in a screenshot from Starfield, an astronaut, seen from behind, stands on an icy planet and looks toward a Saturn-like ringed planet in the distance, with a sunlike star shining in the upper left corner
Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via YouTube

Xbox’s big exclusive takes on the vastness of space

With Starfield, Bethesda’s ambition has exceeded its craft.

It’s difficult to speak definitively when discussing a game like this, a role-playing epic about exploring an infinite expanse. One player might choose to join a gang of pirates, make as much money as possible, then set off on a shiny new ship to test the boundaries of space. Another might fill out a job application to join the corporate faction Ryujin Industries, which exerts influence over all settled colonies, and rise through the ranks. Meanwhile, I enjoy Starfield most when I’m able to piddle around for hours delivering coffee orders, taxiing people around the solar system, and assisting in scientific research.

All this is to say that Starfield is vast. Though I’ve played nearly 50 hours of the game during the pre-release review period, I’ve reached a tiny fraction of its supposed 1,000 planets. I’ve collected every artifact, infiltrated a pirate crew as an undercover narc (against my will), fancied up my spaceship, run errands for random people, and searched for resources on barren planets. There is so much to do and so many people to meet across the cosmos, on new worlds to which humans have escaped after fleeing a blighted Earth. For all of this vastness, though, Starfield often feels sterile, and it buries its best moments beneath so much tedium.

Starfield has been in development for eight years, according to game director Todd Howard, and it shows. You’ll find atmospheric places and compelling stories amid the bespoke planets and procedurally generated environments, but too many of Bethesda’s vistas feel like a homogenized version of space. Sure, there are moments in Starfield that celebrate the strangeness, glory, and power of life across the cosmos — but there’s just as much lifelessness.

in a screenshot from Starfield, the camera looks into a space station from overhead, through a glass dome; a man is sitting at a table surrounded by lots of equipment
Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via YouTube

Starfield’s main quest line puts me in cahoots with Constellation, an intrepid and infamous group of space explorers bent on tracking down mysterious artifacts that have an unknown power. It’s a hunt that takes me — an explorer and empath who’s burdened by an overeager reply guy, in keeping with a trait I selected before embarking on my journey — to a bunch of different planets across a couple of solar systems, leaving dead pirates and other space bad guys in my wake. You can recruit new followers both as your ship’s crewmates and as exploration companions. You’ll often find potential crew members, with varying skills, lingering around populated settlements, equally intent on finding an excuse to soar into space and leave their lives behind.

Starfield has several major hubs: dusty, Wild West-esque Akila City, on the planet of Akila; Neon, a cyberpunk city on Volii Alpha; The Key, a space station overtaken by pirates; and New Atlantis, the futuristic United Colonies metropolis on Jemison. Like Winterhold, the Vegas Strip, and Vivec City before them, these locations serve as sources for faction missions, side stories, and miscellaneous quests. Crucially, though, they’re singular points of interest on planets that are much larger and much emptier beyond the city walls.

There are exciting and surprising things to discover on the outskirts (and even farther out). But more often than not, these swaths of land simply hold an abandoned research station, or a cave that’s overrun by pirates or religious zealots. These places aren’t inherently uninteresting in their own right, but when you’ve come across a half dozen of them already, and gunned down said inhabitants time and time again, the scenarios start to blend together.

New Atlantis, the first urban area you discover, is a tightly controlled Epcot-esque utopia that hides its inequality underground; the poor people literally live in squalor beneath the city. The first person I spoke to after disembarking from the city’s tram system was a sanitation worker. She looked tired, I rudely told this stranger, and she said she wished she had a break to grab a coffee. There was an option for me to get one for her, so I did: I ran to a nearby kiosk and returned with the concoction she had been pining for. There was no meaningful reward aside from the little spark of joy in doing something kind for someone — even a minor character planted outside of the tram for a bit of flavor when you step into the bustle of the city. It’s a tiny, fleeting moment in a game all about vastness and infinity, but it was personal. It was human. And it was a far cry from New Atlantis’ otherwise anodyne, corporate vibes, which I suspect may be intentional — an extension of the promised perfect life in space, away from the destruction found on Earth.

in a screenshot from Starfield, a spaceship is parked on a landing area in a futuristic city called New Atlantis
Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via YouTube

Shortly afterward, I delved into the commotion of the city streets, where strangers loudly discussed local news or barked out tips to me, right before corresponding activities appeared in one of Starfield’s many, many menus. I interacted with quest givers in the most artificial way possible — that is, with all of humanity removed from the equation. In fact, had my handy watch not notified me about the new quests, I never would have known I had interacted with anyone at all.

