Burning Out Its Fuse Up Here Alone
Bethesda’s long history as a developer is dominated by two franchises: its flagship Elder Scrolls series and its borrowed Fallout series. It has stewarded both to incredible commercial success and in doing so transformed itself into a household name, at least in the world of video games. Its newest title, Starfield, represents a major release for the company, its first original game since Elder Scrolls and one that finds its eyes turning toward the stars. With the open frontier of space at its fingertips, the company set out to make its largest game ever. A game enamored with science fiction, discovery, and the great unknown. However, what players are left with is a giant mess.
Starfield opens with the player starting a new job on a distant planet. On the introductory tour, the player ends up mining a mysterious artifact that, when touched, shows them a vision of the cosmos. Soon after they are contacted by a member of Constellation, a group that seeks to discover the mysteries of the universe and already has several of these artifacts in their possession. Due to their unique experiences when touching the artifact, players are quickly recruited to the group, given a ship, and tasked with the finding more like the one they just found. It’s an intriguing setup, especially as it leaves plenty of room for the player to set their own pace and directions to follow. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for the first signs of the game’s shortcomings.
On its surface, Starfield isn’t entirely dissimilar from Bethesda’s previous outings. Players explore a vast open world from a first-person perspective, with the ability to interact with all manner of minutia. When not digging through a room’s worth of detritus, players are either in combat, locked in the staring contest that passes for conversation, or exploring the map for points of interest. This grounded perspective still has a way of making places feel lived in but the limitations of this style arise whenever moving through a populated space. Many of the game’s large cities and outposts feel small and limiting, offering a disatisfying selection of storefronts and mission-critical buildings with a smattering of NPCs. While these sparsely-populated cities may work well in the medieval-inspired Elder Scrolls or the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Fallout, they make various metropolises and space stations feel like little more than backdrops for delivering quest exposition. One success of these spaces is the way Bethesda throws out gameplay hooks like they are going out of style. Even after only an hour of gameplay enough conversations will have been overheard and NPCs talked to that more than enough activities or points of interest to follow up on will have been provided. For all of Starfield‘s faults, its never a game that has nothing for the player to do, especially when it comes to the game’s more authored quests.
It’s often in these missions that Starfield is at its best. While the main story is little more than a series of fetch quests, the game’s numerous factions have robust quest lines that do the heavy lifting of both compelling mission design and fleshing out the game’s universe. The UC Vanguard quest is of particular note in filling in the universe’s history while the other factions explore the different walks of life that people of the future tend to lead. Admittedly, the writing in these parts is still mired in Bethesda’s bluntness and weak dialogue. As many of its contemporaries have been raising the bar for writing, Bethesda is still stuck in the Oblivion mode of storytelling, which trends very broad and lacking in impact. As for the setting, there’s a lot of untapped potential, much of it left for exploration in future DLC or sequels. However, what’s currently there falls short of keeping the player invested in the specifics. The missions do provide some well-needed changes of pace to the game, such as a mission that has the player facing off against an alien threat stalking them through an abandoned facilities as they try to restore the defense systems. None of it is particularly mind-blowing, but it does provide more opportunities for players to tackle challenges in more open-ended ways. It’s easy to see where a Starfield more focused on this sort of gameplay is a much stronger work.
Most of the rest of Starfield is a mess. Individually, enough of its elements are enjoyable enough to engage with. The combat, particularly its shooting, feels pretty good. The skill trees find a happy medium between Bethesda’s other titles. There are no stats to allocate, but each level up provides a skill point to put into one of five trees, at which point the next level of that skill is locked until a certain number of tasks relating to the skill is performed. Some of the tasks are more of a nuisance to perform than others, but at least it gives the player some idea as to how to improve skills. Even the game’s coined “NASA-punk” aesthetic is fairly distinct and feels like it aptly serves an underrepresented market of speculative fiction. But so much of the rest of Starfield feels cobbled together so inelegantly that it can’t help but to get in way of the experience.
It’s a little difficult to know where to start because the game has a lot of issues. The most glaring is the game’s menus, which are some of the worst in recent memory. Half of the top menu is dedicated to the interstellar map and the active ship, both not particularly useful when on foot, which is how most of the game is spent. The other half is the skill tree and the inventory, the latter of which has the common “too many items” issue. Active missions are kept on the bottom part of this circular ring surrounding the character, a less prominent placement for what it likely the most used menu outside of the inventory.
These menus are so utterly clumsy and obfuscate so much meaningful information it’s difficult to ascertain what exactly Bethesda intended from them. Want to move items between the ship’s cargo hold and the personal inventory? It’s not enough to be standing in the ship and opening the inventory, but one has also to swap to the cargo hold’s inventory and then back to the personal inventory before the option to move items between the two will appear. Want a map of the local area to try and locate a specific store? Starfield has a dot map of the general geography of the entire section of the planet with nothing but large points of interest and districts highlighted. Modern phones in the real world have better navigation technology. How about trying to compare two weapons when trying to sell? In Starfield, weapons are only compare against the currently equipped one, which can’t be changed when buying and selling. Even tens of hours into the game it’s very easy to get caught up going the wrong direction in menus.
