My Starfield review-in-progress went up 11 days ago, on August 31. I had made my way through a good chunk of the main quest and was getting my bearings in Bethesda's gigantic universe. Now that I'm on the other side of dozens of hours spent galavanting through the galaxy, much of what I said before still holds true, and other than some small nitpicks, Starfield is truly out of this world. And now that pun is officially out of the way.
My favorite thing about this game, without question, is the freedom that sits as its foundation. I can go wherever and whenever I want, so long as I have the proper ship upgrades to do it. Thousands of worlds await my one small step, and the urge to visit them all is palpable. There's a type of excitement when touching down on one of these worlds that's hard to describe, even if the planet below is mostly empty and barren.
That brings me to one of my biggest qualms with the game: Many of the planets aren't all that interesting. I talked before about how on some planets, other ships would land and the people within would do their own thing and not pay me any mind. This is true; it happens a lot, but the problem is this random ship landing is the only thing that happens on the planet. Nothing else of note or interest exists anywhere on that particular planet, and that stinks.
Now, far be it from me to expect 1,000 bustling, fully realized worlds. A game like that would take literal decades to develop, and I never went in expecting to be wowed with every single place I visited. However, it seemed that the ratio of "planets with nothing interesting" versus "planets with something to do" is skewed in the former's favor, turning the excitement mentioned earlier into valid disappointment.
What makes this feeling more prominent is how I am forced to get around once I'm on the surface of each planet. There's no rover-like vehicle, no jetpack outside of the boosts I can give myself while jumping, nothing of the sort. I have to walk everywhere, no matter how long it takes. I understand this is part of the "exploration" aspect, a Wild West-esque first discovery of a whole new world, but walking everywhere? I would think an explorer's group like Constellation would put some kind of vehicle specifically for exploration on each spaceship, but that's not the case, and it's mind-boggling.
Sometimes, however, I can make my own points of interest through outposts, which I can construct on the majority of planets I discover. I can set up robots to mine resources for me, I can use it as a haven to store items and weapons found along the way, and I can consistently mod or upgrade it as I please. I didn't mind building my first outpost and setting it up to gather some iron for me – it was nice not to have to depend on my spaceship for once – but I will admit it was the only outpost I'd built in the entire game. The system works fine, and building the outpost is easy to understand at first glance, but it's simply not the kind of thing I am looking for in a game like this.
Speaking of the spaceship, getting around in space is also very slow – it is outer space after all, its size cannot be understated – but there's something very relaxing about setting a course to a nearby planet and just sailing over there. It takes forever sometimes, long enough to make a real-life sandwich to mimic the ones from the trailer, but it can be worth it to see the beauty of the darkness of space.
If I tire of manual travel, I can easily fast travel to wherever I have to go with one of the most efficient fast travel systems I've ever experienced. The fact that I can travel back to the Lodge, from wherever I am in the universe, with a few simple button presses is flat-out amazing, and something I never took for granted throughout the playthrough. Even fast traveling between planets in the same system is super quick, punctuated with a brief clip of my ship going full speed ahead toward my destination. I love what Bethesda did with fast travel here in Starfield, and I hope other giant games follow suit.
I'm not just gliding around the dark while I'm up there; sometimes, I have to get my hands dirty, and here's where one of my favorite parts of the game comes in. Space combat is awesome in Starfield, as it presents the kind of next-gen Star Fox experience I've wanted for years. Dogfighting through space takes cunning, strategy, and a little bit of luck, but once you have an enemy ship in your sights, it's hard to describe the raw, powerful feeling of bringing that ship down. I have multiple weapons at my disposal, some designed to take down shields while others are tailor-made to penetrate ship hulls, and I can use them at will without prejudice. It's amazing.
I will admit that it's easy to lose your directional bearings while taking part in space fights, especially for those sensitive to motion sickness. This is the only part of the game I played consistently in third-person, as I found myself getting queasy while chasing some enemies, and I'm not normally affected by such things. Thank goodness for the one-button switch between first- and third-person, or I may not have started as many space skirmishes as I did.
One driving factor in my intergalactic hellraising was the ship I'd built for myself through the game's awesome shipbuilding feature. Much like the outposts, I'm allowed to design this ship however I want, so long as I have the materials I need to make the adjustments I want. Unlike the outposts, however, I had a blast designing and flying a ship of my own making. I do have to design a ship that makes logistical sense – the game will tell me if a ship won't be able to maintain flight in its current state – but that's a small price to pay for such a cool system.
Making my own ship felt much more rewarding than building an outpost because, simply put, I didn't have to leave the ship behind. My ship came with me wherever I went, it was my new mobile home in the stars, and I felt a much stronger sense of ownership because of it. Honestly, Starfield's shipbuilding and space exploration could be packaged and shipped as an entirely separate game, and I would be perfectly content tinkering away for hours on end.
