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Written by Eric Hauter on 8/31/2023 for PC  
More On: Starfield

It seems that, like it or not, 2023 is the year that resets the bar for AAA developers. Just weeks after Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate III caused a minor uproar in the gaming community by being too big and too good, Starfield comes bursting out of the gate with a very similar trajectory. This game is absolutely enormous. Forget all the procedurally generated planets Bethesda has provided for intrepid explorers to stomp around on, the hand-crafted content is overwhelming all on its own. Dozens of individual mechanics all click and whir together to create an amazing space adventure simulator. And it is indeed just as good as we all hoped it would be.

The sheer amount of stuff to do in Starfield is mind boggling. Quests pop into your log just from walking through a city and overhearing snippets of conversation. Everywhere you go, new activities are springing up out of the ether. At one point, I was on a raggedy, sad little space station, and I decided to pop into the local store for a second to sell off some spare gear I had picked up along the way. Chatting with the weary guy behind the counter fired off an entire series of quests that I would have never seen otherwise, just because I wanted to unload some dead weight as I was walking by. It got to the point where I came to expect that every named NPC I encountered would eventually come into a play as either a quest giver or a supporting character in a later quest, and there are at least hundreds (maybe thousands) of named characters.

I want to be very clear here – I haven’t “beaten” Starfield, not by a long shot. I determined early on during the review period that I wasn’t even going to try to beat the main storyline before writing the review. It felt like a fool’s errand. I knew that I had enough time to either single-mindedly beat the main storyline, or actually play the game. So, I chose to get lost playing the game and see as much content as I could. This is the way I play Bethesda games; I completed every faction questline in Skyrim before I finally skated across the finish line. Sure, I played a number of story missions, but seeing the end of the story is the least interesting thing about these games to me.

So, what did I do instead? I completed two entire faction storylines – both of which are large, deep, and satisfying enough to shame the stories of entire other AAA titles. I played a companion questline to completion – I am now married to Sarah Morgan (I don’t think it’s going to work out; she’s a bit of a goody-goody, and she judges me whenever I want to do murders while being a bit of a psycho herself).

Judge-y. Psycho.

I’ve explored countless planets, completed a ton of resource surveys, and built out a few ships – one of which I’ve dubbed “The Trash Can”, because I use it strictly to dump all my excess crap on the floor. I own a few properties, though I’ve taken a very “successful man in his twenties” approach to the décor, meaning that they are mostly sitting empty except for a few knick-knacks. I’ve built up a pretty nice collection of legendary weapons and gear.

I’ve fought in numerous space battles, many of them several times, as engaging with other ships in orbit accounts for about 95% of my Starfield deaths so far. I’ve helped out some homies that were getting raided by pirates while trying to mine on Earth’s moon, and gazed longingly at the creepily discolored Earth below before finally deciding “Maybe later”.

I’ve solved mysteries, discovered enormous lost treasures, and steadfastly refused to take any lip from anyone while doing so. I’m currently negotiating a treaty between a long-lost generation ship that recently arrived at its destination planet after a 200 year journey, and the goofball tropical resort that has been occupying the space for the centuries the spacefarers were in transit. I’m having a blast with Starfield, in other words, and I have no intention of stopping.

But what does playing Starfield actually feel like? Well, it feels like playing a Bethesda game, just bigger and more. Elder Scrolls and Fallout fans will be right at home here, once they wrap their heads around the slightly janky UI, the new systems, and all of the ship mechanics. There is a lot of exploration, a lot of quest-log grooming, and some very difficult decisions to make.

Instead of wandering through mountains or across a barren wasteland, players will instead find themselves fast travelling between planets and systems. Starfield embraces fast travel like no other game I’ve seen, and unless you enjoy trekking back across a bunch of territory you just crossed to reach your destination, I recommend that you embrace it too. You can fast travel from planet to planet, from system to system, and to different locations on the planet you are currently exploring. And – thank the lord – you can fast travel back to your ship from almost anywhere in the game.

