I’ve always wondered if a big studio knows how good their game is going to be when they’re making it. Or are they blinded by overexposure?
What I mean is that there feels like a certain swagger about Bethesda and Todd Howard when it comes to Starfield; an almost knowing that they’ve got a good thing going on. They’ve been purposefully coy about pre-release info, leaving as many secrets as possible for players to discover. And don’t forget, this was previously a company that turned around and said they wouldn’t give out pre-release codes for their games.
So, outside of a major acquisition from Microsoft, what’s changed their stance? Well, in Starfield, the basic Bethesda formula has changed very little. It may not sound like it, but that is high praise indeed.
For those living on a different planet to the over 1000 available in Starfield for the past few years, Starfield is finally here. It already had huge hopes as the first release from Bethesda Game Studios since Microsoft bought ZeniMax back in 2021. Delays and some poorly received first-party games over the past twelve months have only added more pressure on Starfield to deliver.
It didn’t take me long to know I was in a Bethesda Game Studios game; barely ten minutes into my space adventures, there I was minding my own business, mining minerals using my laser cutter when I walked past an NPC – who, I might add, was in my way – and he snarled at me in true Bethesda fashion – “I’m busy. Go and annoy someone else.”
Then, not five minutes later I had touched a strange piece of metal, suffered a hallucination from it that felt ripped out of Mass Effect, talked to a robot, fought against some sky pirates on the ground and in the air, and talked my way out of a sticky situation. Said sticky situation was resolved amicably, but then I noticed an explosive red barrel behind my target and decided to shoot it anyways. Purely for the interests of the review and giving you a thorough analysis I may add. Anyways, humble beginnings, Starfield is not.
But also, explosive red barrels in Starfield: confirmed.
Starfield follows the same trend as Bethesda’s other franchises: Fallout and The Elder Scrolls. Huge, open-world sandboxes where you can pretty much do whatever you want within their framework. Only Starfield isn’t a world, it is an entire galaxy. And one that is opened up to you nearly instantaneously.
The big reveal that you get in Fallout or The Elder Scrolls is here too, but is a little anticlimactic. Leaving the mining facility you start the game in, as the door opens it doesn’t have quite the same impact as first seeing Skyrim or the Commonwealth as the vault door opens. Instead, your view is of a rocky landscape. But it is a view you best get used to.
You could argue that every time you get off your ship and land on a new moon or planet you get those moments of wow. But many of these planets aren’t inhabited for a reason; there’s precious little there in the first place.
Some planets have a lot going for them though. They could have a major city on them, a minor settlement, plenty of flora and fauna for you to scan No Man’s Sky style, or something completely unfamiliar that is just all the more intriguing. Most planet surfaces are a little disappointing, but spend any amount of time exploring them and you may find something worth exploring. Some however, are more barren than others. In true Bethesda style, you may start a session with what you plan to achieve but it won’t be long before something distracts you, sending you off in a completely different direction.
But why are you planet hopping? Turns out that strange piece of metal that goes full Mass Effect on you is what a group of space explorers known as Constellation have been looking for. And you have just become their newest recruit.
Early on, the members of Constellation will be your companions. In Starfield, these have gone from an NPC to carry all your heavy gear, to actual, useful companions. Progress with them and perform actions they approve of and your relationship will grow. This comes in the form of extended conversations about their past and other traits, but can also unlock specific quests for them too. To fully maximise your friendship, or develop something further, these are essential.
Still, playing Starfield without a companion is not advisable. Even if they don’t follow you around wherever you go, you can utilise them by assigning various tasks. Get them to look after one of your ships or keep an eye on your outposts. This is all easily done from a menu, meaning you can focus on the more important issues at hand.
Next to nothing is known about these pieces of metal, known as Artifacts, but your main quest involves gathering them up and returning them to Constellation’s meeting house, known as The Lodge, found in New Atlantis.
It doesn’t take long before you can arrive at New Atlantis, touted beforehand as the biggest city that has ever featured in a Bethesda game. Even from just wandering around the spaceport visiting the coffee shop and local establishments, I was in awe. And quickly laden with side quests. For all the human advancements, there is still no shortage of people out there looking for you to help them out.
I opted for one that had me collecting a piece of ‘art’ for someone. This had me venture into the depths of New Atlantis where it was quite clear some of the shadier goings on occurred. It was just a simple fetch quest, but helped me explore this new location.
The size of New Atlantis though is a bit misleading; you cannot walk from one side of it to the other. Instead, there are lifts and rail systems to take you to the various parts, all separated by short loading screens. There is also no local map for any of the major settlements, or at least one that is useful anyways. There are maps when you land on planets but the only thing these are really useful for is working out the distance between areas of interest.
New Atlantis is also home to the UC Vanguard, one of the many factions in Starfield. Now, factions are another staple of Bethesda games, but something I could have previously done away with in favour of forging my own tales. Not anymore though, and the UC Vanguard has my favourite story arc out of all the factions in Starfield. A routine training mission quickly ramps up into you figuring out why a terrifying group of monsters has suddenly started popping up in areas they shouldn’t be. Or rather, popping up far earlier than is usually anticipated.
As part of your initiation into the UC Vanguard, you can wander through the halls of a museum and get an overview of the events leading up to Starfield. Bethesda have treated this new IP with the same in-depth lore we have come to expect from them, but done it in a way that is easy to digest as we ingratiate ourselves in this new galaxy. There are numerous museums and points of interest dotted around that can give you a taste of what humans have achieved in space in the 300 year difference between our time period and 2330 when Starfield is set.
But what I found extremely useful were the prompts when having a conversation. A fair old amount of proper nouns are in use in Starfield, and are usually said in general conversation with the NPCs, something you will be spending hundreds of hours doing. Usually, when you are selecting what to say next, options appear at the bottom of the list where you can ask who the Shaw Gang are for example or what Aurora is. Your inquisitiveness doesn’t get a snarky response either; the NPCs will quickly divulge their information and it doesn’t feel unnatural at all in context to the rest of the conversation.
Starfield also returns to a silent protagonist after Fallout 4’s fully voiced one. The silent approach is the far better one.
Some six hours later, I was finally ready to depart New Atlantis and venture elsewhere. Starfield opens up to you as soon as you land here, but New Atlantis showcases the Creation Engine 2 superbly. Graphics should never be a deal breaker, but the improvements made between iterations of Creation Engines are immediately apparent. Most minor NPCs and up have a lot of detail. NPCs that wander around the cities and settlements obviously don’t have as much detail, and kids still look weird in Bethesda games. But overall, this is a far better looking game than I was anticipating.
After visiting The Lodge and finding out what Constellation do, you are free to explore Starfield as you wish, and it is this that excites me most when Starfield formally releases. The stories we weave ourselves in these worlds created by Bethesda are the ones we tell each other.
I headed to a settlement on the Moon – our solar system is in Starfield, but more on that shortly – after my companion and I both agreed we wanted to visit there. However, just as we were landing, a group of spacers were landing too. After dispatching them with a few well placed shots, I boarded their ship to claim the loot. Only opening the door to the cockpit revealed three more spacers and this time it was me that was dispatched. On a second attempt, I got the spoils, and a new ship to boot.
You will find that when in a gunfight, your ammo will be depleted quickly. Unlike other shooters, there doesn’t appear to be any targeting assistance in Starfield, and there is certainly no VATS a la Fallout to fall back on. But the ground combat is satisfying enough; not breaking new ground, but competent enough to hold itself together. And the way that Starfield is set out, you can go several hours without firing a shot. Whether that is due to talking your way out of situations or just finding yourself in less lethal areas for an extended period, the combat is helped by the fact you aren’t required to fire a gun every two seconds like a traditional FPS.
