Note that I am going to be as spoiler free as possible in this review of Starfield. Even though the game has been out for a little while now, the sheer scale of the endeavor makes it so that there is a very good chance that many players are probably still working their way through the main quest. And even if the main quest is complete, that really only makes up less than 10 percent of what Starfield has to offer, so if you are still out there exploring or have yet to start, have no fear, because this review won’t spoil anything for you other than a few very basic plot lines from the beginning of a player’s journey into the Starfield universe.
Starfield starts out very much like other Bethesda role-playing games with a nameless (to start with) hero doing some mundane tasks in the world. This time players begin as a miner on some distant planet tasked with using a laser cutter on minerals to collect them, something that you will be doing a lot more of as the title moves on. At least starting players are not newly arrested criminals to begin with this time. During the prologue, players are eventually tasked with extracting a strange metal strip from a cave, which turns out to be an alien artifact. Touching the artifact causes a wild hallucination and your character passes out, waking up in the mining company’s medical facility a short time later.
From there, you are handed a tablet and asked what you can remember, which basically starts the character creation process, just like in other Bethesda titles. The character options are extremely vast, as might be expected, and players can make their character look pretty much however they like from their eye color to the length and thickness of their nose and other minute features. Players can also choose up to three backgrounds for their character, although each of them also comes with a negative. For example, one of the coolest backgrounds is called Kid Stuff, and introduces a character’s parents into the game. You can visit them, and they will also show up in some interesting places, which makes for some great role-playing. They will also offer you some really interesting (and powerful) items from time to time. The only downside is that you automatically send them a small percentage of your income every week to help them make ends meet. You don’t have to pick anything from that list, but many of the backgrounds really do enhance the gameplay.
Leveling up in Starfield is kind of a combination of the Morrowind mechanic where used skills level up quickly, combined with how levels in titles like Fallout worked. Basically, you earn experience for doing almost everything including crafting, discovering new places, fighting, completing quests and other activities. Once you gain enough experience, you can buy the first level of any skill, like stealth or ballistic weapons. The first level will get you basic rewards like being 10 percent stealthier or doing more damage with the weapon group of your choice. However, if you want to level up skills past the first level, not only do you need to gain enough general experience, but you also have to use that skill by completing challenges. For example, to level up in stealth, you need to make a number of sneak attacks. In this way, Starfield challenges players to actually use the skills they are leveling up, and also kind of provides a check to make sure that you are using the build that you want. Advanced skills also require buying more basic ones on the relevant skill tree first, so you really need to plan how you want to level up in order to obtain critical skills more quickly.
So, with the basic mechanics out of the way, let’s talk about the title itself. The main quest will have you working with an organization called Constellation trying to collect more of those mysterious artifacts from the prologue. Honestly, the first 20 or so hours of Starfield make for an incredibly slow burn compared with most other Bethesda RPGs. There are a lot of go-fetch type quests and other mundane tasks to complete, and the first few locations that you are directed to visit are not all that interesting. However, rest assured that Starfield does get a lot better. Just don’t be expecting to be shouting at dragons at the onset like in Skyrim. Even the main quest picks up after some initial slogging, with quite a few very exciting missions as more artifact pieces are collected.
The biggest strength of Starfield is actually in the universe itself. I remembered my old Morrowind review, when I was so impressed because right off of the boat I dove into a random pond and found a pearl inside an oyster at the very bottom. I also thought about how great my time in Oblivion was when I got pulled into a painting for a mini adventure with watercolor trolls. Starfield is kind of like those experiences, but times a thousand. You can literally land on almost any planet and find something amazing to do, whether it’s hunting down a carnivorous creature in the name of science or assisting some seemingly random NPCs with whatever strange or interesting things they need done. Seemingly insignificant clues about faraway places often result in grand adventures if pursued, and that happens all the time in Starfield. There are so many things like that in Starfield that I found myself being pulled away from the main quest many times as I got engrossed in who knows what that I just seemed to stumble across. One of the developers recently said that the real meat of Starfield begins after the main quest is complete, and that is probably not an untrue statement, although you can just as easily start to explore on your own while the folks at Constellation patiently wait for you to return to the main adventure too.
Like with other Bethesda RPGs, the main part of the adventure will be played in first person, walking around on foot. It’s just that the playing field is spread out across thousands of planets, moons, space stations, asteroids and spaceships. There are also a handful of cities and other places that are highly developed to the point where they could almost be the setting for separate adventures. The first one you arrive at is called New Atlantis and features skyscrapers, shops, a bustling star port, plenty of quest givers and even an entire underground area known as The Well which is also pretty vast and certainly worth exploring.