While you have the option to take the time to plot your course during quests, the game includes a handy mechanic that allows you to just hop into your ship, call up the quest from your log, and pop right over to the next objective – if, that is, it is within range of your ship’s fuel limits. If not, you are stuck plotting a series of shorter jumps to reach your destination. Not much of a hassle, and it adds to the realism of the game (and gives you cause to upgrade your ship’s fuel tanks).

Orbiting a planet, you are able to pick any spot to land and explore, though I mostly stuck to pre-determined waypoints and then struck out from there. A lot of fuss has been made online recently about Starfield’s planetary exploration, and the way you sometimes need to jump from region to region to fully explore a planet’s circumference. This feels like a complete non-issue to me, as I explored pretty far in these enormous areas and never hit the game’s barriers. I understand the urge to walk all the way around a given planet, but I’m not overly concerned that the game limits that ability. There’s plenty of other more interesting things to do.

Flying in local space is very fun, once you wrap your head around the controls. The left stick controls speed and the rotation of your ship. The right stick steers in every other way. Your ships’ weapons are variable, depending on what you have equipped, but in general, they are controlled with the triggers and the Y button.

Of course, none of this works if you don’t supply the various systems on your ship with power, which is controlled in a neat little interface via the D-Pad. Basically, your ship generates a certain amount of power, and then it is up to you to distribute that power as you see fit. Increase your speed at the cost of your shields, or divert power from your grav-drive to increase your weapons’ effectiveness. It’s a cool mechanic that had me feeling a bit like Scotty, diverting power to the shields when I was barreling into battle. Of course, it’s also a lot to handle when things get frantic (thus the above-mentioned multiple space battle deaths).

Ground combat-wise, I took my usual Bethesda route and focused on rifles and stealth. Bethesda has clearly put a lot of work into the gunplay in Starfield, as the guns feel weighty and satisfying (the third-person views are much improved as well). Interestingly, you can mod legendary weapons to make them even better, which means that if you want, you can walk around with ridiculous weaponry. I have one gun that randomly fires explosive rounds about every five shots, which is the equivalent of tossing off a grenade every few seconds. It’s awesome.

It should be noted though that combat scenarios are not as frequent as you might expect them to be. There is plenty of shooting, but this isn’t a shooter. I went three to four hours at a stretch just doing other things, without firing my guns. There are plenty of sequences in Starfield that have you talking your way through James Bond-style infiltration missions, so be sure to drop a few points into that Persuade skill before you get too deep into the game.

Speaking of skills, the skill tree in Starfield is enormous and varied. There are certain skills that everyone will want to sink a few points into (lockpicking, for example), but beyond that you have a ton of options to choose from, from scientific discover to ship-flying skills. Each skill has four levels, which each require a new skill point to be invested after completing a “challenge”. For example, my rifle skill requires that I kill X number of enemies with rifles before I can level it up with another skill point. I strongly advise taking the time to explore the various skills available, as some interesting things are hidden deep in the trees and will take a commitment to unlock. It’s very easy to scatter points across the top levels of the tree, which makes accessing the more interesting and powerful skills more of a challenge.

As usual with games like this, you have a ton of different ways to approach scenarios – some of which can be unlocked with the above-mentioned skills. You can go into every situation with guns blazing if you want, but you will have to deal with the repercussions of doing so. Quest givers can react quite poorly when they request stealth and you instead wander through a civilian bank blasting anything that moves (thanks a lot, Sarah Morgan, you lunatic). It is often better to sneak around, threaten, or cajole your way through situations, even when you really, really want to blast someone in the face.

As you play the game, characters dynamically react to your past deeds. I can’t imagine the nightmare spreadsheets that allow Bethesda to keep track of all of this if/then logic, but I never saw a false moment. Join the space police, and new conversation options open up. Go rogue, and entire factions (and certain companions) might shut you out for good. It’s a ridiculously complex mechanic that goes a long way towards making the world (or galaxy, I guess) feel real and lived in, and Starfield pulls it off even better than other Bethesda games.

