When looking up the aggregate review score from a site such as Opencritic of Bethesda’s recently released Starfield, you’ll see the game standing at a more than commendable 87% as of writing this, with a bright orange border around its box art signifying the mostly positive scores the game has received from critics. Delve into the individual reviews, and you’ll see a slew of perfect scores, a number of nearly-perfect scores, and a handful of above-average scores. Yet, an ongoing notion permeates throughout some of the gaming community that the game is somehow “divisive.”
Crosshairs could be pointed at both IGN and GameSpot, arguably the two largest (or at least most widely known) outlets, who both gave the game the dreaded “7/10,” which in this industry may as well be considered a “mediocre” score as far as the public is considered—thank you North American academic grading system. Though that may be a tad unfair as I think the conversations surrounding Starfield have been muddled for a while now due to the otherworldly expectations shackled upon Bethesda’s shoulders.
I will say, however, that when actually reading the critical reviews from both ends of the spectrum, it isn’t easy to gauge a through-line in terms of Starfield’s quality. Irrespective of whatever score the reviewer gave, their words painted a story that confused me. Still, two things seemed to be clear. Firstly, Starfield is a Bethesda RPG through and through, which may be great for some, but not so much for others. Secondly, Starfield gets better the more time you invest into its universe, making Bethesda’s head of publishing, Pete Hine’s statement of how the game “doesn’t get going until after you finish the main quest” more than just a marketing ploy.
It’s this very point that, though I had read from multiple trusted critics, didn’t fully understand. But now I’m twenty hours into the game, and not only am I beginning to realize what Hines and critics alike meant, but am starting to feel that Starfield might just be the first time I go from detesting a game, to possibly loving it; making for the aforementioned notion that this is a “divisive” video game to be actually (somewhat) true.
5 Hours In
I didn’t use the word “detest” lightly in my previous paragraph, because five hours into the game and that’s exactly how I felt about Starfield. I detested it. I detested navigating the menu screens, which the game has you do incessantly. I detested having to constantly enter the menu and scroll through my weapon’s inventory to equip weapons I’d just picked up, even though my weapon wheel had open slots; not to mention the weapons in the inventory don’t show the amount of ammo left in the guns, making for a frustratingly tedious back-and-forth.
I detested the fact that space travel felt—at least for the time being—like a glorified fast-travel mechanic with a fatiguing number of cutscenes; and the obtuse vehicular controls didn’t help. I detested the number of loading screens. I detested how janky some of the NPC encounters felt, with dialogue options that were disappointingly binary. I detested much of the on-foot exploration and scavenging, which felt incredibly drab and something akin to No Man’s Sky on launch day. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t having a good time with Starfield and was bewildered by the many positive reviews.
10 Hours In
At this point I had done a couple of the mainline quests, still disappointedly muttering to myself each time I had to go back to my ship because it was a constant reminder that I was unable to fly it in the way that I had hoped; only dreaming for the ability to manually traverse within each planet’s atmosphere, or flying off to every moon and/or planet within the local cluster. I’d somewhat gotten used to the obtuse menu navigation, and “favorited” a handful of guns to have them locked in my weapon’s wheel as to mitigate that annoying back-and-forth.
Speaking of guns, the combat itself had grown on me by this point. After pedantically tweaking the sensitivities on my thumb sticks, and finding a couple of pistols that may as well be considered long-range shotguns, I found myself gleefully mowing through space pirates as if I were playing Doom. The gunplay isn’t anything revolutionary, but when compared to how janky Bethesda’s combat has felt in the past, this is a welcomed (and needed) improvement.
Most importantly, I’d just started my first string of side quests on Akila City, most of which proved fairly interesting. It wasn’t long after that I would undertake one side quest that would eventually become a seven-hour venture into uncovering the corrupted underbelly of a ship-building company. The characters involved were interesting enough, albeit the facial animations for them were hit or miss; ranging from what one might consider “next-gen,” to something out of Bethesda’s previous outings over a decade ago. I struggle to say if I was having “fun” at this point, as many of the nagging issues I’d outlined previously persisted, but at the very least I was intrigued to continue playing.
15 Hours In
It was around this time that I’d gone from scoffing and grunting at all the lack of quality-of-life mechanics you’d expect from a modern video game to simply accepting Bethesda’s dated design quirks. I was masterfully weaving my way through the laborious menus, brushing away the constant loading screens, and enjoying the space traversal for what it was, instead of what I wanted it to be; all to get to the next side-quest story beat, meet a new character, or become part of a new faction. I slowly but surely was becoming enamored by the universe my character was a part of; in no small part due to the incredibly vibrant city of Neon, which itself could easily distract you away from the main quest for dozens of hours.
I began recruiting a few crewmates, some of whom had backstories that were genuinely interesting, and fleshed out the wider sociopolitical mechanics of this universe. I was, dare I say, enjoying myself. Though don’t get it twisted, my previous frustrations didn’t go away. There were still plenty of moments where I’d audibly groan at some “Bethesda-ism.” I simply found ways to work around them—with the help of a few Reddit threads and YouTube videos, because god forbid Bethesda actually teaches you how to do the simplest of things from the game’s onset.
20 Hours In
Having just crossed my 22nd hour of playtime, I will say that Starfield has definitely gotten its hooks in me; deeper than I’d care to admit. I’m curious about these artifacts I’m collecting, questioning my newly anointed position as a ranger for the FreeStar Collective, wondering if I should join the Striker gang knowing full well that one of my crewmates is a Disciple, and eager to come across my next dozen-hour-long side quest.
The game still frustrates me to no end, and some of its design choices are truly baffling, yet I can’t stop playing—evidenced by the fact that I put in all these hours in less than two days. I don’t believe I’ve ever had such a whirlwind of an experience while playing a game. A game that started off on all the wrong foot, but continues to stride in confidence, sauntering along with limps and all, pushing me to see its universe unfold.