Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X, DE
In Bethesda’s most ambitious game, I oscillate between boredom and frustration, curtailed by an increasing desire for exploration. It’s taken a long time, but Starfield is slowly clicking for me.
It took five seconds for the first bug to pop up. Sadly, not an acid-spewing space bug, but a technical error. My companions phased through walls like ghosts. Classic unfinished Bethesda game? Thankfully not. It’s not the last bug, but technical problems are the least of my worries in Starfield.
There was a time when Bethesda could do no wrong. Oblivion hit it big with never-before-seen quest variety, Skyrim set a new bar for open-world games, and Fallout 3 awakened the explorer in me like no other release. Then, Fallout 4 was only okay and Fallout 76 was a brazen beta test disaster being sold at full price. The fact that lead designer Todd Howard was still cracking flippant jokes about the chronic bug problem was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel a rising sense of anticipation for Starfield. After 25 hours I can say, yes, it’s a Bethesda game – in both good and bad ways.
Starfield is a sci-fi role-playing game set in a universe of over 1,000 planets. The story begins with a supposedly routine mission where you, a miner, come across a mysterious artefact. Together with the Constellation research community, which has been searching for it for some time, I set out to uncover the mystery behind it.
It takes a while for the story to pick up speed. I focused primarily on main missions, and yet it takes almost 20 hours for tension to build. Unfortunately, the same goes for the rest of the game. In Starfield, I can travel freely from planet to planet in my spaceship. There are hardly any limits to my explorations. Whether in an abandoned outpost or a lively city, I’m always overwhelmed with tasks. I can talk, shoot, and, of course, suck up everything that isn’t nailed down like a vacuum cleaner. After just one hour, I’m overencumbered for the first time. Yep, a classic Bethesda game.
Classic Bethesda is also found in the many conversations. Doesn’t matter whether it’s the guard at the city gate or the arms dealer in the commercial district, everyone talks my ear off and wants something from me. This wouldn’t be a problem if the dialogue were well written and faces didn’t look plasticine. That was definitely the case in older Bethesda games. But for a modern blockbuster game with a massive Microsoft budget, that simply won’t do. Maybe I’m just spoiled by Baldur’s Gate 3. But if every conversation makes me feel like I’m talking to a mannequin trying to masquerade as a human being, it’s hard for me to take the story seriously. On top of that, dialogue isn’t written in a particularly interesting way. Most of the characters I’ve encountered so far are overdone cartoon characters. This is especially noticeable when attempting persuasion.
In Starfield, I can try to persuade my counterpart in certain situations. In doing so, I can choose from several responses. Green answers have a higher chance of success than red ones. The number next to the answer states how many persuasion points I might receive. In order for my persuasion attempt to succeed, I have to reach a predefined number of points. My options are limited. And as I have no idea what the probability of a successful response is, the mini-game is somewhat arbitrary. Especially because some of the choices are so generic that ChatGPT could’ve written them.
Moreover, my counterparts often change their opinion, even their whole attitude, by 180 degrees. During one conversation, a grumpy old codger tells me that there’s absolutely no way he’s going to give me the tickets we need. In my response, I point out that if he gives them to me, we’ll be out of his hair. And already, poof, he gives in. He also hands me the key to his office, alongside his entire credibility as a character.
Starfield feels like an airport novel. A shallow, easily digestible pastime. It stands in stark contrast to Baldur’s Gate 3, which I experience as a complex, epic fantasy novel. Still, I’ve never played Bethesda games for the story, but to experience and discover the world.
However, it takes time before I feel like Space Marco Polo. What still bothers me after many hours is the menu navigation. Although everything is designed in a chic minimalist style, I still have a hard time finding my way around. And I use the menus often. Be it to equip weapons, check missions, learn skills or travel around.
I’m never sure when I’ll end up in which menu, where to find the local map, or how to fast travel somewhere. And I do the latter often. I can travel directly from the mission overview, via the space map or when I activate my scanner and target the blue quest marker. Only, this doesn’t always work. Regularly, after the loading screen, I’m not where I wanted to be or the quick travel option doesn’t even show up.
More destructive to my immersion, however, is the fragmented game world. As opposed to No Man’s Sky, where I can fly fluidly from one planet to the next, Starfield consists of a thousand small sections. Each is separated from the other by a loading screen. Even if I enter a store that consists only of a counter and a flowerpot, the game has to load. The majority of my travels through the universe take place in menus. Most of the time I select my next destination in the mission screen and five seconds later I’m there. It’s quick, but it doesn’t create a sense of size for the world. I can’t even climb into my spaceship without loading.
