Bethesda Game Studios has led us through many adventures in the past. From mediaeval fantasy realms, all the way to post-apocalyptic wastelands — and even some drag racing apparently that I wasn’t aware of until literally just this moment? — but at last, we’ve reached space. The final frontier. Although we’ve kind of tasted Bethesda’s spin on a space voyage with the questionable Fallout 3 DLC Mothership Zeta, we’re finally treated with a genuine attempt at an adventure across the obsidian sky with Starfield.
Starfield finds us in control of a space miner, seemingly on our first day of work and being shown the ropes by our new boss, Lin. As we progress further down the cave, we learn the basics of resource mining using our laser device and eventually are guided into a particularly unique cavern. With a brightly coloured gem formation jutting out of the rock, and a curious relic lying amongst them, we begin to dig away with our laser, soon reaching out to touch the mysterious object… then, suddenly, we’re greeted with a dazzling rush of colours and sound. We awaken back in the mining corporation dormitories, our concerned handlers trying to figure out if there’s any lasting physical or mental damage. We’re asked if we remember who we are, after which we’re able to customise our spacefarer. We’re given quite an in-depth customisation, with the option to adjust the bone structure and practically sculpt the perfect face for our character, as well as a decent variety of hair and other options. The title rounds it all up nicely by asking for our name and also giving us the optional choice of adjusting our pronouns, an inclusive and welcome addition.
It’s worth noting here that Bethesda has really upped the visual presentation as far as characters go. With a noted and prevalent history of games suffering from Butt-Ugly Character syndrome — The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion probably being the worst culprit of this — the characters look like actual passable humans in Starfield and their speaking animations add a whole layer of new believability to the fresh Creation Engine 2, separating it from it’s uglier, jankier predecessor. World design has also improved heavily, too: the bustling metropolis of the New Atlantis colony looks like a chunk out of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City, and the landscapes of the more barren planets would look right at home on the background of a NASA-fanatic’s desktop computer. The audio design is another gorgeous aspect of the presentation, with a soundtrack by composer Inon Zur that sounds like the beautiful lovechild of Vangelis and Hans Zimmer. Orchestral pieces blend in electronic elements and ambient synths, making it feel like you’re sliding from a scene out of Blade Runner to a scene straight from Interstellar.
Although our starting point as a space miner is predetermined, we’re given pretty ample choices of backgrounds for our character. We can choose if they have pre-existing ties to any of the factions, whether we’re orphaned or have parents and some of our previous career backgrounds. Each of these backgrounds provides various modifiers to your experience, such as having to send 200 credits back home to your family weekly or having access to a chest full of equipment at a particular faction location. These additions to the character creation process are greatly welcomed and feel like they’ve taken inspiration from the wealth of “Alternative Start” mods from both The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 4, which grant players the option to craft their own backstory prior to the main events of the game.
Once our character is ready to go, it’s time for us to meet the charismatic Barrett, a client of the Argos Extractors mining corporation, and a longstanding member of Constellation. He informs us that he’s discovered a relic much like the one we did and had a similar experience, after which he asks if we’re ready to become part of something much bigger. It’s at this point that we’re given the initial keys to the universe. With our own hand-me-down spaceship and robot companion, Vasco, we set off across the stars to New Atlantis, a colony on the planet Jemison. Here, we visit the headquarters of Constellation, an organisation on a never-ending mission to explore and uncover the secrets of the galaxy. At this point, our exploration potential starts to expand quickly as we head off on our first quest with the assistance of Sarah Morgan, the Chair of Constellation.
There’s a depth of lore and history to the universe of Starfield, some of which is delivered through expository dialogue, and other parts which can be pieced together through terminal entries and books scattered across the planets. Ultimately, the general premise is that humanity developed the Grav Drive, a method of faster-than-light travel that allows mankind to traverse the stars, but at the cost of the habitability of planet Earth. This led to the colonisation of various star systems, and the rise of various factions, such as the two major players, the United Colonies and the Freestar Collective. After a major conflict between the two, many smaller factions grew in prominence, such as the apocalyptic cult of the House Va’ruun, or the ever-persistent-and-annoying space pirates, the Crimson Fleet. Starfield takes place a couple of decades after the end of the conflict, with the star systems hung in the balance of an unsteady level of peace. One major question mark in the lore is the existence of sentient extraterrestrial races, or more accurately, the seeming lack of sentient them. That doesn’t mean that the player won’t come across some space beasts and creatures throughout their travels, however. Luckily, though, we’re more than equipped for some combat.
