Bethesda games are often the biggest RPGs on the market in terms of size, content and scope, meaning it’s hard to really get a full understanding of what a game like Starfield is capable of by yourself. One person’s playthrough can often be completely different to the next person’s. All you can do to see if you enjoy it is to play it yourself and come to your own conclusions, and after sinking dozens of hours into Starfield, all I can really say is it’s mostly good. Sometimes it’s even great. Other times, it’s bafflingly strange.
You see, for every couple of things that Starfield manages to get right, and there’s a lot of stuff here that it absolutely nails, there’s also some kind of weird design decision, some glaring omission or something that leaves you scratching your head. Like other Bethesda games, Starfield boasts incredible highs, but the lows can be genuinely off-putting.
As a premise, Starfield’s world and overall worldbuilding isn’t the most original sci-fi tale in the world. Earth’s gone down the toilet and humanity’s flocked to the stars, civil war broke out not long afterwards between two factions and now we’re in a relative peace, where both sides are sick to death of Spacers and bounty hunters trying to steal and kill everyone. As a relatively unassuming miner, your chance interaction with a strange artifact thrusts you into the center of a cosmic mystery that admittedly becomes more compelling as new layers and twists emerge.
Again though, the “world” of Starfield doesn’t feel that unique, as it seems like the main areas of the game cover the usual sci-fi tropes. New Atlantis, the capital city of the United Colonies, seems like an idyllic paradise, if you ignore the low-income citizenship that have literally been forced underground. Meanwhile, Akila City and the Freestar Collective take the word frontier very seriously, looking like the set of Cowboys & Aliens. The city of Neon is probably the most interesting, but it’s still your standard cyberpunk city, with greedy megacorps, corrupt security forces and street gangs aplenty.
Even if the setting isn’t that original, it’s how Bethesda tells stories within those settings that makes Starfield as compelling as it is. Helping a charity worker providing for those less fortunate in Akila City might not be what you would immediately want to do in a space-faring action RPG, but the characters themselves are fairly well written and voice acted, so you want to see more. The main companions are also well worth keeping, with Barrett and Sam Coe arguably being the two highlights. Who doesn’t love a pair of gruff wisecrackers with hearts of gold?
The side quests in particular feel like some of Bethesda’s best, as there’s often enough wiggle room for players to carve their own path, whether through persuasion, violence, bribery or some good old fashioned gaslighting. Still, even though persuasion and player choice are paramount to a game like Starfield, the combat is arguably their best yet. The gunplay feels incredible, and the large array of weapons on offer means you’ll find a loadout that works for you, whether you prefer sniping from afar, getting up close and personal with a massive boomstick or even just using melee weapons. The different gravity of planets also plays into combat, adding an extra vertical wrinkle in moments of low or even zero gravity, which is always fun.
Even the ship combat is better than expected. It doesn’t hit the same levels as a game like Chorus, but it’s a fun addition to the overall package. The fact you can build your own ships is the icing on the cake, which lets people really explore their creative sides while exploring space. A lot of people already putting hours into that feature alone to try and recreate some iconic spaceships in science fiction history. We’re still waiting for someone to accurately recreate Red Dwarf though, though we pity anyone trying to attempt that on a controller. The process feels a bit fiddly to use.
At its best, Starfield serves up some of the best moments you could have in gaming. The moment where it clicked for me was when I went to complete a mission to kill some Crimson Fleet bounty. When I turned up, the Crimson Fleet were already in combat. Turns out, they were fighting with bounty hunters sent to kill me, so it turned into a triple threat match. However, I must have wiped out enough bounty hunters prior to this moment, because bounty defenders showed up, trying to protect me so the bounty price inflated. As space dogfights go, those five minutes will stick with me for a long time.
Even during the quieter moments though, Starfield still manages to blow you away. As you’re exploring towns and people’s houses, you get the sense that this is the most lived in world that Bethesda has created, with plenty of lore and detail to be found no matter where you look. Meanwhile, the conversations with your companions feel much more realistic, with characters remembering choices and things you’ve said to them over the course of the game.
Unfortunately though, a lot of that goodwill earned from the excellent gameplay is challenged by some of the most baffling decisions in gaming history. There are design choices in Starfield that are absolutely bewildering to experience, and for some players, they could be enough to curtail any enjoyment you might have been having.
Some of these problems are small, like the fact that the planetside map system is utterly useless, giving players no information on where significant points of interest in a town are. There’s the argument to be made that Bethesda are going for an old school RPG approach, forcing players to be aware of their surroundings in order to navigate towns, but why can’t we place our own points of interest on a map, so we’re never lost trying to find the nearest shop while we’re encumbered? Also, why can’t we craft ammo? 12 gauge shotgun shells are a nightmare to find, lads.
As much as conversations with companions are great, it would be nice if we could have more than one companion following us at any one time, as progressing a relationship with someone when they’re not glued to your hip can be quite arduous. Also, some way of tracking your status with another character would be a great quality of life change. The performance issues are also worth mentioning, with consistent framerate drops while in large city areas, but at least the performance will be patched soon enough.
The actual space exploration is also one of the weakest parts of the entire game, as the majority of that side of Starfield involves trudging slowly around sparsely populated planets and moons, with occasional points of interest or flora and fauna to find. The fact that there’s no vehicles or mounts of any kind to make exploring these worlds easier is very disappointing. People still hate the Mako sections in Mass Effect, but at least Bioware respected you enough to give you a vehicle to get from point to point.
These sparse planets with randomly generated points of interest soon begin to recycle content too, whether it’s the same tileset of an abandoned mineshaft, or the fact that you’re running into the same flora and fauna on multiple planets, instead of finding creatures and plants unique to that planet’s ecosystem. Meanwhile, if it’s not the level tiles, it’s the interactions you have with random NPCs. Hearing the same voiceline multiple times on one ship, going through the same Mantis conversation multiple times after saving some merchant vessel — the vast expanse of space suddenly doesn’t feel so big, only bloated.
This repetitive filler content is what forces the player to stick with just the main settlements and side quests, eschewing exploration for just teleporting to the general area of the mission objective and getting stuck into it. Considering there’s so much content in those parts of the game anyway, you could probably have a great time avoiding it, but it does make you wonder why Starfield wasn’t condensed somewhat. 100 planets with more unique content and interactions would have been better than 1000 planets with bland, repetitive content.
There’s a lot of aspects to Starfield that players can fall in love with, and judging by the game’s player numbers, they already have, but conversely, there’s a lot here that some players will find frustrating. Given the long shelf life that games like Skyrim and Fallout 76 have enjoyed though, I personally wouldn’t be surprised to see Starfield being improved upon for years to come. With some key changes and more content variety so we’re not exploring the same abandoned mine on several different planets, Starfield could become a genuine worldbeater.
A code for the Premium Edition of Starfield was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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A fun space-faring RPG held back by a few glaring decisions, Starfield is a good launching point for a game that’ll become something great in the future.
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