While it’s not unheard of to be reviewing a game well after it first came out, it is unusual to be doing so after other outlets have already rendered their verdict. Thanks to Bethesda’s refusal to send review copies to multiple UK websites, seemingly in an attempt to manipulate the Metacritic score prior to launch, we’ve been playing catch-up. We’ve avoided reading any reviews, but we have seen the general reaction, which is understandably mixed.
That lack of agreement is not because Starfield’s failures and accomplishments are particularly nuanced, it’s more how willing you are to put up with its many foibles. What complicates Starfield’s evaluation is its status as Microsoft’s most import first party release in a generation, with many Xbox and Bethesda fans having convinced themselves of its excellence long before they had a chance to play it for themselves.
In trying to look at the game objectively it’s an experience that’s hard to feel passionate about one way or another. Despite its many and obvious failings, it’s not a disaster. Instead, it’s main problem is that, at a conceptual level, it’s not nearly different enough from Skyrim and Fallout to take full advantage of the outer space setting. It’s trying to be two completely different games at once and, predictably, it fails to do either particularly well.
We’ve already previewed Starfield, and started a review in progress, so between that and the game’s general ubiquity at the moment, it feels as if it needs no introduction. And yet the central disappointment of the game is the huge gap between what people thought it was going to be, when all the slickly edited gameplay trailers were doing the rounds, and what it actually is.
Starfield is, for better and worse, Skyrim in space. Or rather Fallout in space, since both games involve guns and have you spending an awful lot of your time litter-picking, to use your collected bric-a-brac for crafting. You can explore space and get into dogfights, but this never feels like more than an aside, as if it was dropped into the game relatively late in its design.
We don’t think it was but the fundamental problem with Starfield is that it doesn’t fully commit to its premise. Rather than space exploration being at the game’s core it’s merely window-dressing for Bethesda’s familiar ground-based action role-playing. Except, instead of a single open world, densely packed with secrets and side quests, everything in Starfield is spread out across a whole virtual galaxy, with many planets having nothing of interest to discover.
Beyond Bethesda’s previous work, the two obvious influences on Starfield are No Man’s Sky and Mass Effect. The former comes from a long tradition of British-made space exploration games, stretching back to the early 80s, almost all of which allowed you to seamlessly fly between space and a planet and yet, incredibly, Starfield does not. Here, space is one open world and each planet surface is another, with the only connection between them being cut scenes and loading screens.
That’s a such an off-puttingly restrictive way of doing things it’s baffling that the game ever got past the design stage with that decision intact. Not only does it mean there’s no planetside flight, but there’s almost nothing to do in your ship beyond space combat. And while getting into a dogfight is fun at first it never evolves beyond its first principles and quickly becomes a sideshow.
Rather than feeling like an explorer or dangerous space pirate, questing amongst the stars, all travel is handled on a dull little map screen, your destination chosen automatically by just selecting a mission from a list.
That’s not the only thing that runs on autopilot, as your ship computer seems to have read the game script ahead of time, as it always knows exactly where to send you before you or it could ever possibly know. Waypoint markers appear the instant a subject is brought up, and often beforehand, with no need to think or look for anything yourself.
That sort of approach works well enough for Rockstar Games but the problem with Starfield’s missions is how unforgivably dull they are. This is partly a mechanical problem, given that the movement system and combat is mediocre and the artificial intelligence weak (laughably so for your allies, who vacillate between hyperactive and utterly disinterested).
Although the story missions are incredibly repetitive (we’ll get to the story later) the side quests are impressively varied and unpredictable. For example, there’s one set on a luxury liner in space where you’re trying to get the login details of a bank executive, either because you’re an actual pirate or you’re just pretending to be one as a mole for the military.
It’s all set up like a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and an Agatha Christie novel, with high society guests to charm, love affairs to discover, corporate corruption to expose, and a starship captain that secretly wants to be a space pirate. The setting is completely unique and a huge amount of effort has gone into everything. The only problem is it’s completely boring and barely interactive.
The writing and characterisation throughout Starfield is flat as a pancake, with dialogue that’s usually competently written but persistently banal. Nothing anyone says or does is in any way interesting and the only small bit of colour is the amusingly bad accents that Bethesda has the voice actors perform.
In what should be a sandbox style space heist, where you chose whether to rely on stealth, violence, or charm, you just go where the waypoint markers tell you and pick through the dialogue options, desperately looking for something interesting. You never find it though, as even the options to sweet talk someone just start a silly mini-game where you pick potentially persuasive phrases and hope the RNG decides they work.
At the same time, you’re forced to suffer the fact that Bethesda remains well behind the curve in terms of facial animation and still insists on having only one person on screen at once when they’re talking to you. The way they stare straight into the game camera only highlights how unnatural and outdated everything in the game feels and how little has changed since Bethesda’s Xbox 360 days.
The other mission example that stood out to us also has an interesting set-up and starts with an apparently routine visit to a research facility, where you suddenly start flipping to an alternative universe version that’s been infested by facehugger-like scorpions. You soon learn how to flip back and forth via the old light/dark world mechanic from Zelda: A Link To The Past, which seems like it’s finally going to offer a bit of variety and fun.
