Starfield review: an interstellar playground exceeding all expectations
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Featured Image Credit: Bethesda
It’s a disservice to say that Starfield is a great game, because it’s so much more than that. Bethesda has crafted a captivating interstellar playground that is beyond anything I have ever played or experienced. Here is a galaxy where you can be whomever you choose, from outpost trading specialist to the galaxy’s most-wanted criminal. The level of interactivity and choice is unbounded leading to an experience that is, dare I say, revolutionary.
If you stick to the path laid out for you, Starfield features a thrilling main campaign that’ll lead you towards several path-altering ultimatums. It’s a tale that’s far more thought-provoking than I ever expected and I’m impressed with just how well the narrative handles questions surrounding existence, belief, divine power, and what it is to be human. Outside of that though are a plethora of side missions that are just as enrapturing, with many functioning as their own fully-fledged storylines.
You’ll go undercover with the chilling Crimson Fleet, partake in corporate espionage for Ryujin Industries, uphold the law with the Freestar Rangers, and face off against a terrifying alien race with the United Colonies Vanguard. On top of that, you’ll find no shortage of missions on the Constellation job board, plus there are plenty of ordinary citizens also in need of your help. While there may be a finite number of quests and tasks in Starfield, Bethesda has succeeded in making that number feel infinite. You certainly won’t be running out of content in a hurry.
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You’ll begin your journey as an employee of the Argos Mining Extraction company. It’s not long before, during your mining efforts, you uncover a strange artifact which, upon touching, leads to a kind of transcendental vision. You’re quickly recruited by Constellation - the galaxy’s most prominent space exploration group who inform you that a colleague, Barrett, had a similar experience. Once you’re drafted into the main team, you’ll be sent on a long journey that’ll take you across the Settled Systems and to the very outer fringes of the galaxy, working out just what it all means. What is the artifact? What is its power? Where did it come from? That’s all I’ll say on that. After all, I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun.
What I can say is that you won’t be disappointed in the story that unfolds. It’s a slow-burner, but that’s not a criticism. What I mean is that the story is paced in a way that you have to really earn the significant developments that come along. To begin with, you’ll do your fair share of tracking down leads. Speaking to, fighting with, or bartering with a variety of people across the galaxy. Answers will lead to further questions - and I wish I could say more on that - but trust me when I say that the legwork pays off.
There’s very much a turning point in the story. Mysteries begin to unravel. Revelations are made, and you’ll need to make some very important decisions that I can guarantee will leave you staring at the screen wondering what you should do. While Starfield’s side quests are just as entertaining as the main missions, I was relieved that the main missions held a level of impact far greater than anything else experienced in the game. You’ll for sure find yourself getting distracted throughout your playthrough, but you’ll never lose sight of what’s most important. It’s a tall order to craft a satisfying narrative that pays justice to a playable galaxy this large, but that’s exactly what Bethesda has done.
While you can choose to be a tyrant to your Constellation colleagues if you really want to, largely, the main missions require you to embody certain traits: namely heroism. In joining Constellation to research the artifacts, you're partaking in something that’s hopefully going to lead to answers that benefit and better humanity’s understanding of the galaxy. If you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I just want to commit space crimes though’, it’s when you stray away from the main missions that you’re truly gifted the freedom to be whoever you want to be.
As I mentioned, there are four sets of faction missions: Crimson Fleet, Ryujin Industries, Freestar Collective, and the United Colonies Vanguard. Each has their own distinct personality, with quests following on from one another, forming storylines that may not have the galaxy-altering implications of the main tale, but certainly hold their own as being equally entertaining. Perhaps one of my favourite aspects of Starfield is how each faction challenges your moral position.
I’ll admit: I’m a bit of a goody two-shoes. I found myself right at home with the Freestar Rangers (a wild west-esque sheriff’s department), upholding the law. It was a similar case with the United Colonies Vanguard who’d send me out on missions that’d result in the betterment of the galaxy. While undercover with the criminal Crimson Fleet however, I was tasked with killing an innocent to earn their trust. For those of you with a darker streak, I’m sure you’d go ahead and kill the target. For me though, I was steadfastly determined to stay true to myself whilst still taking the Crimson Fleet down. It then became a question of how could I protect the target and maintain my cover?
