Starfield Review – Shoot for the Moon

I have always been terrified of the depths of space. As a child, when many of my peers wanted to be an astronaut, I always thought they were certifiably insane. The cold emptiness of nothing that stretches forever. The unforgiving vacuum that freezes your organs and sucks the life out of you at the first opportunity. The loneliness of looking down on the earth from far away and realizing that not only are you nothing; the earth itself is nothing. To this day, I don’t believe there is anything that could convince me to step into a spaceship, even if the apocalypse were upon us. Nothing, that is, except Starfield

Every concrete thought I have about Starfield seems to float out of my head and into space, where I want to be. This game has not consumed me; rather, it has become my third place. I don’t think about it all day. I come home, grab my controller, and sit down with something that I am in no rush to “finish” because I know I will be playing it for the next ten years. It feels sustainable, strong, and comfortable. 

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I love the interior designs in Starfield.

Starfield isn’t really like any previous Bethesda game. While Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Fallout 4 are three of my favorite games of all time, Starfield very intentionally departs from what I loved about those games. Starfield is new. It’s a new IP, it’s a new way to explore, it’s a new way to roleplay, all while being in Bethesda’s style. For better or worse (it’s for the better), this is the culmination of Bethesda’s 25-year game development expertise. Starfield is new, it is different, it is defiant, and I am in love with it. 

The thing that most folks have most enjoyed about Bethesda’s previous games is the ability to go anywhere and do anything. See that mountain? You can climb it. While walking over to that mountain, you run into a disheveled woman on the side of the road who says bandits have attacked her father’s farm. You follow her there only to be ambushed by Redguards. You fight them off and flee south until you stumble across a strange cave with strange glowing mushrooms inside. At this point, you check the clock and realize it’s been three hours and you’re not even sure where that mountain is anymore. Starfield also has this in spades, but it is so unbelievably complex and gigantic that it isn’t obvious how to play the game this way. No matter – I’m in it for the long run.

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I wish job interviews were this easy in real life.

45 hours in, I am beginning to understand how Todd Howard’s vision for Starfield’s exploration works with the gameplay. There are, admittedly, a lot of loading screens, but none have ever taken more than five seconds. Much of the navigation is done on the star map, so jumping between places with my grav drive just doesn’t feel like part of a continuous world. In Starfield, you have to work harder for the feeling of continuous exploration. Because travel is largely dependent on menus and maps, it feels like a thousand disjointed planets rather than a single universe. This is the singular major mistake in the design of Starfield. I recommend manually getting into your ship, taking off, patrolling orbit a bit, and then using your scanner and pointing yourself at your destination to grav jump rather than clicking one button in a menu of planets. It takes longer, but it feels better.

For instance, I began a mission that was several solar systems away. My grav drive wasn’t powerful enough to get me there in one leap, so I had to stop off halfway in an empty system I hadn’t explored before (the drive recharges upon finishing a jump). While there, I saw some points of interest on an inconspicuous moon (indicated by three dots on the star map overlaid on the planet). I landed there to check out a mining colony but immediately saw a ship ten times the size of my own landing a few hundred meters away. I went to investigate, and found it was a Starborn ship filled with enemies twice my level. After a blood-pumping fight, I spoke to the colonists and found they were being harassed by the Crimson Fleet who were housed up nearby. I spoke to the pirates as a Fleet member and used my high persuasion skills to talk them into leaving the colonists alone. I then realized it had been two hours and I had no idea what mission I’d originally been heading towards. This experience perfectly illustrates the feeling I was looking for in Starfield.

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Wake the f*** up, samurai!

Starfield is the slowest-burn game I have ever played, even more than Red Dead Redemption II. It’s deliberately slow paced, directed, and controlled so that this world of infinite possibilities is restrained, in a way. The slow pacing has a purpose behind it – Starfield is designed to be played forever. Everything about Starfield shows me that Bethesda truly understands their audience. Skyrim and Fallout 4 are the two best-selling RPGs of all time and have both never left the top ten most played games on Game Pass. Starfield is designed from the ground up to never end. In a world of infinite possibilities, infinite adventures, infinite worlds, there is no beginning, middle, and end. This game will never end because humans will never finish exploring outer space.

Bethesda has always intended for their games to be a sandbox in which you can write the most elaborate story of all time. This world, and everyone and everything in it, is only significant so far as how it impacts YOUR story. And yet, Starfield is almost a reverse power fantasy, the opposite of The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. As you continue through the several faction campaigns Starfield offers, the game works to passively make you feel more and more insignificant. The more powerful you get, the more you realize how complex the world is and that you’re never actually going to understand it. Starfield will resonate most with those who find the beauty in that.

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The sheer scale of these environments is mind-blowing.

This is not to say your choices don’t matter – they do, and arguably more than in any other Bethesda game. Every dialogue decision and action you take can have ramifications across galaxies a dozen hours later, and every decision is influenced by your abilities and stats. Where Fallout 4 sacrificed many of the series’ hardcore RPG elements in the name of approachability, Starfield is thoroughly an RPG. 

Your stats matter – a lot. Hard mode necessitates using all of your resources, which I feel has enhanced the game. Your background opens up new opportunities in dialogue, some of which lead to entirely new quests. Your traits will both aid and plague you for the entirety of the game. Your spaceship’s ability to fight is entirely dependent on you understanding the complex ship building system. And yet, none of this is explained. Starfield has no tutorial, which has enhanced the game for me in ways I cannot describe while simultaneously doing a poor job of presenting the best version of itself. I have had to learn how the world of the Settled System works by exploring, paying attention, and talking to NPCs and asking questions.

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I did the reading!

The story of Starfield is very slow to start, and is purposefully directed. It all seems like such run-of-the-mill sci-fi nonsense at first: humans have seen all of explorable space, found no other intelligent life, and now suddenly you stumble across an alien artifact in a mine. You are roped into Constellation, a group of optimistic dreamers that believe there is more out there to find. By the time you step out into the world, totally free of direction, it’s been four hours and you’ve barely fired a weapon. There’s no real “Breath of the Wild Moment” in Starfield. The vastness of space isn’t there to impress you. It doesn’t care about you.

After exiting the Lodge, Constellation’s beautiful headquarters, you and your companion Sarah Morgan emerge into the city of New Atlantis. It is beautiful, imposing, hopeful, and devastating all at once. New Atlantis is larger than any city Bethesda has crafted before, and immediately this becomes obvious – there are countless shops, restaurants, interactable NPCs, points of interests, and quests here. New Atlantis is also a perfect microcosm of the world of Starfield, though this is not immediately evident. Everything is shiny, clean, and beautiful. Only by playing Starfield for many hours will you understand that the world of the Settled Systems is a late state-capitalism nightmare dystopia.

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I tried my best to make my character look like me and I actually was able to hit it pretty close.

Everything in Starfield feels sanitized, helpful, and good – essentially, the exact opposite of Fallout. Sometimes things are over-sanitized, like when pirates don’t curse or warlords can be talked down from killing by appealing to their hearts. Largely, though, this is a strangely optimistic future for humanity. In the opening hours, VASCO, the robot companion, mentioned that reading back through humans collected works from the last few thousand years he calculated that the chances of humans coming together and combining their technology the way they did to escape Earth to be infinitesimally low. And yet, we did. People, for the most part, are kind, want to help strangers, and feel safe in the Settled Cities. 

As I said though, underneath the sanitization is the truth. Every single part of daily life is commercialized and monetized. People are no longer of concern to society in any way except that they can be resources to contribute monetarily. If you can’t contribute, you are pushed out of the cities. Why is everyone living in New Atlantis rich, happy, and living it up? As you’ll see, the majority of folks in the Settled Systems don’t live this way. They are sent to mining colonies, outposts, and excavation sites in the far reaches of space. Todd Howard’s vision of the future is actually extremely similar to the world of Fallout – just with an extra shiny coat of paint. It’s the environmental storytelling Bethesda is so famous for, and they show their talent in Starfield better than they ever have before. 

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Walt Disney could never.

