‘Starfield’ Review: Get Lost in Space

‘Starfield’ Review: Get Lost in Space

Nearly two dozen hours into Starfield, the latest action role-playing game from Bethesda Game Studios, I stumbled upon a side story that was far more thrilling and formally inventive than anything else in the main plot up to that point.

In it, the player is forced to work undercover within a vicious gang, becoming something like a government mole who has to gain the trust of their new colleagues while avoiding becoming the kind of bloodthirsty criminal they’re trying to take down. There are heists, gunfights, daring escapes, and spots of moral intrigue along the way. It’s one of the most compelling bits of the sprawling sci-fi RPG and, because of the game’s design, it seems like it would be very easy to miss.

To get it started, the player must happen to speak to a character they’ve likely sprinted past many times before. They have to have ignored the demands of a main plotline that begs for attention and the innumerable side stories that pop up when walking the streets of Starfield’s sci-fi cities. It’s a diamond hidden deep in the rough that illustrates a major problem with the game’s design: There’s simply so much packed into it that it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s worthwhile.

All artists, from filmmakers and novelists to musicians and gamemakers, have to make countless small editing decisions in their work. Which parts of a character’s life need to be depicted to tell their story? How should multiple instrumental and vocal tracks be mixed to create the best version of a song? Which features and storylines should be included or cut in order to maintain a video game’s pace and overall coherence?

Courtesy of Bethesda

Starfield presents itself as if very few of these kinds of tough choices have been made. In some sense, this isn’t exactly a fault—many players will be more than happy to lose themselves aimlessly in the game for years to come—but it does make it difficult to recommend it to those less likely to be so committed. For many years, in games from its Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series, Starfield creator Bethesda Game Studios has warranted attention for the sheer size of the worlds it makes and the breadth of activities contained within. The promise of the studio’s work comes from the allure of enormous environments where the player, guiding a character whose morals and physical abilities they develop over time, can interact with the unexpected events that emerge from exploring massive buildings and rural landscapes dotted with roving enemies.

With Starfield, which is set in the distant, spacefaring future of the 24th century, the game world has ballooned to cosmic proportions, incorporating entire planetary systems that feature varied urban and natural landscapes. Setting out into a world of this size is a fairly intimidating proposition. After being introduced to its fiction and combat systems through a short prologue, the player creates their character, plops down into the cockpit of their first spaceship, and is pushed like a baby bird from the nest out into a world so vast it can be disorienting.

As in Bethesda Game Studios’ past work, there’s a main story to follow. And like its previous releases, that main story is pretty dull and, if followed without wandering off extensively from its path toward the end credits, isn’t likely to show off the most exciting sights and stories in the game. The wealth of side quests isn’t guaranteed to remain consistently gripping either. Some side quests are made up of painfully dull busywork that requires little more than running from objective to objective, waiting through screens of ships undocking and docking and flying from planet to planet to ferry quest items back and forth. Sitting in the cockpit of a spaceship and looking out over a galactic map can leave players dealing with a constant conundrum: either walk (and fly) around aimlessly, hoping to find an engaging side story by trying out many unexciting options, or follow map markers to the next step in the main plot while enduring a nagging sense that they’re missing out on more worthwhile uses of their time.

Starfield’s uneven presentation both helps alleviate and exacerbates these issues in turn. On the one hand, its characters are plasticine-looking and stand stock still when talking to the protagonist, the camera frozen in place as if preparing to take a driver’s license photo. Their dialog feels computer-generated. It’s purely perfunctory, providing exposition and the occasional blunted joke, rolling on with cold utility even after, say, a surprising turn of events or massive plot revelation has just occurred.

Courtesy of Bethesda

On the other hand, there’s a lot to admire in the details of the game’s construction: warping into orbit above the distant surface of a strange new planet, walking the streets of a massive city and discovering expressions of its unique culture through its architecture and population, picking through a convincingly lived-in outpost or spaceship. Starfield may not present the substance of its science fiction world with much flair, but it does much better at making its setting look and sound great.

Fiddling around with building a ship to the demands of the player character’s desires—a big cargo bay for those smuggling or honestly trading in mined resources; speed and powerful weaponry to defend against pirates or bully other ships into submission—is another of the game’s highlights. So, too, is the appropriately majestic (and existentially terrifying) feeling of zooming back on a map that goes from the player’s location on a planet’s surface out into the vastness of outer space.

The care and attention to detail that’s gone into constructing Starfield’s massive world is evident, and it’s the (not insubstantial) joy of simply tooling around and seeing the sights that stands out as the game’s greatest success.

At the same time, the interactions that take place within this world are rarely very exciting. The gunplay is serviceable, for instance, but there’s never much of a sense of danger to the innumerable shoot-outs that take place throughout the game. Exploring the rolling hills of a snowy planet or the plains of a sandy one, running in fear when a dinosaur-like alien herd turns to aggressively defend its territory—all of this would be more memorable if survival didn’t depend mostly on unloading rounds into enemies that charge straight at the player, or weathering attacks that would go virtually unnoticed if not for a health bar whittling down in the corner of the screen.

Courtesy of Bethesda

The ease of combat and exploration on Starfield’s standard difficulty means that the player will spend more time worrying about leveling up to unlock abilities—using upgrades to carry more junk, for example, or sprinting longer without running out of oxygen—than thinking tactically during ship or on-foot fights, or managing resources and avoiding environmental hazards while trekking into the unknown.

Bethesda Game Studios is immensely talented at creating game worlds that buzz with constant activity, but these sorts of issues mean there’s never much of a sense in Starfield that life continues to exist beyond the player’s viewpoint. The game feels instead like an astoundingly vast diorama, populated by chatty automatons eager to guide players on a county fair ghost train before falling back into frozen suspension as soon as their work is done.

Those who found themselves lost for hundreds of hours in past Bethesda Game Studios releases like Fallout 4 or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will, if they’re at all interested in Starfield’s sci-fi setting, find more than enough diversions in the game to ignore its considerable flaws and concentrate instead on its nearly as apparent successes. It will suck up hours of free time with regular doses of positive feedback, for completing tasks of varying quality; popping experience-point notifications; and new items, rewarded for diligently wandering the stars and mapping the expanse.

As an expression of a dominant video game design philosophy—one that presents players with more to see and do than seems possible to ever experience—Starfield is impressive. As a workable to guide audiences to what’s truly worthwhile within itself, it falls short in direct proportion to the enormity of its universe.

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