If you know anything about video games, you’ve likely heard of Bethesda or know at least one of their games. Bethesda has become a gamer household name thanks to their ginormous RPGs. They’ve covered fantasy with The Elder Scrolls; games like Oblivion and Skyrim. They’ve covered apocalyptic with Fallout. Now, they look to the stars to cover sci-fi with Starfield.
Starfield has been in development at Bethesda for over seven years. Thanks to the critical success of basically every Bethesda game that’s ever come out, there’s a lot of pressure for Bethesda to catch lightning in a bottle with Starfield. It feels like I’ve lived four lives since Starfield was first announced, but the wait is finally over. Starfield is finally in our possession, and to me, it plays a lot like space Skyrim for better and worse.
In our ongoing conversation about all things Starfield, my coworker’s quote became my mantra for Starfield‘s pros, cons, and idiosyncrasies: “It’s Bethesda, for better and worse.” Bethesda’s Starfield is equivalent to watching a Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, or Christopher Nolan movie in that, if you’re familiar with their work, you know exactly how it’s going to look and feel. And that’s the crux of my opinion of Starfield — I love it for being unapologetically Skyrim in space, but it’s also a nostalgia safety net that I wish was tucked away a bit more. That and Bethesda sucked space out of sci-fi.
Though Starfield is an ambitious sci-fi adventure that’s incredibly fun, beautifully nostalgic, and will age like fine wine, there are several fundamental decisions that Bethesda sticks to that makes Starfield feel like it’s stuck in 2011… for better and worse. While this is a positive review of Starfield because I genuinely think it’s fantastic, there are things that keep it from being out of this world.
What is Starfield?
Starfield is Bethesda’s massive single-player (although minutes into the game, you’ll wish it was multiplayer) space RPG. In it, you’ll roleplay whatever character you desire, complete a main storyline that sees you exploring space with a group called Constellation, customize and fly your very own spaceship, join different factions, do an infinite number of side missions, and explore thousands of procedurally generated planets. There’s outpost building, lockpicking, zero gravity firefights, big decisions to make, companions to romance, and much more.
After selecting “New Game,” you launch right into Starfield, in a very Skyrim “hey you, you’re finally awake” sort of way. You get a taste of the dialogue, story, and gameplay, then you create your character with Bethesda’s signature all-too-detailed character customization which includes selecting a Background and three Traits. From there, you continue the story, get that big Bethesda open-world reveal moment, acquire a ship, and get going. From then on out, you can follow the main story, find interesting side missions, and generally do whatever you want — the stars are your oyster.
Houston, we have gameplay – The combat
Maybe you’ve heard of “Bethesda jank,” but if you haven’t, it’s a phrase that perfectly captures Bethesda games’ slowish, not-quite-right-feeling combat. If you’ve seen any NPC meme on the internet, they’re basically mocking that infamous “Bethesda jank.” On one hand, it’s ineffably charming. It truly feels like Skyrim in space; not quite Fallout because there isn’t the V.A.T.S. automatic targeting system (thank the stars). On the other hand, Starfield‘s combat never reaches the adrenaline-pumping or strategic levels of something like Destiny 2 or Mass Effect. The combat is Bethesda through and through.
If you want to mostly avoid the “Bethesda jank,” I highly recommend playing on mouse and keyboard. As someone who loves playing all video games on controller, and I tried playing Starfield with controller, everything combat-wise is better with mouse and keyboard. You can quickly swap weapons with a click of a button instead of slowing down combat to pull up your quick-select menu, you can actually aim and hit your shots with confidence, and you can scan rooms for valuables much faster. While I’ve played countless hours of Skyrim on controller, Starfield never really feels right because Starfield combat is primarily precision aiming and Skyrim relies more on melee weapons with some one-shot precision moments.
Speaking of weapons, the weapons in Starfield are awesome. Just as an example, your quick-select menu has 12 slots. I found so many guns that I loved using that I filled nine of those 12 spots up with different guns. There are ballistic, laser, and electromagnetic weapons in Starfield and all of them look great, sound great, and feel great. I also love the jetpack you get to use, if you picked the best starter skills, to boost around the battlefield. That combined with every planet and moon having different gravity makes jumping around while fighting a lot of fun.
