james debate
james debate

Sunday 22 October 2023

Developed by Bethesda
Published by Bethesda
Genre Role-playing game
Platform PC, Xbox

starfield bethesda skyrim elder scrolls fallout best game 2023 microsoft xbox playstation pc
In a year that is already historically stacked with notable videogame releases, the release of a new Bethesda RPG still stands out as an event of particular significance. Over the past three decades, Bethesda have developed some of the most celebrated games in the industry, including the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises, the most recent release of which, Skyrim, is commonly viewed as a landmark title in the open world RPG genre. Bethesda have drawn their fair share of flak over the years for controversial DLC policies and notoriously buggy releases, but there are few things in gaming that can match the experience of diving into one of their immersive worlds for the first time.

Their latest title, Starfield, marks a significant moment in the studio's history. This is the first game developed since the studio's buyout by Microsoft. It's the first completely original IP developed by the studio in twenty five years. It might also be their most ambitious title yet. The idea behind Starfield has apparently been percolating in the mind of director Todd Howard for decades, but until now the technology hasn't existed to make it reality. Having spent some time playing with the game now, I would argue that it still doesn't, but we will come back to that later.

Starfield is set in our world, a few hundred years in the future when mankind has developed the technology to travel the stars. A catastrophic event has rendered the Earth uninhabitable, and the remnants of humanity are spread over a sector of space comprising of some 100 stars, collectively known as the Settled Systems. The balance of power is split between three primary nations. There's the United Colonies, essentially your classic vision of utopian future Humans, heavily influenced in aesthetics by the real life United Nations and the Federation from Star Trek. There's the Freestar Collective, a rival confederation of libertarian-minded systems that runs the gamut from neo-noir cyberpunk corpo cities to wild west frontier towns. Finally there's the mysterious House Va'ruun, a reclusive faction of religious fanatics that has ceased contact with the other two factions (think of them as space-Slytherin). Then we have a variety of secondary factions, including corporations, mercenary groups and pirates, all vying for influence and power.

As always, players create their own character. This system has seen some significant improvement from previous Bethesda games. The physical sliders are more detailed and allow for some very impressive fine tuning of appearance. In all my years of playing these games, I think Starfield was the first time I felt I ended up with a character that actually looks something like me. 

Once designed, players choose a backstory and "traits". The backstory allows for some fairly interesting character design, as disparate as industrialist, chef, club bouncer, etc, and each come with their own skill perks. The traits allow for some pretty cool gameplay modifiers. These might include affiliation with a particular faction or religion. The more interesting ones include a trait to add your parents to the game, who will provide you with gifts and flavour in exchange for sending some of your credits to them each month. Another adds a "dream home" on a peaceful planet, in exchange for a steep mortgage you need to pay off. These are pretty neat and have had a surprising amount of thought put into their implementation. For example, I was surprised at just how frequently my parents popped up during the story in various places, and that was quite humorous and enjoyable. 

I am pleased to see that Starfield makes greater use of your character background and perks in gameplay, unlocking additional dialogue options in quests. This was a major complaint against Fallout 4 compared to Skyrim and New Vegas, and it's great to see them making better use of these RPG mechanics once again.

At the same time, there were moments where some fairly obvious implementation has not been done. For example, you can get married in this game, yet your parents don't show up to that. The game bizarrely also starts with your character working as a miner, a decision which seems oddly incongruent with the ability to choose a different character background. Why is my famous chef/diplomat/cyberneticist working as a miner? Skyrim and Fallout cleverly avoid this issue by leaving your character's starting background ambiguous, it is strange that they did not do the same here.

The general gameplay loop of Starfield will be very familiar to those who have played any of Bethesda's previous titles. Players design their character, assign a few starting skills and traits. You explore the Settled Systems, taking on a series of quests that vary in scope from substantial ongoing questlines, to one-off side quests and random tasks. Along the way, you encounter various populated "hub" cities, colourful characters some of whom can be recruited, and plenty of out-of-the-way locations that may not relate directly to a quest,  but provide the immersive environmental storytelling for which Bethesda is known. Players will acquire and upgrade their gear and weaponry, rank up their skills and perks, and craft all manner of items. The settlement mechanic has been brought over from Fallout 4, and now players can also design their own spaceships using a similar system.

The general gameplay mechanics work well enough. The running and shooting all feels nice and crisp, probably the best it has done in a Bethesda game to date. The addition of jump-packs to blast around in the middle of a combat situation is also a lot of fun. 

So far, it all sounds like a standard evolution of the tried and tested Bethesda formula. But as we will see, it differs in some pretty significant ways. The core evolution in the Bethesda formula this time is that rather than one big open game world, you have an entire sector of space to explore. 120 systems, 1000 planets, all fully explorable. This is achieved through a combination of hand-crafted locations and procedural generation. 