I don’t say this lightly; Starfield has some of the best shooting I’ve ever experienced in a game before. I actually feel comfortable talking about it in the same sentence as DOOM, which is apt since the geniuses at sister Bethesda studio iD Software consulted on the gunplay in Starfield. It feels great. Bethesda still hasn’t quite figured out melee weapons, although they are better here than they’ve ever been, but nearly every gun feels amazing to use. Each one has perfect kickback, weight, and range. Combat is one of the standout features of Starfield, which is not something I would have guessed a year ago. 

Encounters are smartly designed so that in the overworld you’re never quite outnumbered, but in dungeons you are always outnumbered. If I run into a Spacer outpost, I’m floating around with my boost pack dodging bullets from perhaps two to three enemies at a time, which allows me to try out a lot of different strategies and new guns. Do I blast them with a sniper rifle while Andreja goes in for close combat? Line up explosive barrels for a chain reaction? Zero-gravity jump over their heads and drop grenades? Run in close with my trusty Coachman shotgun and blast their jetpacks so they explode? It’s odd how many choices you have to approach encounters in this game frankly, and I haven’t even mentioned yet the many ways to avoid combat altogether. 

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Some of these alien animals are downright terrifying.

In dungeons, you’ll be given a simple task such as “find the information slate” and set forth into what is usually more labyrinth than linear. Environmental hazards such as toxic gasses, aggressive alien animals, puzzles, locked computers, and freezing or boiling temperatures are often accompanied by dozens of enemies at a time, firing high-powered weapons and flinging way more grenades than I will ever own. Starfield is a hardcore RPG, so your weapon, armor, and skill stats together make a huge difference in fights. If I get blasted into paste, I use the scanner to assess the elemental weaknesses and target those for better results. Combat is exhilarating all the time, and the dungeons feel definitively more dangerous than the overworld, which was generally not true in Fallout 4

I haven’t yet spoken about building and flying your own spaceship, which, even though much of the traveling is done through menus and grav jumping cutscenes, is incredibly satisfying and feels amazing. Space dogfighting has never been particularly fun for me in games, but Starfield has made it one of the best parts of an amazing experience. When traveling to a planet you and your ship will float in its orbit, and you can hail other spaceships. They may want to trade, provide a quest rumor, attack you, ask for help, or just have a chat. There are also space stations floating outside in orbit that might be a trading post, floating hospital, or research center that is sometimes occupied by Spacers or Pirates. Regardless, there’s actually a lot to do in space before even getting to combat. 

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These cities are not just beautiful, they’re imposing.

I wasn’t as stoked about building my own ships as many others were before Starfield released; I thought I might just rely on buying a better ship once I had the credits. I could not have been more wrong. Probably my favorite thing in Starfield is the satisfaction of spending hours tinkering with my ship in the builder, including painting it, and working it so that it both looks and fights just the way I want. Then taking it into space and facing off against three Spacer ships at once, absolutely decimating them, and knowing it’s due to my hard work on planning. Your ship stats matter, and you will not survive space combat encounters after the first ten hours if you do not start upgrading your ship.

Again, there is no tutorial, so take the time to learn by experimenting how ships work. Bethesda has, as in all things in Starfield, found a middle ground between science fiction and reality. The ships work, fight, and handle differently depending on you build them, what parts you use, and how you balance weight distribution. Your ship is not just for fighting and traveling though, it’s your home. Because you are sort of a space nomad, the ship is the one place that is constant in your life. Filled with conversation and laughter from your companions, it certainly feels like one. You ship is just as much a part of the crew as any of your companions. Care for your ship, maintain it, upgrade it, and you’ll be rewarded with a much better experience.

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Some of these discoveries were so powerful they made me set my controller down and just look.

Ship combat involves diverting power between your individual weapons such as lasers, rockets, missiles, and energy beams as well as engine power, shields, and grav drive thrust in real time to compensate for which physical parts of your ship are taking damage. Your engine’s been hit by an enemy missile? Your engine’s max power has dropped three pegs, so maybe divert that power to your missiles for more damage. This is all happening in real time as you soar around 3D space using every dimension to dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge around enemy ships. I cannot stress how much fun I have had with this, and as I upgrade my ship I’m only having more fun seeing the results of my careful planning. 

