"The Space Game” is how Todd Howard described Starfield. Bethesda Game Studio is one of the most successful developers in the industry. The Elder Scrolls and revamped Fallout series are beloved for their dedication to simulation. Starfield takes those core tenets, modernizes them, and expands the scope to span a galaxy. One filled with over a thousand planets, some of the best lighting I’ve ever seen, and a main storyline that is up there as one of my favorites of all time.
Starfield is polished to a sheen in a way no prior BGS title has been, showing off the benefits of the extra time afforded to it after Xbox’s acquisition of Zenimax. Seen as one of the most important games in Xbox’s history they have done the impossible and lived up to the hype. Let’s start this review by breaking down just what this game is, and how it all comes together to still have that Bethesda Games Studio heart.
Back in June of 2018, we got our first tease of Starfield. A glimpse of a planet from space, a satellite, and then a jump to another world as everything turned white. This exploration is the heart of Starfield’s universe. I’ll mark any mechanical spoilers later on, but I’ll keep as much story stuff out of this text as possible. The premise of the game is a simple one, early on you come across an artifact made out of unknown materials. Tasked with removing it from planetary bedrock you’re stunned when you rest it free and tasked with returning it to Constellation. This begins your journey across the galaxy to hunt more artifacts, fight or join pirates, defend the people or rob them blind, and so much more that it would take me 10,000 words just to describe all of the various quests I’ve found.
You are immediately given the freedom to go where you can and do what you want. This is still an RPG first, despite its solid feeling combat. To cycle back a bit after being knocked out you’ll awaken and be asked to fill out your work profile, yet another clever BGS way to ground your character creation with in-game lore. There are 40 base character appearances to choose from as a starting point. I’m terrible at fashioning a good-looking in-game character, so I mostly stuck with the preset parts. You do have the option to mold and shape various facial features and add in skin blemishes, tattoos, jewelry, and more. It’s a deep system that should only improve with mods over time. For those of us out there who are just fine with playing things “vanilla” though, there are a bevy of tools on option to make the intrepid new Constellation member of your dreams.
This carries over to the new Background and Trait systems. Backgrounds will start you out with three starting perks, these are the bonuses you can choose from whenever you level up (more on that later). Each background offers up a selection of three different perks, and my choice of Combat Medic gave me 10% extra pistol damage, better healing stats, and a bit more HP to start the game. This background choice can also offer up additional dialogue choices you’ll make later in the game. As a combat medic, I could speak on the level with the various Doctors I would run into, occasionally getting my preferred outcome with a little less work than it might have taken otherwise.
Traits are more unique though, instead of pulling from the leveling system they give you up to three intrinsic status effects. There is a give and a take to these, as for example the Kid Stuff perk. Choosing this will give you a set of parents whose appearance is based on your character. They live in an apartment in the main city, and you can visit and spend time with them throughout the game. The downside is that after every seven in-game days, you’ll send them 2% of your credits. I loved how these traits allowed me to further shape my character to match the type of person I wanted to be, and they are completely optional. I don’t know if you can add them later but there are ways to remove them in-game if you want to later on.
Once your character is made, and for me, it took around an hour of tinkering and making touch choices, the adventure begins. You’re quickly thrust into action, and on both console and especially PC, it feels incredible. BGS titles have never been known for having the best feeling of combat or movement, but Starfield features excellent combat even at 30fps on a Series X or S.
Like previous Bethesda titles, Starfield can be played from first or third person. I played in first person for the majority of my playthrough whenever in combat and would use third person during exploration. A worry I had going in is the fact that the game only runs at thirty frames per second on both Xbox Series X & S. Thankfully, it’s a damned smooth thirty thanks to an excellent use of motion blur and that it rarely if ever dropped. I put roughly five hours in on the Series X version and a couple on the S and if I hadn’t been spoiled by my far too expensive PC I would have had no issue continuing on either. We’ll get to the RPG systems in a bit, but once you’ve leveled up and found some solid weapons Starfield goes from being a good shooter into becoming a truly fantastic one.
It’s a massive improvement from both Fallout 4 and 76 in every way. It’s smooth, aim acceleration feels damned good right out of the box, and the aim assist is just strong enough to help and not hinder. On console, you’ll use the classic setup of left trigger to aim and right trigger to shoot. Right bumper is for your equipped throwables, be it mines, grenades, or more. The left bumper brings up your scanner on a tap and toggles your flashlight on a hold. You’ll use the directional pad to cycle through your favorited items. Pressing any direction will slow down time and allow you to swap weapons, activate buffs, or use any equippable item. On PC you’ll use the Q button to activate this menu, or you can use 1 through 9 and even the bracket keys as shortcuts.