Like in «Fallout», the game loads before every bigger building or village. But at least that game contains an actual world in which I can roam freely. In Starfield, this is only possible on the countless moons and planets. However, those usually aren’t designed by hand and don’t offer as much to discover.
After getting accustomed to the game design and diving deeper into it, the explorer in me slowly awakens. I rid a supposedly abandoned outpost of space pirates and stumble over human organs and robot parts. Both are labelled with a yellow symbol marking them as contraband. If I want to land on one of the inhabited planets with them, the security scan immediately sounds an alarm. Then I’d have to pay a fine and give up my cargo or fight. The latter isn’t advisable, as then I wouldn’t only get into trouble with the local authorities, but also with my companions. They think very little of my piratesque playstyle. Instead, I go exploring to see if I can find a dealer somewhere who’ll buy my goods.
In one system I discover an unmarked ship. Sounds suspicious, and suspicious people definitely buy suspicious goods. Well, they might have if I hadn’t interrupted them looting a flying casino. After a heated battle in zero gravity, I found no buyer for my organs, but more stolen goods.
Both my inventory and the cargo hold are bursting at the seams. This is especially annoying as I use more oxygen when running and so my progress is slow. Just before I’m about to call it a day, I spot a promising trade cartel ship next to a frosty ice planet. During the conversation, I almost jump the gun and choose the answer labelled «Pirate» by mistake, thinking this would reveal me as a smuggler. Instead, I’d have attacked the dealer this way. Finally, I find the right answer and indeed, the nice gentleman buys all my contraband, no questions asked. Well, he would, but his meagre 5,000 credits only just suffice for the organs and a dusty painting. My trigger finger twitches in frustration, but I don’t want to mess with the cartel. I shut down my weapon system again and move away.
In search of a new destination, I spot a space station. I even have a mission to complete there. With my abundance of tasks, such coincidences aren’t even a rarity. After docking, I’m greeted by two suspicious-looking guys, a corpse on the ground and a talking monitor. Apparently, at some point I promised a shady organisation that I’d help out here. The two gentlemen want me to disarm the AI behind the robot voice. She, in turn, speaks of a conspiracy. Meanwhile, I rub my hands with glee. This is exactly the kind of quest I want to experience.
Unfortunately, they’re the exception during my test. Especially on planets, I rarely encounter more than a few hidden pirates. In the best case, I get a new weapon, in the worst case, stuff that clogs up my inventory.
The problem is that Starfield has a lot of empty space and boring missions due to its immense size. For example, in one mission I have to break into a flat and hack into a computer terminal. I can only do this by unlocking the door with a digipick. No, not with a questionable selfie, but with an electronic hacking gadget. The accompanying mini-game is surprisingly entertaining. It takes just the right amount of brain power to apply the right shapes to the right lock. One slight problem: I don’t have any digipicks with me at that moment. And I need them, there’s no alternative. There’s no map telling me where merchants are, so I wander around New Atlantis for half an hour. The city consists of districts separated by loading screens. I run through potential stores on the off chance, again broken up by loading screens. To help you avoid a similar fate, I found what I was looking for in the electronics store Apex in the Well District. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of these linear missions in Starfield.
At another point, I’m supposed to wrest an ID card from a security chief. Pickpocketing doesn’t work, probably because I haven’t learned the skill. The only thing left to do is persuade him. To do this, I either have to buy a business suit or find a security uniform. I still don’t find the latter, even after 40 minutes of searching the pleasantly detailed spaceship factory. Instead, I find components for my outpost in a freight container – free of charge thanks to a five-finger discount. All that remains is to buy the suit. It’s in Neon City, in the lobby of the corrupt company that hired me – on another planet. Only, how do I find it on the huge space map? Since I always fast travel, I have zero sense of direction. By chance, I find another mission that’s in the same city, so I can travel there via the menu. So much effort for a measly ID card.
When I return to Neon after my work is done, an armed security guard stops me. Apparently, I have stolen goods on me. By that, I think he means the components I took in the previous quest. How does he know? That was in another solar system, with no human being to be seen far and wide. I hate it when game characters spit in the face of logic and know about everything.
The same thing happens again in Akila City, a Wild West-like planet controlled by the Freestar Rangers. Suddenly, without warning, I’m getting shot from all directions. As I escape into a building, a ranger approaches me and accuses me of stealing. Not that I’m denying it, but I’m absolutely sure no one saw me. On top of that, my companion now also has a problem with me. At least this time I know why. My actions influence how companions think of me. Unfortunately, most of them are righteous do-gooders. I’ve already been reprimanded twice, «What were you thinking?» and all that. Not that they tell me exactly what they mean by that. If I don’t apologise, my crew may disband. Moments like these nearly rob me of the desire to go on playing. There’s only one remedy for this: gratuitous armed violence. So I scroll through the extensive weapons cabinet I carry around and gear up for battle.
Previous Bethesda games didn’t necessarily shine with their shooter mechanics. Starfield is a breath of fresh air. From a first-person perspective or optionally over the shoulder, shooting is fast and precise. Thanks to my jetpack, I can fly behind my opponents or gain a tactical advantage from higher places. I have over ten weapons in my quick selection bar because I can never decide on one. Everyone’s having fun and getting involved. There are powerful laser rifles, bullet-spitting mini pistols, destructive grenade launchers or razor-sharp katanas. The combat system is varied thanks to the variety of weapons, and I smile every time a red dot appears on my radar.
Starfield doesn’t just contain plenty of talking, shooting and exploring, there’s also building. For example, outposts. I can build them on almost all planets, provided I’ve previously collected the necessary resources with my mining laser. Then, from a first-person or bird’s-eye view, I can build resource extractors, landing pads, or shelter for my crew. I can even create transport routes so that I don’t have to pick up the materials myself. I need the resources for researching new weapon modifications, cooking recipes, or medicine when I’m carrying around a nasty cough again.
Weapons, suits and helmets can be improved in many ways. The weapon system in particular offers a smorgasbord of imaginative options that can be individually modified.
The spaceship can also be improved and even designed from scratch. The editor for this is surprisingly intuitive. I can see directly if I can attach a laser to the cockpit or whether the dock fits with the new drive. The editor warns if a design risks crashing to earth. Although I rarely get excited about editors, I’ve actually designed a few ships already. Unfortunately, I don’t have the money to produce them. I also wonder if I should even bother. Aside from pirate attacks, I’m rarely in my spaceship for more than a few seconds. Since I can fast travel from anywhere, the spaceship has so far been less important than I’d have liked. Still, I’ve thought up a few designs that I’d like to realise.
What I’ve hardly talked about yet is the graphics. While the faces disappoint, Bethesda succeeds in the design of everything else. «NASA Punk» is what the studio calls this aesthetic. It relies on a mixture of realistic space design and retro-futurism à la Alien. A perfect blend of styles for the game. Spaceships are bursting with personality. Interiors are detailed, everything can be touched. When I open an airlock, knobs shift, it hisses, and the whole thing feels heavy and massive. And then, of course, there are the 1000+ planets. I’ve hiked through rocky deserts, fought my way through dense snowstorms. In lush palm forests, dinosaur-like aliens ran in front of my scanner. In Neon, I get distracted by colourful illuminated signs. The longer I play, the more diverse the universe feels. I still spent little time in my spaceship. But battles in asteroid fields, while a planet shimmers blue in the background, also provide a good atmosphere.
Starfield isn’t the advertised genre revolution. It’s a Bethesda game. With everything that goes with this loaded statement. You fly, shoot and chat your way through a huge universe. There are hardly any limits to your exploration. You can approach any planet and set off in any direction. The odds of you coming across something interesting are hit-or-miss, I’m afraid. The story only picks up after 20 hours, but slowly develops into an interesting space thriller. Mission progression remains mostly linear and hardly allows for creativity. Side missions vary from default delivery jobs to conspiracy plots with government agents.
As so often in Bethesda games, the interesting stories are the ones without missions. For example, when I find a dead body in an apartment and am attacked by a robot dog. After the fight I learn from a data tablet that the deceased owner illegally got himself said guard robot. As he didn’t want to pay the dubious vendor, he unceremoniously activated the dog by remote control.
It’s a shame that Bethesda’s universe doesn’t feel cohesive. In return, the world is separated by many, albeit short, loading screens. However, the design of the planets, the spaceships and the buildings makes the journey worth taking. Thanks to an extensive upgrade system, outpost building, ship editor and crew management, you’ll have your hands full.
I’ll definitely keep playing. The game still contains some surprises that I can’t spoil in this article.
Starfield was provided to me by Bethesda. The game is available for PC and Xbox Series S/X.
Being the game and gadget geek that I am, working at digitec and Galaxus makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop – but it does take its toll on my wallet. I enjoy tinkering with my PC in Tim Taylor fashion and talking about games on my podcast http://www.onemorelevel.ch. To satisfy my need for speed, I get on my full suspension mountain bike and set out to find some nice trails. My thirst for culture is quenched by deep conversations over a couple of cold ones at the mostly frustrating games of FC Winterthur.