Starfield review: A shining star threatening to become a black hole
Starfield has been out for a couple of weeks now, and we finally feel ready to pass judgment. With over forty hours put into the game, is Bethesda’s latest game their crowning achievement or does it end up lost in space?
Despite lengthy presentations showing off the game, nailing down what the game ‘was’ felt hard to grasp. Was this something totally new by Bethesda, or was it still deeply tied to their previous works like Fallout 4 and Skyrim? How would that play in a space exploration game? Would the “NASA-Punk” aesthetic work? How big and, importantly, how compelling would this universe be?
Now that I’ve experienced a lot of it, those questions remain complicated. Starfield is everything Bethesda promised, but shy of the ‘game of the generation’ some had hoped for. I usually have a pretty solid grasp of my feelings on a game after putting so much time into it, but Starfield is a title that has me conflicted.
Every time I think, “Ah, well this was an under-baked aspect”, I remember something genuinely stellar about the game. Conversely, when I focus on the things that are endlessly impressive about the title, a voice drags me back reminding me I never truly gave myself over to its spell.
Starfield is a title at odds with itself – that doesn’t mean it isn’t consistently great though. To get to the bottom of this conflict, let’s chase the horizon and explore a little deeper.
Starfield: Key details
- Price: $69.99/£69.99
- Developer: Bethesda Softworks
- Release Date: September 6, 2023
- Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, & PC
Welcome to Constellation
Starfield very quickly thrusts you into the center of its world, with the title dropping you into an enormous, universe-expanding mystery, and into the arms of its focal-point organization, Constellation. This is a group of like-minded explorers from various walks of life, who are gathered to explore the reaches of the universe and answer its greatest questions.
You find yourself entangled in this mystery, which revolves around artifacts of unknown origin that seem to have a particular power over you, showing you a trippy version of the universe every time you first touch one. What they are, where they come from, and what their grander purpose is become the themes for the main story.
Unfortunately, this mystery never quite comes together in a way that is entirely compelling. Before the conceit of its central reveal, there is some intrigue around what’s going on. Its scope ends up feeling too massive though, and the story is too rushed to really fill out into something that is fulfilling.
The whirlwind cliff notes to the biggest questions in the universe
There’s not enough time to breathe in this story, nor the opportunity to get worthwhile answers. You’ll understand what is going on, but the hows and the whys feel very glossed over. This makes it feel like you’re on a conveyor belt to a conclusion, rather than on a real adventure. You don’t get enough time to marinate in the implications and details – instead, you end up getting dragged around by an icon on a map, rather than by your own sense of exploration or agency. It creates this very mechanical, synthetic feeling to the central mystery that’s hard to shake.
A great example of this is a mission when you’re trying to figure out an ancient mystery that requires you to cross-reference three texts across different religions. You speak to various leaders across these groups and they tell you their stories. You’re then supposed to cross-reference them to find a broader message to direct you to where to go next.
It’s an interesting idea, but it doesn’t play out that way. Instead, they tell you their stories, then when you return to the quest giver, the dialogue options point out the important things about the story for you. Then the game proceeds to make some utterly wild jumps in logic to arrive at that answer.
There’s a distinct lack of choice in these missions, and regardless of your character’s opinion on things, you’re largely tasked with doing them regardless. This journey should feel player-driven, but instead feels like you’re railroaded along a path already set for you. This is a game that’s supposed to be about solving the mystery of the universe, and instead, it already feels solved and we’re getting the cliff notes of a story that used to be much deeper.
It’s hard to role-play
Starfield, being an RPG, should feel like it has great opportunities to role-play. Crafting a character is central to your experience through this universe. Thankfully the character creator is great, and there are helpful character traits you can tie to yourself that help flesh out your story.
In my instance, I opted to be an introvert from the streets of Neon who has a bounty on their head. I also ended up filling out my character by making them an adept hacker with a preference for knives. This gave me a really clear idea of who I was playing.
However, again, the central narrative acts like an event horizon that’s hard to escape from. For me, and the character I was trying to play, the story didn’t feel like a natural fit. As it turns out, Constellation is a weird place for an introverted hacker on the run.
This isn’t necessarily terrible. Sometimes destiny chooses the most unlikely of people. I’d love to have played as a reluctant but necessary member of Constellation. Someone there as a product of circumstance rather than an enthusiastic member of this organization, but most dialogue choices around the main missions felt like they boiled down to:
- Yes but with a joke
- Yes and I want to kill people
- Tell me more about this
Now, I realize playing a reluctant character isn’t exactly conducive to progressing a story. We’re all doing improv in RPG games. However, I felt I could never strike a tone past ‘generic’, ‘cringe comedian’, or ‘maniac’ when interacting with members of Constellation or the broader mystery.