Where the game differs from most shooters is that Y is your jump button, while A activates whatever you’re aiming at such as doors or starting conversations with NPCs. Tapping X is a reload while holding it will lower your weapon. B enters you into crouch mode and pressing it while running (click in the left stick) can activate a combat slide if you’ve unlocked it in your skill tree. Finally, a click of the right stick which will activate your melee, and bopping a pirate on the noggin to finish them off is always satisfying. If you activate your weapon while nothing is equipped you can put up your dukes and start punching any and everyone. There are multiple unarmed perks available in the skill tree that help you get your inner Jack Johnson on, sending enemies flying as you uppercut them straight to hell.
Your weapons heals, buffs, resources, and more are all tied to a mass system. This renamed weight system can vary depending on the planet you are on and its gravity. I could hold hundreds of resources on a moon and barely anything on the larger planetoids. Gravity will also greatly affect your boost pack. Pressing the jump button while in the air will activate it, and depending on the strength of the gravity around you that could mean you zip up a few inches or a few dozen feet. I invested in my jetpack early on to avoid the melee-rushing pirates, and furious alien creatures, and to help aid in traversing the massive planets that quests or curiosity compelled me to visit.
Enemy variety is fairly high with barely any flying enemies to be found. Multiple human factions may or may not be looking to kill you at any given time with the Spacer and Ecliptic Mercenary factions being your main constant humanoid threat. Roughly 10% of the planets have life, and those that do are a mix of hostile and non-threatening flora and fauna. One enormous departure from previous BGS titles is that you can no longer loot/strip dead NPCs.
It was shocking as I spoke to industry friends who were reviewing Starfield as well, but you no longer loot items directly off of a corpse! Loot generally matches what they were using but you don’t always get all of it, and when you do take it they remain fully clothed. Those loot types are:
Gone are the days of multiple armor slots and now you essentially have four, though only a few pieces of apparel that I found actually offered any stat increases. Let us start with weapons. There are various pistols, submachine guns, shotguns, assault rifles (single and auto), grenade launchers, particle beams, swords, daggers, axes, mag weapons, laser variants of most, and more. Do not make the mistake that I made and keep using a weapon for more than five levels or so. The damage numbers start small, roughly five to twenty, and ramp up big time once you start getting into the teens level-wise. I had the same gun twice and was using the one that I had gotten at level 7. I was now level 20 and the new version of it did 234 damage compared to the 20 that my equipped one was using.
I’ve heard a few complaints from colleagues about enemies “feeling squishy”, and I felt the same way until I realized just how important keeping an eye on damage output was. There are also a lot of types of ammunition, including multiple shotgun shells that only work on specific models. Thankfully your ammo never adds any mass to your inventory and after 30 hours or so I was a veritable walking America with nearly 20,000 rounds stowed away on my character.
Helmets, Space Suits, and Jet packs all offer up a variety of damage and elemental hazard reduction as well as potential random perks based on the quality of the weapon. This applies to weapons as well and you’ll find white, blue, purple, and gold versions for each equipment type. Like all BGS titles each item has weight and value, and using the fast-travel system to sell or store items will be a constant. It’s not the easiest inventory system to use if you are a pack rat, but honestly, it’s really tough to be one when the encumbrance system is so prevalent. You can’t fast-travel if you’re carrying too many items and boy are you going to fast-travel a ton in Starfield.
Starfield requires an SSD on PC, and of course, both the Series X and S come with one, and after beating the game and exploring dozens of star systems thank God that it does. The Creation Engine 2 still works on cells, and those cells mean when you move into or out of an area you’re hit with a loading in screen. On Xbox, this meant a few seconds most of the time, with the timer being slightly less on my beefy PC rig. Every time you visit somewhere you unlock the ability to fast travel to it. Visiting an area for the first time means either hoofing it or, more likely, fast traveling back to your current vessel. Once you’re sitting in the cockpit of your ship holding down a button begins the animation to head into space around your current planet/moon. This is not No Man’s Sky, as you never fly from surface to planet or vice versa. You’ll also never fly between planets or from a moon to the planet next to it. Maybe you can but there is no hyperspeed available to make this ever take less than a few days if not weeks of real time, so I never attempted it.
