Starfield has arrived with potentially the highest stakes attached to a major game release in quite some time – its success and that of Xbox as a whole feel more intertwined than they remotely are in reality.
Still, it’s a huge release and a major console exclusive, not to mention wildly anticipated as Bethesda’s first new IP in decades. Can Starfield possibly live up to expectations?
Close to greatness
A simply huge game, Starfield is wonderful at times but also confoundingly awkward and janky. Its storylines are brilliant, and its characters memorable, but there are gameplay frustrations that linger.If you want a massive set of worlds to explore and sink into, though, it’s still a cracking choice. Platform tested: Xbox Series X
- Brilliant questlines
- So, so much to do
- Some inventive and surprising moments
- Combat is clunky at best
- Over-reliance on menus and fast-travel
- Where are the ground vehicles?
A whole new world
Starfield is set in a time of early galactic civilisation – humanity has conquered the stars and started to spread far and wide through our galaxy.
You start the game as an anonymous miner helping with a semi-secretive mission to unearth a mysterious artefact on a barren moon.
One metaphysical revelatory hallucination later, you’re picked up by Constellation – seemingly the last true explorers of this era, a gang of people who think there are still unsolved riddles out there to be found.
These artefacts become the key to the game’s main quest, soon bequeathing new powers to you and inviting new pressures. That central storyline has an enjoyable momentum and mystery to it (albeit with some occasionally hokey answers).
It’s far from the only story, though. Early on, you’ll arrive in New Atlantis, a wildly bland central hub for humanity, to discover that there are a range of factions to find and enlist with, each offering their own almost equally high-quality central questline.
The backstory of these different bodies is fun to uncover and enriching to know as you move through Starfield’s planetary tales, and each offers perhaps a dozen hours of content alone. Think of them as Starfield’s equivalent of Guilds from Skyrim and Oblivion, and you’ll be spot on.
Then there’s the biggest category of all – everything else. Like all of Bethesda’s best games, Starfield is full up to the brim with floating stories to uncover. Overheard conversations, chatty shopkeepers, radio transmissions and randomly found bases all offer up potentially sprawling and surprising stories.
Admittedly, these have a lower hit rate with a more substantial chance of a fetch quest or time-waster, but their abundance is still hugely impressive.
It adds up to a huge mountain of high-quality writing and stories to explore – and that’s just the authored stuff.
With 1,000 planets to land on and nosy about, there are literally countless procedurally generated bases, mines, caves and outposts to explore and take over, dogfights to scrape through in space, and more.
It’s almost overwhelming, making that list of quests a handy refuge from the creeping fear that there’s simply too much to do.
That familiar feeling
For a huge new world with all-new lore and a fresh time setting, Starfield nonetheless feels pretty familiar to actually play – most of the time.
It remains reductive to call it “Fallout in space” for most purposes, but when it comes to moving around on foot and shooting, two things you’ll do a lot, the shoe fits.
This is recognisably still a game on Bethesda’s own engine, so expect slightly janky movement at times and shooting that might be miles better than Fallout 4 but still lags way behind any real FPS.
The gunplay itself is indeed improved, but it’s undermined by calamitously bad enemy AI – aliens and robots skitter around and clank unconcerned toward you, which is fine.
Human enemies, though, are morons of the highest order – even on harder difficulties – and will happily sit in place and soak up hundreds of rounds if you find a weird angle or spot of cover.
This reduces combat to a game of murderous hide and seek, which is further trivialised by ammunition weighing nothing and being hugely plentiful.
I typically carry tens of thousands of rounds (since almost every weapon uses a different ammo type) and couldn’t run out of ordinance unless I murdered whole planet systems without looting anything.
Conversation is nicely handled, with a new persuasion system rewarding you for choosing dialogue that actually makes sense in context. Starfield’s real pleasure is generally in finding new characters to talk to.
The slice of its gameplay pie that genuinely is new to Bethesda is, well, the space bits. Starfield lets you build and fly ships of your own design or buy stock options, each available to fly in orbit around planets or space stations that you warp to, with no land-to-space travel outside a loading screen.
