If Starfield has a catchphrase it's 'what was I doing again?' There's such a density and wealth of discoveries that it's almost impossible not to get distracted by an entire universe of things around you. You'll pick a mission with all the best intentions of seeing it through and yet emerge, blinking, hours later on a completely different planet from where you intended to be, with endless tales of space battles, enemy encounters, and adventures under your belt muttering, "wait, what was I doing again?" It took me two days just to start the first main story mission once I was clear of the opening. I just got lost exploring planets, meeting people, and bouncing between events that I stumbled upon.
Release date: September 1, 2023
Platform(s): PC, Xbox Series X
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
My biggest vice is ship building. I'll be on a mission, land in a spaceport, and just take a quick look at what engines are for sale… and then six hours have passed and I've added an entire extra floor to my ship. Or there's surveying – scan all the animals, plants, and resources on any given planet or moon and you can sell the data. It's all too easy to finish an objective, realize you've done a 70% scan without trying, and, well, you might as well finish it and… shit, I've done it again. Okay, I'm definitely doing a main mission now. Ooh, wait, what's that over there.
If you've never played a Bethesda game before then that's kind of its whole thing – massive open worlds full of things to find and do. There are plenty of big faction missions, and a main campaign, but you'll collect an assortment of quests almost anywhere you go and entire evenings can pass by doing bits and pieces. Sometimes you'll find a fetch quest, sometimes a fancy sci-fi loot cave, and other times a chunky, multipart mission that lasts hours, just tucked away in a back alley somewhere. Sure, you can drill through the main story if you want to but you're kind of missing the point – the experience is more about existing and seeing where it takes you, rather than completing anything. With this kind of freedom 'avoiding the main mission' is the main mission.
The cities you explore, and groups you join, all feel like separate games in their own right with their own rules, culture, and character. New Atlantis is probably the 'main' location; a gleaming Star Trek utopia where the group Constellation will have you scouring the galaxy for mysterious artifacts. You'll also find the United Colonies Vanguard here who task you with fighting alien infestations and going undercover as a Space Pirate. Akila City is basically Firefly space cowboy land, where you'll bring frontier law to laser-wielding bandits. Then there's Neon, a drug-addled, Blade Runner-style cyberpunk dystopia featuring Ryujin, which has you sneaking around doing corporate espionage. And, finally, Cydonia is a rusty industrial Mars settlement that channels The Expanse's whole 'space is rubbish for normal people' thing.
Missions are varied and creative, from straight up fights to things like heists with multiple paths, investigative encounters where you're just talking to people to get info, and all sorts of other possibilities. You're never entirely sure of what's coming next and I've been surprised more than once, or reloaded saves to see all the available options. Whatever style of play appeals to you there's almost certainly something in Starfield to support it. Killing everyone is always kind of the default option but you can be stealthy, or get creative with dialogue and tech to find your own solutions. I've gone big on Persuasion, and the amount of things I've talked my way through almost feels like cheating at this point.
Outside of big scripted narrative beats there are hundreds of planets to explore, full of smaller procedurally-generated locations. And there's also outpost building, gear crafting and modding, and so on. I'm currently 80+ hours in and yet to get bored or even slightly fatigued because there's always something to switch my attention towards when I fancy a change. For me, the loop is usually a few big story missions and then, when I want to decompress, some planet surveying or ship building. Usually, along the way, I'll clear out some random missions, loot a few bases for gear, collect resources for upgrades, run into some cannon fodder enemies, and so on – just sort of going with the flow until I'm ready for another big plot beat and the cycle continues.
As with every Bethesda game, Encumbrance returns. Carry too much and your stamina, or oxygen here, drains as you move, limiting mobility. The ability to only track entire recipes, rather than ingredients, adds to the issue making it hard to filter out what you need.
The ship building takes a bit of time to really get into but, once you do, it's an addictive time sink as you tweak designs, add cabins, balance engines, weight, cargo, and ship systems. I like really big spacecraft, not for any power but because I like to walk around all the rooms, and look out the windows. The only thing I haven't really engaged with much is the outpost building. It works well enough and you can knock up pleasing bases relatively easily, it's just not something that's bothered me much and the game doesn't really seem to have a huge use for it bar bulk resource gathering.
Starfield feels very solid mechanically. Gunplay is great, with weapons offering a nice impact compared to the rattly floatiness of Fallout. While ship battles are exciting, especially when you nail that high speed arcing turn to bring all your guns to bear on a tricky enemy. That said, space flight generally is largely smoke and mirrors. You do fly around in combat, and to approach or dock with space stations, but you mainly get around via fast travel to reach systems or land on planets. Given the physical scale of everything it makes sense – it takes ages to fly even small distances manually. Similarly, while you can walk anywhere on a planet's surface, it's a planet – you can run for hours and still only be a few miles from where you started. Fast travel is the only way to get around in any reasonable time.
For everything Bethesda gets right, there are a few strange decisions: some basic skills like stealth or pickpocketing are locked behind opening up the core ability. It means you can't do these activities at all, even badly, until you invest a point in the skill tree. I accessed 'Stealth' specifically because, without it, you might as well strap bells to your space suit and quieter missions would be hell. I understand leveling up to progress things but denying access completely does feel odd. With crafting as well you can only track entire recipes, rather than individual ingredients. That can make everyone's least favorite idea, Encumbrance, a constant problem as you collect all marked ingredients because you can't tell which ones you actually need. I ended up keeping notes on my phone because of that.
Overall though, everything works well and feels stable too. There's the odd framerate stutter when you first load into a highly populated area, I've had a couple of dancing dead bodies and the odd NPC standing awkwardly in shot during dialogue, but have experienced nothing catastrophic (yet). I'm playing on a decent-ish PC running a 2070 Super and it's had no trouble. Starfield is a good looking game too, even the cave you start in is oddly impressive, while all the cities are all beautifully detailed places to explore. And, for every lifeless gray moon you'll find, there's a lurid jungle to chase weird animals across. At one point I was scanning alien fish on a coast at night when a lightning storm came in over the sea and it's got to be one of my top gaming moments of this year.
For me, Starfield is the best thing Bethesda has done since The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, and has that same density and life to it – where walking in just about any direction will find you something to do. The sense of discovery, and progression as you explore feels incredibly organic and this seems like the culmination of everything Bethesda has learned in the last 25 years. The DNA is clear throughout, with Fallout 4 and Fallout 76's crafting and building systems immediately recognisable for one thing. While waking someone up in bed to hand in a mission will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever tried to complete an objective after lights out since Morrowind.
I know Bethesda's style of game doesn't gel with everyone, but I love the exploration and sense of discovery in what it does, and Starfield represents some of the best world building the studio has done in a long time. For every moment I've spent careening around planets shooting anything that moves, there are always other opportunities presented elsewhere: casing a museum to steal its contents, or mingling at a billionaire's cocktail party trying to uncover embezzlement. And, occasionally, I'll shout "potato!" while wandering the endless expanse of space because there's a pointless tiny side mission that requires 50 of them and for some reason they're hard to find. I have literally broken back into space jail, seconds after being arrested, to steal back my precious confiscated potatoes because I am finishing that job, even if it kills me.
Starfield isn't really a game you play to complete, it's more about living whatever sort of life you want in the literal universe Bethesda has created. Whatever you're thinking of doing, you almost certainly can do it, and the scale is almost a release in a way – you'll probably never see or do it all, so just enjoy the moment. There's months, if not years, of discoveries buried away in here, and even after 80 hours I can't wait to see more.
Starfield was reviewed on PC, with code provided by the publisher.