There’s no one path to take. It’s up to you how things play out. Heck, you could even be a Freestar Ranger and still inflict misery should you choose, completely ignoring the organisation’s whole ethos. It’s difficult to pick a favourite set of faction quests because truly, they’ll have you just as invested as the main story. I did particularly enjoy the United Colonies Vanguard missions though, where you’ll investigate the spread of an alien race known as Terrormorphs which, yes, are pretty terrifying.
Joining Ryujin Industries was the last faction I got around to - and just when I thought I understood the game, I was pleasantly surprised with yet another change of pace. I had to attend a job interview, meet the board, and grab coffee. Little did I know that this seemingly peaceful mission would soon lead to my first run-in with the law. Tasked with uploading data to a competitor’s systems, I was soon caught during the act and taken in by security services. Thankfully, I was able to pay the fairly-low bounty and they let me go, but clearly Ryujin Industries was about to teach me a lot about the delicate nature of corporate espionage.
You can, if you want to, commit a variety of crimes within Starfield’s vast galaxy. Whether you get away with those crimes or not is totally up to how stealthily you commit them. May I offer a lesson though? Don’t throw a grenade in a public space, something I accidentally learnt the hard way. Without thinking, I pressed RB instead of LB, which launched a grenade in the centre of Neon and did not open my scanner as intended. I soon had an entire army shooting me and it’s not an experience I’ll be recreating any time soon. I squatted, hiding in a corner screaming, ‘I don’t want to go to space jail.’
If you do commit a crime, you may be arrested - at which point you’ll have the option to pay the bounty placed on you off, so if you are going to act like a tyrant, make sure you have plenty of credits stored in your pockets or it's straight to the slammer for you. If it’s simply a petty crime, you won’t be arrested but that bounty will remain on your head. You can clear those at bounty self-service terminals, although you do have to be in a separate star system to the one in which the bounty was listed. While, on the whole, I managed to avoid space jail, I still felt the implications of the system. You’ll be far more careful about what you do and which items you illegally swipe when you see just how much doing those things will cost you in the long run.
Outside of the faction quests, you’ll stumble across countless ‘regular’ side missions. Some citizens will need help with research tasks, others will need disagreements settling, and you’ll have more than a few encounters with Ecliptic mercenaries. This tier of missions is nothing to be sniffed at. Upon entering one planetary system, I was hailed down by a ship that had been taken over by a seemingly sentient AI. The two crewmen left on board tasked me with shutting it down, while the AI begged me to do otherwise. I eventually made a decision and quite honestly, the fallout of my choice left me gawking at the screen thinking, ‘Oops’. It’s a game that never fails to surprise you.
I simply have to touch upon Starfield’s vast array of NPCs. You’ll get used to seeing certain hairstyles repeated, but Bethesda have excelled in otherwise making each NPC feel unique and interesting. Within the space of a short conversation, I was given a sense of the history, culture, and moral standing of the person I was speaking to, deepening my interest in the task they were asking me to complete.
You’ll also be able to recruit your Constellation colleagues (and a few others) as companions and crew. You can assign crew members to your ship, or any outposts you build later in the game (although that’s a very late game activity). You can also pick one companion to travel around with you - and they can be changed at any time. I urge you to play around with who you take out with you as it’ll change the approach to the mission at hand. Sarah Morgan had a kind of no-nonsense attitude to bartering. Conversely, heart-of-gold Sam Coe wanted to play things by the book.
I often opted for Sam in a bid to romance him, and yes, this was for the sake of research. It was a slow burn of a relationship but the work paid off eventually. Be sure to check in with your companions, as it’s only then you’ll get the option to flirt. After a couple of flirty exchanges, Sam approached me with his husky voice. “I’ve got you a gift. It made me think of you,” he said. There I stood, bubbling with excitement … It was a rock. A useful rock (haematite), but a rock. I guess it’s the thought that counts.