You’ll be able to place an outpost on any planet you like, so long as your outpost skill is high enough for the planet. These are totally optional but are great for mining resources passively, so you’ll want to set up a few to run and hire a few workers to keep them going in the background. The actual building works better than in Fallout 4 but there are much, much fewer building options than Fallout 76. A tad disappointing in this regard, but it works as intended. 

Starfield Weight Lifting
This might be my favorite skill tree system in gaming.

Speaking of skills, the way they are presented in Starfield is perhaps my favorite of any RPG I’ve ever played. Out of five skill trees, you’ll use a skill point that you unlock upon leveling up to claim a first rank in that skill. Leveling in Starfield is slow, and so therefore are the skills you unlock by leveling up. Because it is tied to skill progression, each level is balanced perfectly to feel earned. Perhaps it’s lockpicking or piloting or cooking; there are around 50 of them. Each skill has four ranks to it that you have to actually earn rather than just clicking a button. For instance, I spend a point to unlock rank 1 Lockpicking, which allows me to pick beginner locks. I’m given a challenge to pick 10 beginner locks, and then I’m allowed to spend another skill point to rank up to rank 2 so that now I can pick advanced locks, and I need to do that 50 times to get the ability to rank up again. Just to drop a note here, Starfield has the best lockpicking minigame ever and it makes me feel like a genius. This is in some ways a fusion of the skill systems in Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, and it makes me feel that I am actually earning my way to being better at things in a way no other game has. 

During character creation, which features a very robust set of options down to walk animations, you’ll choose your background and up to three traits. Each background provides you rank 1 in three specific skills as well as unique dialogue. I chose Professor, and there have been nearly a dozen times I’ve been able to access unique dialogue options due to that background so far. Choosing traits is all on you – each one comes with a positive and negative effect, and I only ended up picking two. First, I obviously chose the adoring fan, which gives you a companion from hour one that will always approve of every action you take at the expense of being insanely creepy. Second, I took Extrovert, which makes me stronger when I have companions (which is always) and gives me more unique dialogue options at the expense of being weaker when I’m alone. If you’re not sure which traits are for you, check out our guide to get started!

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This is perhaps my favorite photo mode picture I’ve ever taken.

I am very impressed with the overall story of Starfield; not only is it Bethesda’s best one yet, but it’s one of the best of the year. I must qualify that line-to-line, it is still very much that corny, unapologetic dialogue they’ve always done. And I love it. The story beats are well made though, and the warring factions in this game are all intriguing in their own right. Starfield is formatted in such a way that there are effectively six campaigns that can be done in any order, one for each major faction, and can and should all be done in the same playthrough. The themes vary greatly with undercover infiltration for UC Sysdef, corporate espionage for Ryujin, brave star-fighting for UC Vanguard, wanderlust for Constellation, anarchy for the Crimson Fleet.

Starfield boasts possibly my favorite art design in recent games, and certainly my favorite of the year. I love the “Nasa-Punk” style that Bethesda has gone for here, because it is present in every element of this universe. Somewhere between art deco, the Space Race, and Disney’s Tomorrowland, there lives Starfield. There are a lot of analog gadgets mixed in with anachronistically advanced tech, a lot of the old world mixed into the new, and I love the Settled Systems all the more for it. The architecture is breath-taking, the clothes are strange and foreign in a good way, the alien animals are all believable creatures that live in believable habitats. Observing the animals is quite fun in itself, as I’ve seen predators hunting prey, herds gathering to feed or drink water together, and parents guiding children around harsh environments. Bethesda obviously put in a lot of work getting these creatures to feel natural. 

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In space, no one can hear you trade.

One of the more impressive things about Starfield is that as it goes on and you slowly take on more skills, you will unlock many more dialogue options because of those skills. At level 18, I had three or four extra options popping up labeled with what skill I had that provided the option in every conversation. It makes me feel like not only the world is growing, but that I am actively getting better at everything, again due to my own work and not simply clicking “Accept” on a skill tree. Having the Gastronomy skill allows me to offer an alternative solution to an issue in dialogue, or Manipulation allows me to talk someone into working against their own interests. 

