For all, into the Starfield…
It’s rare that a tagline so perfectly captures both the feeling and intent behind a game, but nothing else sums up the vibe of Starfield quite like Bethesda’s own words. From the day it was announced, it’s been clear that this is an ambitious project that makes some big promises about offering the potential for endless exploration and forging your own path among the stars. To deliver on those promises seems almost impossible, even with huge advancements in technology and a legacy of narrative-driven RPGs like the one boasted by Bethesda. But after spending around 50 hours with Starfield at the time of review and having barely scratched the surface of what it can offer, I feel confident in saying that somehow, this game is delivering on almost all of those big promises. Starfield is a mammoth game, a mammoth achievement, and a feat of environmental storytelling, and it revels in propelling you towards the unknown and encouraging you to explore.
It’s easy to make comparisons between Starfield and other games that have come before, but none of them quite sum up what the experience offers. When I first started playing, I was ready to simply call it a mash-up of Fallout and Mass Effect – the classic Bethesda narrative and dialogue system transplanted into a galactic setting rife with the unique political concerns that space exploration presents. But that’s not quite right. Starfield is very much focused on humanity, and our desire to always be searching for something more. It has a reverence for scientific discovery, while also highlighting that expanding across the galaxy will in no way fix many of humanity’s problems. The same class struggles, political divides, and ideological wars will continue to persevere – and that’s before we start worrying about what happens when we encounter alien life.
From the beginning, you choose what role your character will ultimately play in this wide world. The character creation tool is fairly robust, giving you the freedom to choose from a range of body types and features as well as independently selecting your character’s pronouns. In classic Fallout style, you’ll also be able to curate your character’s backstory and, if you choose to, give them up to three optional traits that become relevant during some of the game’s encounters, and it’s here that you can really start catering your skills to your playstyle. Knowing that I often prefer to talk my way out of situations than to fight, I chose to make my character an ‘Industrialist’, which made them a smooth talker with some skills in hacking, and continued that approach for the rest of the game. Optional traits can also do things like give your character a buff when they say things that their companions like, or change their biology to give them more base health at the expense of the effectiveness of healing items. Some will even add extra characters to the game, like the Adoring Fan who will follow you around and give you gifts, or parents who need you to support them with frequent payments. Experiencing the game with all of them will obviously require multiple playthroughs, which may seem like a big ask given how many hours go into even completing it once – but given how often these traits come up in quests and dialogue options, it does seem that the gameplay experience will be materially different.
After character creation, you’re immediately whisked into the action – and from there, the galaxy is your playground. The main questline is based around your involvement with a group called Constellation, whose main focus is on answering the universe’s unknown questions by exploring every corner of the galaxy. They’re a small group who many seem to believe no longer exist, but every one of their members is passionate about their cause, and all are ready to help you on your journey. The members of Constellation form your core group of companions, and each of them is useful in different scenarios – Sarah Morgan, the first one you spend meaningful time with (my true love), has a background in science and law enforcement, and praises empathy and curiosity. Sam Coe, the space cowboy, is a descendant of a prominent member of history, particularly in Akila City, and is an advocate for justice and freedom. There’s also robot buddy VASCO and his closest colleague Barrett, both of whom have dry senses of humour that make them a joy to talk to, and Andreja, who like you is newer to Constellation and at times feels like an outcast. Each of the companions have their own stories to tell, and whether you choose to pursue romance or friendship with them, the relationships you forge feel authentic and develop in a refreshingly organic way.
Outside of Constellation, you can recruit other members to your crew – some of whom you’ll find during quests, and some of whom you’ll stumble upon as you explore some of the game’s major hubs. These characters can’t be romanced and don’t have their own questlines, but they will tell you a bit about where they come from and why they’re interested in joining you on your travels, and they all have individual skills that can be put to use in various ways. These fleshed out characters, many of whom can be found in unexpected places, help the world of Starfield to feel truly alive. Some of the most interesting conversations you’ll have come from NPCs you only briefly interact with, or from completing a quest gained by overhearing a conversation.
The world of Starfield is rich and diverse, both in the NPCs and the relationships they have with each other, and the types of environments you’ll explore. At its core, that’s what Starfield is about – exploration. This exploration can be guided by the story, and there are several factions that can send you on different styles of missions to help give structure to your journey, but the game also encourages you to simply wander and be distracted. I would often find myself setting out to complete a main quest mission, only to talk to an NPC that sent me on a side quest, during which I picked up a note or overheard a conversation that sent me off to another planet to investigate. It’s so easy to deviate from your path, and you’re almost always rewarded for doing so. Many of Constellation’s missions encourage you to go for a walk across a planet’s surface and scan wildlife, or fauna, or explore long-abandoned structures or outposts, but even if you’re just doing some self-directed research, there’s always a benefit to being curious.
As you explore each planet you have the ability to set up outposts, which allow you to mine resources or cultivate your own plants. Outposts can be customised, from the layout of the buildings to the crew members you assign to man them. If you wanted to, you could spend hours doing Sims house style fit-outs of all of them, provided you had the resources to craft the decorations. I will admit that in the time I’ve had with the game, outposts are the thing I’ve interacted with the least – though I think that has more to do with my personal play style. I’ve chosen not to put skill points towards the things that would make my outposts thrive, therefore largely relegating them to a ‘I’ll worry about them later, when I’m better equipped’ pile. In a game this big, there are a few things that fall into that pile – and the pile will look different for everyone, depending on where you spend your skill points. For those who want to decorate without worrying about outposts, you will be given the chance to buy property on the various planets throughout the game, and those can also be decorated to your heart’s content too.
Of course, there is no exploration of the stars without a good ship to take you there. Through the course of the game, whether through purchase or as quest rewards, you’ll acquire a fleet of ships to choose from when traversing the galaxy. Upgrading them (and flying higher level ships) requires skill points to be funnelled into piloting skills, so the speed at which this becomes possible is up to your playstyle, but you can do a certain amount of fiddling from the start. Each ‘part’ or module of the ship can be moved and customised individually, so you can play with colours and configurations to find something that suits you (and that is physically capable of functioning). It can be finicky to place these modules and I quickly became overwhelmed by the possibilities, but for those who are dedicated, I can see this taking up a whole heap of time. If you’re less worried about creating your own ship from the ground up, it’s also possible to simply upgrade existing parts to improve your ship without having to place new modules – or you can just wait until a better ship comes along. Like many aspects of Starfield, ship-building can be as hands-on as you want it to be. In this game, you can truly customise everything – but it isn’t forced upon you.
There’s a lot I haven’t covered in this review, and that’s only partly because there’s still a lot I haven’t discovered. The true joy of Starfield comes from discovery, and immersing yourself in the story it’s trying to tell. It’s a huge game, and it’s a huge achievement to have created it, and there is obviously merit in a game being this large also managing to feel so alive. But its strongest moments are in the details, like the objects strewn around the bedroom of an NPC that give you insight into their passions, or the conversations you’ll have with your companions that make you feel like maybe you’ve changed their outlook on something ever so slightly for the better. It’s about getting lost in the story, forging your own path, and being given the freedom to truly approach situations the way you want to – something Starfield has promised since the beginning, and has managed to deliver on so well. The best thing I can say about this game is that it is, in my mind, probably exactly what you’re expecting it to be. It’s a little bit Fallout, a little bit Mass Effect, and a lot Firefly. It’s not perfect, but it does feel like something special – and at the very least, I feel like it’s exactly the ambitious game Bethesda wanted it to be and a technical marvel, which is in itself remarkable.
Starfield was reviewed on PC using a code kindly provided by Bethesda.