Starfield is the latest game from Bethesda Game Studios (BGS) and Todd Howard, who created some of our favourite RPGs over the years, perhaps most notably Skyrim in 2011. Starfield is their first new IP in twenty-five years, but can it match up to the other BGS franchises?
Game Name: Starfield
Platform(s): Xbox Series X|S (Reviewed), PC
Publisher(s): Bethesda Softworks
Developer(s): Bethesda Game Studios
Release Date: 6th September 2023
Familiar But Different
I won’t discuss any heavy spoilers for the story of Starfield, I know that many of you are still working your way through the main quest. In case you didn’t know, Starfield, is set in space, and what I will say is that it has a somewhat familiar premise… You are a common person who gets pulled into a bigger adventure that will impact the fate of the universe, but in terms of story that is where the similarities end. If you’ve played prior Bethesda titles, you will notice that Starfield’s opening hours are considerably slower than those of Fallout or Elder Scrolls. For me, this was down to a lack of real stakes early on, with characters I didn’t yet care for or know well enough. This slower beginning will definitely put some people off before they really see what this game has to offer, and that’s a massive shame.
Especially, since when the story of Starfield kicks off and the motivations become more clear. This became by far my favourite Bethesda main quest ever, with characters and a setting that I really care about. Side quests are also fantastic, and the first time I got arrested genuinely made me go “Oh, wow!”
It Really Is A Bethesda Game
Anyone who has played a BGS game before will immediately feel somewhat at home. Of course, you start by creating your character, choosing a background, and up to three traits some of which can have a major effect on gameplay.
Backgrounds, Skills, and Traits
So let’s talk about backgrounds first which give you three starting skills. I went for the diplomat background, which gave me two social skills and one physical skill; Persuasion, Commerce, and Wellness, respectively. Persuasion would allow me to talk my way out of situations and try to harm as few people as possible. I even managed to completely avoid the final fight in the story by using persuasion. Commerce is, as the name suggests all about buying and selling things so I could make more money while spending less. Wellness gave me a bit of extra health. It’s important to mention that there are no skills that are completely locked to a specific background, so you can get them all eventually. Each skill also has four tiers to it and can be upgraded by putting in more skill points after completing a challenge, such as persuading a certain number of people. As you upgrade each skill, they become more powerful and unlock access to more things. Just bear in mind that some early skills have key gameplay features locked behind them, like the ability to use a boost pack or the ship targeting system. These skills have a huge impact on the gameplay experience along with a few others, so I’d recommend not focusing too much on leveling skills you already have early on and spreading those skill points around.
As with any RPG, you earn skills points by leveling up your character, and anything you can do to get XP will help with this. Of course, the main quest is where you get the biggest amounts of XP, so it might be worth focusing on that for at least a few hours when you get started.
What about traits I hear you ask? Well, you can have up to three traits, but they are completely optional. Traits have different effects, like Terra Firma which gives you more health and oxygen while on planets but less when in space. My personal favourite trait though is Hero Worshipped which gives you access to the adoring fan, someone that Oblivion fans will be very well acquainted with. While he can be annoying with his constant talking, he is a very useful early crew member with his weightlifting skill, which allows him to carry more.
Ships and Ship Combat
Of course, I can’t speak about crew without mentioning ships! Early in the game, you are given a basic ship called the Frontier, which you will use to get to different planets and solar systems via fast travel. That may be a little disappointing to some but fear not, you can also engage in ship combat and even piracy. That’s right who doesn’t want to be a space pirate? Before I discuss ship combat in detail, I should explain how you control your ship. So when you take off from a planet, you’ll find yourself in the openness of space and you can technically fly anywhere within the solar system you happen to be in at the time. On Xbox, you fly using the Left Stick to control speed, and the Right Stick for directional control sounds simple enough right? That is until you get to combat, on a controller I found ship combat quite difficult to control properly.
This is because you not only have to control speed and direction but also manage power to different parts of the ship, such as the engine, weapons, or shields. In theory, this is simple enough to do since it’s all done using the D-Pad. In the heat of battle with the crimson fleet trying to blow you out of the stars however, it is quite a lot to deal with. Especially, when having to also fire up to three different weapons, which were mapped to either trigger or the Y button depending on the weapon I wanted to use. I eventually found control during ship combat less of an issue as I upgraded my ship and skills to deal with certain things more easily.
