Starfield Review – Familiar looking journey of discovery.

From the first moment people look up at the stars, they’ve wondered what it would be like to move through the eternal black. Bethesda, known for its vast open worlds, experienced exactly the same thing, and the team has been dreaming of shifting their gaze to the infinite for years. With Starfield, the studio is making a big push in the right direction, although unfortunately the familiar criticisms of Bethesda titles still hold true for Starfield.

Given its focus on exploration and discovery, it’s not surprising that Starfield takes a while to get going. The first few hours in this new Bethesda RPG are downright uncomfortable, mainly because the game – despite its many familiar-looking components – is really structured differently from this studio’s other RPGs. Gone is the huge open world where you can freely go out. No huge vistas, but instead a lot of smaller maps, which do offer you this view, but also have more limitations than you’re used to. Yet overall, Starfield contains so much ridiculous content that any criticism I can make of it feels a bit like small beer.

Classic opening

You quickly become the main quest and world drawn into and basically everything immediately feels familiar. The first quests explain the basics to you and the character creator has all the options you expect. The skills don’t really do much new either. There are separate skills for stealth and security to break open locks and a few new skills around flying spaceships (don’t underestimate these), but otherwise most won’t be a real surprise.

What is immediately noticeable is that Starfield plays nicely. The gunplay is faster than you are used to and there is clearly more focus on action, especially in space. In addition to weapons and tools, you have a scanner to explore environments with. You can scan flora, fauna and minerals to mine and then sell this data when you have scanned everything on a planet and exhausted every mining jar. This really invites you to explore the environment, an incentive you can put to good use on the emptier planets.

Out and about with Constellation

Bethesda’s reverence for the early explorers and all who will follow is dripping throughout the game. For example, the robot sidekick is named Vasco (no doubt named after Vasco de Gama) and you’ll come across numerous references to all manner of explorers and existing space agencies like NASA and other pioneers. The main quest mainly revolves around the Constellation organization, a group of loose-footed explorers, who are also your traveling companions throughout the game. Of course, each with a number of their own quests to flesh out their characters, as you would expect. It’s a little inconvenient that Starfield comes out just after another major RPG that does this aspect rather much better, so the conversations and choices in it suddenly feel more limited than is actually fair to the developers.

As the game opens, you spend quite a bit of time in menus and jumping from location to location with fast-travel, which is partly necessary to explain the systems, but doesn’t feel very much like a true open world. The Constellation headquarters is in the first major city you encounter, and that’s where Starfield finally begins to feel a bit like the Bethesda RPG you expected when you started the game. New Atlantis feels huge, and despite your quest markers constantly directing you to the loading screen in the streetcar, the entire city is on the same map. Why am I pointing this out?

Limited freedom

That’s because there’s quite a bit going on around how big Starfield’s planets and moons are. And with the awkward statements on Twitter from Pete Hines doesn’t immediately improve that. So what can you really expect? Each location in Starfield is located on a map of a few square kilometers. You reach the edge of each area after about ten minutes of full sprinting, after which you are presented with a pop-up. You can return to the map to land in another area of the planet (you can land anywhere where there is no water), or be teleported back to your ship.

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The maps are not connected; for example, if you land next to New Atlantis, you won’t see the city in the distance. Each map, except the fixed landing locations, is randomly generated by the game and is unique in that respect. Depending on the planet you are roaming, plants, animals, caves, (abandoned) bases, minerals to mine and much more can be found. Each location has about three points you can walk to that you can already see in advance, and as you explore further, you will undoubtedly come across a few more. Add to this the number of planets and moons you can land on, and the conclusion can only be that Starfield contains a tremendous amount of content, though more spread out and organized differently than previous Bethesda titles.

Surface vs. content

Many times you navigate the universe using your starmap, and you can easily get to your next destination by planning a route in your quest log with the push of a button. The downside to this is that you’re pretty often busy traveling from point to point via fast travel, and because of this, the universe doesn’t feel like the large worlds we’re used to from Bethesda. Many planets are quite empty and desolate, which of course is not weird, but it is a striking contrast to their previous games.

The ‘surface’ map of the planet’s surface otherwise really sucks. You literally can’t tell anything from this and this one is only good for clicking a fast-travel point you’ve already been to. No idea where the stores are in a town or how to get anywhere, which means you’re quite often searching for a place to sell your stolen stuff, or find a vendor at all who has any money left after you’ve sold all your stuff.

World building is not the only unique thing about Starfield, you can actually fly around between planets. Again, you are on a sort of enclosed map, although itb quite large, after all, you need to be able to fly around a bit. Don’t expect to be able to fly around a planet, it just stays neatly at the same distance no matter how long you fly towards it. It is useful to scan each planet briefly from orbit so you know what you find on the solid ground.

