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‘Starfield’ Review (PC): It Is What You Wanted It To Be

‘Starfield’ Review (PC): It Is What You Wanted It To Be

Starfield

Bethesda

The weight of expectations on Starfield and in turn, Bethesda, has been crushing. It’s not just their first mainline single player game since 2015’s Fallout 4, but a recovery effort from the rocky launch of Fallout 76. Oh, and after being acquired for $7.5 billion, Bethesda now has to make Starfield Microsoft’s flagship franchise since Master Chief is on an indefinite vacation.

And they do it. They pull it off. Starfield is going to make a lot of people happy.

The word you are going to hear thrown around the most here is “scale.” This is a massive game. So much so that even two weeks and 80+ hours into it, there is a ton I’m missing, even if I’ve gone through the main story and major faction quests. And then there’s just pure, seemingly endless exploration, if you simply want to do that.

Starfield excels at the things Bethesda usually excels at; sprawling worlds which you can exist in for anywhere from 50 to 500 hours or more. Multiple ways to take on missions, unforeseen effects of your choices that circle back around in ways you don’t expect. It is also sometimes weak at the things Bethesda is weak at. Character modeling, while improved, still feels very dated. And the main story is…questionable, with the best stories being many of the sidequests or even just random things that happen to you in the world.

But there is one way that Starfield breaks from past Bethesda games. Its action-based combat is genuinely quite good. That is obviously something I’ve never said about a single Fallout game, where outside of VATS, is one of the worst-feeling shooters in the AAA space. That is not true here. Combat is fast, mainly thanks to the new jetpack (I recommend this being the first thing you max), which zips you across and up and down the map rapidly, and it gets even wilder in lower gravity zones. It’s frenetic and quite fun.

Starfield

Bethesda

The shooting itself feels solid, easily the best in any Bethesda Game Studios title. It’s certainly not Call of Duty or Destiny, but I’d probably rank its gunplay above the recent Cyberpunk 2077. This was the thing that surprised me the most, though I know there will also be fans of its spaceship battling system as well. It’s not as intuitive as on-the-ground shooting, I suppose, but the dogfights are satisfying and there are some interesting aspects in here, an FTL-lite system of powering up different areas of your ship in different situations, losing those systems in a fight, or shooting out the systems in other ships you’re fighting. You can, as Bethesda has said, kill a ship’s engines specifically, board it, and take everything on it, including the ship itself. I mostly just blew everything up.

There is of course context for all of this shooting. That would be the main storyline where you, a random no-name miner, comes into contact with a mysterious metal object of unknown origin that gives you weird visions. Turns out there are a lot of these, and a group called Constellation has been collecting them and trying to figure out what exactly it is they do. They are starry-eyed explorers, and four of its members will become your “core team” on your ship, though you can recruit a dozen or so other people, either folks you meet on quests or random hires you find in bars if you just need someone to farm dirt at your planetary base.

The main quest is hunting down these artifacts, where they may be deep in a mine full of raiders, or you may have to plan a heist on a space baron’s luxury cruiser. Eventually, you will start getting answers to your questions, but the meat of the game really is not the main quest, it’s everything else.

The best structured quests, as is the case with many past Bethesda games, are the faction quests. My two favorites are both with the UC planetary authority, ie. space cops. The first has you dealing with the remnants of a horrific monster alien plague starting to resurge. The second, probably the best quest in the game, has you playing double or triple agent between the UC and the Crimson Fleet pirates, infiltrating the organization, and picking a side by the end.

Starfield

Bethesda

You are not hard locked into just one faction, other than the “pick one” spy mission I just mentioned. You can also become a Freestar Ranger, space sheriffs as opposed to space cops, I suppose. You can push paper for Ryujin Industries, in a series of (I thought pretty boring) stealth and espionage missions.

Outside of the factions, there are scores of other quests. You can join minor gangs to eliminate major ones. Lead a citizen rebellion against local pirates. Quests can be almost hilariously minor, one is literally getting a drink for a woman from across the galaxy. And they can come from anywhere. A random, overheard conversation at a bar led me on a Fallout-style, insanely wacky quest that eventually involved meeting…well, let me just say you will truly never believe who my current companion is. And of course, you can do an involved “loyalty quest” for each of your main party members.

