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Starfield review: You will like some of it

But no one will enjoy all of it.

Engadget

Patience. Starfield is a huge game set in a universe of newly inhabited planets, and it combines interstellar travel with furious gunplay, alien exploration, spaceship management, character customization and interpersonal strife, and it takes a moment for all of these layers to merge into a coherent experience. But, give Starfield time, approach its systems with grace, and you’ll be rewarded with a big, generic sci-fi RPG.

Starfield has moments of beauty, but it features just as many instances of drudgery and disconnection in its main quest line. Playing on pre-release code on Xbox Series S, these issues are only exacerbated by chugging framerates, low-resolution set pieces and roughly one hard crash every five hours. Starfield is big and largely bland, and while it gets some open-world gameplay aspects right, it doesn’t offer anything new for the sci-fi or RPG genres.

Starfield
Starfield (Bethesda)

That said, there are plenty of classic cosmic environments to enjoy in Starfield, and chances are, every player will find a gameplay aspect that resonates with them. Bethesda claims it will take hundreds of hours to interact with everything in Starfield, and I can say that 40 hours and one New Game Plus later, this doesn’t feel like a lie. I've barely scratched the surface of some late-game systems, like outpost building and in-depth ship customization, but I got a sense of these mechanics while completing the main storyline and related side missions, which featured exploration, mining, social manipulation, resource management, crafting, cooking and combat — both on the ground and among the stars.

Combat is one of Starfield’s weak points, unfortunately. Gun battles are central to the game’s core loop, but they often feel unnecessary. Some encounters are straightforward, but some act as a literal roadblock, with too many enemies, robots and turrets to destroy, no opportunity for stealth, and random drop-ins from high-level bullet sponges. My advice is to pay attention to the level of each foe you’re shooting, and if you’re overwhelmed, run straight past the bemused enemies to unlock the next step in your mission. (This tactic works in a surprising number of encounters, and it never feels great).

My issues with Starfield’s combat largely stem from its homogenous weaponry. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Borderlands, but the guns in Starfield all feel incredibly similar to each other, and they generally aren’t satisfying to shoot. This situation improves with time — players have the option to modify their arsenal and there are a few guns with elemental effects scattered around the galaxy — but overall, combat feels like something tacked on to appease FPS players, despite being central to progression.

Starfield
Starfield (Bethesda)

There are no VATS here, just items to upgrade your stats and a secondary ability tree that eventually gets added to your loadout. The boost pack is a nice touch, allowing players to fly in short bursts without expending precious oxygen. These features help make fighting more dynamic, but even in the final battles of the main mission, gunplay doesn’t feel consistent or compelling. Starfield’s combat isn’t awful, but the experience maxes out at meh.

Being sneaky was never really an option for me — I placed a point in my Stealth skill, but even with a crouch meter, security guards and space pirates always spotted me instantly, and they all chose violence. Sure, I could’ve focused on upgrading my Stealth tree, but I was busy maxing out my Persuasion skills and adding tools like Thrusters to my ship (which I recommend doing early on).

It’s not just the weapons in Starfield that feel repetitive. Regardless of which planet they’re on, buildings come in three flavors: bright utopia, gritty cyberpunk, and industrial laboratory. Combat environments tend to blend together, with metallic platforms, staircases and vents in factory-like bases. Sometimes these are built into an extremely dark cave system, but they’re often filled with the same containers, doors and enemies. The cyberpunk city of Neon — I bet you can guess what it looks like — is essentially an expanded version of the underground marketplace at New Atlantis, your character’s headquarters. The main commercial districts are recognizable across planets, with clean white architecture.

Starfield
Starfield (Bethesda)

Not only are these set pieces similar to each other, but they’re also stereotypical in sci-fi. Starfield offers nothing new from a visual standpoint. This isn’t too surprising, considering the game’s retrofuturistic angle, which limits its design to specific aesthetics that have been mined by Blade Runner, Star Trek, Star Wars and other incredibly popular franchises. On top of this, there are missed opportunities for unique worldbuilding — there is no intelligent alien life in the game, and even generations removed from Earth’s rigid borders, humans speak English with distinct regional accents. Across the solar systems, from ships to skyscrapers to clothing, Starfield is filled with drab.

Despite its familiarity, I had a good time hanging out in Neon specifically. When building my character, I chose to affiliate myself with the Street Rats of Neon, and this trait helped me feel at home under the prismatic lights of the city, providing valuable dialogue options and insights. When it came time to grind, I chose to spend my time on Neon, completing tasks for various citizens and shop owners, and eventually landing a job in corporate espionage at a massive technology company. Anyone who enjoys Bethesda’s dialogue trees and Persuasion mechanics will be happy here, but be aware that combat has been shoehorned into most of these missions, too.

When I needed a break from stealing trade secrets, I explored a handful of planets from the main missions, following distortions on my scanner, surveying the landscape and growing in strength along the way. These were some of the most peaceful and deeply enjoyable moments of Starfield, for me: wandering along the ruins of a lost settlement while a soundtrack of simple piano music echoed like interstellar radar, notes building slowly, teasing adventure beyond the next bend.

Starfield
Starfield (Engadget)

This was the loop that I liked in Starfield. Other players will be drawn to quests outside of Neon; others will spend hours customizing their ships, gear and outposts; some will stick to interstellar combat and completing their Starmap. There’s enough variety in the planets to justify exploration, though there remains an abundance of gray and brown in the terrain overall. Ship combat is tricky at first, but it quickly becomes a delightful challenge of resource management and target prioritization, as long as you’re not suddenly bombarded by overpowered enemies.

There is a lot to do in Starfield, and a lot to enjoy. The Digipick lock-picking mechanic is so satisfying that I’d play it as a standalone game. The end of the main mission line introduces a compelling twist that messes with the player’s sense of reality in the middle of a frantic gun fight, and it was the most fun I had in combat. Though I would’ve loved to meet some extraterrestrials, it was fantastic to see so many women, LGBT folks and people of color in leadership positions throughout the game.

Starfield is a classic Bethesda RPG from toot to snoot, and this includes a litany of technical issues. I saw problems with facial and movement animations, I encountered dialogue and persuasion trees that barely made sense, and I had multiple conversations with characters who were rudely facing the wrong way.

I played on Xbox Series S, and I attribute a handful of additional glitches to that hardware specifically, including the fact that my game crashed 10 times in 40 hours. There are generous auto saves, so I only lost significant progress twice, but that was more often than I’d like. The game also has lengthy, static loading screens, and consistent framerate issues. In one scene, a character was describing how I should sneak into a rival’s headquarters, and an image of the building’s layout filled the screen, pixelated beyond recognition.

“As you can see…,” the character said, driving home the visual insult.

Starfield

The story that unravels in Starfield is mainstream sci-fi fare, and while it’s not revolutionary, it’s perfectly serviceable for an RPG. It establishes a universe of items to collect and knowledge to gain, with mysteries, danger and new characters emerging along the way. The game is at its best when the main narrative falls to the wayside, and players are free to mess around on new planets, play with their spaceships, find settlements or simply explore the galaxy.

Starfield is huge, and it contains a mission or mechanic that every player can enjoy — they just might have to get through 40 hours of a game they don’t really like before discovering that loop. Todd Howard, the head of Bethesda Game Studios, said in a letter to reviewers that there are 3 million words in the game; he noted the amount of text, but that figure says nothing about quality.

Overall, Starfield is fine. It’s a Frankenstein monster of other sci-fi games and references, and it doesn’t do any of these things better than the existing products. Combat? Cyberpunk 2077 is smoother. Mining and exploration? That’s all No Man’s Sky. Ship management? FTL still reigns. RPG storytelling? Look no further than Outer Worlds.

Digipicks, though? That one goes to Starfield.