Honestly, in the opening few hours, the ship didn’t feel great to move and ship combat was a little basic as well as long-winded. Once I got the Targeting Control Systems Skill fully unlocked which allows you to target specific parts of a ship something the game does a tutorial on but then immediately takes away if you don’t have the right skill unlocked. It made ship combat immediately became more engaging even allowing me to board and steal enemy ships in the right situation. It was something I wish I had gotten much earlier on. Another mistake I made early was not upgrading my ship, something that once I did made controlling the ship feel much more reactive.
Ships can also be improved by recruiting better crew members with the relevant skills, some can make weapons more effective or give you the ability to travel to planets that are further away. Each crew member will have three skills and not all of these skills will be useful on the ship itself. Just make sure you are checking where your crew is assigned to within your ship menu.
Speaking of upgrading the ship there are two ways to do it. The shipbuilder mode allows you full control over what parts you want to buy and where you want to put them. If you have enough currency you can even build something as big as Optimus Prime. Don’t worry if custom building isn’t your thing though you will be able to buy a new ship and/or upgrade each part of your ship using the more simplified upgrade ship function. Here you will be able to see each system of your ship and just select a stronger part from a list, you will still need the right amount of credits. Either of these upgrading methods or buying a new ship can be done at the technician who is present at any major city landing pad.
I did a mixture of simple upgrading and more in-depth ship build and I found each system to do its job well. That said, I think that as with any great RPG, you won’t get the best out of them until you upgrade certain skills to get access to better ships and parts. I’ve played for over forty hours and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is possible in the shipbuilder.
Outside of ships, which are completely new for Bethesda. The rest of the gameplay is structured around Combat, Exploration, and even a bit of Outpost Building if you want to engage with it. Let’s talk about combat first because if the Fallout VATS system told us anything, it was Bethesda isn’t very good at shooting mechanics.
Thankfully, I can report a giant leap here compared to Fallout! The shooting in Starfield is far more than smooth and tactile which makes it very fun to play around with. Don’t get me wrong it’s not on the level of Doom but it also doesn’t need to be. Weapons have a weight to them, you can feel and hear the impact they make something that has been missing in prior Bethesda titles. I played mainly as a stealth sniper and pistol assassin thanks to the damage multiplier well hidden which is even better with suppressed weapons. You can upgrade weapons at a workbench provided you’ve done the proper research and have the required skills along with the resources you need for the parts. I did a bit of upgrading but after a while, I was getting new interesting weapons so regularly that upgrading felt less important, although part of this is definitely since I didn’t have the skills required to get to some of the best upgrades.
I have to say I was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed every weapon I used in Starfield, even the melee weapons. Each gun feels unique and different ammo types are useful in different circumstances. Melee weapons feel less unique but still very fun to use, I found a poison knife which was my go-to if I wanted to get up close and personal. You can of course play in first or third person but my preference for combat, at least was first person. Unfortunately, the third-person perspective felt some lacking for combat, specifically with the lack of a shoulder swap function while aiming, something which has been a staple of third-person shooter play for years. That said, exploration is a different matter entirely.
In many ways, exploration is where Starfield truly shines, and it’s something I chose to mainly experience in third person. That’s because being able to see more from further away is so beneficial and it never gets old seeing my character fly around with a boost pack which can be activated by pressing Y a second time after jumping.
There are two different parts to exploring in Starfield. You have the remote planet exploring, which you’ll do while looking for resources or scanning a planet. That’s right, you can scan things like No Man Sky with a tap of the Left Bumper to bring up the scanner and then pressing A on the thing you’d like to scan. I found this more rewarding and interesting than No Man Sky because I genuinely felt like I never knew what I would find or what would happen. I was walking around scanning a planet for resources when a ship of pirates landed which I ended up fighting my way to, only to have the pilot take off with me inside. Nothing like that ever happened when I was scanning planets in No Man’s Sky.
Secondly, exploring cities such as New Atlantis or Neon, these cities genuinely feel alive and connected. I was walking around and NPCs would just randomly speak to me or I’d overhear a conversation that would then lead to an hour-long or sometimes much bigger quest. The more you explore the more you find the better things become and exploring will happen naturally, because unfortunately for some there is no real local map for these cities. I didn’t find it an issue to navigate given that you can use the compass and when on a quest you can use your scanner to lead you to objectives.