Bethesda wanted to lean more into companions this time around, but I’d say that this, and general character relationships, is where the game suffers a bit. This isn’t Mass Effect, despite being structured the same way with a central ship. And god help Bethesda that they had to come out just weeks after Baldur’s Gate 3, which has the best voice acting, animation and writing of any party-based game possibly…ever.

The standout companion is Sam Coe, an ex-Freestar Ranger and space cowboy voiced by someone you should recognize immediately, Elias Toufexis, Adam Jensen of Deus Ex. His story was the most compelling involving his daughter, ex-wife and his previous smuggling days, and it feels like palling around with Justified’s Raylan Givens. The others just don’t quite land as well, including the “main” NPC you’ve seen all over the promo materials, Sarah Morgan, who is…fine, but I didn’t really connect with her, nor Barrett, the wannabe comedian explorer you meet first. I did connect with a mysterious woman named Andreja, a Constellation member who I chose as my singular romance in my playthrough. But “romance” here is writing like “hey I love you.” “I’m happy you said that, I love you too.” It’s not exactly going to go down as one of the all-time great love stories of our time. And if you want to be a wholly evil space pirate, I would leave all of these guys at home, as they are uh, pretty judgy of indiscriminate murder.

Starfield

Bethesda

There are more interesting characters out in the world. I found myself appreciating the smaller moments here, like a store clerk at a luxury space beach resort who is visibly annoyed to be there and laments that her uncle got her the job, but she thought it would be something higher up. While she’s essentially no one, she’s representative of the scores of unique personalities and character quirks to be found across the galaxy.

All this dialogue leads to probably the biggest visual weakness of the game. Bethesda’s character models are still not very good. They’re better than they were, but that was a low bar, and it feels dated compared to every other game in this space. It’s a little more emotive than in the past, but in way that feels like someone typed “be more emotive” into the code rather than allowing something like actual performance capture to come through. The voicework is good, the animation is not.

So yes, you will no doubt see screenshots of characters in Starfield looking ugly, or landscapes in the game looking bad, as there are lots of barren planets, as expected.

But man, there is a whole lot of beauty. A whole lot. I have been taking a huge album of photos as I’ve gone through the game, and there are set moments where the game presents you with some genuinely jaw-dropping vistas that you simply have to stop and stare at. But while many of these are “planned” big moments, most of them aren’t. I have taken random photos on random planets, even some of those fully “dead” ones, and found stunning sights there too. White hot sunsets on a desolate moon. A giant, rainbow dinosaur frolicking on a jungle planet.

Starfield

Bethesda

Moving outside the story to exploration, those thousand planets and custom ships and custom bases and such, yes, it’s all very No Man’s Sky. Xbox fans were shouting down anyone who made that comparison before launch, but it is literally using enormous elements and systems straight from that game. You mine things, you scan and catalogue things, you chart planets and star systems. You establish home planets and operating bases. This, as I’ve said many times, is not an insult, as No Man’s Sky has become a great game over the years. Starfield’s sandbox is miles ahead of where No Man’s Sky was at launch, but perhaps not quite where it has arrived at now, as Hello Games has crafted some truly impressive planet diversity and features. However, I think Starfield does a better job with what you do on those planets and moons.

I will admit I have only done a cursory amount of ship and base customization. I planted a beacon on a totally random, totally gorgeous moon I found with blue palm trees and a view of a ringed gas giant and I built a little workshop. I made another base on a moon full of high level creatures I could farm for XP. But that’s about all I’ve done. I’ve seen enough Fallout 76 to know, however, that the tools are here to make some impressive things, which I am sure the community will begin pumping out quickly. But I am not that guy.

However, I really do like zero objective, mindless exploration in this game a lot more than I thought I would. One generic Constellation bounty told me I had to go to a star system and find a planet with a “turbulent lithosphere,” some sort of anomaly trait you have to explore around and scan for in the landscape. I spent three hours doing this, hopping between planets and moon, farming resources, cataloging plants and alien animals. I found random outposts and mines and bandit bases. I gained three levels. I found two legendary weapons. One thing I did not find was a turbulent lithosphere, but I got ten times the XP and credits that mission would have netted me anyway. And I had fun the whole time.

