PC, Xbox Series X
September 6, 2023
Bethesda Game Studios
Tapping into that desire to explore the stars and expand the human understanding, Starfield is a game brimming with curiosities and possibilities dotted across a vast and alien universe. The first new IP for Bethesda Game Studios in 25 years, Starfield takes on the learnings from series like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls whilst moving their open-world formula into new realms. With a lot of anticipation and the weight of expectations behind it, Starfield largely excels with its interplanetary output, heralding the potential start of a new era for Bethesda, though not without a few concessions.
Finding patterns in the stars
The game thrusts you into the role of a new explorer working with a collective known as Constellation. This group of researchers and dreamers are trying to answer the unanswerable questions of the universe, pushing for deeper understanding and willing to go to great lengths in order to achieve it. The current big mystery is that of the ‘Artifacts’, objects of unknown origin that appear to hold as much power as they do secrets. What starts as a string of intergalactic fetch quests to uncover the Artifacts turns into a much deeper narrative as the inexplicable pieces of the puzzle begin forming a more cohesive picture.
Much like Bethesda’s other recent titles, Starfield is a third or first-person open-world role-playing game. Create your character and jet off into an explorable universe of planets, moons, factions, colonies, and delightful peculiarities. Whilst a main questline is present, the world is also yours to traverse at your own will. Strict limitations do exist, especially ones surrounding how you travel from planet to planet, though an admirable job has been done to replicate the vastness of space and the valiance of discovery. Touching down on a new planet can be magical as you absorb the unique properties of the world around you. The topography of the landscape, the native flora and fauna, the resources available, and even the differing conditions of the atmosphere and gravity make the destinations novel and exciting.
A trip to New Atlantis will see you occupying a lovingly crafted future city amongst the lush greens of a vibrant planet. Touch down in the ports of Neon and soak up the atmosphere of a crime-ridden but character-rich cyberpunk city built atop a vast ocean. Starfield’s universe is not without its faults and a certain amount of repetition and sparseness can be expected amongst the 1000 planets and 100 star systems. Though it’s hard to deny the impact of seeing something brand new, 40 hours into the adventure, and realising you’re still only just scratching the surface of what the game has to offer.
If Bethesda had a point to prove with the release of Starfield then it’s safe to say they proved it. They’re a company with a reputation for releasing games full of charm but also full of sometimes hilarious and sometimes unfortunate glitches. Starfield isn’t able to completely avoid these issues—very few games of this scope ever could—though it really does feel like we’re entering Bethesda’s next era. Gone are so many of the comical eccentricities you’d know (and maybe love) from past releases. This is Bethesda’s most polished game to date and it helps absorb you into that world and atmosphere.
“Starfield is a game that will exist with occasional glitches, not a game remembered for them.”
Sure, you’ll see the odd physics error or awkward NPC pathing. But, importantly, the glitches that are present feel appropriate for the scope of the release. Starfield is a game that will exist with occasional glitches, not a game remembered for them. You can apply that to the stability of the build as well. Some minor frame drops are about all that can reported in what is otherwise a remarkably consistent and well-optimised play experience.
Some reminders of Bethesda’s past remain within the game, such as the way the camera zooms in on NPC faces during dialogue to form a faux cutscene. But even these feel less out-of-place thanks to the incredible visual detail of character faces. In fact, the world at large is genuinely stunning. I’d be shocked if anyone could step foot in New Atlantis, take in the architecture, fashion, and overall visual design of the city, and not be enamoured with this fresh-yet-realised interpretation of science fiction.
The audio design backs up the visual design appropriately, making for a feast of sensory joy as you wander the many star systems.
At this stage, it must be noted that Starfield exists as a game with more limitations than previous Bethesda releases. The reality of stability and polish is that it often comes at the sacrifice of freedom. Give the player more freedom and suddenly you have so many more ways for your game to buckle under the possibilities. The prime example here is that much of your travels don’t happen within a seamless open play space. Starfield instead moves players through menus, fast-travelling, and uninterruptable animations that admittedly take you out of the experience and require you to suspend more disbelief than usual.
Instead of the famous line ‘See that Mountain? You can climb it!’ from Skyrim. In Starfield, we instead get ‘See that planet? You can watch a pre-scripted animation of your spaceship landing on it after you fast-travel from your menu screen’.
There’s no capacity to actually fly through space yourself or be in control of your ship as it enters a planet’s atmosphere. I understand why the sacrifice was made, but in their desire to create a more respectable and tonally serious game, Bethesda lost some of that open-world magic and wonderment.
It’s dangerous to go alone
The game’s questing varies in depth but impresses in breadth. Simply walking through a town will allow you to hear general chatter from the citizens that points you to new side missions and ‘activities’ that automatically update in your quest log. The game is massively expansive and the missions keep up, allowing you to while away tens if not hundreds of hours pursuing side activities, exploring faction missions, and following narrative threads. It’s true that many of these missions can feel like busy work, as if you’re the sole interplanetary saviour where no job is too small. But they also pad out the game nicely, providing incentives to check out new areas, see new things, and talk to new people.
