Starfield Review

The promise of Bethesda Game Studios titles is always that of infinite possibilities in a reactive, deeply engaging world. It’s a formula that has been iterated on several times since 2002’s Morrowind, and Starfield now offers the best-ever version of this most potent concoction - even in the face of a smattering of trifling issues.

Starfield is at its best when narratives accidentally unfurl before you. For example, in the early hours of my adventure, I set my sights on a simple goal: I wanted a bigger, better spaceship. I decided to ignore the main quest and take on any side quests and jobs I found with the simple aim of amassing cash to spend in the ship customization suite - or perhaps, if I was really flush, on a pre-built ship from a vendor. So, off to space work I went.

My space-life took a hard turn when I accepted a basic bounty mission to resolve a hostage situation aboard a ship out in space. I jumped into the system, engaged in ship-to-ship combat most carefully so I could disable rather than destroy the target ship, and then boarded to take 
down the vile spacers and rescue the hostage. Just another day’s work in Starfield’s bounty hunting.

But then, on the body of one of the defeated mercs, I find a datapad. It references a great big mercenary treasure hunt underway in a specific system. I jump my ship in that direction, do a bit of planet scanning to find the destination, and land on the planet. The mercs have descended on an underground facility - a vault - which is home to a huge inheritance from what appears to be a very rich family.

The mercs have struggled, it turns out, because the vault is well defended. I battle the mercenaries themselves, but also solve a couple of light puzzles, do some hacking, and face waves of powerful defensive mechs. Along the way, terminal entries and data logs tell the story of this place. Come the end of this dungeon, I’m the only one left standing. And at the end? The inheritance. Armor, weapons, and even a ship that once belonged to ‘The Mantis’, a legendary crime fighter and bounty hunter. It’s mine now. Basically, I just stormed the outer-space Batcave… and inherited the cowl.

Starfield's marketing pitches it as all about space exploration, but the format it takes isn't so different to other Bethesda Game Studios titles.
Starfield's marketing pitches it as all about space exploration, but the format it takes isn't so different to other Bethesda Game Studios titles.

Like I say, Starfield just unfurls. It just goes. None of the described above is a main story mission; it’s all just side stuff, and it’s possible to noodle around Starfield’s universe in a manner that feels utterly endless. The main narrative is there - and in fact, I’d recommend finishing it quickly and then really sinking your teeth into the game’s galaxy in New Game Plus - but the point is, the choice is yours.

All of this will be familiar to anyone who played Skyrim, or Fallout 3, or any of the other BGS titles. It’s sort of what they do. And yet… I think Starfield is more accomplished at it. In the run-up to release, some BGS employees cited Red Dead Redemption 2 as an inspiration, which I didn’t understand. But after eighty-some hours of Starfield, I get it: this is much more of a life sim. I felt more immersed, and more inclined to do things like buy and furnish housing at my favorite planetary settlement, or take on odd jobs. This is exactly how I felt about Arthur Morgan’s frontier life in Rockstar’s sequel.

The breadth of content here remains without equal. Chances are if you can imagine a science fiction or space game trope, it’s in here. That might be best represented in Starfield’s hub towns, which range from pristine space cities with major Mass Effect Citadel vibes to hazy Cyberpunk dystopias, or even neo wild west hamlets that feel rather Fallout-y. Wanna be a space cowboy? Head to Akila and join the rangers, who literally give you a six shooter and a Stetson when you sign up. Want some Cyberpunk powers? Go take a job interview at one of the evil corporations in the smoky city of Neon and eventually wind up with the ability to mind control NPCs. Bounty hunts, founding outposts that become towns and trading posts - even managing your ship from the build to the crew - it’s all there, and it’s all in-depth.

Starfield is effortlessly the sort of game that can ignite true childlike curiosity and glee; where you’re on target to one specific objective and then spot something off in the distance or to the side that completely sidetracks you for hours at a time. Like I said before - sorry to repeat myself - it unfurls. On and on it goes, and suddenly you’re ninety hours deep and have technically only completed two main story quests.

In less brilliant areas it more unravels than unfurls. Video games are difficult things to make, and breadth makes them more so. Starfield is the most polished Bethesda Game Studios title I’ve ever played at launch - but it still has its share of ‘Bethesda jank’. I can take physics freak-outs or scripting snafus well enough - but a couple of times in my play-through I was left frustrated. 

