Sorting out my feelings on Starfield has taken me much longer than I expected. The latest roleplaying game from Bethesda Game Studios, and its first new IP in 25 years, Starfield is a science fiction adventure filled with the desire to Boldly Go. Though the scale on which it operates is dizzying, in practice, it’s clear where the vision has collided with the limits of its own design. It’s clearer still where Bethesda’s old habits (or perhaps the limitations of its current toolset) have kept it from crafting one of its signature RPGs in a way that feels truly new.
Take me out, to the black
For me, the Starfield experience is cleanly divided in two — its story and its universe.
Starfield possesses an excellent setting and central story, which I believe rank among the best Bethesda has ever produced. Your character lives in a period many years after the most pivotal moment in human history — a terrifying, nightmarish fifty-year stretch in which humanity was shoved out into the galaxy before we were entirely ready. I loved this story; the horror of an atmospheric leak drawing the life right out of the planet around us creates striking images in the mind. The idea of being helpless to do anything to stop it, and having just half a lifetime to evacuate every living soul from a planet of eight billion left me reeling.
We are refugees among the stars, recreating our home on any world that seems like it might be up to the task. The cold brutality of being forced to abandon our home on Earth due to circumstances beyond our control has left a special scar on every one of us, even those born years later. Long years of war and calculated divisionism have resulted in an uneasy truce between three primary human factions who now agitate their petty conflicts through weaponised bureaucracy. This is the galaxy your character lives in, eking out a living in a dusty old mine on a backwater world. The discovery of a mysterious artifact within that mine and the strange, overpowering vision it bestows with a touch set a galaxy-spanning adventure in motion.
It takes a while for Starfield‘s main campaign to get rolling — longer, I feel, than any recent Bethesda yarn. Skyrim remains the studio’s best opening, a sequence that introduces the world and its dangers, kicking the player smartly up the backside and sending them into the world. Starfield doesn’t really do this. Here, your character has a bad trip in a hole in the ground that sends them on a meandering 15-hour journey across the cosmos. Right when you’re beginning to think that Todd Howard has finally lost his mind, the stakes abruptly come into focus, and the story becomes significantly more compelling.
Travelling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, farm boy
This brings us to the game’s universe: Your adventure sends you right across the colonised universe, grav jumping between systems on your way to each new objective. This is where one of Starfield‘s most obvious concessions rears its head. Given Bethesda’s pedigree for large-scale, open-world games, players could have been forgiven for thinking of Starfield as a single massive universe that could be explored at one’s leisure in a manner similar to Skyrim, or possibly No Man’s Sky. This is certainly what the pre-release marketing would have liked you to believe.
It’s true to an extent. The problem Starfield has made for itself is that its explorable universe is huge, and the only way to cross the vast tracts of inky black void is a grav jump — effectively fast travelling with additional special effects. In Skyrim, and other Bethesda RPGs, fast travel was unlocked by visiting each major population centre on the world map. Starfield approximates this by observing your ship’s maximum range and having you grav jump to familiar star systems at, or close to, that limit. Jumping into a new system puts you in high orbit above its capital planet. From there, you can rotate that planet to select a landing zone, triggering a second quick travel sequence. On the ground, you are free to disembark and explore the surface.
Of course, if you’d rather not go to all that trouble, you can also navigate to the Objectives menu, press X on your controller, and instantly set a course for your next port of call. Confirm it, and you’ll teleport straight to the next planet for landing. When you’re not teleporting around, you’re exploring the galaxy in what feels like a staggered, compartmentalised fashion. Neither inspires a sense of adventure, but it does make a certain amount of sense. This isn’t a leisurely walk from one side of Skyrim to the other we’re talking about here. We’re traversing the astral sea itself, distances so vast you have to use numbers you’ve never heard of before to describe them.
How are you supposed to get excited about an adventure game where the act of travelling is, by and large, conducted through literal fast travel? It’s hard not to feel as though, in conceding that space travel must be instantaneous to be in any way practical, Bethesda has given up a part of itself. This minimising of exploration removes one of the things the company has always done very well — the feeling of emergent discovery, that magical sleight-of-hand that made its games feel alive and breathing, is pared way back here.
Compounding this feeling of disconnection and fragmentation are the planets themselves. Each world is divided into two or three large-ish square-shaped zones populated with proc-gen terrain and a handful of authored assets. They feel rather barren, leaving the player to wander about scanning things and bumping into the occasional Skyrim-esque dungeon carved into a hillside. Making matters worse is the baffling, mildly infuriating lack of any on-world maps. My ship can scan any planet from orbit and pull all sorts of information about its geological makeup, but I can’t generate a terrain map and send it to my iPad before we head down? Make it make sense.
Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on
The rest of Starfield, in the micro and the macro, are similarly up and down. For instance: the side-quests are fantastic and take you to some genuinely interesting locations, but the game’s inventory system is terrible. Flying your ship is quite cool and allows you to manage its systems on the fly, in a very “Send all power to the forward shields” kind of way, but customising it in the game’s bespoke editor is an exercise in frustration. There are lots of interesting character builds to try, but the game’s encumbrance system leaves you almost permanently puffed and losing O2 until you stop to sell regularly. Crafting options have been greatly expanded, which rocks! The things you can craft aren’t all that interesting, which is butts!
You get the point. For everything I came to like about Starfield, it felt like there was always another (often related) issue that annoyed the life out of me.
Nevertheless, I kept going back to it. The annoyances were never quite enough to stop me pushing forward through its story. I wanted to know what the go was with the Alien DNA trait I’d taken in character creation. I wanted to buy a flash apartment on New Atlantis and grudgingly joined the space cops to get it. I met a crazy old man who’d filled a hulking cargo cruiser with stolen Earth artefacts and a crew to guard them. I was drafted by galactic security to go undercover for them after I (accidentally) tried to smuggle contraband onto the core worlds. I had to help a lone engineer murder a space Deathclaw in a way that can only be described as a Home Alone-ing.
But if it weren’t for these gems among the cruft, I just don’t think I’d have stuck around this long. Starfield‘s construction leaves in a place that feels far less essential than Bethesda’s other RPGs. In removing a lot of the traversal in the name of expediency, it diminishes the soul of the Bethesda experience. It does its damndest to make up for this deficiency in other ways, but the wound is self-inflicted, and it is a mortal one.
I will check in on it again in a year to see what the mod scene has done with the place. but for now, I am happy to put my ship into storage.
Review conducted on Xbox Series X and PC using an early access code purchased by the author.
Lead image: Xbox, Kotaku Australia
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