Starfield review

It’s inevitable that Starfield will send you hurtling back to 2015 at some point, recalling playing Fallout 4 for the first time while a launch model Xbox One or PS4 hums in the background. For me, this phenomenon occurred when I wasn’t playing – leave the controller alone for a while and the camera automatically snaps into third-person, slowly circling your custom character while NPCs mill around, just as it did in Fallout 4 all those years ago. Indeed, Starfield is a game not built from the ground up, but rather powered by old and familiar tech, made new once more by a slew of enhancements.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per see – the entire industry relies on reusing and modifying existing game engines. EA, Ubisoft, Activision, and even Nintendo – with their magnum opus Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom – wouldn’t be able to release yearly, or bi-yearly in some instances, instalments of their biggest franchises without building on an existing framework. If you hoped Starfield to be the debut of an all-new Bethesda RPG engine, you’re doubtlessly going to be sent crashing back to Earth.

While this may sound damning, it seems reasonable to suggest that there isn’t an off-the-shelf engine out there that could easily power and fulfil Bethesda’s vision here. At least, not one that wouldn’t come with a bunch of caveats, such as lengthy loading screens and texture pop-up. Remember, when it came to creating Mass Effect Andromeda, not even the almighty BioWare could work their magic with EA’s own powerful Frostbite engine.

Starfield Xbox Series screen capture

The good news is that this latest iteration, known as Creation Engine 2, is befitting of next-gen consoles. Starfield isn’t something that would have run well on the OG Xbox One, if at all. The level of detail has been improved across the board thanks to high-resolution textures used even for the smallest of things, character facial animations are noticeably more lifelike, physics are explementary, lighting effects more ambient and natural, and – most crucially – we’re able to go planet jumping with the briefest of loading screens. Bethesda knows their engine inside and out – both what’s possible, and what isn’t. But then, after some twelve years, you would come to expect this.

Starfield sees you fast-travelling around the galaxy in the name of discovery. The opening sequence is remarkably condensed as RPGs go, skimming over the basics of survival while drawing you into its expansive world. Our journey begins with a lowly miner armed with a laser cutter, which in turn teaches the importance of resource mining – an idea seemingly pilfered from No Man’s Sky. Amongst the rubble, a glowing artefact shines through, provoking a jumbled vision akin to a light show. News of this find soon reaches Constellation, a collective of open-minded and affluent intellectuals who’ve spent many years tracking down other identical artefacts. Together, at the Constellation’s wainscoted lodge, these floating artefacts form an incomplete spherical band – and much time has been spent pondering its existence.

Starfield Xbox Series screen capture

Having proven your worth, you’re soon asked to join their merry planet-hopping jamboree, and just to welcome you in, you inherit your own trusty spacecraft. Or at least, it’s yours once you’ve taken out the space pirates hot on your tail. That’ll be the combat tutorial, then. Space combat is elaborated on, too, with ships having varying power sources to allocate, diverting power into weaponry, shields and the engine as you see fit.

From thereon, you’re free to play Starfield as you wish. There’s the main quest, which mostly involves following leads on other possible artefact locations after gaining tip-offs. Considering their supposed rarity and worth, I was surprised to acquire two artefacts in the space of an hour – not that the main quest is brief. While exploring – with Constellation based in the bustling but also oddly structurally barren city of New Atlantis – you’ll soon amass a long list of side-quests (known as Activities) to complete, with almost every shop owner and company CEO looking to harness your discernible talents. Even just overhearing a conversation can see a new Activity added. They’re a good way to boost XP quickly, and you’ll often get to talk your way out of situations – which entails persuasion dialogue options, with a gauge to fill.

The quality of both the voice acting and writing is, generic NPC chatter aside, generally impressive with most characters always having something worthwhile to say. When it comes to dialogue options though, it is peculiar that the first option will always be the ‘good’ response, at least from a moral standpoint. Presumably, this is so players can always skip dialogue without fear of being reprimanded. Travel companions, too, are likeable – varying from a gruff cowpoke originating from a planet with a Wild West theme to a robot with more than a basic understanding of human needs and interactions.

Starfield Xbox Series screen capture

Then there’s the matter of space travel. The star map shows the planets around you, which can be scanned for resources and explored by foot – with the game engine generating a large patch of terrane with a few key locations, such as abandoned facilities and bases. You’ll come across peculiar alien creatures, with each planet having a food chain, and chances are space pirates will show up at some point. Barren worlds feature too, just for the sake of realism. Planets also have their own unique locations – usually two or three – some of which are used for mission objectives, with others just waiting to be discovered. Courses can be plotted (a ship’s engine size restricts how far you can jump) and upon entering a planet’s orbit you’ll find trade ships, local authorities who may take an interest if you’ve acquired a bounty, and perhaps a space station to dock into. Space combat is visually pleasing – backed by masses of debris and glitzy effects – and as the auto-save kicks in regularly, being blasted to smithereens is never much of an inconvenience.