Space itself is not explorable as an open world, so practically what this means is players fast travel from planet to planet, exploring a narrow slither of space around the planet, and then landing on the surface. Players can land anywhere on the surface. Technically the entire planet is explorable, but not as a single contiguous space. Rather the game divides each planet into a grid of "instances". When you land on the surface you enter one such instance. That instance is populated with procedurally generated geometry, resources, biomes, flora and fauna and other points of interest. But you can't walk from one instance into the next, you need to go back to your ship and land in a different spot. 

Ostensibly, this breaks the illusion of a galaxy of fully explorable planets, but in truth the instances are each so big that you will never notice the limitation unless you go deliberately looking for it. In my entire playtime, I never had a situation where I reached the explorable boundary of an instance. 

Partly, this is because there just isn't much reason to explore so much of any specific instance. Starfield adds an exploration system, which allows players to scan minerals, flora/fauna, and other points of interest in order to survey a planet. You get experience points for this, and you can build outposts to harvest the resources (more on that later). You can scan everything in a particular biome without having to explore too much in any single instance, after which there just isn't really any reason to explore further, other than for the view. 

Fortunately, the view is often worth the trip. Starfield is generally quite a pretty game, and the world engine does a good job of creating memorable locations, from hazy jungles, to ragged mountain ranges and windswept beaches. Standing on an alien coastline on some moon, looking up a gas giant setting over the horizon... it's quite a sight, and it's impressive how often I felt the need to just stop and take in my surroundings. 

The procedural generation system also puts down various points of interest in these instances: factories, outposts and the like. It does a serviceable enough job of creating these, but since they are procedural they rarely have much that is worth going out of your way to explore. Some of these generated points of interest contain some quite nice environmental storytelling (in classic Bethesda fashion), or a few generic interactive NPCs with generic, procedurally generated quests, but you'll find they quickly repeat themselves and after the first few you'll probably just start ignoring them. It adds nice flavour and spices up the exploration gameplay, but it's not hugely substantive on its own.

Of course, there are also hand-crafted random encounters that are not procedurally generated, and some of these can be pretty fantastic. Memorable encounters I've had include running into a ship captain singing delightful sea-shanties, another included a colorful lady calling herself "grandma" who invited me aboard for a meal. Stuff like this makes the universe feel alive, but there could be more of it.

So while, yes, technically you can explore an entire planet, there is rarely any practical reason to explore more than the small area around your landing site. This has the benefit that the technical limitations of the game engine don't really end up mattering much, but at the same time it does make the selling point of all that exploration seem a little superfluous. More a tagline than something substantial.

Ultimately, most players are probably just going to be going from one of the hand-crafted quest locations to the next. Which is fine, but it takes much of the openness out of the game and arguably turns Starfield's biggest selling point into a weakness. In Skyrim or Fallout 4, by contrast, a player could simply pick a direction, explore, and know that they'll find something interesting, hand-crafted, and usually with some substantial story, character or quest attached to it. In Starfield, that isn't the case. You can aimlessly explore on a planet's surface, but you won't find much there aside from nature to scan, and the occasional point of interest. Most substantial content is essentially reached by fast travel. This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, it's just a departure from other Bethesda titles. Personally, as a fan of sci-fi and space exploration, I did enjoy this system and exploring just for the sake of exploring, but I can understand some longtime fans feeling that Starfield exploration lacks a bit of something as a result.

With respect to the more story-focused, hand-crafted content, this is generally quite good. Aesthetically, the world of Starfield is rendered in a delightfully fresh "NASA-punk" style. It's futuristic enough to look convincing, but still grounded in the chunky, functional realworld tech that we use to get into space today. This helps the world feel real and like a genuine continuation of our world. It also just looks really cool.

But the aesthetic is weirdly inconsistent and incongruent within itself. There's no real explanation for why humanity would build some cities with a ultra-shiny Star Trek aesthetic, others like a wild-west cowboy town, and others still as a super gritty cyberpunk city. In the real world, different locations have wildly different aesthetics due to disparate cultures developing separately over thousands of years. There's no real reason why this would have happened in the world of Starfield. It provides nice variety to the game world, but doesn't really make much sense.

