Starfied is an immense interstellar playground replete with gorgeous vistas and enticing narrative threads tugging you to far-flung corners of unexplored galaxy compete with over-elaborate inventory systems and indecipherable maps, enough to test the patience of even the stateliest would-be star pilots. Give it twelve to fifteen hours or so and once useful abilities and powerups start landing Starfield becomes an intoxicating experience, a whole universe of storylines at the fingertips, an opportunity to chart unknown frontiers, to confront endlessness and revel in the joy of feeling insignificant.
There’s a noticeably unwelcome lack of navigational tools when wandering through Starfield’s various settlements. Walking through the towering glass and concrete of starting city New Atlantis requires a nifty sense of direction, plus the acceptance that you’ll be spending time moving aimlessly. At least, that’s how it feels at the outset. It’s likely Bethesda are aiming to evoke a sense of discovery even inside urban areas and thus there is joy to be had in walking side streets, talking to NPCs, visiting shops, and looking for quests. After all, it’s the side-questing that truly opens this game up, and those are mostly encounterable the more you explore.
The cosmic over-map is hard to fathom though. Sure, it provides a broad overview of the star systems ready for exploration, but it doesn’t half make the universe seem kind of small. Warping between worlds isn’t as freewheeling as, say, No Man’s Sky because planet hopping is done via loading screens. All we get is barely interactive cutscenes bookmarking humungous voyages through deep space, and to be honest, it’s a tad deflating at first. But overcome this disappointment you will, as Starfield was never intended to be a deep space cruiser no matter what Bethesda’s marketing had you believe. The real experience is in planetary traversal.
However, the map of a planet’s terra firma doesn’t fare much better than the starry over-map either. It’s a cobweb of gridlines hinting at the shape of the land, but it’s an undeniable headache to navigate if you’re looking for a specific location. Again though, vague cartographs serve to foster a sense of discovery. It helps that Starfield’s fully explorable planets are instead tailored zones. Sure, you could hike the entire circumference of a planet, but you won’t see an awful lot. Bethesda instead have stuffed heaps of intrigue into relatively confined areas. Cave networks, bandit camps, settlements, ancient monoliths – there’re tons of things worth discovering if you go on and explore these curated environments. They’re awash with biodiversity too – forests, deserts, mountains, lakes, and rivers sit side by side with plenty of native flora and fauna to scan. It’s in immersing yourself in these slices of planetary life that Bethesda’s scope and ambition starts to reveal itself.
As already mentioned, side-quests are where it’s at in Starfield. The main questline starts off blandly, and whilst there are a few unexpected twists and turns along the way as you grow more accustomed in your role as space archaeologist the experience ends roundly about how you’d expect. No, the real meat on the bones is in allying with whatever faction takes your fancy. Nefarious buccaneers, peacekeeping envoys, arms dealers, smugglers, debt collectors – these are just a handful of the communities and organisations you’ll stumble across as you chart a planet’s surface. Most provide work via job boards which you’re able to tackle several ways – perhaps via bribery, tact, or force – with missions yielding credits to put into upgrading weapons, machinery, and your spaceship.
It’s the RPG elements which make these side-quests worthwhile though. Though the means in which you progress through a mission doesn’t feel like they’ll contribute to a consequential end at the time, on reflection all the decisions you’ve made in how to portray your ideals throughout these side-quests add up to a wholly unique identity. Even your NPC companions accompanying you on your missions will comment on the morality of your actions, given a grounded sense of realism to your actions.
In one side-quest you’ll need to enlist the help of a scientist but he’s currently laying low out of the sight of demanding creditors. Should you complete his scientific research for him and sell on the findings to the highest bidder? Would you repay his debts with your takings or abscond? Maybe you could hack into a database to relieve his debt from the server. There are always options on the table. In fact, there’s a universe’s worth of side-quest content, each posing some form of moral quandary to sink your teeth into and blurring the lines of morality garners heaps of addictive fun.
Between the exploration and faction joining, time is spent outpost building, looting, harvesting raw materials, researching important technology, gaining friends, allocating team members, and purchasing property. All worthy ways to spend your time, even if the gunfights are a little undercooked. It’s the space dogfighting that has the most potential though. Sure, it’s an uphill struggle especially when your ship is outnumbered (lowering the difficulty might be optimal here), but in the closest thing resembling Fallout 3’s V.A.T.S. system once you gain the ability to target specific ship components the real fun begins. For instance, disabling a ship’s engine leaves them open for boarding, and there’s a load of satisfaction in obliterating a ship’s manifest of space pirates and sitting in the captain’s chair before ransacking their loot, or stealing their ship for yourself. So addictive is this process you’ll be wondering why you haven’t been role playing as a space pirate from the very beginning.
Above all else, it’s the joy of distraction that keep play sessions fulfilling. Building a base but you’ve run out of raw materials? Well, you’d better get scavenging. But wait, there’s a settlement and a hostile base to raid, then there are caves, then discoverable upgrades for your ship which you just have to test out in a dogfight. Before long you’ve warped to another star system entirely on the hunt for an artefact. Minutes can seep into hours, and the original base you were building is now an afterthought as you’ve landed on a much more hospitable planet to establish an outpost. Bethesda are masters at designing games to be lived in, and it’ll be no surprise if players are still scaling planets and discovering ancient artefacts five or ten years into the future.
On a final note, it’s worth pointing out the music in Starfield. Sure, it’s hard to quantify in a feature like this where you can’t listen to musical motifs that define an encounter but rest assured the music is masterful in sound tracking key moments; in giving memorable vibrancy to the vastness of space. There’s a grand sense of scale to Zur’s music, and it’s no surprise Bethesda describes the soundtrack as a ‘companion to the player.’ Exploring deep space just wouldn’t feel the same without it.
Give Starfield some time, and it’ll reward you in bucketloads. Getting through the befuddling menus, learning to ignore the glaring eyes of NPCs, overcoming the usual Bethesda penchant for glitch and bugginess, and Starfield becomes an experience of absorbing possibility.
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