On-foot combat is where things fall apart slightly. Stepping foot into an enemy camp and being targeted by half a dozen laser turrets is a common occurrence, forcing you to backtrack and find vantage points. Planets have different gravity and being able to slowly leap through the air and pick off targets does add some spice. Throwing a grenade into a group of enemies remains fun too, especially as throwables can be hard to come by. Enemies are smart enough to hide behind cover, and melee attackers can catch you off guard, but you’ll also notice oddities with AI behaviour. Most of the other glitches relate to the ways NPCs act, sometimes randomly standing on objects such as desks, or haphazardly falling through the air when entering a new area.

There’s a wealth of futuristic-looking weapons to experiment with – everything from shotguns to cutlasses – and as ammo is relatively scarce unless you’ve prepared and visited merchants beforehand, you’re encouraged to switch weapons regularly. Incidentally, the assumption is made that there’s familiarity with past Bethesda RPGs – assigning weapons and items to the d-pad isn’t explained. Newcomers may be left wondering why there’s no radial wheel.

Starfield Xbox Series screen capture

Weapons, helmets, and damage-absorbing spacesuits can all be upgraded – but only at workstations, which is another antiqued Fallout 4 throwback that ideally needed a spruce. While it’s possible to track the resources required, the process of creating upgrades is still slow. Researching new mods and items can take some time too, being a pursuit achieved between missions or when returning to the lodge. Not every spacecraft has research terminals either, and that’s something to be wary of when acquiring a new ship – either by force or with credits – and setting it as a new homestead.

Generally, I found myself levelling up once every couple of hours. This bestows a single skill point to help define your character, with the character customisation tool also giving a chance to select a few starting skills – such as better O2 management, which ties into running when encumbered. It’s possible to enhance your melee skills, become better at persuasion, and unlock new abilities for space travel. While it’s possible to meet a bootlicking fan who’s keen to share your journey, I did feel that some sillier perks would have lightened the tone. You won’t find much to match Fallout 4’s Bloody Mess perk here. In fact, Starfield doesn’t have much in the way of flying body parts at all.

Easily the most appealing aspect of Starfield is the freedom it grants. Boot it up, and you’ll likely find yourself mulling over what to do and where to go next. Outposts (née Settlements) can be created outside of mission areas, using a mix of recycled in-game assets and unique structures. The idea is to create resource mining rigs and transport precious materials to your ship’s cargo hold, all while placing turrets to deter wildlife. Ships can be customised too, allowing spacecraft from pop culture to be recreated with relative ease. Exploration was the initial draw I believed, but after landing on half a dozen planets, the excitement did start to wane – the ability to fast-travel does perhaps diminish the build-up and excitement of landing on a new planet.

Starfield Xbox Series screen capture

Bethesda and Microsoft have said, many times, that this is a game twenty-five years in the making – a dream project that couldn’t have existed until now. Play Starfield for a few hours, and you’ll certainly see evidence of this. Technology obviously had to advance to a point where they could achieve their vision – the Xbox’s SSD has allowed for planet jumping, and larger, more detailed environs. There are locations here like no other in a Bethesda game, such as the bustling crime-ridden city of Neon – closely resembling something out of Cyberpunk 2077 – and every indoor area is crammed full of detail. Dozens upon dozens of knickknacks, futuristic foodstuffs, potential crafting resources and more. Only under Microsoft’s wing has Bethesda had the time and resources to create something as richly detailed as this.

Starfield is the gaming equivalent of 2015’s sequel trilogy kickstarting Star Wars: The Force Awakens – a new story for a new generation, but one that’s also tied to something old. Visual delights aplenty, yet under that lustre lies the requisite to adhere to decade-old traditions. There are things in Starfield that solely exist because they’re expected – without them, this wouldn’t be a Bethesda RPG. But there are also new things built on top of foundations, some of which are sturdier than others. The result is something fresh yet familiar; a mix of new and old. R2D2 and BB-8; Starfield and Xbox Series. Listen carefully and you may even hear Phil Spencer say, “This will begin to make things right.”

Bethesda’s Starfield is out now on Xbox Series and PC, available both digitally and at retail.