Here’s a tip for you fellow video game enjoyers out there: as the poets Public Enemy once suggested, it helps if you learn to stop buying into hype. Unless it’s for Breath of the Wild, the hype paid off there. Or Elden Ring. Or Armored Core 6. To be fair, it does seem like games tend to increasingly live up to the hype these days, but sometimes said hype can be so much larger than life that it’s hard to imagine anything living up to it.
Often, what we call “hype” is just advertising in disguise. Other times it’s a genuine reflection of the greatness that awaits. That said, let’s discuss Starfield, a game launching with more more hype than planets in the galaxy.
Far in the future, the Settled Systems span a sizable chunk of the galaxy. Humanity lives in an era of both unbridled prosperity and unimaginable danger. You, though? You’re just a plain ol’ miner working on a backwater planet out in the middle of nowhere. Well, you are right up until you come across a mysterious, shining Artifact while mining that lodges an inscrutable alien vision in your brain. The search for answers about the Artifact leads to you joining the exploration society Constellation, teaming up with others and seeking the truth across the Settled Systems.
Starfield’s the latest open-world explore-o-rama from Bethesda, and if you’ve played any of their games before (hint: Fallout) you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into. The Settled Systems are vast and packed to the brim with people to meet, things to do and baddies to blast. You can design and pilot your own starships, engage in space combat and piracy, set up outposts, own a home and more. Taken as a whole, Starfield is more than a little overwhelming. If you’d like a gushing, overexcited review, just look at Starfield as a big ol’ mashup of systems and give it the 9/10 it would deserve if all those systems were perfect.
When you start to look at the game piecemeal, though, some quibbles become apparent. This is a looter-shooter at heart, with much of your time spent running around space dungeons and taking out space goblins to collect space loot. It’s a little unfortunate, then, that Starfield brings back Bethesda’s questionable level-scaling system for content that’s been an issue since The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion launched all those years ago. Outside of the main story and some exploit-ish tactics, your character doesn’t level all that quickly. This means you’re going to spend a whole lot of time finding a whole lot of the same ol’ junk as you plod your way up the curve.
A secondary effect of this relates to how Starfield’s skill system works. Your character develops using skill points earned via leveling; the first point in a skill offers a perk, like increased weapon damage, and by completing challenges such as using that weapon to defeat enemies you can gain further perks. Deep investment into skills is key to getting the most from your Starfield experience, but some skills are definitely a little better than others.
Combat-wise, for instance, you’re best served by far if you stick with bog-standard ballistic weapons like rifles, shotguns and so on, as more advanced lasers and particle weapons tend to unimpress. Likewise, while Starfield’s braindead enemy AI makes them viable options, a lack of weapon choices makes unarmed and melee builds feel questionable most of the time. You can do whatever you want and be successful, of course, but if you want to feel like you’re getting the most out of your time, you’ll largely want to go with classic gats and grenades.
That’s a minor issue compared to the way crafting and loot work, though. See, Starfield really prides itself on its craft, so much so that it considers fancy crafting materials a supremely valuable reward when it comes to loot. The issue, then, is that you need to invest heavily in crafting skills to get the most out of these. This takes forever, consumes a lot of your skill points, requires you to craft things you might not otherwise want to in order to complete skill challenges and, if you don’t do it, means those ultra-valuable crafting materials are so much vendor trash. It’s especially egregious when you consider how valuable storage space tends to be.
Oh, regarding that last one – you’ll need to set aside four of your points to boost your carry weight limit sooner than later (you’re welcome). Granularity is nice, but the number of must-have skills makes Starfield’s systems more restrictive than they ought to be. Let’s not even get into the struggle of leveling the various skills you need to make ship design combat land the way it ought to.
Between mindless enemies leading to questionable combat, level-scaled loot making rewards feel bland and a skill system that feels more like a treadmill than a breakthrough most of the time, Starfield is at its best when its leaning on its plot missions to impress. The more time you spend with the bombastic and impressive main story quests, the better. These are fantastic, ranging from a high-stakes heist to a dimension-hopping dual-sided dungeon crawl, and they make for the game’s best moments.
Note that we’re not talking about the plot itself, which ends up being silly videogame nonsense (beware the takes of any critic who claims it profound), but that’s easy to overlook given the spectacle and excitement with which it’s delivered. The more time you spend trudging through procedurally-generated (i.e. random) dungeons, the staler the loot gets, so stick to the main story, faction plots and any clearly-marked handmade side quests and you’ll have the best possible time.
There’s also plenty of flavor dialogue to chat up with NPCs, companions to romance, all of that and more. Starfield’s jam packed with the quality writing you’ve come to expect from Bethesda. I’ll leave the sarcasm of the prior statement as a thought exercise for observant readers. Kidding aside, it’s not Shakespeare but the game’s setting and factions are interesting enough to make some amount of exploration worthwhile.
This focus on spectacle really shows when we look at Starfield’s presentation. It’s a lovely game, particularly if we’re focusing on the environment and ship designs. NPCs look better than they did in the developer’s close cousin Fallout 4, though they still firmly straddle the uncanny valley as only Bethesda NPCs can, though weapons and combat look suitably impressive. You’ll want to play this one on a fancy PC if possible, as 60FPS and 4K graphics are the kind of environment this game was made for. That goes for the sound as well, with its sweeping orchestra and top-notch voice acting.
The bottom line: this is all on Game Pass, so exploring the galaxy will cost practically nothing if you’re already embedded inside Microsoft’s ecosystem, whether you want to blast through the solid main quest or fling yourself at samey side dungeons all day. There’s enough to do that you’re bound to find something to keep your attention for a while. Starfield isn’t the redefinition of gaming goodness it’s been made out to be, but it’s a solid title that merits a look from a wide variety of players.