Starfield

Bethesda

These have been some of the best moments for me, essentially just picking places at random, going there and…seeing what’s there. Yes, it’s procedurally generated, yes, you will eventually see some things starting to repeat. But after dozens and dozens of hours I was still seeing new things. Ruined biolabs taken over by hostile creatures. Desolate ships in orbit with murder mysteries to solve. One thing I did just before I started writing this was go to a planet, land in a place with no icons and I found an industrial plant nearby. It was taken over by mercenaries. I killed them all, par for the course, but this time, I found they had left their ship behind. So I went inside and found an entire crew there, killed them too, and then I found myself in the possession of my very own, hulking, class C pirate flagship. Duty free. Again, found by throwing a dart at a random location on a random planet in a random star system with zero prompting from the game itself.

There are star systems that aren’t on the map. There are planets with POIs that only appear when scanned. At a certain point, after the campaign and most side missions are done, you really just craft your own goals. I’m currently trying to max combat and ship skills at level 65. I just found a katana, a first after 80 hours. I collect outfits, which are largely cosmetic (yay no microtransactions) and take fun photos in them (I just found a cowboy poncho and hat). You make your own game, eventually.

There are annoyances that will crop up, certainly, breaking immersion with the all good parts. The game’s oxygen system is terrible, the worst kind of sprint recovery system you can imagine. Upgrading it makes it mildly less terrible but it takes forever to even do that. Eighty hours in I have not even hit the requirement for getting to the final rank of oxygen upgrades.

But to answer the famous “planet boundaries” question, no, it’s not a big deal, given that you have to walk 40 minutes in one direction to hit it, something you will never, ever need or want to do. I never hit an invisible wall in my entire playtime, and chances are you won’t either. Want to go somewhere else on a planet? Get in your ship and fly to a different biome. Diverse planets may have deserts, forests, mountains and polar caps all in one package. Even the empty, barren moons may have some good mercenary hideouts to farm, or you’ll find ships landing nearby spoiling for a fight.

One issue here is that there’s also a whole lot of loading. For me and my SSD that was okay, but even I noticed it. The worst offender is Neon, the game’s floating cyberpunk city, but while actual Cyberpunk 2077 is a giant, seamless experience, Neon is broken up into very small chunks you have to constantly load between a zillion times, then within those, even more loading for each individual shop or hideout. It’s a lot.

Starfield

Bethesda

And ah, you want to know about bugs! Of course you do, it’s a Bethesda game, right? Well, the fact that I forgot to write about them until now should tell you something. Sure, there are bugs, but nearly all of them are your typical “NPCs doing goofy shit” type stuff, clipping through ceilings or tables. Visually stuttering when you try to talk to them in conversation. My favorite was when there was a guard I was supposed to bribe in Neon, but every time I reached him, he would just float up into the air so I couldn’t reach him. I fixed that by just shooting him before he floated too high, and I took his keycard.

There were a couple more serious bugs that weren’t permanent but took a few tries to get past. One prevented me from firing my ship weapons in target lock mode until I restarted the whole game. That was bad, but it also only happened maybe three times total in my entire playthrough. Another time an entire civilian town turned hostile on me for no reason, which took a couple reloads to fix. As for performance, there are some significant stutters entering some of the more populated areas, but overall it’s mostly fine.

The part of Starfield I’m most conflicted about is the ending. And of course, that is something I cannot really talk about here. The game is set up for New Game Plus, but the way it implements it really confused me at first, and it has taken a lot of time to understand what I think they’re trying to do with it. But it’s going to take possibly even hundreds more hours to really prove that one way or the other, and it will be a community-wide project. One thing I will say is that I would probably not do New Game Plus after you beat the main story right away. You’ll see why. Or if you do, make sure you have some backup saves if you change your mind like I did. You have the option to delay it indefinitely and come to the choice at any time.

I really do love this game. Yes, Bethesda doesn’t match some of its peers in many places, but in part that’s because it’s trying to do everything, all at once. But if you wanted a giant Bethesda RPG set in space with better combat and a whole lot of time to level and build things and explore and find secrets, yeah, this is it. They did it. Enjoy.

Score: 9.5/10

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Pick up my sci-fi novels the Herokiller series and The Earthborn Trilogy.

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