I enjoyed many of the main characters, and am currently romancing Andreja the gold-hearted smuggler. Sam Coe, the “space cowboy” who is actually just a dorky dad, is probably my favorite companion, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the company of Barrett and VASCO as well. Sarah Morgan unfortunately has all the personality of a wet paper towel, but they can’t all be winners, I suppose. The NPCs look very good in motion and in still shots until they speak, as I’m sure all readers have seen. There is a strange uncanny valley thing going on where they’re not using all their face muscles, which Bethesda has acknowledged and is working on fixing. I got used to it after a few hours, but it’s a shame that a huge developer team with infinite money can’t make the facial animations work when smaller budget games such as Like a Dragon can. Still, overall the companions are much more fleshed out than Fallout 4 and have a lot more dialogue. 

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It ain’t much, but it’s home.

Performance has been okay on my PC rig: with a Ryzen 5 3600 and RTX 2060 Super, I have exactly met Bethesda’s recommended specs, and have gotten a fairly reliable 30 FPS outdoors and 60 FPS indoors in 1440p on high settings. I purchased the game on Steam, for reference. Bethesda needs to work on optimizing Starfield’s CPU usage, because it isn’t using all the power I have available – there’s work to be done yet. As advertised proudly, this is Bethesda’s least buggy game ever – I have counted only a dozen noticeable minor bugs over my 45 hours, one crash to desktop, and one major bug that required reloading a save. This is pretty par for the course for current AAA games from any studio. The UI also needs work; I don’t have much of an issue with it using a controller, which it was built for, but the MKB commands for navigating menus are a disaster.

Starfield is not only an infinite universe with uncountable possibilities; it is one that is ever-expanding. I feel as though every few hours in this game I suddenly discover or understand a new mechanic that I didn’t realize was always there, and the universe of possibilities opens more. As I said before, Starfield is designed to be played very slowly, over many years, and at a snail’s pace. It is a much, much better experience for it. Starfield has more to offer patient explorers than any game I’ve played to date. 

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They love me! They really love me!

Starfield is one of the most ambitious games I’ve ever seen, and in nearly every aspect it manages to land, albeit shakily, on solid ground. While the sacrifices in exploration make the world feel disconnected, less like an open world and more like Mass Effect 1, Starfield knows exactly what it is. It is not No Man’s Sky with seamless lift off, flying, and landing on randomly generated planets. It is not Star Citizen where you can be a space merchant and manage economies. I do at times wish that Starfield provided exploration the same way as The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, because I love those games, but I’ve slowly learned to love Starfield’s more directed experience too. If you play this game the way you played Bethesda’s previous titles, you’re going to be slapped with a lot of loading screens and fast travel. Playing Starfield as it is meant to be played, planet hopping and exploring slowly, is far more rewarding. 

I think Starfield will not connect with me and become a core part of my life the way the Fallout games did, even as it continues to get exponentially better every few hours, but it feels very much like a game I will be playing on and off for the next ten years. With mods for new quests and planets and people on the way, including for console starting early next year, Starfield is certainly going to be one of the main reasons to have Game Pass for many years to come, especially with three large story expansions from Bethesda coming alongside the mods. 

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One small step for Todd, one giant leap for Toddkind.

As I was soaring around the perimeter of Earth’s desolate moon, listening to Inon Zur’s masterful soundtrack and Sam telling his daughter a stupid joke, I couldn’t help thinking about what Todd Howard’s vision for this world was when he started jotting down notes for it 25 years ago. What parts of this are fulfilled fully? What parts of it were limited by technology or scope? Did it all come together the way he envisioned? When I touched down on an empty white rock hurtling through space at a million miles an hour and saw the American flag frozen in place where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin placed it thousands of years ago, I felt the answer was a quiet, reserved “yes”. With Starfield, Bethesda has shot for the moon and landed amongst the stars – and there are much less wondrous places to land. I am out here, insignificant, a dot amongst the field of stars, and my only wish is that it remains so vast that I may never measure it.

Nirav played Starfield on Steam with his own bought copy. Starfield is also available on Xbox Series X|S. 

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Richard McConnell
Richard McConnell
10 days ago

Great review!