A few times every console generation, eyes are glued to any news about one specific game release. There’s hype, overblown expectations, and hard-earned cash at stake as people bank on their hopes being met or exceeded. This is the price laid down by ambitious developers, and it’s often one set too high for companies to reach. Many games have flown too close to the sun, but some aim to fly past the sun and soar into the cosmos. My review of Starfield is an examination of a game very much focused on ambition in its premise, as much as it is in its production, and I’m excited to tell you all about it.
Strange New Worlds
Starfield was announced back in 2018 but was conceived and trademarked as far back as 2013, and began development in 2015. It’s the first new intellectual property from the legendary Bethesda Game Studios and by far its most ambitious. Despite so much attention and hype being dedicated to this game, Starfield still managed to find awesome little ways to surprise me throughout my exploration, and I fear I may never truly discover everything.
Starfield goes beyond the already massive worlds of Fallout and The Elder Scrolls. It forgoes interconnected communities in a single realm in favor of 1000 planets scattered across the Milky Way, some with thriving settlements as part of the Settled Systems. While the game feels ostensibly like a thrilling space opera in its premise, a tantalizing exploration element with classic Bethesda magic allows you to explore and survey strange new worlds.
But Starfield isn’t the same level of optimistic sci-fi. It takes a warts-and-all approach to the good and bad of the developments in space travel, with some particularly dire consequences I won’t go into for the sake of spoilers.
Bethesda games have always done this well, introducing a level of grit and dystopian feel to what are otherwise grandiose worlds to make them feel more layered, and to make the lore more interesting. So instead of classic Star Trek, you get a more complex, morally nuanced take such as from the stories of The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, but conversely some of the very same levels of silliness. You’re meant to have fun even when getting utterly lost among the stars, and that’s a good thing.
Far Beyond All Those Distant Stars
The plot of Starfield’s primary campaign introduces you to an eclectic group of intellectuals across multiple backgrounds, factions, and even faiths, called Constellation. I’ll leave it up to you as the player to discover the specifics, but their initial goal is to explore the various solar systems of the galaxy and tap into its secrets. It’s a noble goal, but much like you’d expect in a Bethesda game, the truth is more complex, and stranger than fiction.
The main story itself is surprisingly brief, yet meaty, especially if you let yourself steep in the lore and enjoy the various missions you share with the members of Constellation. There are several plot twists I’m fairly sure you won’t see coming, and the lore and history of this game world are fascinating and hit rather close to home especially in the later phases. The main story explores some pretty high-concept storytelling, but not necessarily some big generic yet epic army clash between good and evil.
The various faiths that exist in Starfield point in similar directions toward your fate, while you gather resources, influences, and multiple, wonderfully customizable ships along your path. You begin to feel powerful and daring to grasp at the galaxy’s secrets. But far beyond those distant stars, there are reminders of just how small you are in this universe, even with all the skills you acquire.You discover the game focuses on a lofty, bigger picture in which you participate and see the forces at play for what they are, the good and the bad, and you weigh the options for yourself.
Yes, the story is brief, but it gets intense, philosophical, and divisive, and is an interesting dystopian sci-fi vision of an alternate future.
All I Ask Is A Tall Ship, and A Load of Contraband to Fill Her With…
Typical of any Bethesda single-player game, you’re introduced to the game’s core mechanics and given a means to travel, and then you’re given the choice to play however you wish from there. You get immediate access to travel across the many star systems of the galaxy, although you’ll need a powerful enough drive aboard your ship to perform the lengthier grav-jumps to reach distant places. But you’ll quickly find you can spend your time amply across some pretty huge planets before then.
Starfield gives you access to some pretty addictive gameplay loops rather quickly here. You can explore nearby planets, clearing research stations, and discover that “abandoned” in location titles should always have a wink emoji in the caption. There’s always a group of roving pirates or mercs seeking valuables, and taking them down in the game’s responsive and fun shooter combat is one way to enjoy the game.
But there’s so much more. If you check your skills options, combat is one focus, and much like any other Bethesda RPG, you can pin your emphasis on crafting, exploration, speechcraft, and more. You can learn animal husbandry, join a faction of space pirates, make bank as a bounty hunter, or even help fellow travelers by giving them unusually large quantities of potatoes.
To those who say “All I ask is a tall ship and a load of contraband to fill her with…” you’ll be pleased to find out there is indeed a way in which you can carry out your smuggler fantasy. However, you must refine your skills/equipment to get past some security checks. You can even purchase new ships and customize them in a modular fashion including shields, weapons, engines, hull cosmetic choices, and paint. This gives space combat a distinctly Battlestar feel as your battles thunder through an otherwise silent void, and you can fly out in style.