Combat is a major part of Starfield, and can be played from a first or third perspective (as is the case for the whole game). Personally, I found the game to be far more enjoyable from a third-person point of view, but you do you. That’s the beauty of having a choice. For the most part, the combat is fluid. If you ransack your victims, you’ll soon be stocked with a wide array of weapon types - including shotguns, ballistic weapons, throwables, heavy weapons, laser weapons … you name it. You can favourite these and switch between them on the D-pad (it took me far too long to work that out).
I enjoyed the combat sections a lot and was surprised by the level of challenge they offered. I experimented with difficulty levels and even on the lower end, you may find yourself dying on occasion. Starfield’s combat is unforgiving when it comes to your hit box. There’s no dodge - so you cannot quickly duck or roll out of the way. You can crouch behind objects, but your best method is likely to be to stay agile to avoid taking too many hits. You’re going to want to spend a skill point on the Boost Pack Training skill. Combat was revolutionised for me when I could hover above my enemies while simultaneously getting in a few decent shots.
I also appreciated the reactivity of my opponents. Land a decent shot and they’ll stumble. Any extra shots landed during that time deal extra damage. In one instance, a poor foe was crawling away, ass in the air. Let’s just say my final killing blow landed where the sun doesn’t shine. Brutal and yet satisfying.
Weapons can be upgraded at designated workbenches, as can your suit. There are also similar options for crafting consumables, industrial items for outposts, and other health items. It’s not as simple as finding a workbench though. You’ll need to acquire certain materials to research upgrades and item mods at a Research Station - plus you’ll need to make sure you’ve unlocked the relevant upgrade skills on the skill tree. It’s only then that you can, if you’ve got the right materials, actually craft the upgrade.
It sounds like a grind but I never found it to be. You’re picking up materials all of the time, if you’re a hoarder like me anyway. I found myself being able to upgrade a number of things without really trying. Add in a tiny bit of effort and you’ll soon get your gear functioning better than ever (plus you can track materials you’re missing). The complexity of the system makes sense though. When Bethesda has worked so hard to create a living, breathing galaxy, it would’ve been a shame if upgrades were unlocked at the touch of a button. You have to put in the work.
On the topic of materials, inventory management is something you’re going to have to get used to. Love it or hate it, encumbrance limits are back. Carrying too much stuff and you’ll quickly run out of oxygen whilst running, prompting you to do the slowest walk known to mankind. Too much stuff will also prohibit fast travel. It’s something that took a little bit of getting used to. To begin with, you feel like you should take everything you see but before long, you’ll learn what’s important and what’s not. You can store certain items in your companion’s inventories, while your ship has a pretty big inventory hold too. Once you’ve mastered the art of regularly transferring all your trash there, you’ll have no problems.
Even if you’re not encumbered, you’ll need to keep an eye on your oxygen levels anyway. Bethesda really didn’t hold back in giving you a lot to think about. Med Packs and Trauma Packs are the game’s main generic healing items, but you’ll need a variety of specialist heals too. Overestimate a jump? You’re probably going to get a sprained ankle. Walked past a gas leak? You’ve probably got some radiation poisoning. Cold planet? Yeah, you’ve got frostbite. It’s no walk in the park travelling across the Settled Systems. That’s what we all want though: the challenge of having to be prepared for anything.
While you gain specialist healing items via crafting and looting, there’s also plenty of shopping to be done in the game’s major cities - New Atlantis, Neon, and Akila City - alongside mid-sized hubs like Cydonia. You’ll be able to find traders selling whatever it is you’re after. You can sell your own goods at Trade Authority outlets, and acquire new ships or ship parts/repairs and the relevant ship service stations.
Heck, if you regret a decision made regarding your appearance, you can visit surgeons who’ll ‘fix’ that. I picked the Terra-Firma trait, meaning my character feels more comfortable on land than in space, with one doctor even offering to change that for a whopping 10,000 credits. There are bars, night clubs, coffee bars, vending machines … I could go on. It’s a living world in every sense, and I just know that there are so many hidden corners I’m yet to discover and explore. You should definitely check out New Atlantis’ museum though. It’s a brilliant way of bringing you up to speed on the galaxy’s lore.