Take that Cyberpunky mind control power I mentioned earlier. It’s awesome on paper, but how it interfaces with Starfield’s engine and AI feels a bit scrappy; almost like a mod. It was frustrating to use and I quit using it in all but the most desperate of situations. Usually developers are forced to choose between breadth and depth. Starfield has both, but it sometimes feels like this has come at the cost of polish and entirely frictionless integration of every system. Oftentimes I found myself wishing that certain mechanics such as the conversation and persuasion system were just a tiny bit better. Stealth is another example, where I firmly believe that Starfield’s stealth just sort of sucks. After a miserable side mission that the game clearly wanted me to sneak through was over, I avoided it at all costs. 

The fact that this game is gently iterative over past BGS titles helps, though. Starfield is primarily driven by gunplay, and this feels subtly better than Fallout 4, which means it isn’t as tight as a ‘true’ shooter but is perfectly serviceable for an RPG. While it can be played in third-person, which has also been subtly improved, the way you’ll want to play this game for everything but navel-gazing exploration is from the character’s perspective, just like Starfield’s predecessors.

But then for all this gently iterated stuff, Starfield is content to also throw wildly new and different things at you. Ship building is deep enough to sort of be a game unto itself, at least to a sci-fi nerd like me. I love how the ship’s modules and layouts are reflected in the actual ship you can walk around and explore - the design impacts the flow of a real in-game area, how many crew you can have, and its combat abilities out in space. There’s tremendous depth to this one system - but if you want to ignore it, you can earn new ships as rewards, buy them, or do simple one-click upgrades to what you already have, so long as you have the cash. There’s a similar depth and optionality to the outpost-building system, too.

I found ship building and dogfighting to be compelling enough that I'd happily play a whole game of just that.
I found ship building and dogfighting to be compelling enough that I'd happily play a whole game of just that.

Other mechanics are smart twists on what came before. Space combat feels all-new and fairly awesome, for instance. I love the FTL-style juggling of systems and power levels, and how against-all-odds one-on-many dogfights can feel. It’s very different - but you can also see how it’s absolutely built on the same Creation Engine foundations as the game’s regular in-person blasting. 

The Elder Scrolls has afflictions like vampirism - and here these same systems manifest as various spacefaring-appropriate nasties. Spend too long on a hostile planet without a suit that has adequate radiation shielding, for instance, and you might get sick - and have to seek out a cure. Huff too many stat-boosting medicines and you’ll become addicted and be forced to keep taking them or suffer nasty withdrawal symptoms. All of this contributes to that life-sim feel I mentioned earlier; it begins to feel like role-playing in one of its truest forms.

As far as the traditional RPG nuts and bolts go, it’s a streamlined skill system. There’s no outright stats to pump points into, but each level up you’ll gain a skill point that can be spent across a huge number of skills, each of which can have between zero and four points put into them. Skill levels determine things like what level of lock you can pick or your detectability in stealth, what complexity of crafting or modding you can perform, or even what ship parts you’ll be able to attach to your creations. In addition, skills can offer things like bonuses to your health or damage with certain weapon types. Encumbrance is back, but my fellow hoarders will be pleased to hear that you can still move at normal speed when over-encumbered - though only in a stop-start fashion.

If anything, Starfield’s skill system feels a little overwhelming at first, since there’s just so many of them. While the choice is yours in how to proceed, there are certain things that almost everybody will engage in - a certain amount of exploration, of spaceflight, of dogfighting, and of first-person blasting. Just the skills that cover these areas of the game are numerous - more than you’ll be able to spend even across your character’s first 30 or 40 levels. The overwhelming scale fades as you get to grips with Starfield’s systems, however. At this point, the game offers up the joyous pain of having to make difficult role-playing decisions each time you level up. There’ll almost always be multiple skills vying for your attention; it’s broad enough that the concept of a true ‘best build’ seems laughable. I love it for that.

Even as you get to a point where you’re comfortable with your character’s skills, there’s plenty of role-playing to do elsewhere. In the story, this feels like a more reactive game than other BGS titles, with the final consequences of major quest lines reverberating throughout the game world louder and for longer than in Starfield’s peers. This is made all the more impressive by how huge this world feels. It’s difficult to measure, but it definitely feels like it dwarfs Skyrim, which is a towering achievement.