You can be a member of the local security force, pressure somebody into a high-stakes deal, and talk down incredibly powerful forces from firing a single shot if you have the skills and luck. You’ll encounter religious factions that represent deists, atheists, with alternating benevolent/extreme motives, tying together to probe the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. That makes the main campaign a must-play, as it specifically opens up entire gameplay mechanics you could miss, including a New Game+ that feels like the most organic implementation since Hades in 2020.
I’ll Learn to Live With It
Beyond the overwhelming amount of tasks you can perform and the diverse, gorgeous worlds you can see, Bethesda games aren’t always for everyone. People had anxiety about the potential of bugs, and I can be first to tell you that I’ve only encountered about 6 bugs, none of which broke a playthrough, and were usually funny and benign. If a few adorable moments like a floating slug creature are what I must settle for instead of no bugs at all, I’ll learn to live with it, it’s not a big deal.
The gun designs are fantastic, but the combat might feel less frantic than in other modern shooters. The main story is short-ish if you rush it, and it feels more like a tutorial for the actual core gameplay loop which will elicit concerns.
Not being able to land on planets from space is an issue, but it would have been enormously demanding and too much of a sim vs. RPG issue for the game to bother with. If you want to be able to take off and land on other planets, No Man’s Sky is a simplistic option, while Elite: Dangerous is a more realistic (and awkward) choice, but this feature is hardly a dealbreaker.
These turn out to be minor issues in the grand scheme. Starfield’s ambition and scope bring so much more to the table than the meager sum of its concerns.
Sometimes A Feeling Is All We Humans Have to Go on
Starfield is the space opera answer to Bethesda’s glorious array of single-player open-world RPGs. Unlike the sometimes gritty high fantasy world of The Elder Scrolls, or the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Fallout, Starfield feels like the most earnest mixture of idealism and critiques on ambition. Much like Fallout, it examines exceptionalism from Bethesda’s particularly American viewpoint, seeing the price paid by humanity when advancement is prioritized ahead of the risks.
This produces a pretty dystopian spread of worlds, while still shining through with the wonderful potential humanity has in the cosmos. It’s echoed by the evocative soundtrack, and there’s a sense of romanticism, that is, channeling emotion into the aesthetic of the story, its characters, and the world. Calling back to the surprises I mentioned earlier in this Starfield review, the very first one was the easiest primary example of romanticism sneaking its way into what could be a bitter, dystopian void between colonized worlds. I found it in my captain’s locker aboard the Frontier, a poem by the great American poet Walt Whitman.
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,-Walt Whitman
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Starfield follows its numerous characters and core factions as they pursue many things, with many of the side characters seeking survival or justice. But the core faction of Constellation focuses on discovery, even enlightenment, and this game has a clear reverence for those who seek knowledge and the truth. It’s also a critique on simply listening to the teachings of academics, and an encouragement to go into the wild yourself and find your inspiration. “Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on”, speaking to a specific valid point in favor of this game, that of how it can speak to you emotionally.
It’s okay to be in awe of the game’s mechanics and what you can do while being frustrated by technical limitations. But it’s also valid to enjoy references or details that speak out to you as the player. A game can speak to you on an emotional level, and that certainly counts for something.
One of the most exciting discoveries for me, was when I realized something was familiar about the voice of Walter Stroud when out on a mission with him, only to discover he is voiced by Armin Shimerman. It’s extremely specific, but he played one of my favorite characters, Quark, in my favorite Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine. The sudden joy I felt was akin to meeting with an old friend, and it made the whole mission even more exciting. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything in the world if fans can find other trivia they love about this game.
Starfield is a magnificent game in both size and scope, with intense potential for players to find themselves blissfully lost. When I began my playthrough, I was utterly verklempt when seeing the diverse array of worlds on display, and grateful that my PC, Xbox Series X, and Xbox Series S were capable of handling them. There are compromises of frame rate for console players (locked at 30FPS), but you’ll still find a shockingly stable, layered experience with so much to do it boggles the mind.
Starfield is the most potent value proposition for Game Pass, being the killer app for the subscription service. It is also the best, most ambitious game in the Xbox Game Studios library to date. It would not be a stretch to say this could be one of the most ambitious games ever made, and that it followed through with many of those goals with relatively low compromise. For those fearing this game was Bethesda flying too close to the sun, this is a reminder that this same ambition, mixed with lots of caution and expertise, is also what put us on the moon.
This review was made possible by Bethesda Game Studios, with a complimentary copy of Starfield, scheduled for wide release on September 6, 2023.
- This article was updated on August 31st, 2023