One thing I loved about exploring in Starfield is the variety of biomes, even now in new game plus I’m finding biomes and cities that I hadn’t before. I think the lack of local maps can hamper the experience, particularly earlier in the game, when someone might want to get from A to B as quickly as possible. However, if you enjoy having a sense of discovery and freedom Starfield has a higher discoverability than the majority of games I’ve played in the last few years. Perhaps only being matched in that field by Elden Ring and Zelda: Tears of The Kingdom.
The other element of Starfield’s gameplay is Outpost building and this one is completely optional. That being said it can be a good way to level quickly or maybe you just want somewhere to store items. I personally haven’t yet engaged too deeply with outpost building but I did build bits and pieces. On a mechanical level, it functions very similarly to the Fallout 4 settlement building, it feels snappier and like the system has more depth, and being able to have a top-down view while building is nice. Truthfully, even on a surface level, it feels like the outpost building could be a game of its’ own. I can imagine many players spending hundreds of hours just building and connecting outposts on their road to becoming the Jeff Bezos of space.
Houston, We Have One Problem
So Far, I’ve been very high on Starfield, but I think the game has one major problem that contributes to some of the smaller annoyances that you may experience. That problem is a lack of explanation and proper tutorials. Here is just a small list of things the game either doesn’t tell you or doesn’t explain properly:
- Fast travel to any previously visited place on a planet using the scanner
- You can travel straight and land at certain places without having to open the starmap multiple times
- Equip companions with better outfits and weapons
- Use the scanner to show you a path to your objectives
- You can transfer things to your ship’s cargo hold (as long as you are within a certain distance)
These are just a few things I think the game fails to explain properly and I think it makes things like the menu and inventory design, which I personally had little issue with, seem worse than they are because they aren’t well explained.
Presentation and Technical Performance
So presentation-wise wise, Starfield is a bit of a mixed bag across all fields. Visually it can look incredibly beautiful as you come over a mountain and see the sun rising with creation engines upgrading lighting system. On the other hand, you can see a tree that just looks like a blobby mess. The same goes for faces, which in main characters look massively improved compared to Fallout 4 but random NPCs can still have crazy eyes and look like murders. You will also notice clipping issues here and there, but they seemed minimal for me on Xbox Series X.
You can see a massive improvement overall in visual detail and lighting, but that makes things that look bad stick out more than ever. Thankfully, the audio is more consistently awesome on the console, as I’ve experienced zero audio issues. Everything sounded great, from the different varied weapons firing to ships flying, to the spacey ambiance of the score by Inon Zur. The VO was potentially the only thing that didn’t reach the same heights as the rest of the audio, but it was still good amongst a phenomenal audio experience.
Performance-wise, on Xbox Series X, the game was nearly flawless for me, I had one instance of dropped frames while exploring a major city. It is only running at 30fps, but 99.9% of the time, it was fully locked, and honestly, 30fps didn’t feel as bad in 2023 as I thought it might for First Person gameplay, especially.
A Star Is Born
Starfield isn’t perfect, the very slow start, combined with a lack of explanation around core systems and simple menu mechanics, make a huge difference to the flow of gameplay. Will be more than enough to put people off in the opening hours. If, however, it grabs you enough to get through those early frustrations… for me, Starfield is by a mile Bethesda Game Studios’ best game ever. It builds on everything they have done before and only improves it. Combat is smoother and more engaging than ever, the sense of discovery across this vast universe is astounding. Ship combat while not on the level of some other games out there, is a ton of fun especially as you upgrade and get deeper into the systems. The main story is the most engaged I’ve ever been in a Bethesda main quest. Not to mention the incredible side quests and faction quests or the way they handle new game plus here, which I won’t spoil. This is a game that I will be playing and talking about for years to come, and I feel like I’ll be discovering new things that entire time. A new Star has truly been born for both Bethesda and Xbox, and I can’t wait to see what the future of this franchise is.
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Starfield Review - A Star Is Born
Starfield is by a mile Bethesda Game Studios’ best-ever game. It builds on everything they have done before and only improves it. Combat is smoother and more engaging than ever; the sense of discovery across this vast universe is astounding. It just isn’t as perfect as some people had expected and hoped for.
- Engaging Main Quest
- In-Depth RPG systems
- Most Interesting New Game Plus In Years
- Fun Combat
- Cities Feel Alive
- Almost Unmatched Sense Of Discovery
- Everything Feels Meaningful, The Smallest Quest Can Lead To Bigger Things
- Solid Performance on Console
- Lack of Explanation For Key Systems and Menu Features
- Slower Paced Start
- Starfield Review - A Star Is Born