Whilst many of Starfield’s missions can feel a little humdrum, they are at least well contextualised. The amount of dialogue and voice acting here is nothing short of staggering. There’s also a real feeling of reactivity to your dialogue choices, with lines clearly not scripted as generic catch-all responses. Even your active companion will weigh in during dialogue and be responded to appropriately. At times it feels above and beyond, helping you engage with and enjoy the quests and people you come across.
“Whilst many of Starfield’s missions can feel a little humdrum, they are at least well contextualised.”
Companions can be assigned to venture out with you and prove useful as both a hired gun and a pack-mule for your assorted boost packs and alien sandwiches. Play alongside a companion for long enough and you start developing an affinity as you progress through their personal storyline, unpacking their history and helping them with their dilemmas. Not all companions are as fleshed out as others, but the game does a good job of gently encouraging you to team up with the right people. Spend enough time with them and who knows, perhaps love is in the stars.
I personally helped a space cowboy forget about his ex-wife with my homosexual advances, though it’s not quite as raunchy as it initially sounds. Another example of Bethesda perhaps trying to strike a more serious tone, you’re much more likely to find yourself professing your love and reaffirming your commitments to your space fling than actually engaging in any intergalactic hanky-panky.
One giant leap
When you’re not engaging in inappropriate workplace flirting with one of your Constellation besties, you may instead be exploring a planet’s surface, gathering resources, hunting for points of interest, and blasting a space laser down an alien gullet. Combat in Starfield is kind of exactly what you’d expect it to be. It’s not going to be the selling point of this game, though nor does it get in the way of the enjoyment. Low gravity planets and the ability to jump-boost around on foot does help create additional elevation and a more dynamic firefight. An assortment of weapons in different rarities that can also be upgraded with modifications also helps in this regard.
Slightly less engaging are the dogfights one can enter as you warp to a new planet. Visually impressive and again very well contextualised, but with fewer tactical freedoms and more cumbersome movement. Still, blowing up a ship and watching the debris explode out does bring that rush of cosmic badassery that’s hard to top.
“…that rush of cosmic badassery that’s hard to top.”
A perk system is in place that rewards you for your hard work as you progress through 5 different skill trees, boosting your proficiency in areas like combat prowess and scientific understanding. Each perk can be upgraded 4 times with some basic functionality such as hacking or stealth completely locked away until it’s specced into.
The perk system is actually all very streamlined. A diehard RPG fan may be disappointed by the simplicity, but for me I found it to be rewarding without convolution. Better yet were the prerequisites that generated little goals to achieve as you play, incentivising varied playstyles and offering mini rewards as you go.
Both persuasion and hacking have their own minigame for you to play, and both are successfully engaging without necessarily being Bethesda’s best effort.
Touch down on a new planet’s surface and it may well be time to bust out that scanning tool and start surveying your surroundings. You’ll be rewarded for doing so, as you highlight points of interest, resources, and potential loot. The game’s scanning tool is mighty useful, though it can funnel your attention and remove the big-picture feeling of taking in all of your surroundings. Thankfully the UI is minimal here, with good thought put into ensuring the game’s beauty isn’t obfuscated.
Scanning the flora, fauna, and resources of a planet rewards you with some experience. Collect those resources and you’re able to utilise them for cooking, crafting, upgrading, and even building a base of operations. You can store these resources in your ship as well, which you’ll definitely want to do as becoming encumbered is quite easy when you’re as loot-happy as I am. Speaking of ships, you can upgrade your ship, purchase a new one, or build one from scratch. There are a lot of additional systems here but there’s also a cohesiveness to Starfield that was lacking in titles like Fallout 4. All of these systems exist but they exist in harmony without ever feeling tacked on. You’re also safe to ignore them altogether if they’re not your jam.
The deeper you get into Starfield and the longer you spend understanding these systems, the more you’re rewarded. The game somewhat pulls its punches initially, with much of the good content surprisingly packed into the latter areas of the world. You have to give this game time to breathe, give relationships time to flourish, and give questlines time to ramp up. It’s a shame that the early stages of the game aren’t quite as gripping, though I feel excited by the knowledge that many a gamer are just about to step foot into what for many will be an all-encompassing epic.
- Lovingly taps into the desire to broaden the human understanding
- A visual and auditory feast
- Huge breadth of quests and reactive dialogue
- So many gameplay possibilities all cohesively implemented
- A more refined and polished Bethesda experience
- Traversal limits break some of the open-world magic
- Takes some time to ramp up
Starfield may not be the seamless and faultless persistent open world some may be craving. Though what it does provide is still certainly worthy of elation. Give the title some time to warm up and you’ll uncover a vastly refined and picturesque journey of otherworldly proportions. A game of size, scope, and quality all wrapped into one—the beauty of discovery is but a warp drive away.