Unlike Skyrim, Starfield doesn’t have classes. Instead, it splits all 82 skills up into five different skill trees: Physical, Social, Combat, Science, and Tech. Each skill tree has five tiers and you can only make progress through the higher tiers by spending skill points in that skill tree. Since you only get one skill point every time you level up, it will take you hundreds of hours to unlock all 82 skills (I was level 30 when I beat the game at around 40 hours), and that’s if you don’t rank up your already unlocked skills. Each skill can be ranked up four times by completing a special skill challenge, like lockpick five times or boost while in combat 30 times, and by spending another skill point in it. The skills in Starfield are adequate, but I really wish you didn’t have to spend another skill point to rank up your unlocked skills. I wish it was more like Oblivion where using that skill repeatedly leveled it up, but this is one of those rare moments in Starfield that is different than any other Bethesda game, so I give them credit for at least trying something new.
Overall, the combat in Starfield is just addicting enough to want to do over and over again. The narrative, customization, and exploration give much-needed combat breaks that ultimately create satisfying gameplay loops which keep combat feeling fresh.
The end is only the beginning – The campaign
My favorite Bethesda story is Oblivion and I honestly think the weakest one, though it isn’t bad, is Starfield. Instead of reaching for the stars, it feels like Bethesda played it safe and dialed in a competent story that is predictable and generic, but does include some interesting decisions and missions. The worst part is that there are a handful of campaign missions that boil down to fetch quests. On the other hand, some of the campaign missions themselves are the most exhilarating, cinematic, and fun missions I’ve ever played in a Bethesda game. The New Game Plus twist is one of the best ways of handling New Game Plus that I’ve ever seen. Todd Howard’s hype is justified.
The storytelling in Starfield is Skyrim. It’s Bethesda. It’s a little disjointed and the big moments don’t get the respect or payoff they need, but that’s how it’s always been done so it’s fine I guess. I have major problems with the cutscenes in Starfield (more on that later), but Starfield could be better with a few more cutscenes in the important parts and fewer where they aren’t needed. For example, getting a short cutscene the moment you join the main spacefaring organization or the first time you’re about to start a space battle with space pirates would make moments feel bigger and the entire experience more epic. But it’s 2011 Bethesda (say it with me) for better and worse; why would they try to improve upon their decades-old winning formula? Bethesda is the poster child for “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
There are decisions in Starfield, which is an upgrade from past Bethesda games, but I found most of them to be a bit underwhelming. When compared to a similar game like Mass Effect, the weight of decisions and quality of storytelling are executed better there than in Starfield. That said, the storytelling and decisions in Starfield are above average and make for a healthy amount of replayability. In particular, there are a handful of decisions in the main campaign that have surprisingly varied outcomes, but that’s where it ends. Any decisions you make in side missions are standard RPG choices, which Bethesda does well. Again, if you like the storytelling in Skyrim and Fallout 4, then you’ll love Starfield.
The side missions
If you don’t love the decisions, storytelling, or campaign of Starfield, then that’s completely okay because you can ignore all of it. My coworker at Attack of the Fanboy has 70 hours on Starfield and he’s barely touched the main campaign. Luckily, the factions and various side quests in Starfield are incredible. I joined the Rangers, a space cowboy police force for the Freestar Collective, and the missions saw me tracking down enemies and unraveling an interesting mystery reminiscent of something you’d see in Andor. You could make entire games focused only on one string of Starfield side missions, but with Starfield, we get a smorgasbord of quality side stories and missions that are often better than the campaign.
Failure to launch – The Spaceship and cutscenes
I’ll be blunt — the fact that you only use your ship in orbit of a moon or planet is disappointing. You can’t manually fly in and out of a planet or to and from planets and solar systems. Everything is done through uninspiring, rote, monotonous cutscenes. My biggest complaint about Starfield is space. To get in and out of your cockpit requires an eight-second cutscene, getting in and out of your ship requires a five-second loading screen, grav jumping to another planet or solar system requires a several-second cutscene — all of which is hands-off. These cutscenes kill the hands-on, seamless, tactile freedom of endless adventure that I wished for in Starfield and that we experience in other vehicle open-world games like Outer Wilds and Subnautica. If No Man’s Sky got one thing right, it’s that feeling you get when you physically fly in and out of a planet’s atmosphere without a cutscene and seamlessly hop in and out of your ship. You can’t even customize the interior of your ship nor exit and spacewalk while in space, and unsurprisingly, the starmap fast travel system is an absolute fun killer (that’s very typical for Bethesda games, so no surprises there).
