“The overhaul on our engine is probably the largest we’ve ever had, maybe even larger than Morrowind to Oblivion,” proclaims Starfield game director Todd Howard in a rather candid interview from the tail end of 2020. Official, fully-fledged gameplay trailers of Starfield were still a way off at the time of this interview of course, but Todd’s assertion that their already super powerful Creation Engine was being overhauled served as an enticing statement of intent: Starfield is going to be massive.
Fast forward to 2022 and we’ve just had our first good luck at Starfield’s gameplay thanks to the trailer revealed at this summer’s Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase. And, on first impression, ambition, whilst an apt descriptor, is a word which undersells Bethesda’s commitment to fully realising Starfield’s entirely traversable universe. See, there’re whole solar systems packed with completely explorable planets, and with over a hundred systems dotted throughout the universe Bethesda are saying there’re a thousand plus planets in which to investigate. Whilst stating finite numbers somewhat contradicts the awe inspiring, unquantifiable vastness of space, 1000+ planets which you can cherry-pick for open exploration sure is impressive. Together with the game’s purported deep RPG skill tree, plus resource harvesting, researching, and crafting, FPS combat, spaceship design and customisation, and character creation, then should the game lift off without a hitch we’re looking at a technical marvel; a game with an unrivalled sense of freedom from a developer who’ve spent decades building their reputation on large-scale, open-world RPG experiences.
Firstly though, there’s the somewhat unfortunate fact that the recent gameplay trailer was broadcast at 30 frames per second, so any notion that performance will be 100% smooth and seamless in the finished product is impossible to confirm at this stage. Of course, Bethesda have a track record of releasing games which, on launch at least, exhibit performance issues, most notably in lacklustre framerates. It’s a year until the game is slated for release, so the benefits of Bethesda’s revamped game creation engine still have time to materialise. Framerates can improve in line with the advancement of the systems Bethesda’s developers are using, so long as the intricate level of detail and visual fidelity they’re pushing doesn’t prove too resource heavy.
That said, with exploration being the forefront of Starfield’s appeal, it was likely more important for the gameplay trailer to convey a sense of scale realistically, and for it to portray a believable sense of distance, rather than pushing framerates closer to 60 fps. From discovering the windswept climbs of craggy mountaintops, to casting eyes across barren desert icescapes, to traversing deep into lush tropical forests, a game centred on interstellar exploration must appear limitless, with not even a breath of pop-in breaking the wonder of gazing across an alien landscape for the first time. So, it’s remarkable that from what we’ve seen so far there appears to be very little in the way of distractions or sub-par visual fidelity. Sure, if you look closely during exploration of the hostile moon Kreet at the trailer’s outset there’s the odd texture pop-in, but by and large this wouldn’t be noticed by the player. Textures appear photorealistic too, perhaps owing to photo geometric maps that are procedurally generated onto hand placed assets like rock formations and cliff faces. The game’s fog is stunning too, with every valley no matter the planet dense with naturally hanging mist. Especially striking too is the richness of shadow detail, on both objects near and from afar, which again is implemented exceptionally well to portray a vital sense of distance against the landscape’s natural light source.
Rich shadow detail extends to the interior shots we see too. They’re razor sharp, contrasting nicely with the artificial light sources scatted throughout the research lab’s corridors. Secondary light bouncing off walls and ceilings is a nice addition too, adding a sense of realism to the long-abandoned lab, ensuring it isn’t too dark for exploration. Things arguably are a little too pristine in appearance though; were this isolated research lab really abandoned it’d have been much more dilapidated, surely. And that’s the often-overlooked thing with space travel in visual media; spaceships, spacesuits, weapons, et cetera, appear clean when in reality they’d be worn in and grubby. A personal preference, sure, but it’d be nice to see some of the photorealistic textures seen outdoors applied to scuffing up interior surfaces and equipment.
This opinion extends to the appearances throughout the city of New Atlantis, the capital city of the planet Jemison which we see up close later in the trailer. Whilst some of the concrete looking exterior buildings display some form of weathering, by and large the buildings are smooth as silk, as if just popped up by speedy property developers. There’s barely any light reflection too; in truth the lighting throughout the city looks a little drab and flat. It’s certainly not on par with the superb lighting and lens flare effects we see in the wilder looking landscapes. This, of course, could be symptomatic of the game’s immense scale. Maybe it’s impossible with the technology available to portray a dense cityscape with the same lifelike lighting and texture seen throughout the game’s sparser landscapes. Let’s be clear, nothing in New Atlantis looks bad, it’s just it’s not exactly pushing the envelope either, and if this is a central hub which players will routinely visit throughout their playthroughs, then it’d make sense for the city to be amongst the best looking locations in the game. As it is, it just seems lifeless, and that’s also down to the drollness of the NPC’s.
Things can and will improve as development goes on of course, but in NPC facial animations it’d be nice to see something more lifelike if possible. Bethesda have made massive improvements to NPC body language and facial animations in Starfield when compared to Fallout 4 it must be said, but given the lifelike animations seen in recent Unreal Engine 5 tech demos, the facial animations in Starfield still seem a little too mannequin-esque. The characters themselves are exceptionally well designed though, with blemishes, wrinkles, and pours visible on the surface of the skin. They’re real looking alright, even if they are a little dead behind the eyes.
The final aspect to look at is Starfield’s outer space exploration and combat. Pristine looking ships and cockpits aside, flying through outer space looks fantastic. Combat especially delivers a visceral experience, with explosive sparks, particles, and clumps of body work scattered outward from just-destroyed opponents looking stellar. The breath-taking beauty of Starfield’s terrestrial landscapes extends into outer space too; there’re glistening asteroid fields, glowing nebulae, and fluffy space fog ensuring space exploration in Starfield looks as good as it does when on land.
The sheer breadth of locales Bethesda are cramming into Starfield deserves special mention too. Alongside the rocky moon and futuristic cityscape already discussed in this feature, the recent gameplay reveal also shows other settlements – the neon-soaked Blade Runner-esque cities look especially impressive, alongside a more ramshackle town, dusty Mars-like base, and an opulent interior corridor not unlike a luxurious hotel lobby catching the eyes. On the wilder side, the parched desert vista and frozen icy outcrop planets look incredible, with more otherworldly locations such as a crystalised canyon just begging to be explored.
The ability to drop in on any given location throughout the universe to be met with something truly awe inspiring seems unlikely to happen every time. Chances are there’re planets that are richly designed that might serve as story locations, whilst the bulk of the 1000+ planets are procedurally generated landscapes, and thus might not always be as visually striking as what we see in the gameplay reveal. Time will tell.