It's a small gripe, but I also feel the "destroyed Earth" trope is a bit tired. It's usually implemented in games for the wrong reasons, rather than because it actually makes sense or adds anything to the story. In this case, the reasons behind it are limitations in technology and imagination. It's pretty apparent that the only reason they contrived the destruction of Earth was so that they didn't have to choose between a fully explorable, populated Earth, and having to compromise on that "fully explorable" tagline. In this case it was probably the wrong choice. A barren, sand-covered Earth doesn't really make much sense. Even if the planet was destroyed, the ruins of those cities would still be there after just a few hundred years, and the story-reasons behind the destruction also come off as somewhat lazy and contrived. It would have been trivially easy to simply make Earth one planet that either couldn't be landed on, or with only certain specific locations to visit, and players would have understood the reasons for it.

The quests are pretty fun and contain a nice amount of variety, from more combat focused military ventures to corporate espionage and diplomatic missions. There's a pretty decent quantity of quests as well. One of my main complaints with Fallout 4 was how few quests there were in the game compared to Skyrim. While Starfield certainly doesn't match the volume of quest that there were in Skyrim, there is still more here than in Fallout 4. Particularly in the early stages of the game, it sometimes feels overwhelming, like you can't go for a walk without stumbling onto some new quest.

If there is one major problem with the various quest lines it's that they never seem to have any consequences. One of the hallmarks of Bethesda games is that players make decisions in resolving quests, and those decisions have long-lasting effects on the game world. In Fallout 3, your choices could result in entire cities being destroyed. In New Vegas your choices would turn certain factions against you and shut off their questlines. In Starfield this is often glaringly absent. You can complete the pirate questline, and in doing so stage a massive attack against the United Colonies, and then straight afterwards you can play the entire UC questline with ostensibly no blow-back from your earlier actions. It's quite disappointing. To be clear, this is not always the case. There are some quests where your choices manifest themselves quite nicely in the wider world, but far too often there's just nothing acknowledging or referencing what should be fairly major developments.

At this point it's worth also mentioning the modding community. One of the main attractions of a Bethesda game is how moddable it is, and how the fanmade modding community is so active. Fifteen years later, and Skyrim is still receiving worthwhile new content from fans. New characters, quests, worlds and adventures. Starfield, more than any other game to date, feels like a game that was designed with modding in mind, with its extraordinary amount of empty space just begging to be filled with content. I can't wait to see what fans will come up with in the years to come.

One thing that is still affected by your decisions is your relationship with the game's various characters and companions. This "affinity" system is something carried over from Fallout 4 and was quite a big advancement at the time for Bethesda. In older games (including the widely praised Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas) companions really didn't have much depth to them. Sometimes they came with a quest, or a particular perk, but that was it. Fallout 4 changed that, by introducing a system whereby your relationship would progress over time depending on your actions, dialogue, and the amount of time spent with the character. This affinity system is implemented again in Starfield. Unfortunately, the companion system as a whole is one area which seems to have inexplicably taken a big step back. 

Fallout 4 had some fourteen interactive companions with a fully implemented affinity system. They would react to your actions, provide new dialogue and story as time went on, as well as new quests and companion perks. Starfield, incredibly, only has four. To be clear there are some twenty companions in Starfield in total, but for whatever reason, only four of them have affinity systems implemented. The other sixteen are a throwback to the bad old days of older Bethesda titles, with little progression, no quests or perks, and only minimal story content. Companions, in general, are also just much less interactive than they were in Fallout 4. In that title, you could speak to them, give them commands or instructions, ask for feedback. There's much less of that in Starfield. You can trade with them, or discuss the same handful of conversation topics, but that's it. This is a huge disappointment, and it's hard to understand why they did it this way.

It's also worth mentioning the writing. The writing in Bethesda games is generally decent... no Bioware, but better than most. The storylines are mostly pretty good and the dialogue ranges from serviceable to quite excellent. One area they have always been pretty weak on is in writing romance dialogue, and that is especially the case here. It's awful, it's cringy, and often out of character for the person involved. 

The world of Starfield, in general, strikes a bit of an odd balance of whether it wants to take itself seriously or not. This isn't Fallout, and yet the writers often inject satire and comic book levels of exaggeration as if it were, while other times keeping things pretty straight. You can tell these writers had previously worked on that series, and it often feels like they aren't quite sure what identity they want to create for this new franchise. In my view, Starfield's writing is at its best when it leans more heavily into high-concept sci-fi setting, with quests featuring things like alternate universes, quantum physics and genetic engineering. This is where the game truly finds its own voice and stands out from Bethesda's other work.