“You can be whoever you want to be!”, but the small print reads: “as long as you’re excited to be part of this group of hopeful scientists who love exploration.” That feels like a huge assumption for a character and their place in their universe. No matter if you ignore it for long periods of time, you’re going to get sucked back into the thrall of Constellation and what’s going on with the artifacts.
Even aside from making a character that didn’t quite gel with the group, I ultimately did not come to care for any of the companion characters. If I could have left it to explore these mysteries alone, I would. While I grew to not resent having these characters around, emotional beats didn’t feel entirely earned.
Even if I played an intrepid explorer whose goals are entirely aligned with Constellation, I’m not sure I’d have bought in any deeper. These characters don’t feel deep enough. They aren’t rounded, which adds to this overall layer of artifice to everything in Starfield. A lack of humanness, which would really have brought this all to life in a meaningful way.
There is real joy in your own discovery
So, if you made it this far, you’d be excused for thinking I hate Starfield. I do not. In fact, looking back despite all of those previous misgivings, I actually have left Starfield wanting to play more and continue to exist in its universe. If there is one word that would describe everything great about Starfield, it’d be discovery.
When you escape the clutches of the main story and are allowed to just exist in this universe, Starfield becomes something special. Bethesda has built a compelling game, and forging your path is a genuine thrill.
There are so many planets to explore, and storylines to get lost in, those parts of roleplay lost in the clutches of the main story come to life. As that on-the-run, hacker from the streets of Neon, the Ryujin Industries storyline was a perfect fit for my character. It’s full of compelling corporate espionage, and it’s a substantial journey. Because this isn’t tied to a set conclusion like the main story, you can manipulate it in many ways and arrive at various outcomes.
This goes the same for another faction mission I was pulled into. Due to my previous bounty and some smash-and-grab tactics, I ran afoul of the law. However, instead of paying a fine and being on my way, the police decided to throw the book at me in order to get me to become an undercover mole in a pirate organization. Being a reluctant contributor to law enforcement due to my criminal past – this is when Starfield became most compelling. Why I was there made sense, there were lots of choices to be made, and I could express myself as the character I was playing.
It shows that Bethesda does have an exceptional universe on its hands. This is somewhere I want to be in and explore. I want to see what happens every time I jump to a star system. Will I find an AI on a ship gaining its own sentience, or will find myself playing negotiator between a paradise resort and people lost to space centuries ago? If you actively ignore the thrall of the main story, Starfield is full of wonderful ideas, meaningful choices, and discovery, as you never know what you’ll find after the next grav jump.
Starfield never stops being impressive
While discovery might be a word to describe everything great about Starfield, the adjective that describes it best as a whole is impressive. It’s hard to not fall in love with what Bethesda has built here, both from a technical standpoint, but also as a player of games.
This is a meaningful universe clearly built with a lot of love, put together by technical masters. Planets are vast, and while most landable ones only have one or two meaningful locations, with the rest feeling procedurally generated, I’ve never felt like I left a place and didn’t leave something worthwhile to return to. A sidequest, or interesting-looking location on the horizon to go and check out. Space’s vastness of nothing could be a hurdle, but this universe feels dense and crafted. I never once felt like I had nothing to do in Starfield.
A lot has been made about the game’s reliance on loading screens and usage of menus, but in truth, it’s a system I came to appreciate. While it can make traversal feel a little too easy, and like your quick interaction is shrinking the universe, it becomes second nature and allows you to zip around the cosmos. This could be a huge problem if Starfield didn’t give you a reason to slow down and explore, but it does.
Existing in Starfield feels compelling – that’s really what makes it special. That rewarding nature of play and adventure you find on your own is the beauty at the center of Bethesda’s game.
The cosmic paradox
Ultimately, Starfield is a game I love and feel exasperated by at the same time. This is a deeply impressive game, and Bethesda can be very proud of the universe they’ve built. For the most part, it’s a joy, and there are dozens of hours of worthwhile exploration to be had.
At the same time, the main story is not handled as well as it needs to be. It feels like the core weakness at the heart of Starfield. This doesn’t just affect the central narrative, but also the roleplaying aspects of the game, undercutting your existence in the universe. It also houses a central cast and organization that should be the humanity of the story, but that only adds to a greater sense of artifice.
That’s why it’s tricky to sum up my overall feeling about Starfield. It’s one of conflict. One of great appreciation and awe at the achievement, but also one grasping for a sincere soul that isn’t there. However, I’ve arrived at the end of my journey amongst the stars and I’m left with a feeling: despite everything – I want to play more.
Verdict – 4/5
Starfield is truly impressive, and when it allows you to breathe and live out your fate in the stars, it’s a consistently compelling journey. However, the main story and the central mystery act as a black hole, threatening, but never quite succeeding to drag it down into complete oblivion.
Reviewed on PC