This is not really a post about Starfield. This is a post about my feelings about Starfield, as squeezed through the cheesecloth that is almost two decades of playing the same game, and often writing or talking about it.
It’s weird looking back over this stuff. Eleven years of posts and podcasts documenting how I grew tired of Elder Scrolls gameplay, and how I came back to it again and again, each time I found the experience more grating, and sooner.
These past experiences made clear to me that I was unlikely to get much out of Starfield. Given that, I didn’t plan to play it. But Microsoft own Bethesda these days, and that means Starfield is a day one Game Pass release. So I had to check whether my expectations would be met, you see.
As for your expectations: don’t read this if Starfield is your new favourite game and you just can’t bear to hear that someone on the internet didn’t like it. Really, don’t bother. Neither of us will get much out of how that would play out.
Because I’m an easily entertained dumbass, I was initially impressed by the look of the game. It’s 8 years since Fallout 4 and 12 since Skyrim – and Starfield does look prettier than earlier Gamebryo/Creation engine games. It doesn’t take long for that shine to come off. Starfield is still full of jank and even when there are no obvious visual bugs onscreen, characters lay deep in the uncanny valley.
A brief aside: it sure does feel like there’s a tension between improvements that chase AAA production values and the inherent jank of the engine powering this game, these games, and what they support: a massive sandbox, weird physics, unexpected interactions between objects and actors, loads of NPCs who do their own thing within considerable constraints. Call of Duty and similar tightly scripted megagames don’t have to deal with the silly shit that Bethesda games need to. Well, they made their bed.
What can I say about Starfield that’s kind? Well, firstly, I didn’t hate it (though I probably would have if I had continued playing). Secondly, the main plot feels better suited to the actual gameplay of fucking about and ‘exploring’ than Fallout 4’s hilariously dissonant story, wherein you’re officially looking for your kidnapped infant son but in fact you’re doing everything but follow up any leads. Thirdly, combat is better than Fallout 4, so that’s a low bar cleared. Fourthly, there’s spaceship combat, and that is certainly a thing that exists.
Now, there’s a nice slice of bread laid out. Time for the filling of the shit sandwich.
It’s an accusation that can be levelled at many games post-Assassin’s Creed, and others are worse offenders – hi, Ubisoft, also repeatedly making the same damn game – but the experience of Starfield is often just playing the UI. Most of the time you’re just following a quest marker. This sucks. It reduces movement through the game’s spaces to a boring experience of being led by the nose.
Let’s illustrate with the most egregious example I remember so far. Some random scientist staring at a tree tasks me with collecting macguffins around the local hub area, and because navigating this area is both annoying and necessary, I accept the mission so I can learn it a bit more. I follow quest markers to collect three sciencemajigs, which is fair enough: the guy who gave me the mission knows where they are. Then the fourth marker leads me to a random child, who it turns out picked up the device and sold it on. How the hell does my character know to approach this child?
Speaking of things that suck, and the hub areas that suck, it’s unfortunately evident when looking for something outside of the follow-the-marker context that the areas haven’t been designed with players, you know, finding stuff other than by stumbling across it. Good luck finding a particular kind of vendor in the over-large, under-signposted and unmapped hub worlds. They didn’t put a proper map in. What the hell were they thinking?
Did you know that when you play Starfield, you’re constantly fast travelling and going through loading screens? That’s a good amount of the game. Remember how Morrowind’s loading times on the original Xbox became a meme at the time? It’s a bit like that, except now the loading screens are very quick but far more numerous. That’s progress, baby!
But yeah, Starfield is disconnected space. I didn’t expect that we’d be getting No Man’s Sky again, with continuity between planets and space and the ability to, like, fly around on a planet, but I didn’t quite expect that your spaceship would be a glorified loading screen with an inventory that occasionally lets you access a space combat minigame. This stuff sits between every other area in the game.
One of the few historic joys of Bethesda games has been wandering around a giant map and seeing what interesting stuff you stumble over. In Starfield you can’t truly do this. The only places where you can wander around and run into stuff is on planet surfaces, but these are procedurally generated and mostly only have anything of interest at randomly interspersed points. You will also quickly start seeing a lot of familiar layouts and assets populated by familiar foes. As for getting between these points, well, do you enjoy waiting for stamina bars to recover dozens of times each time you travel a few kilometres? You’d better.
I’m feeling tired already just writing about this. Let’s do a quick roundup on the game’s other features – there are so very many of them. Ship combat is underwhelming, ground combat is underwhelming, crafting is annoying, outpost building is hindered by the bloated crafting system and the constant inventory management, ship building is like pulling teeth if you’re playing with a controller, characters still stare at you like fucking marionnettes when they’re talking to someone else… and, quoting my eloquent original notes here, the menus fucking suck.
Starfield is another Bethesda game that does lots of things adequately, more stuff poorly, a few things well, and pads it out with hundreds and hundreds of hours of repeated and remixed content.
Now hey, there are plenty of reasons you might enjoy it. If you enjoy goofing around in janky sandboxes, for one, or if you play on PC and enjoy modding. Or, perhaps most obviously, if you haven’t burned out on these games and want to live the starship captain dream it offers, you might have fun. More power to you!
As for me, I’ll bastardise the TTK (Time To Kill) concept sometimes used to evaluate action shooters, and say that for me the TTC (Time To Contempt) is far too short. Starfield really is not a break from what Bethesda’s been doing doing for a very long time now: it is more of the same, with added breadth, and some new bad decisions with which to hobble itself.
Featured image credited to Guillaume Duval, famous for his deranged Dreamcast Le Mans challenge. I was going to finish this piece with a screengrab of me uninstalling the game, but I can’t even be arsed to do that. Sorry, Spacemeadow, or whatever your name is.