When you’re flying in space no matter how powerful an engine you have it’s nowhere near the speed of light, and each flying zone is its own localized play zone. One complaint I can see people making is just how many times the exploration of the game is tied to loading screens. It isn’t that seamless Red Dead Redemption style where you ride a horse for 10 minutes to get to a town, walk into a bar, and sit down without anything ever fading to black. It didn’t bother me, as the true exploration is down on the various planet surfaces as you use your scanner to track the local resources, plants, and animals, and find procedurally placed hand-crafted areas of interest. Because of this constant loading though, this game would be a nightmare on last-generation consoles or computers that lack an SSD.
As we’re talking about the ship lets get into how it works a bit. The Ship Building system is complex and deep and tied to the progression tree in multiple ways. I tried my hand at crafting a few vessels but defaulted to ones I had either taken by killing their pirate crew or won through hard-fought quest chains. Your ship is enormous and has its own cell as well. You can never go directly from your ship into the world as leaving it to go to a planet or somewhere you’ve docked is once again a loading screen. You are on the move a ton in the game and the quality of life around that is excellent. Instead of having to get up from your seat every time and walk to the hatch, there is a button prompt while in your pilot’s seat to exit the ship, undock, or stand up. I did not find a way to decorate my ship like I could an outpost or apartment, which was a bit disappointing.
Space combat is a bit of a resource-balancing dance, and one that I found oddly easier with a controller. While ground-based combat definitely benefits from aiming with a mouse I found it a lot tougher to rein in the various control schemes while in a ship. You’ll control your thrusters with the left stick and aim with the right. Up is up and down is down, which took a little getting used to. Invariably you’ll be forced into space fights and that’s where the power allocation system comes in. It’s not the deepest system, and I found it far harder to manage in real-time on a keyboard, but it adds enough complexity to keep things interesting.
Each weapon, your engine, shields, and grav drive all have meters that you can fill with energy. How much those meters fill and the amount of energy available to you is tied to the quality of each part and your reactor. Unlocking the best in each slot once again taps into that leveling and perk system, and even after beating the main quest and most of the bigger side content I feel like I had barely touched the potential of the ship-building and upgrade system. Let’s shift over to the heart of any good RPG and that is how leveling is handled.
Starfield uses the tried-and-true experience system of most games. Every time you fill up the XP bar you’ll gain a little bit of HP and gain a skill point. These skill points are used to unlock perks in five different categories, they are:
Every tree has a number of perks in it, and each perk has 4 levels available. At first, you’ll only have access to the first of four rows for each category, and to open up the rest you’ll need to spend a set amount of points in each. To unlock every upgrade in a single slot you’ll need to complete 3 levels of challenges like “kill 10 enemies in stealth” or “persuade 5 people”. This ends up being one of the main carrots on the RPG stick, as my lust for a better jetpack meant I was always keeping an eye on the challenge meters going up in the Tech tree so that I could add more skill points as I gained them. I have not seen a way to remove a skill point, though I haven’t really looked for it either.
These points are crucial to how you can interact with various people and items. Want to use a digipick to crack an advanced or higher safe? That requires skill points, and the digipick unlocking minigame is a solid puzzle replacement for the tried-and-true lockpicking system of past games. You’ll have two circles with gaps, and you’ll need to find the right combination of shapes and the order with which to fill them in. Want to avoid combat/paying extra/or more? You’ll need to use the new persuasion system to try and sweet talk your way through, and it’s an okay if not terribly deep system.
Every persuasion interaction has a set number of successful points you need to earn in a set amount of moves. For fewer points, you have a higher chance of success with skill points upping those chances further if you’ve spent them. Most of the time it barely made sense what did and didn’t work words-wise and instead was a roll of the dice on if your percentage hit or not. I maxed it out and found myself able to (with only a little save scumming) get my desired outcomes on some of the most critical discussions in the game. Outside of that dialogue is a mix of various responses that make it nice and obvious if you’re being nice, neutral, a complete prick, or somewhere in between when you talk with people.
