'Starfield' has everything you could want, except a reason to keep playing (2024)

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'Skyrim' in space sounds like such a good idea until you play it.

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'Starfield' has everything you could want, except a reason to keep playing (1)

After watching several loading screens, you can actually visit that planet in the sky.Credit: Xbox/Bethesda Game Studios

Starfield is one of the most hotly anticipated games of 2023 for two good reasons: It’s by the folks who made Skyrim, and it promises a nearly limitless amount of exploration and exploitation throughout a fully navigable Milky Way galaxy. You can build your own spaceships, hire your own crew members, develop relationships with various companions, open outposts to extract resources from one of the game’s 1,000+ planets, and join one of several different factions.

It’s an impressive spacefaring adventure on paper, and in practice, everything works pretty much exactly as intended. But after 20 hours trying to find the excitement in Starfield, I’m not sure it actually exists. Starfield is a gigantic playground without slides or swingsets. There’s simultaneously way too much to see, and not much to see at all. Moreover, it almost totally fails to communicate how dangerous and wondrous space travel can be.

In other words, Starfield feels like a bullet point feature list given life, instead of something that is self-evidently enjoyable to play.

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Why does outer space feel so small?

'Starfield' has everything you could want, except a reason to keep playing (2)

Space dogfighting is not nearly as fun as it should be, at least in the early goings.Credit: Xbox/Bethesda Game Studios

Despite everything I just said, I’ll admit that the opening hours of Starfield inspired a mix of awe and intimidation in me. It doesn’t take long before your protagonist is deemed a Very Special Person and given a spaceship, a crew, and a mandate to explore the galaxy searching for alien life. As Starfield slowly rolls out all of its systems, from a reasonably complex upgrade tree to a shipbuilding interface and outposts management, it feels impossibly huge.

And then you start to actually play it and the illusion shatters. Starfield famously has more than 1,000 planets to explore, but doing so rarely yields interesting results. A large majority of the planets and moons I saw in Starfield are barren rocks useful for little more than extracting resources. Stick around long enough and you may find a procedurally generated outpost with some space pirates to kill or a generic cave with some junk to plunder, but generally speaking, there’s just not much to see in most of Starfield’s playable spaces.

I see this as a consequence of Bethesda’s choice to go for a sort of NASA-punk aesthetic, one that favors something resembling scientific realism over the space magic of Mass Effect. It’s true that Earth being host to so much life (intelligent and otherwise) is a mathematical miracle, and indeed most other planets in the galaxy might be completely inhospitable to life. But that doesn’t actually make for a compelling game world.

'Starfield' has everything you could want, except a reason to keep playing (3)

At least the faster-than-light travel animation is kinda cool.Credit: Xbox/Bethesda Game Studios

What's worse is how Starfield betrays its own attempt at realism by making the player way too impervious to the very real dangers of space travel. Aside from bumping into the occasional nest of space scorpions or a toxic gas vent, there's very little danger to going anywhere. Planets with extreme weather like Mercury (800 degrees Fahrenheit during the day) are totally fine to walk around on because I guess your spacesuit is just that powerful. This makes every planet essentially feel the same from a gameplay perspective.

Starfield’s aesthetic bummers go beyond the art direction. I feel the need to point out that this game does not allow you to seamlessly fly your ship from a planet’s surface to space, or vice versa. Initiating takeoff and landing simply plays a small animation and then jumps to a loading screen.

I understand that taking a No Man’s Sky approach to space travel might’ve been a technical hurdle that Bethesda simply couldn’t get over and I respect that. However, the downside is that outer space actually feels kind of tiny when all interplanetary transit is done via fast travel. There’s no real way or reason to aimlessly fly your ship around, appreciating the grandiosity of space.

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Instead, the ship only exists for dogfights that aren’t particularly fun, at least until you play for dozens of hours and get enough money for a badass ship.

A low hum of Content

'Starfield' has everything you could want, except a reason to keep playing (4)

New Atlantis is a real highlight of 'Starfield.'Credit: Xbox/Bethesda Game Studios

Starfield finds its footing a little bit more in the spaces that were hand-crafted by developers, like major cities. From the shining metropolis of New Atlantis to the mean streets of the appropriately named Neon, Starfield’s big settlements at least have a lot to see and do in them.

Even that quality is relative, though. Questing in this game has the same rhythm as in previous BGS titles like Fallout 4 and Skyrim, which is to say you just run to the objective marker until you either have to shoot someone or talk to someone. Sometimes you can shoot someone to avoid talking to them, or talk to them to avoid shooting them. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.

That isn’t to say I haven’t had some fun with Starfield. One of the first things I did was break into an apartment in a seedy crime-soaked city, only to find a corpse that had been killed by a powerful robot dog named Big Bruno. Said robot dog proceeded to chase me through the streets for about 10 minutes until the city guards finally noticed and took it down for me.

That was the kind of emergent nonsense that these games are good for, but the bulk of my playtime was instead made up of unexciting questing with few peaks or valleys. It’s a low, droning hum of pure Content.

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I’d be more fine with the traditional questing template if the writing were better. Alas, Starfield’s narrative side did little to impress me in the first 20 hours. The quest writing never really compelled me to finish things for the sake of seeing what happens, instead leaving me to finish things for the sake of getting some money and XP. And aside from a couple of standouts, like the wise-cracking early-game companion Barrett and a mysterious cloaked figure named The Hunter who hangs out in bars across the galaxy, most characters are fairly archetypical and uninteresting.

The troubling thing about trying to critically evaluate Starfield is that it’s exactly the game it wants to be. Everything works, in the sense that the game is surprisingly not very buggy and all of its systems are functional and easy enough to understand. Bethesda set out to make a gargantuan space quest and that’s exactly what Starfield is.

But what it totally lacks of any kind of propulsive quality, something that begs you to come back for more. Some games are designed around a central mechanic, something that’s fun to do for the sake of it. Starfield is not one of those games. No single feature, from the planetary exploration to the first-person shooter combat or ship dogfighting or role-playing or questing, stands out as exceptional.

I played 20 hours of Starfield and could probably play 20 more because I have the kind of brain that likes the feedback loop of completing quests and leveling up. But I can also get that from plenty of other games that have more going for them. In 2023, merely being Large isn’t enough of a selling point.

If you want to spend dozens or hundreds of hours searching for the fun in Starfield, be my guest. All I can say is that it never really made me feel anything.

Starfield launches on Sept. 6 on Xbox Series S and X consoles as well as PC. If you pre-ordered the premium or Constellation editions of the game, you can actually start playing on Sept. 1. Of course, if you have Xbox Game Pass, the game is essentially free, so you can give it a shot regardless of what I say about it.

TopicsGamingXbox

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'Starfield' has everything you could want, except a reason to keep playing (2024)
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