It’s a little bit funny to think that, while Starfield features a brand new sci-fi galaxy to explore, it was also almost jokingly a known quantity for gamers well before launch. Bethesda Game Studios has a type of game that they make, and while Starfield’s story is of an adventure to find the unknown, the actual game itself feels immediately familiar.
The opening few hours of Starfield are quick to recruit you into the main narrative arc, as you go from a rookie space miner to leading Constellation explorer just by touching a weird looking sheet of metal. Strange lights, star formations and sounds embrace you for a few moments and you wake up back in base with some concerned faces around you, and a data pad to “check” that your character details are right.
There’s some fun to be had with the character creator, both in terms of creating your character’s look and choosing their background and traits, and there’s some fun ones like having parents you can visit and the “adoring fan” who will join your crew and give you gifts. From there it’s a pretty tight tour of the game’s fundamentals. You grab a pistol and get a first taste of the shooter action against Crimson Fleet pirates, you blast off into space with a ship and get stuck in with a dog fight against more of the same, and then visit a point of interest at a nearby planet to investigate their base. It’s really no time at all before you have these three main pillars of the game’s action under your belt and can get stuck into the main game’s role-playing adventuring.
As you reach New Atlantis, the opulent capital of the United Colonies, and meet Constellation, there’s barely half a thought or moment of doubt before they want to throw you into the lead of their quest to find more of these mysterious artefacts, partnering you up with its motley crew of existing members in the process. They’re a nice and contrasting bunch, each with their own charms, from VASCO and Barrett who you meet right at the start, through to their leader Sarah Morgan, or Sam Coe and his daughter, who take you to the Freestar Collective for the first time.
Truth be told, the game’s opening is a fair bit longer than that. You’ll likely be around 10 hours into the game before it truly lets go of your hand and throws the first significant narrative revelations your way. However, in classic video game fashion, you can just scamper off and kind of ignore the main story. You will be a part of Constellation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sign up for the UC security forces, become a Freestar Ranger, even join the Crimson Fleet and take on the myriad other things to do instead of following the main quest line.
You can obviously tackle a lot of the game in some very different ways. Often you can talk your way out of a tense situation with a simplistic dialogue puzzle – aided by a skill earned from my rough Neon upbringing – but there’s always good ol’ guns that you can let do the talking.
The gunplay is solid, if a little unremarkable, and certainly doesn’t feel like it rewards the kind of gung-ho action featured in pre-release trailers. Yes, you can leap up using low-G and the boost pack, but that just removes all your cover for enemies to blast away at you. Instead, it’s easy to fall back into the tried and true of hunkering down and picking off a base full of fairly unintelligent enemies through doorways and around corners.
Character progression is a mixture of skill points and reward for action. The skill tree is broken up into Physical, Social, Combat, Science, and Tech, but each skill can be ranked up and improved by completing a challenge and then spending further skill points. It’s a good structure that should allow you to lean into different play styles, though I’m fairly middle of the road and currently focussing on my combat skills, both in ground and space.
Starfield does a great job of realising some really different places, and none of that is more true than of the three main cities in the game. New Atlantis is the jewel in the United Colonies crown, pristine and clean on the surface areas, but with a somewhat seedier underbelly. Akila City, meanwhile, has all the feel of a classic Western town, while Neon is more of a cyberpunk dystopia of sorts. They’re just three totally different places visually, but also fairly believable as they’re joined up by that core NASA-punk aesthetic of the space ships and gear.
And ‘joined up’ is a good way to think of Starfield. Perhaps the most surprising thing for a game that promises a galaxy-spanning adventure is how much the game is connected by loading screens, and not just when jumping between star systems. We’re seven years on from No Man’s Sky letting you step into a space craft and seamlessly blast off into space, and a similar time since Elite: Dangerous let you land on its planets, but you never get that sensation in Starfield, as each launch into space is simply accompanied by a cutscene and load. While it often feels rather large, New Atlantis is broken down into a handful of different regions, heading into buildings with doors requires a quick loading screen, visiting different planets in a system is done by selecting it from the map, and on and on.
There’s a lot of loading screens, and that’s a shame as it drains away some of the open galaxy fantasy – space feels more like you’re visiting a series of planet-filled space rooms with little to really do but chart a course to the next location (and some randomised encounters), instead of giving you that full fat space exploration experience. At least when you’re on foot you can bring up the scanner and look for nearby points of interest and traipse across the land, scanning flora and fauna as you go. At the same time, I do appreciate that Starfield isn’t padding out time by having you boost between planets for 5 minutes and very often giving you quick skips to get to your destination after a first visit. Let’s be honest, that’s probably how most people would play after unlocking a fast travel location.
You can also see and feel the classic Creation Engine foundations in other places. The inventory management is still just big long lists which do not handle the sheer amount of stuff that you can and will pick up all that well – seriously, what’s wrong with a grid? – and while Starfield certainly features some of the best rendered and animated NPCs that Bethesda has created, they’re now a step or two behind the competition. Baldur’s Gate 3 is setting a new standard for how fully realised NPCs can be in an RPG, and from the way that Starfield’s characters are lit, to the complexity of their motion in dialogue and their almost unerring gaze directly into the camera.
Skyrim and Fallout 4 had a space baby and named it Starfield. As with every child, there’s the hope that it will better its parents as it grows into adulthood, and from the time spent with Starfield, I’d say it’s right up there with Bethesda’s best. I’ve certainly enjoyed what I’ve seen so far and the new setting, but there’s just no getting away from the fact that it has its mother’s eyes and its dad’s nose.
We’ve still got a good bit more Starfield to play before we can pass on our full review, so keep an eye out for that and, for all you standard edition players out there, enjoy taking your first steps out into space!