Starfield Review: A small step for RPGs, a giant leap for Bethesda | GAME3A

Starfield Review: A small step for RPGs, a giant leap for Bethesda

You float in space aboard a ship that has cost you a quarter million credits. You have upgraded the automated defense turrets, making them virtually f...

Levi Winslow Aug 31, 2023
Starfield Review: A small step for RPGs, a giant leap for Bethesda

You float in space aboard a ship that has cost you a quarter million credits. You have upgraded the automated defense turrets, making them virtually fight on your behalf, and no opponent - be it a pirate, law enforcer, or anyone else - can harm you. The universe stretches out before you, billions of stars forming into swirling clouds, and cosmic waves colliding. The possibilities are endless, but all you can think about is the paralyzing choice that lies ahead. Such an infinite universe may be beautiful and all, but what good is it to explore if you have no friends by your side?

Starfield is not the game one would expect. In many ways, it is an evolution of everything Bethesda has done before; in a sense, it is Skyrim in space, but in others, it is the exact opposite. Starfield is simultaneously an advancement of the classic Bethesda formula and a reversal of all my expectations, for better and for worse.

It starts slowly. You are a miner sent to retrieve a strange metal protrusion from the depths of an underground cave on an unknown planet. You ride an elevator there, reminiscent of the unskippable beginning of Skyrim in the cart. You bought this game to travel through the stars, not to be trapped in a mine shaft elevator. And yet, the first hours of Starfield want to hinder you at every turn, be it through annoying burdensome weights that force you to move at a snail's pace or tedious collection quests before you can truly embark on your adventure.

Starfield Review One Small Step For RPGs, One Giant Leap For Bethesda

Here, I urge you to depart from the Bethesda tradition and follow the main quest or join a faction to benefit from their unique missions, abundant rewards, and loot. Yes, we all want to explore the universe, but it's easy to get lost in the vastness of space and discover four or five lifeless planets in a row, feeling slightly disappointed by it all. However, if you aid the brave explorers of Constellation or strive to ascend the ranks of one of the game's five joinable power groups, all your interactions and explorations are carefully curated, more exhilarating, and purposeful. This removes much of the frustrating monotony that holds Starfield back in its early hours, even if it requires you to fight against your instincts and embark on a linear path forward.

Starfield shines in its main quests. I've mentioned that it has reversed my expectations, and traveling with a companion and having a quest marker to focus on is far superior to venturing alone. A significant part of this is due to the strength of the characters themselves, who are among the most memorable ones Bethesda has written in decades. The writing is outstanding (literally meant), the characters have depth, and the small tasks you can undertake to get closer to them create unbreakable bonds with all your allies.

The quests themselves are also fantastic, after another slow start. Most recruiters want you to complete a few simple (read: boring) tasks before joining their organization, but it's worth it. I played as a pirate of the Crimson Fleet, but I can't wait to play as a member of another, possibly more law-abiding organization in New Game+ to see exactly where these new factions will lead me in the universe.

Starfield Review One Small Step For RPGs, One Giant Leap For

After warming up, the quests themselves are fantastic. Whether you're searching for the secrets of the universe in the main story, robbing banks and decapitating heads like I do, or immersing yourself in the stories of one of the other factions in the game, you'll get your money's worth. The stories take bold and unexpected directions, and there's a particular mission towards the end of the main quest that might be my favorite science fiction sequence from a first-person perspective since "Titanfall 2: Effects and Cause." I won't spoil anything, but if your mission log shows "Entangled," get ready for the adventure of your life.

During these missions, you will be faced with some "classic Bethesda" decisions - I like to call them "Megaton nuclear decisions" - where both options seem equally terrible, but you are still forced to choose one. These are just as difficult as ever and are used sparingly enough to maintain their impact.

I thoroughly enjoyed the excellent science fiction story of Starfield and eagerly delved into its convoluted pseudo-scientific explanations and star-filled antics. The only downside is that too many missions devolve into shootouts with few or no other options available. If you prefer a stealthy approach or, like me, have invested all your points in spaceship upgrades, tough luck. Hopefully, you have your shotgun handy.