There are over three million lines of dialogue in Starfield. Choices matter and the consequences will never be the same. In between the hot and heavy action segments, you’ll spend a lot of time interacting with hundreds (if not thousands) of different NPCs. Long quest chains for the main story, various factions, and dozens of stumbled-upon side quests will find you talking with a variety of different-looking and, thankfully, different-sounding characters. The writing is stellar across the board, even occasionally being damned funny at times. Humor in games is always a bitch to pull off, and they lean into it at the right times in Starfield. It’s a serious game most of the time, though never dour in tone. Starfield is a hopeful game about exploration and discovery. You can feel it in the tones they strive for, even at the darkest of times. I can’t be an asshole in games like this, as I find life to be too full of that already. I earned the trust of people, never let them down, and saw their characters grow because of it. Thanks to some save scumming I did give in and played an evil jerk a few times and the devastation on my companion’s face was palpable as I took a bribe from a corrupt businessman causing my romantic interest to refuse to speak to me for days.
While there are radiant quests available they are of the “you like this type of gameplay so here is a reason to go do it and make some money/earn some xp” variety. I found myself traveling from system to system and checking random planets as I would often stumble into a long quest chain out of nowhere. NPC chatter and distress beacons will give you “Activities” in the menu system. Often these lead to long and sometimes insane questlines that were some of the best parts of the game for me. Whether I was working for the Freestar Rangers, UC Vanguard, or even the Crimson Raider pirates there was never a dip in the quality of the narrative. My choices always mattered, and there were devastating consequences at times when I least expected them. As I rolled credits I felt like I had helped shape various parts of the galaxy in both good and negative ways based on my decisions. NPCs called me out as a hero for saving “x” or a villain for failing to help “y”.
This is all carried by the crew of Constellation, whom I became incredibly close to over time. The first you meet is Barret before you’re introduced to so many others and they all have interesting backstories and intriguing interactions, Once you become close enough some have long quest chains to help them deal with past issues as well. It isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but it’s always well-written and voice-acted. You see a slot that each character has been put into, the nerdy tech, theologian, rich prick, and others but that is quickly reshaped, added to, and ends up coming together into someone with a deep personality that I grew to love interacting with. There are possible romantic relationships as well, and seeing the smile on my partner’s face every time they saw me grew to actually be comforting in some weird way. I smiled back like an idiot at my OLED, catching myself after a few seconds after I went “Aww”.
My first playthrough took me roughly fifty hours, and I still had a lot of side content to get through. Early on I focused on the main quest before veering into side and faction stuff. The main quest can most likely be golden-pathed in 20 hours or so if you’re able to somehow level up enough to keep up with things. I was level 35 by the time I beat it and I just barely matched the areas I was heading towards. The side quests, and especially the faction stuff, shouldn’t be ignored though. I won’t spoil anything but make sure you do not ignore distress calls as a few of them led to some truly wild quest chains that I could have easily missed otherwise.
A system in the game that I didn’t interact with much at first was the base building. It feels entirely optional, and I think that is a good thing. On almost any planet you can build up to 8 outposts at first, skills allow you more over time. These outposts become bases for you and your crew to work at as they gather resources that you can keep or sell for credits. You can set up off-planet trade systems, and even ferry supplies between them. It’s an incredibly deep system with tons of options that I barely touched until I was near the end of my first playthrough. Thankfully it offers up either an up-close or birds-eye view this time, making it far easier to use than in Fallout 4 or 76.
Once again this is still an RPG and some of the cooler-sounding base-building stuff is tied to the leveling tree, and I didn’t get to experience it for myself. Finding an overlook on the moon where I have a giant crater in front of me and Earth on the horizon was too tempting. I set up a small base housed by one of my crew members I picked up that had three stars in outpost engineering. This gave me more options in the building itself and after a few hours, I had a huge base fully decorated with old earth memorabilia, a stove, crafting stations, weapon stations, and more. This decoration system carries over to the apartments you can either buy or earn as well. From what the developers have said you can get apartments in “any major city”, though I only had two of them in New Atlantis. These apartments are a part of the New Atlantis cell though, which meant I could jump out of my balcony and head down into the city with no loading, which was neat! Decorating in a house works well enough though I did find that rotating items could be a bit finicky on both controller and PC. It didn’t always snap how I wanted or overrated at times, but it wasn’t that tough to fix after making a mistake in placing an item. It’s all extra, and just something to add character and flavor to your game, though the mission terminals for radiant quests or trying to take bounties off of your head are nice to have.
Speaking of which, if you commit a crime you can expect to do some time. A few times I accidentally shot an ally during a heated space battle or pressed grab by mistake while in a high-security area, and boy did it cost me. Well, a few times it cost me a quick reload to my latest save, but when that wasn’t a good option many thousands of credits were lost to the various security forces of the settled systems. At least the inside of each prison cell looked utterly fantastic.