Except in Starfield everything is much more linear and there are no real puzzles, so you’re never really working things out, just moving between the only points available. Not only is this vastly less interesting than a 32-year game running on prehistoric hardware but it goes on and on forever, so that your initial excitement at this unexpected novelty slowly seeps away until you can’t wait to see the back of it.
This is a consistent problem with Starfield, where so much seems like a good idea in theory but in practice proves underdeveloped and unexciting. Starfield is so undercooked it’s probably a danger to pregnant women.
We need to emphasise, though, that nothing about it is terrible. Although the steals from Mass Effect and No Man’s Sky are very obvious there’s something about it which is also reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed, in that the game has a huge amount of things to do but never anything of substance. The normal difficulty mode offers very little challenge and yet almost every action is rewarded by a shower of loot – in an attempt to hide the fact that you’re just going through the same actions again and again in a slightly different context.
The game’s less generous with the experience points but the skill tree is one of its best features. At the top level it doesn’t function much differently than Fallout but while you can unlock the first level of each ability with a skill point, the others aren’t available until you’ve completed an achievement-liked task related to the skill, like winning X number of persuasion attempts or using a jetpack in combat. It’s a shame you can’t re-spec though, considering how long it takes to level up.
As sci-fi and astronomy fans we managed to enjoy the way the alien worlds are portrayed, even if a lot of the alien creatures are just minor variations of each other. There are some nice landscapes, as well as some cool sci-fi interiors, but otherwise the tech for the game is very unimpressive, especially the constant loading pauses. Every sizeable building requires a two second loading wait to enter and there are often more inside as well, with even caves needing them.
This combined with the abuse of fast travel, where the game encourages you to use it at every opportunity, means you end up staring at a blank screen, and the little circular loading indicator, for seemingly half the game. Bethesda were a rich company even before they got bought by Microsoft, they should be able to do better than this, but all sense of immersion or continuity is shattered by how low-tech the game is, as it just becomes a disjointed sequence of unconnected events, with no sense of place.
Nevertheless, we’re sure lots of people will get into the ship construction and the outpost building – which works very similarly to Fallout 4. The problem with these, though, is that not only are they completely unnecessary to complete the game on normal, but the game rarely ever brings them up. If we didn’t know the options were there already it’s possible we could’ve missed them entirely. And even then the game is terrible at explaining how they work.
Many of these issues are common to previous Bethesda titles, but they become increasingly hard to bear the more time goes on and Bethesda does too little to address them. This includes their long-running bug problem and while there are no serious performance issues the game still has far too many glitches for something this expensive. Most are minor graphical or AI faults, but we also had several crash bugs and freezes that had to be reloaded.
Everything in Starfield seems like a good idea in principal and yet nothing works nearly as well as you’d hope. This includes the plot which, again, is so underdeveloped we were genuinely shocked when it ended, in the most anticlimactic way possible, as we would’ve sworn we were only halfway through. You can spend hundreds of hours exploring every corner of Starfield, but the story missions can probably be rushed through in a dozen hours or less.
It’s just a fundamentally uninteresting fictional universe, with no new ideas of its own and too many obvious steals from famous sci-fi games and movies. It doesn’t help that the story missions are the most repetitive and uninspired aspect of the whole game. With only a few exceptions they simply have you going to a new planet and acquiring a mysterious, seemingly alien, artefact from a cave.
With each new artefact you get a new superpower (the game’s equivalent to Skyrim Shouts) but that also involves doing the same repetitive task every time, just on a different planet. That wouldn’t matter so much if the story had any kind of depth but there’s almost nothing to it and while Bethesda is clearly trying to evoke the philosophical musings of 2001 the only real similarity is that they hired one of the same actors.
Despite all the many problems, we wouldn’t discourage anyone from giving Starfield a go on Game Pass, where you don’t have to pay any additional fee for it. There’s absolutely no depth to the game, and zero invention, but even with the bugs there’s nothing ruinous in terms of either the game design or mechanics (although the lack of a ground map does beggar belief).
Starfield isn’t a broken game, it’s just a dull one. Exploring the unknown depths of space is one of the most exciting concepts possible for a video game and yet Starfield has managed to make it all seem so unexciting and repetitive. Rather than reaching for the stars this lets a golden opportunity, to make the definitive space adventure, slip through its fingers.
Starfield review summary
In Short: A disappointingly low-tech space exploration game that relies too much on the legacy of Skyrim and Fallout and lacks the innovation and imagination to do its concept justice.
Pros: The scale of the game is impressive and some of the planets and sci-fi hardware can look very good. Excellent skill tree. Starship and outpost customisation has tons of options.
Cons: Unengaging missions, held back by mediocre combat and bland storytelling. Flawed exploration with content spread too thin and no physical connection between space and planet surfaces. Constant loading and abuse of fast travel ruins the sense of immersion. Plenty of bugs.
Formats: Xbox Series X/S (reviewed) and PC
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Release Date: 6th September 2023
Age Rating: 18
*Permanently available on Game Pass
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