Starfield has been shouldering enormous expectations from both longtime fans of Bethesda’s open world RPGs and devoted Xbox players desperate for a hit exclusive. Now, initial reactions to the sprawling sci-fi shooter are finally here, and the early reviews are mixed. Some critics are championing Starfield as the dream of “Skyrim in space” many had hoped for, while others are calling it bland and disappointing.
Fans have been waiting for Starfield ever since it was first teased at E3 2018. The Xbox Series X/S console exclusive goes live as soon as August 31 for those who pay for early access, while everyone else will get the game on September 6. Microsoft and Bethesda have been promoting the open world RPG as a “NASA-punk” space adventure where players can create their own ships, explore hundreds of planets, and navigate rival colonial factions as a war brews on the horizon.
It’s never a great sign when someone recommends a game on the grounds that it gets good after more than a dozen hours, but that’s very much the kind of game Starfield is, and I do recommend it. There are a lot of forces working against it, and the combination of disjointed space travel, nonexistent maps, aggravating inventory management, and a slow rollout of essential abilities very nearly did it in. It was the joys piloting a custom spaceship into and out of all sorts of morally ambiguous situations in a rich sci-fi universe that eventually pulled it out of a nosedive. I’m glad that I powered through the early hours, because its interstellar mystery story pays off and, once the ball got rolling, combat on foot and in space gradually became good enough that its momentum carried me into New Game+ after I’d finished the main story after around 60 hours. Like Skryim and Fallout 4 before it, there’s still an immense amount of quality roleplaying quests and interesting NPCs out there, waiting to be stumbled across, and the pull to seek it out is strong.
Starfield has its moments, for sure. Its satisfying gunplay makes combat exciting, especially when it’s integrated into setpieces within its better, more captivating questlines. And although limited in its conception of space exploration, there’s a novelty in poking around the galaxy to see star systems up close and personal, and occasionally finding side content worth chasing. However, it struggles to deliver a cohesive and memorable RPG experience amid the seemingly boundless sea of stars. For all its reverence for scientific philosophy, its stories and characters paint a rather tame and sterile vision for what our spacefaring future could look like. When you strip Starfield down to its essentials, it relies on a tried-and-true, but well-tread formula while missing some of the depth of the games that came before it. Starfield is a game more concerned with quantity than quality, and leaves the experience at the surface level.
All this is to say that Starfield is vast. Though I’ve played nearly 50 hours of the game during the pre-release review period, I’ve reached a tiny fraction of its supposed 1,000 planets. I’ve collected every artifact, infiltrated a pirate crew as an undercover narc (against my will), fancied up my spaceship, run errands for random people, and searched for resources on barren planets. There is so much to do and so many people to meet across the cosmos, on new worlds to which humans have escaped after fleeing a blighted Earth. For all of this vastness, though, Starfield often feels sterile, and it buries its best moments beneath so much tedium.
Even with this laundry list of critiques, I’m still surprised to say that I find myself in awe of Starfield. And to understand why, I once again return to Constellation and the Sisyphean task on its hands. The group operates with tireless conviction in the face of infinity. That’s also the case with the developers at Bethesda as they continue to chase their own distant dream. Starfield is imperfect, but it’s through those imperfections that it delivers its most inadvertently honest takeaway. It’s a testament to human spirit and all the messy, beautiful things that are possible when we’re determined enough to reach for the stars.
Like many I was able to overlook all those issues in Fallout 3, Skyrim, and Fallout 4 because of the quality of the writing and the worldbuilding. Those games had characters I cared about in compelling situations that I wanted to resolve. Starfield doesn’t have that. Starfield is thematically so similar to Mass Effect and yet so inferior to it that I just wanted to go play those games again. Its approach to exploration is so similar to No Man’s Sky and so inferior to it that it made me want to go back to 2016 and play the original version of that painfully underrated game once more. And in almost every other way it feels like Fallout 4 and Skyrim, but, you guessed it, inferior to them. Playing Starfield makes me want to play games that explore space and games that were made by Bethesda, but it doesn’t make me want to play Starfield. It tries to give us the universe, but it’s so weighed down by its own ambitions and a fundamental lack of inspiration that it can’t even get into orbit.
Overall though, everything works well and feels stable too. There’s the odd framerate stutter when you first load into a highly populated area, I’ve had a couple of dancing dead bodies and the odd NPC standing awkwardly in shot during dialogue, but have experienced nothing catastrophic (yet). I’m playing on a decent-ish PC running a 2070 Super and it’s had no trouble. Starfield is a good looking game too, even the cave you start in is oddly impressive, while all the cities are all beautifully detailed places to explore. And, for every lifeless gray moon you’ll find, there’s a lurid jungle to chase weird animals across. At one point I was scanning alien fish on a coast at night when a lightning storm came in over the sea and it’s got to be one of my top gaming moments of this year.
After all the hype and hope and anticipation, I’m disappointed to say I don’t love Starfield the way I love other Bethesda RPGs. It’s similar in a lot of ways, but Starfield never feels as instantly engrossing and transporting as Oblivion or Skyrim or as wild and weird as the Fallout games. It comes close on occasion: one settlement on a far-flung planet is right up there with the most entertaining Vault-Tec experiments of all time. But more often the promising premises I found in remote bases or mysterious space stations tended to fizzle out. Starfield’s alien bugs, even the truly monstrous ones, don’t hold a candle to Skyrim’s menagerie of beasts, faction quests never match the intrigue and brilliance of Oblivion’s guild quests, and though Starfield’s “spacers” and Fallout’s raiders probably share the same basic code (attack player on sight) they just don’t have as much personality.
Over the course of my playthrough, I did a little bit of everything. Whatever Starfield threw my way, I was excited to try. I once stole an item worth a measly 500 credits—it was an honest mistake, I swear—and didn’t even realize I had the stolen item on me. Apparently, there was now a 550 credit bounty on my head, and a United Colonies ship spotted me leaving a planet and apprehended me. I definitely didn’t think all this fuss was worth it over a measly 550 credits. But on board, the ship captain, a higher-up in the UC military, basically blackmailed me into working for the UC to have my charges dropped, or face harsher penalties. This started a whole new plot line where I was now infiltrating the most infamous pirate gang, the Crimson Fleet, as a double agent for the United Colonies. I’m not joking when I say this entire plotline could have been its own game.
Even in the increasingly crowded marketplace of big, expansive games, Starfield stands out. Leveraging the gameplay Bethesda popularized with The Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, Starfield expands the breadth of exploration to a galaxy of solar systems, planets, and ships. It populates those environments with a rich palette of activities and missions that tap into the outer space fantasy. It’s a staggering span of content to wrap one’s head around. At times, that scope threatens to impair the focus and pacing, and moment-to-moment gameplay is not always a strong suit. But players can expect to uncover hundreds of hours of experimentation in a richly imagined sci-fi playground, and that thrill is worth experiencing.
In a lot of ways, Starfield lives up to that potential. It is indeed huge, and its main storyline is all about the thrill of adventure and discovery. I found myself pushing through the farthest reaches of space, going to strange, dangerous new places on a quest to seek out the origins of the universe and humanity’s place within it. It’s also a game that sticks fairly closely to the blueprint Bethesda has laid down for its role-playing experiences. Your quest might be much grander in scale, but what you’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis hasn’t changed all that much. This is also the most polished and solid release yet from Bethesda on a technical level.
There are few games as overwhelming as this. Starfield feels like that moment when you first emerge from Vault 101 in Fallout 3, gawping at its scale, expanded across an entire game. The sense of wonder, adventure, and possibility is an intoxicating trick that never wore off during our 100+ hours with the game.
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