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Starlink is the family-friendly No Man’s Sky I didn’t know I wanted

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The toys are fun, but the game itself stands out as an adventure

A ship flying on a strange planet Ubisoft

The discussion around Starlink: Battle for Atlas has mostly been about the toys so far, but the game’s central gimmick isn’t as good as the game itself. There is an enjoyable, more kid-friendly version of No Man’s Sky hidden in here, and I’m glad I gave it a second look after being initially turned off by what I had assumed to be another toy-based collect-a-thon.

The game takes place across seven planets and a variety of deep space environments. The story revolves around characters who are making alliances with alien races for the first time and finding their place in the stars, and not everyone out there is friendly. You get to explore cool places, and the members of your team are appropriately excited about being there. The story focuses on the importance of helping others, and working together.

That sense of play carries over to the ship-building aspect of the game, where you can create and fly new ships by swapping around cockpits, wings and weaponry. While the physical toys are pricey, having a big set with which to play and watching the virtual versions morph into the mutant creation you’re making on the weird little stand is a lot of fun. You can even put the wings or weapons on backwards!

This is, admittedly, a pretty intense video game controller
Ben Kuchera/Polygon

But you can just as easily give yourself a pile of parts by buying the digital deluxe edition for $79.99 that comes with six ships, 10 pilots and 15 weapons. Then you can mix and match to your heart’s content without having to spend $24.99 for each additional ship. You can also share the content with a friend on the same system with the drop-in co-op mode.

It’s all very complicated and weird, as a trip through the game’s FAQ will prove, but you can simplify things by ignoring the toys and going straight to the game itself. I personally loved the toys, and mixing and matching wings and weapons with my kids, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to make that huge investment if it were my own money on the line. The digital version of the content is nearly as good, for a lot less money.

And that game often plays like a very enthusiastic version of No Man’s Sky aimed at younger players, although that’s not to say that older folks won’t enjoy it too. You can fly from the ground into space and from planet to planet. You’re always collecting things and bringing things from here to there and scanning odd creatures while also defending allied units. And for some reason, Star Fox is there for the Nintendo Switch version. It’s all gloriously strange in a way that makes it feel like a Saturday morning animated series in the best way.

Starlink keeps the psychedelic color palette and creature design from No Man’s Sky while giving you much more structure and guidance about where to go and want to do. The mission design clearly delineates the side missions from the main missions, so you can decide if you want to level up your ships or structures while exploring the world or just want to move the story along. You always have a good sense of what you should be doing, and why. Starlink is able to pull off the neat trick of giving you a clear path for upgrades and progression while not stepping on its own sense of wonder.

I enjoyed the combat nearly as much as I enjoyed zooming over the surface of each planet to explore. The repetitive tasks of grabbing control over resources and hacking downed ships is broken up by boss battles and the near-constant task of reconfiguring your ship with the best weapons and funkiest wings to take into each fight. The experience is playful and earnest in a way that’s rare in modern gaming, especially with games that are trying to earn a younger audience.

Starlink’s weird toy-collecting mechanic may turn off those who don’t want to buy a bunch of plastic ships — although I’m one of those people who love to collect plastic ships. But as a space game that prizes friendship and exploration, and can be played with the whole family in co-op mode, it’s one of my most pleasant surprises of the year.