My favorite niche genre of games are those that create a special bond between you, your vehicle, and your reliance on each other to successfully embark on adventures. Games that do this extremely well are Subnautica, Outer Wilds, and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. In particular, Outer Wilds set a gold standard for open-world space games. No cutscenes to get in and out of your spaceship or cockpit. No cutscenes to traverse from planets to moons to star systems. No cutscenes to go in and out of planets. The freedom to roleplay a master pilot in Outer Wilds is something Starfield misses entirely. The fact Outer Wilds lets you enter a planet’s orbit, spacewalk, repair your ship, and get back in is something I’d love Starfield to have. But that might be asking for too much; I’d take no cutscenes or at least cutscenes disguised as hands-on gameplay as a start.
The starmap and fast travel
My fondest memories of Skyrim were walking to my quest and getting sidetracked by an abandoned house shrouded in mystery or a fortress full of elemental atronachs. In Starfield, you can’t get lost. Let me explain. For one, you only get manual control over your spaceship in orbit and, aside from the occasional fight, there’s nothing interesting to do. The inability to fly anywhere means it’s impossible for you to find a comet and check it out or discover a space bar on an asteroid and hit the brakes to see what’s up. That leaves you with only one way to explore in Starfield: the starmap. The starmap is your map of the planets, moons, solar systems, and galaxies. While the starmap functions just fine, it’s the instant fast traveling that stomps out any embers of adventure. And you have infinity fuel, which is absolutely a good thing, but that and the fact that you can’t fly your ship anywhere means fast travel is literally the only game mechanic available to get around, unlike your own two feet in Skyrim which allowed curiosity to kill the Khajiit.
It’s a genuine bummer that your spaceship in Starfield is almost completely optional. Yeah, you need your ship to fast travel (but also not really because you can be almost anywhere on land and pull up your mission log, select “set course,” click a button to fast travel, and boom, you just traveled several light years without stepping foot on your ship) and you’ll need it to fight a few times in space. But, besides manually managing system power which is really cool, space fights are an anti-climatic slog. I hate saying, “well, modders will eventually fix all of this” because one, I think it’s Bethesda’s responsibility to make the best decisions to make the best game they can, two, it’s not fair to rely on unpaid Bethesda employees (which is what they are at this point) to make Starfield the complete experience it should’ve been at launch, and three, there are many people who don’t like or don’t have access to mods that are forever stuck with Bethesda’s final say. Space in Starfield just feels so unimportant which leaves the game feeling like a collection of land maps pinned together with mandatory fast travel. It hurts the overall immersive sci-fi feel, but miraculously, Starfield is so big that sucky space and fast travel don’t make it a bad game.
A galaxy not so far away – The worldbuilding
Something all Bethesda games nail, Starfield included, is worldbuilding. In fact, my favorite part about Starfield is its post-NASA sci-fi future. We’ve seen magic-infused sci-fi in things like Destiny 2 and Star Wars and we’ve seen alien sci-fi in things like Alien and Star Trek. However, Starfield‘s grounded sci-fi approach found in the settlement designs, spaceship models, and realistic lore makes Starfield a delight to spend time in.
One of the most baffling parts of Starfield is the sheer amount of detail. I’ve never played a game with more detail than Starfield. The major cities like Neon and New Atlantis feel populated, featuring tons of walking citizens and conversations that filter in and out as you walk by. While space travel is bad, the cockpits are full of knobs, buttons, and switches, and the purely aesthetic pop-up displays for grav jumps and take-offs add a lot of character. Also, all abandoned outposts and space stations feature so much clutter which makes the world feel so believable. It’s genuinely impressive how much junk is in Starfield, which is very Bethesda, but this is at an entirely new level.