But that is only one problem that can, eventually, be compensated for. Weird navigation quirks and odd information priorities aside, menus aren’t the bulk of the game. No, that’s reserved for long, boring walks on the game’s hundreds of planets. When not in the more authored missions, much of the game time in Starfield is dedicated to exploring the numerous planets that populate the game. The problem is how dull a proposition that becomes. Each planet offers several points of interest and potentially several types of flora and fauna. These points of interest can lead to random caves or outposts that have since been taken over by space bandits, in essence a miniature dungeon, or several mysterious anomalies that hint at something interesting but largely exist to be scanned. It’s another instance of the game giving players things to do — survey a planet, clear out bandit outposts, hunt wildlife — but none of it being interesting or having much point.
Not helping the fact is that the planet surfaces are large and mostly empty, and the points of interest are plainly marked for players to walk directly to in a straight line. And walking is what will be happening as there is not other form of land-based traversal. This means these open maps are devoid of incidence as the player hoofs it across the surface to the next bit of meaningful gameplay, occasionally shooting alien wildlife or scanning whatever happens to pass by. What’s most disappointing about this is that Starfield can’t even hang its hat on Bethesda’s usual top-notch exploration, as the maps are so cordoned off from one another that its difficult to stumble on to interesting things organically.
In addition, the game’s space segments underline a massive problem with its “open world”. Much was made about how integral the player’s ship is to the game, but it ultimately serves as little more than the fast travel point. The ship can’t be flown in a planet’s atmosphere so all the flying is done in orbit. Once in orbit, the options for the ship are limited to brief bouts of ship to ship combat, blowing up asteroids to mine for resources, or board space stations. Otherwise it’s just about setting coordinates for the next destination and waiting for the faster-than-light drive to kick in. It should be noted that each transition from ship to space and ship to land is accompanied by a loading screen. Not a long one, but it happens frequently enough that it’s easy to notice how mindless it is going through the motions to travel from planet to planet. Fast travel can actually occur entirely through the game’s menus, a boon for saving time, but it ends up circumventing the entire space portion of the game. A portion that the game clearly cares about, as there is a fairly robust ship-building and customization system that, while a little obtuse in how to fully take advantage of, is one of the game’s better creative outlets in terms of player expression. But except for a few difficult fights where the beginner ship is simply insufficient to progress through some quest lines, the actual space combat is so lackluster and its rewards so meager that it’s easier to just skip it entirely.
Starfield‘s entire feedback loop may just be the biggest knock against it. In a game loaded with systems very few of them talk to each other in interesting ways. Money is easy to come by but except for ships and outposts, there’s very little to spend it on. Outposts expand on the ideas in Fallout 4‘s settlements, but except for providing another stopping point in the galaxy or as a passive resource generation there’s no reason to build them. The resources only matter if one wants to get into crafting but fiddling around in more menus is the low on the list of things the game needs more of. Hundreds of planets exist but they play out in similar manners every time with a slightly procedurally-generated coat of paint.
Nothing highlights this fact more than Starfield‘s New Game+, a clever idea attached to a game too long and samey to appeal to anyone not already all-in. Most disappointingly, Starfield cannot capture the grandeur of space. For all its awe and professed joy at the great undertaking that is space exploration, it cannot envision a cosmos beyond big star maps, pretty skyboxes, and a series of shooting galleries. Whenever the game gets close to reaching that point, the ugly UI rears its head or another skill point is granted so the player can now unlock the ability to reload thirty percent faster.
For all of the game’s criticisms, none can be directed at the composer, Inon Zur, as Starfield‘s soundtrack is sublime. Succeeding where the game fails, the swells and ambiance of the music does much of the heavy lifting in selling the scope of the game. What’s more, the game’s visuals offer a surprisingly unique take on the future, extrapolating the designs and colors of modern space programs. Space ships have a functional look to them that makes them feel real, and the attention to detail is admirable. It’s also not a bug-free experience, including a really weird one that would take to long to describe but ended up costing over an hour of time to try and find a workaround before the console commands had to be used to circumvent it.
In a year dominated by sequels to franchise favorites, there was a hope that Starfield would carve its own path to success. While the team at Bethesda should be commended for taking such a big swing, there’s no denying that the game doesn’t feel like a cohesive work. Maybe continued support and future sequels will make something more meaningful out of a work that is clearly deeply enamored with both science fiction and space exploration. Unforunately, this first launch has had far more mixed results than desired.
A universe brimming with potential A neat New Game+ hook A beautiful score
Segmented and scattered system design more interested in doing a lot than having it flow together Minimal player impact on the game The worst menus of the year