Without spoiling too much, it's also worth mentioning the new game plus. New game plus is a common mechanic in videogames which allows you to start a new game, while carrying forward certain benefits from your first playthrough, such as XP/levels. Starfield does something very clever that I've not seen before in a game, and makes new game plus an actual continuation of the story. Without spoiling the story specifics, this takes the narrative into some remarkably effective metafictional directions about player choice and the morality of the game's central characters. They've even taken it a step further by including various narrative and quest variations in new game plus that allows you to use your knowledge from the first playthrough to achieve different outcomes. Some rare new game plus variants also result in some drastically different (and often hilarious) shake ups of the setting and characters. It's all very clever, the problem is that not everyone likes the idea of a new game plus, or replaying games more than once. By hiding ostensibly "new" content behind this mode, it almost makes it a necessary expansion of the experience rather than an optional choice for players who are so inclined. I can see this annoying some players.

The last significant gameplay mechanic to discuss is the crafting/building side of things. Weapon and spacesuit crafting is basically what you would expect from previous Bethesda titles, although many components are locked behind perks and research projects (unlockable at the new research station). 

The outpost building system is similar to Fallout 4's settlements. On the one hand, it's a less restrictive system in that outposts can be built anywhere, as compared to the preset settlement locations in Fallout 4. On the other hand, the outpost components themselves are much fewer and more restrictive than in Fallout. I suppose this has the benefit that outposts all fit within a consistent NASA-punk aesthetic, but it can be frustrating when things don't work as intended. Building on uneven terrain can be a pain, and sometimes habitats simply refuse to click together for no discernible reason. The furniture options are also something of a mixed bag. This is one of the areas that I look forward to seeing modders expand.

Where this system differs from Fallout 4's settlements is in its purpose. Fallout 4's post apocalyptic setting is one where survival is the main goal. Accordingly, the settlement system was built around providing access to food, clean water, and security. Random settlers from around the Commonwealth would seek safety in your settlements, and your goal would be to provide their needs and raise their happiness levels. Almost like a mini "Sims" style game. In Starfield, there are no randomly generated settlers. You can only assign your companions to outposts (and they will have skills that boost the output of the outpost). There is no happiness to raise, no resources to provide. Rather, the system's sole purpose (other than roleplaying and building something cool) appears to be for harvesting crafting materials. The problem is, there really is no need for this. Basically all crafting materials can be purchased easily and cheaply from the hub cities. It is pretty fun building up supply chains and linking outposts to build more advanced and complex materials, but there really is no purpose behind them. You can't make any real money selling the materials, and there's no need for high quantities of any single item. The outpost system sadly is a bit under-baked, a cool feature that hasn't figured out a reason to exist.

Then there are the spaceships, which can be built by sticking modules together similar to the outpost system. This is very cool, and allows players to build some very unique and creative looking ships. There is a very special pleasure enjoyed by walking around the inside of a spaceship you designed yourself, and it's a brilliant addition. As with the outpost system, this can be a bit janky and temperamental. Currently there is also no way to choose where to place connections between modules (hallways and ladders), which is quite an oversight and can result in some bizarre, labyrinthine spaceship layouts. 

Lastly, let's talk about the bugs. Bethesda games are known for being buggy, and Starfield is no exception. That said, Starfield is probably the most stable of the company's releases. I did encounter an occasional crash to desktop, but these were much rarer than in past titles. I also encountered far less stuttering, frame-rate issues and general lag compared to older Bethesda titles. The bugs that do exist in Starfield tend to be more annoying than game-breaking. Things like companions not properly equipping the items you give them, HUD bugs, the occasional quest logic error. I noted a number of bugs relating to the companions. Sometimes they would just vanish from the crew list, or become non-interactive. Most of the time, this was fixable, but in one case this seems to have affected one of my companions permanently, which still hasn't been patched. The worst bug I encountered takes place (with 100% frequency) after a certain story quest that takes place in a main hub city, and resets all of the player housing in that city - any furniture, items, etc you left in that place, just gone. Amazing that this still hasn't been patched.

So in the end Starfield is a bit of a flawed gem. Some design elements have seen considerable improvement from previous Bethesda titles, while others have inexplicably taken a step backwards. Some elements have clearly not been thought out and either serve little or no purpose. What's here is often excellent, but equally often superficial and lacking in depth.  For its flaws, Starfield does create an immersive and absorbing new universe, filled with interesting lore, characters and environments. It manages to deliver a grand adventure with a sufficient (if not consistent) sense of player agency. This is still an experience full of that classic Bethesda magic, just begging to be explored. 

I think, ultimately, how you feel about Starfield will depend on how much you connect with the core concept. If you have always wanted to design your own spaceship, blast off into the unknown and see what you find, you'll enjoy this. If you like a good, high concept space opera with cinematic storytelling and thought provoking ideas, you'll enjoy this. Starfield is a very good game that often buckles under the weight of its ambition, but lays the groundwork for something that, be it through DLC or mods, could yet be expanded into something truly great.

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