new species. Character’s not enough for me, though. Even Mass Effect’s melodrama leaves me cold. I love that, but all I ever get to do is shoot people or shoot the shit with them. I need to venture out into an alien landscape myself, piloting a Starlink fighter to the surface of some planet covered in Epcot Center-shaped trees. Where’s the righteous thrill of taking my shuttle down to the surface of the planet, making some friends, shooting some despotic robots, and jettisoning back up into the stars?
I want to be the action Picard. Captaining my own ship, sussing out Tamarian syntax after dope-ass knife fights, getting all Borged up after spelunking in alien ruins with smoking-hot, ethically compromised archaeologists. The feeling of discovery, certainly, but without all that laborious science and composure. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is the first space game to give me what I want: the impressionistic experience of the interstellar explorer. It’s high on action, free of busy work but not devoid of discovery, and peppered with simple but genuine social connections. It’s even capable of eliciting true, if momentary, awe.
Everything in Starlink is swift, whether it’s the dramatic pacing of the plot or the way your research-capable starfighter moves. The game opens with a brief text primer explaining that, after an amnesiac alien crashed on Earth, super scientist Victor St. Grand used its recovered technology to create humanity’s first spacecraft capable of interstellar travel. Founding the Starlink program, St. Grand gathered a crew of young, specialist pilots with easily distinguishable haircuts and big personalities to explore space and find the mysterious alien’s home. As the curtain rises, the crew of the Starship Equinox arrives in the Atlas solar system and is immediately lasered by ornery robots. St. Grand is kidnapped while the Starlink crew fights for their lives. Then Star Fox shows up to help shoot the robots in his little green pants and puffy vest. (Yeah, that’s right: Star Fox now canonically exists in a universe where there’s an Earth, provided you play Starlink on Switch. He’s interwoven into the main plot enough that he regularly converses with the crew’s token Instagram influencer. Somehow this makes the entire game even better.)
Were the ensuing spaceship dogfighting all Starlink had to offer, it would still be an admirable game. Each ship is delectably unfussy, flying with instant responsiveness that enhances the sense of speed without sacrificing a feeling of weight. Flying up to a massive, lizard skull-shaped pirate base and firing off gravity missiles at a snub fighter while you pepper turrets with an ice cannon is thrilling and nuanced but also intuitive. A lot of time in Starlink is spent earning little mod tokens for your weapons and ship, swapping in different cannons depending on the enemies’ elemental alignment. But personalizing your ship never feels like a chore or needlessly time consuming. Everything about flying, which you never stop doing even when you’re exploring the Atlas system’s planets, passes the Goldilocks test. (Which is to say, it’s just right, not in the circumstellar habitable zone of a sun.)
Traversing that solar system is what elevates Starlink. Seven planets straight out of Yes album cover orbit Atlas, and you get to explore every single one for yourself. You can cover the whole surface of a planet by skimming around in your ship for just few minutes. Each one is so much more fun to explore than developer Ubisoft’s open worlds in Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry because what they lack in actual scale, they make up for in impact. When you’re racing so fast between Tundria’s icy canyons that you travel from day to night, spotting lagoons full of half-centipede, half-giraffe creatures just waiting to be scanned, and introducing yourself to the prospectors in the southern hemisphere so they’ll join your alliance against the robots the game feels huge and enveloping. When you take off, seamlessly blast through the atmosphere, and start heading to your next destination 1 million kilometers away while listening to the quiet ambient hush of your hyperdrive sounding off, the effect can take your breath away.
Unfortunately beneath the veneer of intergalactic discovery, diplomacy, and endorphin-releasing space fights is yet another Ubisoft game structured around repetitive open world activities: knock out these bases, do these fetch quests, build these facilities to watch a number get bigger. Unlike almost anything else Ubisoft has made in the past six years, though, there are a digestible number of these tasks and they’re pleasurable to do multiple times. Blasting away another Star Destroyer-sized dreadnought orbiting a vulnerable planet is a lot more enjoyable than having to clip your toenails 80 times over the course of 14 hours to unlock the chance to buy one new weapon in Far Cry: Another One with Bearded Guys.
Starlink’s clarity and focus also let the simple charms of its story shine through. The backstory of the Equinox’s crew of modernized ‘80s cartoon archetypes is actually entirely optional, squirreled away in side missions rather than interrupting the silken flow of exploration. Learning about how fighter pilot-cum-metal band drummer Razor Lemay became the crew’s mechanic or how twerp with a heart of gold Levi (that aforementioned influencer) stowed away only to be embraced by the crew adds the perfect amount of soul to the proceedings. If I met plant-based aliens like Eli Arborwood as a faceless star captain, I just don’t think I’d care as much. Meeting him as a Fox whose special pilot ability is calling in a frog to shoot people while blazing rock music from an old SNES game plays gives it that personal touch. There’s no chilly sci-fi distance here, just heart.
Battle for Atlas is by no means perfect. At the start of the story’s third act, what feels like a very communal but personalized story takes a hard turn into the fated-hero territory that typifies this sort of space opera. It’s bad enough that Starlink had managed to avoid the trope, but worse still that the hero focus turns to Mason Rana, the stock male hero of the crew. Mason is at least fittingly named — Rana means “beautiful to gaze upon” in Arabic — but he is dull as a background character in Ten Forward. The game’s toys-to-life hook — Starlink is accompanied by a range of modular action figures of pilots, their ships, and the dozen-plus weapons that can be equipped two at a time — is fun but also superfluous. The toys are well made and neat to swap out, but totally ancillary unless you plan to bring your preferred pilot and ship to a buddy’s place to play local co-op.
Nitpicks like these don’t diminish Starlink’s appeal. This is as close as I’ve ever come to the action Picard experience. The rush of breaking orbit, discovering ancient ruins; these are the surface pleasures of the sci-fi daydream. This game does not offer up the spiritual majesty of truly great science fiction, the full Picard diplomat uncovering new truths about life, but it doesn’t have to. It’s precisely what I’ve been searching for for a long, long time.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo switch using code provided by the publisher.