The combat in Starfield is fast paced and really reminds me of the Fallout games, only without the ability to stop time and target areas using VATS. Enemies are pretty smart and react correctly in response to happenings during combat. For example, if you toss a grenade, they will yell and scatter, although probably not in time to get away. Also, while most enemies seem to have a lot of hit points to the point where they are kind of bullet sponges, you can stagger them. I found an old Earth shotgun and would always smile when I scored a direct hit on a powerful enemy because they would react and stop shooting at me for bit regardless of their level or how much armor they had. Also, there is a nice variety of weapons in Starfield, from laser rifles to bullet-spewing pistols, and combat axes to grenade launchers. And with the right skills, players can heavily modify those weapons, adding special effects to attacks, making them more powerful, silencing them or whatever works best for their character’s build.
The spaces between all those land-based environments are filled by, well, space. And as you might have guessed, there is space combat. The combat in space is pretty much identical to that found in other titles like Star Wars: Squadrons which featured it. Your ship at first is probably going to be a little too slow and clunky to take on too many bad guys, but thankfully there is an entire ship-building sub-game where you can build out the starship of your dreams. There are a lot of rules to follow when building out a ship, and not all of them are clearly explained. The ship parts that you can access when building your craft are also affected by how much you have explored the universe to find ship builders, and also how much you have developed certain skills on your tree. It also, of course, depends on how much money you have.
So, at first, you will probably be making modest improvements. But eventually, you should be able to create pretty much anything you want from a speedy fighter bristling with weapons to a star destroyer and everything in between. You can also capture ships out in space by disabling and boarding them, whereupon you can use them as a baseline to start from, so keep your eyes open for ships that you think look pretty cool. Ship design quickly became one of my favorite things in Starfield, first building the ships and then flying around and exploring with them.
In terms of graphics, Starfield looks really good, but not quite as good as I expected. The NPCs in particular look like they were pulled right out of Skyrim (other than the medieval armor), which is to say they are good, but not really super realistic like I have seen in other titles like, for example, Fort Solis which used the newest Unreal Engine to create their (admittedly much smaller) world. Some of the planetary environments also seem kind of last generation, especially when your ship is landing or taking off, and it just looks like the developers cut and pasted a lot of rock formations or scrub trees and repeated them over and over. This is balanced by the fact that some locations look really great, but even then, there are just a few things that seem to be missing from the graphical presentation. For example, there is no defined sun shining down on planets that you can see, just a bright spot in the sky where it should be. Little things like that put a bit of a crack in Starfield’s overall presentation.
The sound, however, has no such detriments. There is an amazingly well-defined soundtrack that was created by master composer Inon Zur. He has been in the industry for many years. GiN interviewed him way back in 2002, and even then he had amassed quite a catalog of soundtracks for titles like Icewind Dale II, Fallout Tactics, Klingon Academy and many others. Starfield is certainly another masterpiece, with the music perfectly showcasing the vastness of space and the endless sci-fi adventure that the game offers. The soundtrack is being sold separately if anyone is interested, and I would highly recommend it. It’s great to listen to and would be perfect for playing during an in-person game night with friends.
The voice acting is also amazing. Every single character that I talked with and even everyone I listened to just passing by in the street or the field spoke with realistic inflection. In terms of the main characters, I can’t say enough about how much they contributed to the story. For example, Barry Wiggins was perfect as the Han Solo-like Barrett, while Emily O’Brien contributed a ton of emotion while playing Sarah Morgan that made me glad to have her as my ally. And one of my favorite voice actors, industry veteran Elias Toufexis of Deus Ex fame – and more recently with As Dusk Falls and Episode 4 of The Long Dark, does an amazing job as space cowboy Sam Coe. But really, the entire cast is just great in terms of their voice performances.
Starfield might not quite be perfect, and the start of it is certainly kind of slow. But nothing like it has ever been created before. There is so much to see and experience that it will probably have players engaging with it for hundreds of hours. I played Skyrim for over 800 hours, and I am well on track for Starfield to beat that by quite a bit. Eventually, Bethesda will probably also release the creation kit, which will mean thousands of hours of fan-made content being added to an already huge universe. So, you can see why I predict that lots of people will likely still be playing Starfield even ten years from now, and probably still discovering a few new things hidden deep within the farthest reaches of this amazing universe.