Starfield is one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played, thanks in large part to pristine texture quality and one of the best lighting systems of all time. To achieve this Starfield utilizes a real-time global illumination system. This is most likely one of the main reasons why the game runs at what feels like a locked thirty frames-per-second on both Series X and S. The Series X version of the game runs a dynamic 4k and looks pristine when still and good while in movement. This was my greatest fear as far too often any locked 30 fps mode on console was a stutter fest, and looked like it was bathed in Vaseline while moving quickly. Excellent motion blur helps both the X and S versions of the game feel like that “smooth 30” that we used to experience last generation with Destiny 1 and 2.
While I had high hopes for the X I am most impressed by the Series S version of the game. This little $300 box has been a punching bag lately for console warriors and media members alike. Not only does the Series S version look good, but it never once felt bad to play. I was dreading the cuts to fidelity it would have to make in order to run well. Outside of some pop-in issues on both consoles, I think the game looks phenomenal on these nearly three-year-old devices.
Running a 5800x CPU and 7900XTX GPU I averaged between 50 and 100 fps in major cities at 4k/ultra settings. It varied heavily based on the number of NPCs, with more walking around during the day than at night. My monitor caps out at 120hz and the game hits that number often in smaller, more enclosed areas during missions. No matter where I was or what I was doing though, I was constantly stunned at how good-looking the textures in the game are. Character faces are more mixed in quality, with some hitting better than others. Environments, weapons, and ships though are fantastic looking no matter where you play.
One odd thing is that both FSR 2.0 and even changing settings barely seemed to affect my framerate. Going from Ultra to Low would net me at most 10-15 FPS, and it was similar with lowering or raising the resolution from 1080p to 4k. In the end, with its scope and scale, I think Starfield is gorgeous. I lost so many hours just staring at the horizon on various planets, going through historical museums in New Atlantis, or tending to my settlement in a lush and lively jungle world. Now skip the next section if you want to avoid a few minor game mechanic spoilers.
At the end of the Starfield Direct, we saw a character put out their hand and cause a rippling shockwave that caught up their enemies and sent them floating out of control. If there is one thing I recommend doing it’s getting deep enough into the main quest so that you can unlock your powers. Much like Skyrim, there are a variety of abilities that greatly add to the game in various ways. I won’t go into specific ones but as you gain the first you’ll be given ways to find more, and it’s totally worth it.
The other thing is the game features New Game +. I can’t say how or why, but it works really well, and don’t worry it does not lock you into anything like Fallout 3 was famous for.
Finally, I’d like to hit on the music of Starfield. Composer Inon Zur has done a masterful job capturing the feeling of BGS within a new genre for the studio. The game’s deluxe edition comes with a 79-track OST, and it is powerfully moving. Whether a cutscene, combat or just exploring it is fucking incredible. When I’m not playing I’m humming it in my head or leaving the main menu (HOW HIDEOUS!) open so it can play some more.
We were given the most expensive version of the game for review, which came with an artbook application that plays the game’s music as you peruse it. For the past two weeks I’ve had either the game or that app open for nearly every second I’ve been awake. There are hints of Fallout and Skyrim’s themes but in the end, it is a perfect blend of sounds that captures what I thought of when Bethesda announced they were finally making “the space game”.
On the bug front, I had a LOT…. Of NPC pathing-related bugs. Companions or enemies running into walls was a constant, though it was significantly lessened by the day one patch. My version of the game, one you’ll never see, was still by far the most polished BGS title I’ve ever played. I had zero crashes, no quest completion issues, and in fact, the only other thing I ran into myself was the occasional “waypoint at the end goal and not the elevator you need to reach it” bug. A friend had a glitch where everyone lost their hair, though it was remedied on a reload. The extra time afforded to the game was worth it. I only know how it went for me though, and I expect some hilarious bug videos to hit post-launch.
My biggest issue with Starfield is a technical limitation of the engine, and that is the loading. You will load into and out of areas thousands of times and it can hurt the exploration side of things when you’re in a city or doing anything in space. One neat thing is that any pictures you take with the game’s excellent photo mode will be used as backdrops for your loading screens. I’m a terrible photographer but I still got some great-looking pictures with the tools offered.
Starfield is a new beginning. Not only for Bethesda but for Xbox as a whole. With excellent writing, stunning graphics, and thrilling gameplay it makes the galaxy yours to explore, shape, and live in. It is a wonderous tapestry to experience your story in a way that only the best have done before.