It doesn’t help that Starfield kills most of the momentum it ever generates, the artificiality separating me from its most satisfying moments. I reached a standstill dozens of times throughout my campaign, where streaks of inspired stories or entrancing exploration came to a screeching halt because of Starfield’s overwhelming menus. There are quick-save slots for weapons, but if you run out of ammo or need a weapon that’s not saved, there will be lots of flicking back and forth through layers of screens. It’s also a real slog to jump from planet to planet via Starfield’s menus, halted by jump limits, fuel levels, and all sorts of other numbers just trying to find a barren rock floating in space, before doing it all over again. Space travel in Starfield is ultimately a series of loading screens.

And so, the problem remains: Starfield can feel insipid in a way that certainly must not be intentional. I would estimate that I struggled to stay interested in Starfield for the first 15 hours of my campaign, completing fetch quests for Constellation and hopping from derivative handcrafted planets to procedurally generated spaces of “not much.” In those 15 hours, I didn’t find many more of the small delights that delivering coffee brought me, nor did I find many incidental threads to pull; instead, I largely grav-jumped across planets pockmarked by abandoned mines, in which I had to plow through hordes of gunslingers to grow my pile of loot. In these crucial early hours of the game, where it’s essential to hook a player, Starfield opts for the standard gameplay loop I can find in so many other places: Kill everything on sight, then collect whatever you came for. For all of the game’s invocations of wonder and discovery, I rarely felt as if I was discovering anything wonderful.

But on unexpected occasions, wonder struck: At one point, I was aimlessly grav-jumping to meet the qualifications for the next skill upgrade. I soon found a massive ship hovering within a planet’s orbit, but there was no way to communicate with it from the surface; turns out, it was a vessel that left Earth 200 years ago. The people on the ship, generations that had lived and died within the confines of its hull, believed themselves to be alone in the world, the only survivors of Earth’s demise. Forget about a minor activity; that’s a storyline that’s interesting enough to hang an entire game on. I want to see more of these sorts of experiences in Starfield, and maybe I’ll find them eventually — but maybe I won’t.

in a screenshot from Starfield, an astronaut — a tiny speck in the bottom right corner of a wide vista — stands on a rock outcropping, looking toward a tower capped by a golden geodesic sphere, with an orange ringed planet looming large in the background
Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via YouTube

Blockbuster video games have only gotten bigger and more expensive to make in the eight years since Bethesda Game Studios began work on Starfield. In that time, we’ve seen a handful of studios try to make “the ultimate game,” one that can be whatever the player wants it to be. Starfield falls into a cloudy space between the awe-inspiring infinity of No Man’s Sky and the handcrafted brilliance of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. In an effort to impart that ever-elusive sense of vastness in Starfield, Bethesda’s Pete Hines claimed that the game doesn’t even begin until you’ve finished the main quest. I disagree: This is a game that started well before I finished the main story, in a fleeting interaction with a coffee-craving stranger; or during a heist on a space cruise; or on an accidental foray into the lonely hallways of a ship whose generations of passengers thought that all was lost, only to find that humanity had survived. But Starfield buries these adventures so deep beneath layers of artificiality and behind stalled momentum that they’ve become lost in all of this “ultimate game.”

Starfield exists in the push and pull between a carefully crafted world and the vastness of procedurally generated planets. Bethesda embraced the idea of more, and in turn, watered down the parts of space exploration and discovery that are most compelling to me: how humans relate to it. The expanse of Starfield’s world leaves gaps unfilled, and Bethesda has opted instead to simply spread further, rather than flesh out what’s already there.

With Starfield, Bethesda has put all of its efforts into exploring the dark, vast corners of outer space. In the process, it has drained a lot of the humanity I was hoping to find in its wake. In trying to do everything, Starfield obfuscates its most compelling mysteries.

Starfield will be released Sept. 6 on Windows PC and Xbox Series X, with early access beginning Sept. 1. The game was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a pre-release download code provided by Microsoft. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *