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Starfield is a stellar sci-fi refresh of the Bethesda RPG formula

The latest release from Bethesda is reminiscent of games like Fallout and Skyrim, but with a new level of wonder and adventure — and a whole lot of polish.

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Image: Bethesda Softworks

Even as someone who loves the Fallout games, I must admit that spending dozens of hours in an irradiated wasteland full of ghouls and raiders can be a little, well, depressing. It’s not the kind of world that evokes a sense of adventure. That’s what made the potential of Starfield so exciting: here was Bethesda applying its formula for open-world RPGs to a giant universe with planets to discover and cosmic mysteries to unearth. It’s basically the Elder Scrolls by way of Hello Games; call it No Man’s Skyrim.

In a lot of ways, Starfield lives up to that potential. It is indeed huge, and its main storyline is all about the thrill of adventure and discovery. I found myself pushing through the farthest reaches of space, going to strange, dangerous new places on a quest to seek out the origins of the universe and humanity’s place within it. It’s also a game that sticks fairly closely to the blueprint Bethesda has laid down for its role-playing experiences. Your quest might be much grander in scale, but what you’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis hasn’t changed all that much. This is also the most polished and solid release yet from Bethesda on a technical level.

Starfield starts out humble enough. You are a miner on a dusty planet who accidentally digs up a strange, potentially alien, artifact. For some reason, it speaks to you on a metaphysical level, and your character goes through an out-of-body experience that feels a lot like the trippier moments in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This discovery ultimately leads you to a group known as Constellation, a ragtag team of explorers — there’s everyone from a quiet theologian to a cowboy from a prominent family to a business magnate who funds the whole endeavor — intent on uncovering the mysteries of the universe.

Constellation is like something Jules Verne would come up with if tasked with writing an episode of Star Trek. It also makes for the perfect jumping-off point for a story about discovery and exploration. The group doesn’t understand anything about the artifacts, only that they’re probably important, and so the rest of Starfield is essentially dedicated to finding more of them to figure out just what they are.

A screenshot from the video game Starfield.
Image: Bethesda Softworks

While the tone and scale of Starfield differ from past Bethesda games, the core gameplay is very similar. It’s an RPG crossed with a shooter, where you can build out a character using a variety of traits and skills. Often, this can impact how you approach missions; sometimes, you can talk your way into getting what you want, and other times, you’ll need to fight.

I focused a lot on my social skills because, much like Fallout before it, Starfield isn’t the most adept shooter. It may look like one, with a huge range of weapons to collect and the ability to play from a first-person perspective, but this is not Destiny. Aiming feels wonky, and oftentimes, shots that seem to hit an enemy point blank will fail to register. It’d be nice if Starfield had the equivalent of the VATS system from Fallout, giving it pseudo-turn-based combat, but instead, it’s just a passable shooter attached to a very ambitious RPG. That might be the reason I spent so many skill points on my persuasion abilities.

Conversation remains a big part of the experience. You spend a lot of time talking, with an up-close view of whoever you’re conversing with. You’ll need to chat with companion characters to get closer to them (while also making sure you don’t do upsetting things, like, uh, murder people in front of them) and others to garner information or get yourself out of trouble. Considering the sheer amount of dialogue, all of which is voiced, it’s impressive just how consistently well-written and acted Starfield is. There are some awkward moments when there are more than two people in a conversation — sometimes a character might not be facing you when speaking, and the cuts between dialogue can feel unnatural — but otherwise, it’s all very convincing, which is good since you’ll be spending a lot of time doing it.

So, while the shooting and combat may leave a lot to desire, I found the role-playing elements very satisfying. My avatar truly felt like a blank slate I could morph into whatever I wanted. In this case, I made someone a lot like me: a wannabe adventurer who loves to see new places, would rather talk than fight, gets annoyed with anything too technical, and still goes home to visit his parents when they send a message.

A screenshot from the video game Starfield.
Image: Bethesda Softworks

Starfield’s space theme does bring some new gameplay elements to the experience, which is where the No Man’s Sky comparisons come from. You can land on any of the many, many planets to explore, complete with a scanning device to learn about local plants, animals, and minerals. It’s a nice idea, though; the few times I tried exploring for the sake of it, I didn’t find much interesting besides a couple weird aliens and some strange fungal formations. Basically, the only times I found anything really interesting happened while I was on a quest of some sort, not when I ventured out on my own. Others may have better luck.

Similarly, all of this space travel means you need a spaceship, and while it looks cool (and you can purchase some sweet upgrades or new crafts), I found piloting the ship to be pretty fiddly. Instead, I mostly just fast-traveled from planet to planet, hoping that a pirate fleet wasn’t waiting for me when I arrived because the dogfighting wasn’t very fun.

