GameCentral offers an extended look at the new sci-fi epic from the makers of Skyrim and Fallout, but does Starfield live up to the hype?
Ever since it was first announced, people have been describing Starfield as Skyrim in space. At first it was little more than an assumption, but it’s turned out to be a perfectly reasonable description. Another obvious one is Mass Effect meets No Man’s Sky, but that’s not quite so accurate. Not because certain elements aren’t extremely similar but because that combination sounds like it’d be the best game ever, and Starfield is certainly not that.
Most of the time a game’s merits are obvious fairly early on but with Starfield things are complicated. What’s clear to us now is that the opening hours are some of the worst in the game, in terms of the story, the insubstantial tutorials, and the boring and ugly planets you visit at the start.
That’s not to suggest there’s some radical shift in quality as the game continues but once you start to work around its foibles, and open up key abilities in the skill tree, it becomes easier to focus on the positives – especially as more interesting corners of the galaxy open up. Starfield does get better the more you play it but what its limits are we haven’t quite established yet.
What’s interesting about the Skyrim in space description is that not only does it imply what the game is all about, but it also says a lot about its strengths and weaknesses. If you’ve played any Bethesda game before, you’d be perfectly right in guessing that the writing is mediocre, the graphics and AI are below par, and that there are lots of bugs (as promised there are less than other Bethesda games but still more than average for an open world game).
The dialogue may be unengaging but the story gets off to a brisk start, as you play the part of a lowly miner who finds an alien artefact (as the game begins there has never been any known contact with intelligent alien life) and is enrolled into a sort of sci-fi version of a Victorian explorer club.
The majority of the main story missions are centred around obtaining more artefacts, either by following a tip to locate one in situ on a backwater planet or acquiring one from someone else, such as one mission where you’re trying to buy one off an employee that has stolen it from an industrial rival of the club’s main financial backer.
There are plenty of non-story missions and activities, including the option to join various factions and play as a bounty hunter or pirate, but you can also come across locations by accident, by just picking a random planet and landing at one of the two or three highlighted spots of interest.
That often leads to disappointment though and you’re much better to just follow sub-quests around, which will quickly start chaining together, much like Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom, as you happily bounce from one unique mission to another.
Unfortunately, travelling about the galaxy highlights the extremely clinical and detached way that space exploration works in Starfield. Except for space battles, there is never any need to pilot your ship manually as, unlike No Man’s Sky, you cannot fly down to a planet or across its landscape. Space is one open world and the planet surfaces are another and the only time the two meet is in a cut scene or loading screen.
Somehow, the game manages to make this seem even more sterile and unexciting than it need be, as it is obsessed with using fast travel at every possible moment. This isn’t just an option that unlocks later, it’s actively encouraged from the first moment, as you fast travel back to your ship when on a planet, between points of interest, or even halfway across the galaxy. As a result, you spend more time looking at bland menu screens, and teleporting instantly to where you want to go, than exploring the inky blackness of space.
It’s a shame, as space combat is quite good, with an interesting energy distribution system inspired by the X-Wing games, although it hasn’t evolved at all in the hours since our first preview – other than the need to run away being more prevalent than in ground combat. Although, even then the game misses a trick as you can jump away almost instantly, rather than there being any kind of tension-creating hyperspace calculations to substantially delay your departure.
The gunplay in Starfield is notably better than Fallout, but despite talk of Doom developer id Software helping out it still feels very flaccid compared to other first person shooters. This is a problem because it’s the most common single gameplay element and yet it’s merely okay at best. There’s a good variety of weapons, including lasers and ballistics, but there’s very little sense of feedback, especially with the melee weapons.
As with everything in the game, nothing works quite as well as you might hope. While sometimes enemies react to location damage, or try to run away if they feel outmatched, other times they’ll stand around listlessly, completely unaware of your presence. Your AI companion is even worse and the logic controlling them gives every impression of not having changed a jot since Skyrim 12 years ago.
They wander around behind you like a resentful child at a supermarket, until they get so far behind they have to run towards you at full pelt, as if their lives depended on it – even though you’re just milling about at the spaceport. They seem even more absurd in combat, constantly getting in the way and rarely reacting to being shot or the fact that they’re on fire; multiple times we watched them just standing around nonchalantly while their body is engulfed in flames, as if trying out a Ghost Rider cosplay.