Combat plays much like it does in the Fallout titles developed by Bethesda Game Studios, albeit with the absence of the VATS mechanic. There is a decent chunk of various weaponry that can be found, from the more stylised lasers to traditional firearms, such as pistols and SMGs that have had a nice futuristic redesign, and certainly have had some sort of lore tinkering to allow for usage in space and zero-gravity situations. Enemies range from small native creatures of the various planets and human aggressors, all the way to the more ferocious of beasts, such as the fittingly-named Terrormorphs — think of them like space Deathclaws. The gunplay in Starfield feels responsive, and the weaponry is satisfying to use, however, combat is probably one of the first major shortcomings that you’ll come across during a playthrough. As much as Bethesda has worked hard on Creation Engine 2, and as gorgeous as the visuals look, it still has that rusty old motor sputtering away underneath the sleek bodywork. The AI is prone to the classic blunders seen in Skyrim and Fallout 4, with awkward pathing, questionable flanking, and being able to disregard a bullet dislodging a chunk of their jaw as nothing more suspicious than a change in wind speed.
Starfield sees the return of a similar crafting mechanic, as was previously seen in Fallout 4, with the options to craft modifications and customisations for your weapons and gear. As bare and basic as the user interface was in Fallout 4, you eventually got used to it and learnt to utilise the crafting despite it, but in Starfield, the interface feels like it’s actively working against you to make crafting as much of a chore as possible. From being unable to clearly tell the compatibility of the modification you just crafted to unclear explanations of what benefits your crafting is giving you, there’s a significant curve in Starfield’s crafting, which I understand may have been an attempt to keep things fresh but feels more alienating than anything.
The UI claims another victim in the form of inventory management. Players who have experience with previous open-world RPGs from Bethesda Game Studios are more than familiar with the weight-limit and encumbrance mechanics. Loot too much stuff and you’ll soon be weighed down, leading to a severe hit of your stamina — stylised in Starfield as an oxygen vs carbon dioxide metre — which will affect your ability to sprint, jump, and, ultimately, cause you to start taking damage. Luckily, you can offload a lot of your tat onto your companion, or transfer to your ship's cargo hold at certain locations, meaning that even the most severe of hoarders will have moments of reprieve. However, the process of transferring items over to companions or to the ship storage gets incredibly repetitive and eats up a solid chunk of time after a while.
The main quest narrative is, unfortunately, a major area where Bethesda’s “tried and tested” ideals of role-playing game design fall flat. In a title where you’re given a decent variety of character archetypes to choose from, and where you can truly explore the depths of your character's morality in the wide variety of side quests and ventures you can get yourself into, the main quest largely restricts you to a small handful of cliche character attitudes, such as the high-horse-riding goody-two-shoes, the sarcastic Han Solo-esque merc who is always looking for more credits, or the almost comically dickish self-preservationist. Although there are significant story beats that can affect the course of the star systems and the lives of characters around you, you’re pretty much going to end up at the same pit stops on the way to your final destination as anyone else, no matter how fancy or unique a route you try to take.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a tireless amount of variety to experience throughout the galaxy. Like I mentioned before, you’re going to find some wild side-quests that not only bestow you with ample role-playing opportunities, but with abundant gifts in the form of things such as companions, gear, and even spaceships. You might not run into a certain faction for many hours of gameplay, or you might accidentally stumble upon them getting thrown about a random cave by a Terrormorph on one of the first planets you touch down on. One side-quest and experience can chain effortlessly into another, and another, and another, until you’ve found yourself on a planet-hopping expedition that rivals that of the actual main story.
One thing that I think many find to be a major criticism of the title is the exploration aspect. I instead think it’s more of a misunderstanding. It is frustrating to have such a vast and epic space adventure where the spaceflight and exploration are blighted with fast-travel jumps and cutscenes that remove any genuine sense of control of your ship. Although we can fly our ship and dogfight other pilots, as well as choose to board different ships and space stations, these are all just extended bits of transitional gameplay as opposed to the main event. Starfield’s exploration is stifled because of this. I’m going to be controversial here and say that it doesn’t really matter.
If you approach Starfield with the thought that it’s going to be Bethesda’s take on No Man's Sky then you’re going to be bitterly disappointed. Although it definitely does take certain inspirations from it, by no means does it try to emulate it. Instead, I see it more as Bethesda’s attempt at the Obsidian-helmed The Outer Worlds. It’s a well-crafted role-playing adventure where the main focus of the story is centred on the meticulously crafted hub cities and outposts. The quests take place there, and the story advances there. Everything is just a nice little extra bit of content to dive into if it so happens to take your fancy. What’s better is that the vast galaxy of Starfield is so heavily packed with points of interest, people to interact with, quests to get lost in, and battles to dive into that it allows a deeper sense of immersion than was possible on the more restrictive scope of The Outer Worlds.
Starfield is far from a perfect game. The best way to describe it would be as just another Bethesda Game Studios RPG, and along with the supposed negative stigma of that statement comes the unquestionable charm of the writing, the characters, and the immersion into the story. Starfield is a testament to Bethesda’s ability to craft narratives and fantastical worlds and to do so in spite of technical issues and awkward design choices that plague both this title and their back catalogue. It’s a flawed gem, but a gem nonetheless.
Starfield (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
Starfield shines through some glaring issues that definitely dampen the experience but don’t ruin it altogether. With plenty to see and do, sheer immersion will be enough to carry you through to the end of Bethesda’s latest offering.