Similar too for the ship combat, though this gives you less warning if a dogfight is about to start. It is good enough, without being groundbreaking. Ship combat can be a tactical affair though and reminds of the short-lived Star Wars: Squadrons. Rather than being a straight-up shooter, you can monitor six criteria to turn the tide of battle in your favour: Lasers, Ballistics, Missiles, Engine, Shields and Grav Jumps. Each of these has a limit that can be improved by buying ship upgrades but you have a certain number of reactor points to put in each of these areas. If you need extra shields, add more points in there, or fill up your lasers for more damage. If things are getting too hairy, add points into your grav jump tranche for a quick getaway.
It’s something a little bit different than just shooting at ships until one of you is destroyed without making the whole thing too complicated. Assigning points can be done on the fly as well using the d-pad, but what this can’t do is target specific areas of an enemies ship eg. If you wanted to board them, you would need to firstly take out their engines. For that, you need to unlock the correct skill in the tree.
The skill tree is big, and would require over 320 skill points to unlock everything. And, considering you only get one skill point per level, that’s a lot of levelling up. More than ever you will need to be picky about what you are unlocking: Do you really need the pickpocketing skill if you are playing as a goody-two shoes, or is stealth an absolute must-have after 20 playthroughs of being a stealth archer in Skyrim?
Each skill comes with four ranks. Your first skill point unlocks the first rank, but completing that requirement on that rank doesn’t automatically unlock the next rank like I was initially led to believe. Instead, you can only add a new skill point to an unlocked skill after you have completed the associated challenge. After some time with it, it’s a feature that I like, though I quickly had more skills awaiting to be upgraded than I had skill points as I was too busy unlocking newer skills. Starfield is a bit stingy when it comes to skill points.
Where it isn’t stingy is with credits, the galaxy’s currency. You will quickly find yourself in an affluent position, with shops also not running out of funds as quickly as previous Bethesda games when you come to sell your wares.
But this is a double-edged sword as you quickly learn that things like ship building and owning property require a huge amount of funds; if you want to build a decent one that is. Then there are the necessary skills for building the best components for your own ships, which take a lot of time to even unlock.
Building outposts can also be done pretty much straight away, but is also best left until you have enough resources and unlocked skills. But choosing the right location makes a massive difference too. After landing on it for the first time, my goal was to repopulate Earth. But seeing what it had become, I also began to understand Starfield that little bit better.
New Atlantis is undoubtedly the most futuristic city, and other settlements seem to pale in comparison. Akila City wouldn’t look out of place in a Fallout game for example, and whilst Neon – home to the Ryujin Industries faction – presents itself as a futuristic city, it comes across as tacky and suspicious.
But whilst I was expecting to see the cities of the future, with humanoid robots wandering among us, Starfield really doesn’t paint the future that way. And after visiting what remained of Earth, I think I know why. Space wasn’t just a pipe dream for humanity to explore, it quickly became a necessity to find an alternative home because we had destroyed the one we had.
And then of course, we had wars over these new worlds too. War, war never changes.
Speaking of Fallout, Inon Zur once again provides the soundtrack to your next Bethesda adventure. Starfield has all the usual space orchestrations: horns, strong woodwind sections and more, all mixed in with his signature motifs. When exploring abandoned space stations or in combat, these are where you will hear these the most. But, apart from finding your ideal companion, the soundtrack is the greatest accompaniment you will need on this epic journey.
Even with the very limited amount of pre-release coverage for Starfield, it was fairly obvious it was going to be a traditional Bethesda title, but one in a different galaxy to many that came before. Figuratively and literally, Starfield is the next evolution for a Bethesda game; taking that framework and that sandbox before applying it 1000 times over. There are memorable characters, quests and locations, but these help you tell your own journey too as you forge your own path and create your own plots within this unfathomably large sandbox.
But this is a sandbox that runs almost perfectly as well. We all know that Bethesda make great games, but those games usually come with a large amount of bugs at launch. But not Starfield. During my near 40 hours scratching the surface, I encountered one crash and one NPC walking into a wall. That is pretty much it. The design choice to keep it locked at 30fps and delay it to squash those bugs has paid off immensely.
The Game of the Year decision for 2023 just became that much harder.
And for what it’s worth, the Starfield title screen is a delight.