I will admit that the storage perks of both the outposts and the custom ships are invaluable, thanks to a tremendously outdated mechanic rearing its ugly head. Why, in the year 2023, is encumbrance still a thing? Limiting my ability to explore, in a game all about exploration, is a contradiction that is hard to ignore.
Granted, I'm still able to move at full speed, unlike previous Bethesda games, the encumbrance penalties are less overt than before, but it's still a completely asinine mechanic that has not aged well. I would much rather not be able to pick up an item due to full pockets than suffer small nerfs simply because I mined a few extra resources in my travels.
There are other limitations to space travel, though at least they make more sense as part of the overall Starfield package. I can't travel from one end of the universe to the other right from the get-go, as I have to upgrade my ship in order to have the fuel necessary to make those long jumps.
In the beginning, as the Junior Boy Scout equivalent of a space explorer, this makes sense; not only does it keep me from being completely overwhelmed by the vastness of space, but it also encourages me to stay on the main story path for a while, in order to learn all the intricacies of space travel. I like this approach, as it saves me from myself: If I were able to see the whole universe from the jump, I'd still be out in some random system and the main quest would never get done.
Before this turns into an "End Encumbrance Now" editorial piece, let's circle back to the story of Starfield. In the early going, it started to get a little boring. Go here, get an item, perhaps fight a bad guy, repeat. There were stops along the way, of course, and a few of them offered something other than the simple fetch quest, but the cycle of "go there, get the thing" was definitely prevalent early.
However, there's one unexpected moment that turns everything around for me, and another later on which lights the fire under my belly to take it to the jerks who keep messing with my version of Constellation. I'm not going to go into specifics here for spoiler reasons, but suffice it to say one particular ascension from a planet surface to the reaches of space yielded an encounter I was not expecting, and a later chapter in that confrontation had some dire consequences I definitely wasn't ready for. I do like the story Starfield is trying to tell, and I would like to see them expand on it in the future.
The main quest line is cool and all, but there are also plenty of things to discover outside of that quest, which really bring the game into its own. Sometimes, you'll be given a mission directly from an NPC, other times you'll overhear someone talking in the street, but before long you'll be chin-deep in tasks and activities that can all be completed at your leisure.
The best side missions in the game are the ones that bleed into the main storyline, and in turn create completely out-of-left-field moments that make a major exception. In one main mission I was tasked with sneaking on board a spacecraft and stealing a rare item. I had smooth-talked my way in, I was about to enter the vault with a key swiped from the ship's captain, when all of a sudden Sam Coe started shooting at people. Nothing was done to encourage him to do so, nor did any of the other NPCs on board instigate, but suddenly, it was the Wild West.
After eventually escaping and warping back to orbit above the planet where Constellation's home base resides, I am immediately being told I'm under arrest, and my ship and crew were being sent to a prison for more discussion. Eventually, my character wakes up in a "jail" being interrogated by the United Colonies brass, when out of nowhere, I'm now being told I work for the UC now, and I'll be going undercover with sky pirates to learn their secrets. That seems fair, sure. Why not?
Spoiler alert: As soon as the UC released me, I continued doing whatever the heck I wanted to. The game did not care; it did not put me on a timer to complete the mission, or else I'd get locked up again. I was free to do whatever I wanted.
That, right there, is the beauty of Starfield. Space travel has always been about exploring the unknown; as someone who grew up with family members who taught astronomy and worked for NASA, I've had many conversations growing up regarding what makes the realm outside of our safe little atmosphere so fascinating. A lot of it is, simply, that we don't know what's out there. Human curiosity is what drives us to keep exploring, nothing more, and that's what Starfield gets so right.
This is a game that encourages you to do whatever the heck you feel like whenever you turn it on. Want to stick to the main story? Go for it. Want to check out every planet on the map? Go ahead, just don't expect every single one to be brimming with things to do. Want to build an outpost on some solitary planet and live out your days as a space hermit? Not sure why you'd want to do that, but hey, it's your choice!
No two stories from people playing Starfield will be the same, and that's what sets it apart from other games. I turn this on and allow myself to get lost in space for a few hours. I can check out an abandoned facility with guns blazing, or I can walk freely on the surface of an unknown planet, it's all completely up to me.
When I talk to a friend about what they did, their story will be completely different, and I love it. It's not perfect, and it's not the genre-warping experience like other games in the Bethesda wheelhouse.
Still, ultimately, Starfield is one of the best space-based RPGs ever made, one where hours fly by in minutes, and one where the only hard limit is your imagination.
Full Disclosure: Review code provided by PR for the purposes of this review. Reviewed on Xbox Series X.