There are a ton of other mechanics in the game that play out about the way you might expect that I’m not going to go into; I’m not here to offer a list of all the stuff you can do in the game. But yes, there is research, modding, and surveying, and resource gathering, and Outpost creation, and that finicky ship building interface (it’s more manageable on PC than on console). And of course, the usual Bethesda conundrum about what to do with all the stuff you accrue in your travels. So. Much. Stuff.

I split my time playing Starfield between Series X (probably around 50% of my playtime), PC (GeForce RTX 2080, probably about 30% of my time) and Series S (around 20% of my time). My save bounced nicely between all three platforms, allowing me to continue from one to another with minimal fuss. In general (this is going to be entirely unsurprising), I found that PC offered the best experience, followed by Series X, then Series S. I’m on record as not caring much about frames-per-second, but I must admit that the PC gameplay – and the shooting in particular - feels a bit smoother. That said, both Series consoles are perfectly viable ways to play Starfield. Beyond the obvious and mostly imperceptible resolution difference, the only difference I noted was that the Series S took a smidge longer with loading screens. It was totally fine.

Only a few issues are preventing me from giving Starfield a perfect 10. The UI is pretty clunky, particularly in the navigation of the star chart. It’s really tough to see where you are going, and there’s no good way to zoom it out and change perspective. Space exists in 3D, and the stars on the star chart are on a 2D plane, which makes it tough to see how far apart they really are. It’s a bit of a mess, and I expect it will probably be changed fairly quickly after players get their hands on the game.

Pathfinding for quest markers is also problematic. I used this analogy to explain it to my son: let’s say your destination is in the next-door neighbor’s basement, and you have to leave your house and load up the outside, then load into your neighbor’s house to get there. Starfield would put your destination marker on the lower wall of your house in the direction of your neighbor’s basement, as opposed to on your door to indicate that you need to go outside. It seems like a small thing, but until you figure it out, you’ll be wandering in circles wondering where the hell the game wants you to go. One early quest had me swimming in circles in a fountain outside the MAST building in New Atlantis looking for a trapdoor, when I actually needed to go into the building and take an elevator down to a lower level. Again, probably soon to be patched, but it is notable.

But the usual “Bethesda jank” present in Starfield was very, very minimal in my experience. This is a much smoother and cleaner experience at launch than some of the company’s past efforts. A few times I saw people jittering around on the environment. Characters would sometimes emphatically talk to walls, and I would see the back of their heads. But that’s almost par for the course at this point. I super don’t care about that stuff. In general, Starfield looks amazing, and there are some awesome destinations to explore. I went to a war-torn world that had been destroyed by battles, and there were giant half-blown-out mechs all over the place, and deadly animals crawling through trenches in the wreckage, and it looked jaw-droppingly good. The game’s cities are miracles of design, with swooping towers and gorgeous plazas. Everywhere you look, there is life and activity. There are far, far more visual wins than losses here.

Starfield is an amazingly huge and detailed playground that offers who-knows-how many hours of gameplay and exploration in an exciting new world that drips with interesting history and lore. It stuns with its scope and depth, and even after 50 hours of play I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Forget a review, there is enough here to write books. I’m going to be playing this game for years to come, and I’m perfectly happy with that. Starfield is a new classic, and it does indeed raise the bar in terms of what is possible, if not what is expected.

When they are firing on all cylinders, Bethesda games deliver pure video game magic, and Starfield is no exception. Offering an enormous galaxy to explore, a ludicrous wealth of interesting content, well-written characters, and innovative mechanics that push the genre in new directions, Starfield is a (mostly) clean experience at launch that should be experienced by all action/RPG fans. This is a new classic.

Rating: 9.5 Exquisite

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS4, PS VR2, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here

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