You can be as nice or as snarky as you like with your companions but, as usual with Bethesda, the romance options are extremely prudish and simplistic – a world away from the playful maturity of Baldur’s Gate 3. But the characters in general lack depth, with cliché life stories and motivations that don’t come anywhere close to convincing you that they’re real people.
Picking up everything that’s not nailed down, to sell or use as crafting materials, was a major part of Fallout 4 and repeating the same concept here seems redundant. Bethesda would’ve been a lot better off concentrating on making the worlds themselves more interactive, especially as the few times there are environmental interactions, like an exploding gas pipe or a cryogenic device, are some of the most exciting moments in a fight. Most of the time though you can’t so much as smash a window.
New elements do get introduced as you progress but even then they’re handled in the most awkward way possible. Starfield’s equivalent of Skyrim shouts involves visiting a temple and playing a tedious zero-G mini-game, which is fine until you realise there’s a new temple for each shard you find and once you get the first one you’ve suddenly got a massive backlog to go through. A little later new opponents are introduced, which seems terribly exciting the first time until you realise that, no… they’re just going to do the same thing each time.
In terms of graphics, it’s a mixed bag. The facial animation, although better than Bethesda’s last gen games, is still well below average and yet it’s also very inconsistent and you often run into minor characters that look and animate better than those with much more significant roles. Many of the wilderness sections and sci-fi interiors can be quite good, but they’re usually highly derivate, with so much mined from Ridley Scott’s cinematic oeuvre we’ll be surprised if there’s not a Gladiator reference somewhere.
However, it’s the lack of connection between space and planets which is the biggest technical disappointment. Never mind No Man’s Sky, Frontier: Elite 2 had an entire simulated galaxy, where you could travel between space and the surface of a planet, in 1993; as did Damocles in 1990 and Starglider 2 in 1988 – all far more ambitious games running on vastly less powerful hardware.
To further hammer home how unconnected the game’s spaces feel, any building bigger than a tent has to be loaded in as its own separate area, which takes a good second or two and ruins all sense of pacing and tension. This is especially true as the best way to deal with a mob of enemies is to duck into a new location (caves also have to be loaded in separately) and wait the second or two it takes for them to appear behind you, while you ready a grenade to take out the whole group at once.
Given the constant loading pauses, it’s arguable whether the game even counts as open world and it’s especially embarrassing as you watch non-player characters use the same entrances, as they suddenly evaporate in front of them – as if phasing through the door like a ghost.
Rather than creating an entirely new game, it seems obvious that Bethesda actively wants this to be Skyrim in space and so, in gameplay terms, they’ve not been able to fully commit to the free-roaming space concept. Instead, Starfield is an awkward mishmash, that dilutes the joys of exploration that are at the heart of Bethesda’ ground-based games and fails to replace them with anything equally entertaining.
Recent interviews have suggested that they know fine well planet exploration is boring but that they left it like that for the sake of realism – in a game where you have superpowers and faster than light travel is an everyday triviality. Bethesda is clearly looking to 2001 and Interstellar as inspiration, not Star Wars, and that’s fine and admirable, but the appeal of those movies is primarily in their plot and thematic depth, which is one of Starfield’s weakest elements.
In terms of both story and gameplay Starfield is disappointingly shallow, with lots going on but very little of it being of any substance.
Starfield is one of those games where the list of issues is long and obvious, and yet there’s still something in the core concept that allows the game to transcend its failings. We are enjoying it more now than we did in its opening hours but once we get to the full review, we still can’t imagine giving it any higher than a 6 out of 10.
It’s a real shame, because despite all the technical failings and structural issues we so dearly want the idea of a space-based exploration game to work. Starfield grasps at the full potential of the idea, but its grip is weak. For a game all about imagining the future of humanity, and pushing the boundaries of science, Starfield is stuck stubbornly in the past.
Formats: Xbox Series X/S (reviewed) and PC
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Release Date: 6th September 2023
Age Rating: 18