Dogfights are relatively common and offer easily the most challenging encounters in Starfield, with a pleasing learning curve to figure out.
By contrast, on-foot exploration facilitated by your ship is stolid, trudging stuff. Landing on a planet means a choice – either select a named destination (there might be two or three per planet) to explore an outpost, base or mining platform, or select a random spot to be dropped into a massive generated tile.
Once there, you could scan lifeforms and minerals, set up and build a rudimentary outpost (with wildly fiddly menus), or just wander around.
In the absence of any form of ground or air vehicles when planetside, though, moving around basically sucks – it’s slow and boring, and if you accidentally pick up too much stuff, you’ll be unable to fast travel to get away.
This encumbrance system is a weird solution to try to stop players from over-looting, and it serves to shine a spotlight on how limiting that lack of vehicles can be if you have to trudge 750 metres back to your ship.
It also is a clue to Starfield’s weirdest gameplay trait – by providing a lot of shortcuts and fast-travel opportunities (you can zip directly to your light-years-away objective from almost anywhere at any time in the pause menu if you’re not overweight), Starfield sometimes feels like a game of menus.
In between dialogues and scripted moments, I’ll often spend hours basically just playing menus, travelling without any real connection to my ship or the unfathomable geography involved.
That this stands in contrast to the perilous vibe of Starfield’s space fiction is a real shame, even before its middling gameplay ramifications come into it.
If you’re starting to detect a pattern around successfully authored sections and more mediocre random generation, that applies to Starfield’s sights, too.
This is a game capable of ravishingly pretty moments but also muddy grey nonsense. Still, when Bethesda has fine-tuned a location, it’s generally a great success.
New Atlantis might be a bit beige (and riddled with weirdly ugly trees), but the grotty Well underneath its glamour is lived-in and dripping in charm, as is the wood-panelled sanctuary of Constellation’s Lodge.
Other planets host gorgeous locales, too, with the dusty frontier town of Akila City and the seedy and rainy pleasure hub of Neon standing out.
Ship interiors are also amazing, full of control panels and workstations replete with buttons and knobs, and so many offices and showrooms offer subplots on terminals and in notes.
When its lighting comes together and you’re in a location from one of its bigger quests, Starfield can sing. Zero-gravity casinos gone to rot, massive cruisers full of shmoozing millionaires and cavernous mines opening up to reveal hidden army bases – all of them look great.
Equally, though, you’ll also spend a lot of time landing on grey and brown planets with rocky terrain and washed-out light, and trudging around them.
Visual character is hard to nail, but Starfield leaning toward a desaturated palette feels odd – it does make it seem potentially a little more realistic at times. Still, it also undercuts its impact pretty regularly.
While going too cartoonish with colour might have left it looking too similar to the likes of No Man’s Sky, I still wish that Starfield’s locations popped a bit more regularly.
Character models are gratifying for the most part, though, and Bethesda’s lip-syncing algorithm is great, making for realistic and warm conversations.
Finally, though, while this is its most bug-free major release in memory, it’s still a Bethesda game full of systems and cascading interactions, so expect moments of clumsiness and jank.
I’ve had many conversations with NPCs staring away from me at walls, my game has crashed a couple of times, and systems like stealth and grenade-throwing feel so awkward that they border on the buggy.
Starfield is a huge Bethesda game set in space – that might sound dry and factual, but it’s the most honest summary of its upsides and downsides, too. If you loved Fallout 3 or 4, or Oblivion and Skyrim, and you want to sink into a galaxy for hundreds of hours, pick it up and don’t look back.
That said, given how long it’s been cooking, it’s also a shame that Starfield can’t manage a more resounding success. Its menus are fiddly and overly important, its visuals vary a bunch in quality, and its combat is, bluntly, naff – all of this disappoints.
With superb questlines and a mountain of locations and characters to uncover, though, the regret is effectively that Starfield feels like it’s close to greatness but not quite there yet.