As many suspected, yes, you can decorate your own apartment. I acquired an apartment at the earliest possible opportunity meaning I ended up with a windowless concrete hell deep underground in New Atlantis in an area known as The Well - a far cry from the surface’s penthouses. There I set up a bed to rest (and heal afflictions), weapons storage, crafting stations. I didn’t return to my apartment too often, but on occasion, it did prove to be a useful hub - and I’m still endeavouring on my climb of the property ladder. It’s a nice extra touch.
Let’s talk about navigation. You won’t have a hard time finding your way around each planet. Select a main mission, open up your scanner, and you’ll be presented with directional arrows leading the way. Likewise, don’t be daunted by the fact that there are over 1,000 planets and 100 star systems. You’ll be able to set a course to your destination planet via the missions tab. On occasion, a planet will prove to be too many grav jumps away but that’s not a major hassle either. Simply jump to a system partway through the journey. From there, you’ll likely be able to make it the rest of the way. I was hugely grateful for this level of assistance because I’m not sure I’d know where to start with the Star Map otherwise.
On the topic of ships, you’ll be faced with your fair share of ship combat throughout the game - and it takes some getting used to. My word of advice: don’t neglect the ship upgrades on your skill tree. I did for far too long and found myself in a number of side quests where I didn’t stand a chance. I had to leave and come back at a later point. Your ship is just as important as your regular weapons. Without those upgraded thrusters and target locking systems, your enemies will soon have you blasted to smithereens. With those upgrades in place though, I had a lot of fun with ship combat - and perhaps secretly hoped that everytime I entered a far away star system, an Ecliptic ship would try its luck against me.
Ahead of its release, there’s been plenty of talk surrounding Starfield’s performance and stability. Bethesda promised it would be their least buggy release and I have to say, I’ve found that to be true. I was concerned about how it would run on my Series S, given so many developers have confessed to finding it a limiting console but I was, on the whole, very impressed. I did experience a couple of crashes. Thankfully, Starfield auto-saves all the time so it’s nothing a quick reload didn’t sort. As for bugs though, except for one time where I died and my hair temporarily disappeared for a while, it was all smooth sailing.
I will say that Starfield is by no means the strongest game we’ve ever seen released when it comes to graphics. There’s a rigidity in the flora and fauna. New Atlantis has a sort of … artificial feeling as you look across it. Certain planetary landscapes fared better but on the whole, you won’t find the kind of ‘photorealism’ you’ve maybe seen in other titles of this console generation but then again, Starfield’s objective felt so much bigger than that. Here is an entire galaxy at your very fingertips - a revolutionary release in the history of gaming. You can understand a minor sacrifice in graphical fidelity for the sake of scope and stability.
I should also mention that the fun doesn’t stop when you roll the credits on the main story. Of course, there’s the obvious fact that you can carry on exploring the galaxy, but Bethesda has also included a New Game Plus option. It’s not something I can say much about, except to confirm that Bethesda certainly hasn't oversold the unique and exciting twist they’ve been teasing. You likely won’t have the credits, resources, and skills to start building well-functioning outposts until very late in the game too, so I have no doubt this will also keep players busy in the long run as they expand their interstellar empires.
Starfield is without a doubt a monumental release - and not just because it's Bethesda’s first new IP in 25 years. Every now and then, a new game comes along that changes our perception of what the industry is capable of. Starfield is that game. This is beyond what we’ve come to know an open-world to be. Bethesda has created a universe that, despite its vast scale, maintains interest and an impressive attention to detail throughout. The journey you embark on will dazzle you, and I have no doubt that players will be gripped for months, perhaps even years to come. Here is a playground where you can be whoever you want to be. I simply cannot stop thinking about Starfield and the wondrous secrets it still holds. Bethesda, I have one word: bravo.
Pros: compelling main story with equally interesting side missions, unbounded freedom of choice in picking your own path, unmatched scale of world
Cons: graphics feel mildly dated on occasion
For fans of: other Bethesda releases, Mass Effect, No Man’s Sky, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor
Starfield is due to be released on Xbox (Xbox Series S version tested) and PC on 6 September, with early access opening on 1 September for those with collector’s and premium editions. A review code was provided by the publisher Bethesda. Read a guide to our review scores here.