Flying within the atmosphere is also not in the cards. The flying works quite well, although to my feeling more could have been done with it. You can provide more or less power to the various parts of your ship as you fly, providing a good balance for space battles, encounters with ghost ships, abandoned and less abandoned space stations, shipyards and a few more surprises that I won’t reveal here.

Known problems

A true space sim like Elite Dangerous or No Mans Sky is not to be expected in any case. Starfield is a Bethesda RPG first and foremost, with all the positives and negatives attached. The characters are still wooden as ever, for much more extensive inner areas you have to go through a loading screen and all the open world bugs and small problems you are guaranteed to encounter. Nothing that makes the game unplayable by the way; by Bethesda standards, Starfield is a pretty well-crafted title. Still, it feels a bit like certain parts could have been fleshed out just a bit more.

One is how much you can carry with you, a standard problem in every Bethesda RPG. You still can’t pick up every object, but there’s more than enough to nick and find in the world, so your character’s pockets will be bulging in no time. Then you can no longer fast-travel and your oxygen meter (which here serves more as a stamina meter) runs empty with every step you take. You can fortunately spend some of what you find with one of the companions you encounter during gameplay, but they too fill up quickly. Then there is your ship, but unless you manage to upgrade very quickly to a ship with a sizable cargo hold (250,000 credits soon anyway), even your standard ship fills up pretty quickly.

Beautiful worlds, limited inspiration

The solution, of course, is crafting and selling. All those materials you can convert to upgrades for your spacesuit, your weapons and crafting all kinds of medical devices. The stats you can incur are not tame, and if you wander a planet with acid rain for too long without enough protection, count on needing an item to reseal the holes burned into your skin. A bit later in the game, you can even design your own ships and build your own outposts on abandoned planets. This works similarly to Fallout 4, you put down modules and connect them together to make your ultimate base of operations. This is a rather costly affair, so count on having to play for quite a while before you can really get started with this.

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In addition to your regular companions, you can also hire people with all sorts of specific expertise to man your ships and outposts, which adds another whole new gameplay element. Thus, you will encounter new things each time you play and a little bit of what Starfield is really all about is revealed each time.

The worlds and variety you encounter in Starfield is enormous. Still, it’s notable that there are a lot of Bethesda tropes that do come along. Obviously there is a cowboy world/faction, a group of religious zealots and there are haves and have-nots to be found in each city. It’s a shame, somewhere, that Bethesda opted for a lot of familiar tropes, especially considering there are so many sources in science fiction to draw inspiration from that don’t fall within the template we’ve seen so often in their previous titles.

Enough content to fill a universe

Starfield’s main quest will keep you busy for about thirty hours, and I don’t really want to say too much about it here. Let me just say that it touches on some cool sci-fi concepts, but also completely leaves out a few things that I was hoping they would do something more with. Of course, a Bethesda RPG is more than just the main quest, and as you are used to, there is something to do everywhere. Fortunately, this is conveniently tracked in your quest log, so even if you happened to walk by someone who had something to say, you can find it later and pick up the quest. Most sidequests and faction quests are absolutely worth doing, no matter which one you choose. There are some really cool ones among them that you don’t want to miss. But unfortunately, the factions and quests also feel exceptionally familiar, as if Bethesda has mostly drawn from its own game library.

After the main quest you can continue in a special New Game+, where Bethesda does something quite unique. I don’t want to give away the surprise, but you don’t have to worry about being done with Starfield after completing the main quest. You could even choose to leave things like base and shipbuilding for the second playthrough, with no real problems.

Great voice acting and variable performance

Starfield’s audio deserves a special mention. Not only is the voice-acting of an exceptionally high level, but the music and ambient sound really immerse you in the world. The music is moody and mysterious, inviting you to explore the world further. The characters you encounter are really brought to life by the excellent voice-acting, which is quite an accomplishment, considering they are otherwise rather wooden fools.

Graphically, Starfield is a marked improvement over previous Creation engine titles, but that’s not to say very much. The worlds and especially the cities look beautiful, but the characters are still not very vivid. It also depends enormously on the environment whether the other characters look good or terrible. The game is pretty tough to run anyway, which I didn’t immediately expect given the limitations imposed by the engine. Textures and models are a bit inconsistent at times, although they clearly have more detail than Fallout 4 and 76, so there is definitely an upgrade.

Starfield is unmistakably a Bethesda RPG, with all the good and bad that implies. Despite there being quite a few things to criticize about the game, Starfield is an achievement of note. The studio has laid out a wonderful universe to explore, and despite sometimes running into limits, you will rarely get bored. There is something to see and experience everywhere and this can only get better in the years to come with updates and of course with the help of the loyal modding community.

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