Starfield review: Let me play among the stars

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Bethesda’s latest RPG, Starfield, is a game of immense size and grandeur, and I remember the precise instant I truly appreciated that. I was about 12 hours in, having completed several main story quests and starting to branch out into aimless space exploration. I opened the galaxy map to look at the places I’d thus far been and saw the cluster of familiar systems. Then I zoomed out. And out. And further out.

Oh. Oh.

A sea of stars lay before me, dozens of systems to explore, each with its own recommended level. My mind boggled just looking at the scale of what Starfield was offering me. I want to use the idiom “barely scratched the surface,” but that’s the moment I realized I hadn’t even made a dent. Even now, when I’ve played enough of the game to give it a review score, I still feel like there’s a large percentage of it left for me to discover, which is very much keeping in with the in-game philosophy about space.

Starfield is very similar in many respects to other Bethesda RPGs — for good and for ill. It offers the same kind of NPCs, the same kinds of city-based quest hubs and even a similar mish-mash of major quests mixed with surprisingly compelling busywork. The difference that sets Starfield apart is how far it reaches — it offers a whole galaxy of potential worlds to explore. For some, this will be exciting, while others will find it tedious. But at the very least, it’s an interesting ride.

Exploring the greatest frontier

In Starfield, you play a random miner who stumbles across an ancient, mysterious artifact. Soon after, you’re whisked away by exploration company Constellation, which quickly introduces your character to the wider galaxy. The main quest follows Constellation’s ongoing search for more alien artifacts and their attempts to understand humanity’s place in the universe. However, like any decent main story, it soon gets shelved in favor of side quests.

There are a plenitude of factions and characters with their own questlines to pursue. Want to work your way through the criminal underworld? Join a big corporation and work your way up? Take on the extremist religious group that keeps attacking you in space? You can do all of that. You can expand your to-do list by wandering around, listening to NPC chatter in the local coffee shop or by looking at job boards for the various companies.

There are also several named characters who can either join the crew of your ship or become your companions who join you on missions. As with previous Bethesda RPGs, you can only have one companion at any given time, but several of them offer unique dialogue on quests and those associated with the factions frequently have their own stories and quests to pursue. The most prominent in the early game is red-jacketed Sarah Morgan, but several others quickly crop up to offer their services.

In both design and style, Starfield is a stunning tribute to the last sixty years of science fiction. It takes obvious influence from the likes of Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Blade Runner, Firefly, Interstellar, and more. In gaming terms, it falls somewhere between the boggling vastness of No Man’s Sky and the sleek focus of Mass Effect 2.

Visually, Starfield is beautiful and varied. The inhabited areas range from New Atlantis, with its retro-futurist design, or Wild West-style town Akila with its ramshackle layout. The various space stations or outposts you can stumble across have tight, cluttered interiors that feel lived-in. And should you get tired of civilization, you have countless planets with many different kinds of biomes to explore. Once you slip the bonds of terra firma, Starfield gives you this sort of wistful loneliness (which some might call emptiness) broken up by bursts of furious gameplay.

In space no one can hear you shoot

Speaking of gameplay, Starfield hews closely to Fallout’s design, at least in terms of real-time combat. While the gunplay sadly lacks the VATS aiming system, most of it is going to be first- or third-person combat, only the guns shoot lasers instead of bullets. I remember shuffling through the early missions trying to get by with my little futuristic pea shooter, and then I opened a chest and found a double-barreled shotgun. It immediately elevated my gameplay experience a tick. The shooting gameplay is by no means inventive, quite the opposite, but it’s functional and fun.

The RPG elements are more or less the same as they are in any other Bethesda game. You have a giant board full of skills you can invest in when you level up, sorted in categories such as Tech and Social. The skill tree isn’t as vast and varied as those in similar RPGs, but it’s simple and easy to understand what each skill means for gameplay. There’s also a ship combat mechanic (and ship stealth, which I never, ever used) that added a little flavor to otherwise mundane stretches of space travel.

Your NPC companions are, for the most part, interesting and well-acted characters. They’ve received an animation upgrade, with their speaking animations being much less wooden than those in previous titles (albeit sometimes dipped headfirst into the uncanny valley). You can get to know them and undertake their personal endeavors, which was one of the more rewarding side activities.

Starfield has a number of gameplay loops with which players can engage if they wish, but can also safely ignore. These include the vast crafting and upgrade systems, buying and outfitting ships, and building outposts on planets to harvest resources. I tried all of these systems out once or twice, though there simply wasn’t time in the review period to engage with them very much. Not using these features doesn’t seem to affect the gameplay much, at least in my experience.

Walking on the moon — wait, where am I going?

That said, Starfield’s problems, while not game-breaking, are big enough to take something away from the experience. My biggest problem with the title is that there are no local maps. I don’t want to draw comparisons here to Skyrim, but that title offered maps for its smaller locations in addition to its larger overworld map. Starfield doesn’t really have anything like that. If you enter a random building on a moon, for example, you have no interior map to help you navigate.

You can get a “surface map” if you’re on a planet’s surface, but you don’t have anything to help navigate the locations you’re visiting. I got lost in New Atlantis a few times because there’s no map of the city itself to follow. You can pull up your scanner and get a series of glowing arrows to indicate where you should go. Two issues with that: 1) The arrows in my case would frequently disappear, saying they couldn’t find a path to the destination in question, and 2) it turns what could be a fun circumnavigation challenge into a boring slog. I felt like the game was my parent, dragging me along by the hand.

Starfield also spends the first few hours of the game idling before the engine truly revs up. You have to spend lots of time doing the intro missions for Constellation before you are at an acceptable level to go off gallivanting on your own. Once you get those first missions done and reach roughly Level 10, things become more fun and free, but that takes longer than I would have liked.

Also, this is not a huge annoyance, but the fast travel in the game was almost too fast. Once you discover a location on a planet, you can fast travel there from anywhere in the galaxy without returning to your ship. You can basically planet-jump. While convenient (not to mention cutting down on the animation repetition), it can be a little jarring.

Semper Supra

Starfield is not a perfect game, and I can see some players becoming frustrated with some of its bigger imperfections. It’s a game that offers a massive world that’s not always particularly full, which could turn off some players. However, past its initial rocky start, Starfield feels special and interesting and deserves to be tried at least.

More than anything else, I’m curious to see where the Bethesda audience takes Starfield. Each game from the company has its own dedicated community and I want to see what Starfield’s community will look like in a few months’ or years’ time.

Company of Heroes 3 gets 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Starfield launches on September 6 on Xbox Series X|S and PC. Bethesda gave GamesBeat a code for this review.

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