I went into Starfield with what I thought were reasonable expectations. This is a Bethesda game, after all, and I've "been there, done that" enough times that I thought I knew what I was in for. Usually these games are fundamentally fun, with better-than-average writing and a wide world to explore. However, it quickly becomes apparent that they're bogged down with a substandard engine, iffy moment-to-moment gunplay, a fetish for inventory management, and rife with bugs. I applied my "Bethesda filter" to Starfield's hype, and went in with some measure of confidence. What I found initially exceeded my expectations, but as the hours tick by, that rosy initial outlook has steadily ticked downward.
Like I said, I expected a "fun, but somewhat unpolished mess." What I found was a polished game - something quite rare in modern AAA releases. It runs smoothly - on my 3000-series Nvidia card and 9th gen i7, I've yet to encounter much in the way of framerate dips, and the game looks great! And I didn't spend an hour toggling settings, installing driver versions, or editing INI files! That's not something I feel like could be said of Skyrim or the recent Fallout games at launch.
That said, Starfield still feels like the same engine Bethesda has been using since Morrowind despite the graphical upgrades. The conversation system is the most glaring example. We're still locked in a first person view, staring straight at the person talking, as they hold their body perfectly rigid and still except for their head. This leads to really awkward conversations between multiple people as the view snaps back and forth between the active speaker, and whoever is talking is looking off screen at whoever they're talking to. This is not how people talk.
I was also surprised by the general lack of quest bugs. Getting stuck on a quest and having to break out console commands in order to progress is almost a rite of passage for Bethesda games, but not here! Someone finally figured out how to debug and test their quest system, I guess.
All Downhill From Here
These observations defined my first few hours with Starfield. I was expecting to have to deal with upfront jank, and I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't have to. The more I played, though, the more I realized how freaking shallow everything was.
Yeah, I was expecting shallow to an extent - the marketing hype was "1000 planets" and we all know that that really means "like 4 planets that have any meaningful things to do, and 996 procedurally generated garbage planets." Bethesda also has a history of building systems that generate infinite quests, so long as you're interested in the most bland, cookie-cutter definition of "quest." So yeah, there's technically near-infinite game here, in the same sense that a Shrek DVD has a technically near-infinite number of movies if you rearrange the scenes in a random order every time you watch it.
What actually surprised me was that when you boil away all the nonsense, there's not a ton of game here. I barreled through a good chunk of the plot in maybe 10 hours, and a lot of the side quests feel short and shallow as well. I was hoping that the core, meaningful parts of the game were going to be substantial, and I ended up disappointed.
Scraping the Bottom
But I think what finally pushed me from "this game is fine, I guess" to "this... might not be a good game" was the exploration. In a game like No Man's Sky, you can arrive in a system, fly to a planet, skim along the planet's surface, land, explore, and repeat this process as much as you want. In other Bethesda games, exploring a large map with lots of nooks full of interesting "stuff" was always a big draw for me. I was expecting something from Starfield akin to No Man's Sky plus the Bethesda touch. What I got is just kind of... nothing.
Let's take an example. I took a job to survey a planet and report back. I fast-traveled to the system, fast-traveled to the planet orbit, and then fast-traveled to the surface. After a while of exploring my landing area, I wanted to go see a nearby ocean. I tried to orient myself on the planet map, and set off towards what I thought was the ocean. I walked for a while, and walked for a while, and kept walking... nothing was changing.
Finally I realized that there was no ocean. There wasn't really a "planet" here. The game had taken a look at my landing site, checked out what resources and environments were there, and generated a local map for me. While I never encountered any invisible fences preventing me from continuing to walk, I also was never going to see anything different no matter how far I travelled. I'd have to fast-travel back to my ship, take off, and land somewhere else to get a different experience.
On top of that, each of these randomized maps were basically the same. Almost everywhere I went, I found groups of humans or abandoned human structures. Had humans in Starfield explored every last planet/moon and set up camp there?
Fundamentally, what is the point of exploring if I'm never going to come across anything new? I'm just going to be seeing things I've seen before with a palette swap, and there are likely already people there, so it's neither new to me or new to humans.
I could level a few other criticisms of Starfield. So I will.
- The ship building is... eh. It's kind of like playing with LEGO bricks that don't quite want to snap together every time you build.
- Same with the ship combat. No matter what I build, flying the ship feels like driving a delivery van. (And, actually, that's primarily what my ship was - a glorified, mobile shipping container.)
- Levels and skills are a slog. XP gain is too slow, and too many basic systems in the game require you to invest multiple skill points. The challenges required to unlock additional levels in a skill seem like they could be fun, if the skill point system was rethought completely. Leveling up should make me feel more capable, and it just... doesn't.
- Stealth is broken. It's a complete mess, works maybe 25% of the time, and isn't any fun. If you thought stealth in other Bethesda games was OP, this is the total opposite of that.
- Inventory management is still painful. I spend way too much time in menus either rearranging my crap between my inventory, my allies' and the ships'. Not to mention trying to find ways to offload stuff for credits. Encumbrance has outlived its usefulness and needs to die already.
- Base building is too complex for the level of depth that is on offer. I find myself needing to build an outpost so I have the resources to build an outpost. The same bugs and limitations from Fallout 4's outposts are here as well.
- Crafting gear is similarly disappointing. I find guns/gear in the world that are better than anything I could craft. Plus I need to invest in skills in order to really get the most benefit from gear crafting, and we've already covered the problems with that.
I went into Starfield thinking that it was going to be a Bethesda mess that will eventually be fixed with patches and the modding community. What I found was a different kind of mess - one I'm less confident is just a few patches or mods away from a usable state. It's certainly a step in the right direction on some axes, but a major step backwards in others.