Not everything is so nuanced, of course. A strong example of that is companion AI and relationships, which still feel wafer thin. That’s well demonstrated well by how you can watch ‘X hated that’ pop-ups flood your notifications as you murderously blow the ships of their favored faction out of the sky, but then continue hanging out as if it was all no big deal.

The elephant in the room, I suppose, is exploration. This also happens to be where I feel opinions on Starfield will most thoroughly diverge - because if you’re expecting something like No Man’s Sky, a seamless space exploration experience, this ain’t it. In fact Starfield probably has more structurally in common with the first Mass Effect title than anything since.

To get specific - pretty much everything in Starfield takes place in discrete zones. You open a galaxy map style menu and select a system and jump there; when you arrive, your orbit around a single celestial body is its own zone. Everything around that body in orbit is there and can be interacted with - asteroids, other ships, space stations, satellites - but the planet cannot. No matter how long you fly towards it, you’ll never land. To land, you open the menu and select where on the planet - anywhere on it - you want to drop in. This can be at a known city of settlement, or anywhere out in the wilds where you can scan and mine for resources. To move to the orbit of another planet, even in the same system, you open up the galactic map in your menu and select that planet. A short scene of your ship flying will chaperone you over.

Loads are now much quicker - though as with any one of these games, they get longer as the save file balloons. I tested the game on PC loading from SSD as well as on Xbox Series X and S. Regardless of how quick it is, you’ll be seeing a lot of fades to black. Even exploring a city planetside or a large space station, you can expect to have to pass through a loading barrier even to get inside some major buildings or subsections. To some degree this must be about memory management - this is still one of those games where if you drop a gun in a specific spot and come back 90 hours later, it’ll still be there. That’s probably not possible in a more seamless world - but in 2023 the segmentation is sure to bother some. 

So, too, is the nature of Starfield’s universe. It’s a realistic take on space, which means few aliens and generally of low sentience - and a whole lot of barren planets. The star map is clear if a planet isn’t of much interest, but short of gas giants you’re welcome to land on whatever you like. There’ll be resources and the odd point of interest on every planet - just don’t expect them all to be interesting. The majority of them won’t have life - just like in real life. But you can expect when you do find life to find intricate, bespoke zones and locations with stories that’ll draw you in.

I’ll admit, the stop-start nature of navigating the galaxy was slightly jarring at first. I spent a lot of time thinking about games I’ve played since my last Bethesda Game Studios adventure that are more seamless in their open exploration. But then the unique tempo and timbre of these titles begins to take hold. You realize how important fast travel is - which means you’d be seeing those fades to black anyway. And, honestly, I found myself beginning to vibe with those thickly-drawn delineations between the different types of content - between spaceflight, ship design, exploration, and battles. 

Not every planet is a barren wasteland; scattered across the galaxy are gorgeous, expansive city hubs.
Not every planet is a barren wasteland; scattered across the galaxy are gorgeous, expansive city hubs.

In that sense, Starfield is the most opulent of patchwork blankets. It’s a mind-bogglingly large range of systems, ideas, and mechanics ranging from the mundane to the sublime stitched together to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. That stitching is sometimes a little more haphazard and crude than some of its peers. It’s not seamless, because you can see the seams. They’re obvious. But it doesn’t mean that all of this stuff doesn’t fit together - belong together - beautifully.

Starfield slowly unfurls from the familiar into something wider, wilder, and more ambitious than I expected - even while in some areas it’s quite happy to gently iterate on its predecessors. Todd Howard and his team picked their battles wisely, showing a masterful understanding of a needed balance between vast expansion and restraint. The result is their best game yet. Sometimes that breadth holds it back just a touch, because so many mechanics means that some stuff ends up slightly under-cooked. It’s still a monumental achievement, however.

The question for the public is, I think, more simple than this monster-length review suggests. This is another one of those games. This is indeed Space Skyrim - but with more new systems and mechanical depth than I’d anticipated. But it’s also space Skyrim in a warts-and-all way - many of those same flaws and foibles remain. For those who have tired of this formula, who feel that it has had its time - Starfield may well be a swing and a miss. For me, however - I disagree. 

This is absolutely the evolution I never knew that I wanted from the RPG subgenre probably best nebulously described as a ‘Bethesda game’. For the first time, I’m actually truly attached to my character and their life in one of these games - and that’s been transformative. That’s been achieved through a number of changes, some of them imperceptibly small - but they work. That’s the real story here. Starfield works - even though it’s so big that I doubted that it ever could.