Despite spending close to 50 hours with Starfield, there’s a whole lot I didn’t do in the game. I never built an outpost, and — despite harvesting all kinds of gross things from the aliens I killed — I spent very little time doing any crafting or cooking. But that’s actually part of the appeal: Starfield generally lets you focus on the areas of the experience that are interesting to you and your character while ignoring or only dabbling in the rest. For me, it was exploration and meeting new people; for others, it might be meticulously crafting outposts on alien worlds.

Like most Bethesda games, the experience can almost be divided into two: the main questline and everything else. Here, in a rarity for the developer, the central story is actually what pulled me in the most. It took a few hours to get going, but once I started to discover the more strange and cosmic elements of the narrative, I had a hard time focusing my attention on anything else.

It’s difficult to say too much without spoiling the big moments, but Starfield’s story definitely goes in some thrilling and unexpected directions and digs into some big-picture questions about the origins of space travel and humanity’s exploration of the stars. It’s helped along by a great cast of characters (I had a hard time choosing who would be my companion throughout, though I was ultimately helped along by a sudden and jarring death). I don’t know if the answers to those questions are entirely satisfying, but they do at least provide the most convincing reason for a New Game Plus playthrough that I’ve yet come across.

The rest of the worlds and stories are a lot more uneven. Part of the problem is that while the main story of Starfield has its own distinct vibe, with its grand secrets and peculiar artifacts, much of the rest feels very derivative. There’s a cyberpunk planet drenched in rain and neon lights, where you can run missions with street gangs or delve into the shady secrets of mega-corporations, many of which are connected to a kind of psychotropic drug made using a local fish. There’s a Wild West planet right out of Firefly, where gunslingers rob banks and farmers try to tame the land. At one point, you’ll be forced to deal with a character who is a carbon copy of the Collector from Guardians of the Galaxy, and humanity’s capital city looks like that “the world if” meme. It’s hard not to feel like Bethesda tried to force as many sci-fi tropes into Starfield as possible, whether or not there was any new ground to explore.

A screenshot from the video game Starfield.
Image: Bethesda Softworks

That said, there are interesting side stories to dig into, and many of the worlds are big enough that you could spend hours without setting foot in your spaceship to go somewhere else. I did that on Neon, the generically named cyberpunk planet, and it felt almost like a smaller game within the larger universe of Starfield. None of the quests I did — which ranged from fish smuggling to helping a famous DJ deal with a stalker — had anything to do with the artifacts or the origins of the universe. But they can lead in some fun and unexpected directions, like when I had an accidental run-in with Neon police and ended up having to go on an undercover mission infiltrating some space pirates in order to avoid jail time.

From what I played — and there are a lot of quests I didn’t get to — it was 50/50 whether a side mission would be interesting or tedious. Some were incredibly boring, like a quest that had me running all over a slum, flipping switches in order to solve an electrical problem. Others seemed tedious but turned into something more exciting, like when a coffee run suddenly became a tense and potentially violent situation in the middle of a cafe. It’s really hard to tell what you’re in for until you start the quest.

Now you might have noticed that I’ve gotten this far into this review without discussing bugs. And that’s for a very good reason: I experienced very few of them in my time with Starfield. That’s genuinely surprising coming from Bethesda, a studio where glitches and bugs are an accepted part of the experience. But Starfield is polished like no game from the studio before. That’s not to say I didn’t see anything weird: characters run into walls or stand on top of desks, people face the wrong direction during conversations, and at one point, the floor of a saloon turned entirely invisible. The weird physics for dead bodies is still in place, too, so enemies will crumple up in occasionally hilarious ways when they die.

But these situations were pretty rare, and none had any impact on the game itself. This removes a huge mental burden. Unlike every time I play Fallout, I wasn’t constantly afraid of hitting some game-breaking issue that would stall my progress or force me to load an old save. (That said, I did save continuously out of habit.)

Put this all together, and you have a game that doesn’t fundamentally change the formula that Bethesda has built its reputation on. Starfield is another huge experience with an almost overwhelming amount of things to do and see, coupled with some great character development, role-playing features, and so-so action. But it also smooths over many of the rough edges that have defined past releases from the studio while introducing a new theme and narrative that match the grand ambitions that Bethesda has always strived for. War never changes — but it’s a lot more thrilling in space.

Starfield launches on PC and Xbox on September 6th, though it’ll be available in early access starting August 31st, depending on what version of the game you purchased.