The procedurally generated planets
But here’s what we were all worried about: the procedurally generated planets. In my experience, the planets and moons in Starfield are beautiful, containing a surprising amount of variety. Unfortunately, they are pretty barren. For some reason, every time you land anywhere in Starfield, you land a few hundred meters away from your destination. And there are no land vehicles in Starfield which is a major L, so walking is your only option. Great, walking! You might think this is where Starfield plays like Skyrim, allowing you to get lost in amazing, distracting adventures. Wrong. Walking to your objective in Starfield isn’t fun because there’s nothing to encounter. The only activity you can do while walking to your objective is scan animals, plants, and minerals which feels like filler unless you’re on the hunt for a specific resource. There are always three or four POIs fairly close to where you’ve landed, but they’re just as far if not farther than your main objective and they might be empty hovels not worth exploring. Even after one uninteresting POI, you start to distrust whether the game can deliver cool procedurally generated POIs to explore throughout its thousands of planets and moons.
But here’s where it works. Because there are three or four procedurally generated POIs every time you land anywhere on a planet or moon, there’s always something to do. Though you can get burned on a few random underdeveloped POIs, exploring these locations is fun because it acts like a unique looter shooter gameplay loop. There have been many POIs that I’ve visited that have been filled with enemies and surprisingly varied in layout. I go through, kill everything, loot everything, and move out. That’s basically what the procedurally generated POIs are good for, thus offering a pretty fun break which, like everything else, can be ignored entirely.
We have lift off – The graphics, performance, and music
The most welcomed surprise about Starfield is that I ran into virtually no bugs or glitches. Bethesda games are notorious for being buggy messes when they launch, but Starfield is an exception. There will, of course, be some Bethesda jank since Starfield is a huge game, but the only bug I experienced was a few random game crashes. Bethesda also launched a day one patch which fixed a lot of existing bugs, so we can expect more fixes. I also have to say that the graphics are stunning. The world of Starfield is breathtaking — I constantly found myself screenshotting landscapes and planets because of how good they looked. The character designs also look great, although they do have that beautiful Bethesda jank sauce that makes them have strange walking patterns and facial expressions. I’m reminded of the day I ran over to my best friend’s house when Skyrim first came out when we were in high school. I distinctly remember saying, “Wow, these graphics are incredible!” And now, I have to hold back nausea when looking at vanilla Skyrim graphics. I feel like that’ll definitely be the case for Starfield in 10 years, but that’s the natural progression of basically every video game that shoots for realism.
There’s some kind of magic that only the Starfield original soundtrack brings. Every time I boot up the Starfield title screen, I wait a few seconds before launching in just to soak in the score. That magic resonates throughout everything you do in Starfield and it really ties the whole experience together. Jeremy Soule’s work on the Oblivion and Skyrim soundtracks has outlived those games, and Inon Zur’s work on Starfield will do the exact same thing.
I played Starfield on my PC that has a 3060 Ti GPU and I was able to run the entire game with everything set to the “ultra” graphics settings at all times. I also had very consistent frame rates the entire time that were upwards of 60 basically everywhere except the dense area right outside the Lodge, but even that wasn’t cause for concern. The latest patch claims that Starfield does run on Steam Deck, but it doesn’t run well. The problem stated is that the hardware doesn’t meet the minimum requirements for Starfield. That’s a pretty big bummer, and hopefully, Bethesda will continue working on Steam Deck optimization.
Why is Starfield good?
After railing on Starfield in almost every section, Starfield is still a great game. Bethesda games offer experiences you can’t find anywhere else, and Starfield absolutely delivers one of those once-in-a-decade gaming experiences. What other game can you think of where you know, before it even comes out, that it’ll be a game people play and enjoy for years to come? Bethesda games just don’t fail; they’re always eventually successful because of their charm, ambition, and well-executed worlds. Starfield is yet another Bethesda classic.
All things considered, I think Starfield is a great game. If you like Bethesda, then you’ll love Starfield. Everything — the combat, the dialogue, the menu navigation, the factions, the storytelling, the worldbuilding, the outpost and ship building and customizations, the endless amount of side missions — is all done really well and in true Bethesda style. The major downsides to this game are space travel and fast travel; almost everything else is inviting and exciting. It’s truly space Skyrim for better and worse.
At this point, Bethesda feels like a best friend that I only get to see every few years, and Starfield feels like coming home. While Starfield shoots for the moon by promising an epic space RPG, it falls among the stars because of lifeless spaceflight and the refusal to innovate in more ways than one. Ultimately though, Starfield is undeniably an enjoyable, all-consuming experience that pulls you into its exceptional world and gives you full control of the cockpit. Well, not full control, but you get the metaphor.