Starfield Review One Small Step For RPGs, One Giant Leap

Apart from the narrative, there are many elements that feel like an evolution of Bethesda's classic RPG style. Lockpicking is a more challenging mini-game that actually tests you, and improving your skills requires completing tasks in addition to leveling up. Want to give your spaceship better weapon systems? Then you better start shooting down enemies, buddy. This not only helps you understand which skills you use most frequently, but also prevents you from instantly optimizing your character to the maximum and forces you to make some difficult role-playing decisions.

The base-building system is better than in Fallout 4, but it's still not quite like The Sims. You have hundreds of options available, all fitting together nicely, so you can build everything from towering military complexes to sprawling scientific research stations. You'll need plenty of materials to make your dreams come true, but by sending companions to nutrient-rich planets, you can also receive a continuous stream of resources in return. Unfortunately, shipbuilding is much more complicated, and I didn't find it enjoyable at all, even though I focused on being a pilot. Upgrading your systems is straightforward, and I'm sure some people will delve into the intricacies of the building system to create beautiful ships from scratch, but the controls are unintuitive, and the instructions are confusing.

Starfield Review One Small Step For RPGs, One Giant

Where Starfield disappoints the most, however, is in its core concept: exploration. While the vastness of space always looks breathtaking, planets are often lifeless and boring. Players are concerned that they won't be able to explore entire planets from their landing point at the start of the game, but trust me, you won't want to. The interesting locations range from small research stations to caves, and few of them are visually, mechanically, or thematically appealing. Named locations and curated planets are the ones that have received genuine love, and that is evident in every quest, character, and city you encounter.

Occasionally, while exploring the cosmos, you come across side quests, and they are fantastic. Helping troubled terraformers or hunting down unwanted aggressors turn into interesting and unexpected standalone stories that are incredibly satisfying to complete. You often find yourself in an abandoned mech graveyard or among illegal settlers, and you enjoy every minute of it. The problem is that these side quests occur too infrequently. 900 planets are too many, and the weaknesses in Bethesda's procedural generation become apparent quickly.

For example, once I raided two identical Va'ruun spacecraft that were parked side by side. I understand the desire to have similar themes within a faction, but these two were absolutely identical, down to the enemies inside and the placement of coffee cups on the tables in the lounge. It really took me out of the game and annoyed me a bit. Such details should not be overlooked in a game of this magnitude.

Starfield Review One Small Step For RPGs, One

I was truly disappointed with the exploration in Starfield. The only way to land on planets or dock at space stations is by pressing the 'X' button and watching a cutscene. Traveling between planets or galaxies is only possible through fast travel, and you can practically go anywhere without even upgrading your gravitational drives - you may just need to make a few pit stops. Furthermore, the planets themselves are mostly dull, with disappointing textures. Lush, inhabited planets look the best, but the lack of interesting points of interest still deterred me from exploring.

Many will be interested in this classic Bethesda bugginess, and I'm happy to report that it wasn't bad. There were some framerate hiccups during the monorail cutscene that allows for fast travel within New Atlantis, and an NPC appeared only wearing pants, but in about 75 hours of gameplay, I only experienced two major crashes back to the main menu, which is good for the studio.

Cities are the exact opposite: huge, complex centers of activity with an almost overwhelming amount of things to do. You can spend hours wandering through one of the game's sprawling civilizations, talking to people and finding out what life looks like in this corner of the universe. NPCs are a bit outdated - they often feel like props rather than real characters with genuine goals - but the places they inhabit are a testament to everything Bethesda does well. Even after 40 hours in my game, I discovered new areas of New Atlantis, the first city you visit, and spent another hour marveling at the entire region that is hidden away from the tourist spots.

Starfield Review One Small Step For RPGs,

There's a lot to love about Starfield, and it shines brightest when it deviates from Bethesda's outdated formula. The story is exceptional, the conflicts between factions are engaging, and the space battles are both technically impressive and awe-inspiring. Diverting all power from shields to missile launchers and launching a surprising counteroffensive while orbiting Saturn made me feel like a real Starfleet captain and deserves special mention.

Starfield is all about the stories it tells, and it tells them well. The central plot and the characters living within it are among the best Bethesda has ever produced, but they are often let down by the banality that so often surrounds them. I came to Starfield to explore the stars and instead got a brilliant science fiction tale. That's not inherently bad, but I would be lying if I said I'm not a little disappointed.

Starfield Review One Small Step For

Rating: 4/5. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher.