Starfield - Empty Spaces (Review)
Released: September 6th, 2023
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Systems: PC, Xbox Series S/X (reviewed)
What does it say about a studio when the parent company proudly boasts that its latest software has fewer bugs than said studio's usual output? How much more damning can faint praise get when the discussion of a game’s quality focuses on how it’s less incompetently cobbled together than previous ones? What does it mean when you're so used to shipping broken games, you think "less broken" is an actual brag?
Let’s be real, it doesn’t mean much at all when your last game’s level of quality sat at the bedrock below the barrel.
To call Starfield the least broken Bethesda game is akin to calling any single TERF the least embarrassing fascist. Then again, given how Zenimax and Bethesda seem to treat trans employees, that comparison may hit too close to home.
Starfield’s unintentionally comedic marketing claims might very well be true. It could indeed be, as other reviews have breathlessly proclaimed, “the most polished Bethesda game to date.”
That doesn’t mean it’s actually polished, does it?
Being the least glitchy game is not the same as being a glitch-free game, and if there’s one thing Starfield ain’t, it’s that.
I can of course only speak about my own experience, which has been of a game no more laudable than the digital wreckage that was Fallout 76. Its abundant issues range from the small - enemies getting stuck in doors, NPCs materializing out of thin air, etc. - to the thoroughly horrendous.
I really do mean horrendous.
I’ve been perpetually stuck on dialog screens, unable to advance a conversation while a character silently gurns at me. I’ve regularly become trapped in my ship’s cockpit, unable to move until I’ve sat back down in my seat and stood up again. Companions have disappeared. Mission-critical enemies have spawned inside walls and rendered almost impossible to kill. I’ve gotten softlocked more times than is forgivable, and I dread to think how much progress I’ve cumulatively lost as a result.
By the time the game outright crashed, it felt like hitting the middle square of a bingo card.
In decades past, Bethesda’s games have gotten away with being busted beyond reason because they were “so ambitious,” but any leeway that might have historically earned has long since dried up. Higher reaching productions from less wealthy companies haven’t been half so defective, not to mention dated.
Compared to its contemporaries, the complacency on display is almost offensive.
While Starfield’s galaxy is nebulously “big,” its vast array of barren planets populated by recycled assets is absolutely no justification for what this thing truly is - just another buggy Bethesda game following an ancient blueprint that hasn’t evolved creatively or mechanically since Fallout Fucking 3.
On a fundamental level, Starfield plays exactly like any other Bethesda game, only with features borrowed - and subsequently lessened – from No Man’s Sky and The Outer Worlds.
The same rudimentary combat (only without VATS to wallpaper over how sloppy it is). The same archaic approach to exploration and questing. The same stilted dialog propelled by non-sequitur exchanges. The same moronic A.I. and robotic animations. The same old narrative cliches in a world of cardboard where every stranger tells you their life story and immediately trusts you with sensitive tasks for seemingly no other reason than the fact you’re a videogame protagonist and they somehow know it.
Hell, it’s even got the same worthlessly clumsy third-person mode we’ve seen for almost twenty years, just to hammer home how shockingly little Bethesda has advanced as a creative entity.
It’s the sheer lack of imagination that truly makes Starfield so sad to play. It’s a game that can’t envision doing anything other than regurgitating the same formula its predecessors beat to death, repeating not just the things that worked but every single mistake as well, regardless of any improvements the medium's seen since The Elder Scrolls IV was new.
Oh, but this time you have a spaceship!
People have referred to Starfield as No Man’s Skyrim, and while some have intended that as a slight against this game, I actually think it’s more insulting to Hello Games’ work. No Man’s Sky at least had a universe you could seamlessly explore, with planets you were able to approach and land on in real time. That was actually ambitious. Starfield’s planets can be flown to manually over the course of hours, but you can’t land on them without a menu, loading screens (get used to seeing those), and dull cutscenes.
Also, let’s give the devil its due - Hello Games has worked damn hard to improve No Man’s Sky far beyond its launch version to the point it still has massive summer updates at no extra cost. Bethesda’s so averse to improvement that multiple games released years apart feature the exact same unaddressed bugs.
Please remember that I really didn’t like No Man’s Sky, to the point where its fans notoriously DDoS’d this website in response to my review. I am in no way praising No Man's Sky when favorably contrasting it against this fucker.
It’s a little gauche, admittedly, to draw so many direct comparisons to other games in a review, but it’s almost unavoidable when discussing one so perfectly typified by its inferior appropriation.
Let’s keep doing it…
No Man’s Sky’s randomly generated worlds may have been rather soulless, but at least you didn’t explore identical buildings and identical caves full of identical furnishings and identical encounters. I swear there’s one mine in Starfield and it's been recycled a hundred times over - I’ve become intimately familiar with a single network of caves and the pirates they house because I’ve so often seen them replicated on ostensibly different planets.
For a game that’s been praised for how “immersive” it is, I can’t help but note how much I'm pulled out of the experience by an excessive amount of copypasta masquerading as natural terrain. It makes even Dragon Age II’s map design look diverse.
Another thing pretty much any comparable game can hold over Starfield is that you aren't so constantly encumbered by gathering resources - Starfield is a game that encourages you to pick up crafting materials but swiftly punishes you for doing so thanks to its harshly restrictive carrying capacity. By the time it started trying to push me to build outposts, I was thoroughly disinterested because of how much of a hindrance the crafting supplies became.
Encumbrance is one of the many things Obsidian improved upon when it released The Outer Worlds in 2019. One of the many improvements Starfield flatly ignored in all its regressive hubris.
The Outer Worlds showcases perfectly how much of an antique Starfield is in many ways, but if I were to pull a single example, it would have to be how these games handle social skills. One of the coolest things Obsidian did was make charisma-based skills effective in combat as well as dialog, unlocking the power to make enemies flee in terror or attack their allies. Starfield steals that idea and fucking ruins it.
In the better version of this concept, social combat bonuses were passive, giving you a straight percentage chance to affect enemies whenever you fought them. In Starfield, you have to get within a relatively close distance, bring up your scanner (which holsters your weapon), keep the invariably flailing enemy in your sights, hit a “social” button to bring up a menu of social effects, choose your desired effect, and then sigh in frustration when the attempt to scare or incite them fails, which it seems to do nine times out of ten.
The game doesn’t pause or slow during any of this, so you just get shot to shit while doing it.
Rather than provide a cool bonus that flavors your fighting style, social combat skills in Starfield require such counterproductive convolution it is literally always more effective to just murder everything directly rather than sit like a proverbial duck and try to make one little mook ineffectually attack his friends for a few seconds - and that’s even if he attacks them rather than just ignore them to keep fighting you.
What’s hilarious is that the enemy A.I. only has one tactic more advanced than simply bumrushing you - running away. Enemies will often, almost randomly, flee a fight without you doing anything to make them. Not only is this scenario an accidental recreation of how The Outer Worlds handles intimidation, it renders its own Intimidate skill obsolete by being more reliable, totally passive, and free.
I regret maxing out the persuasion skill, which offers a “minigame” where you randomly pick dialog options that have secret odds of filling a success meter and are so poorly strung together the resulting conversations amount to gibberish. Even at the highest level, you can still regularly fail at persuasion checks, and the time it takes versus the XP you get for succeeding just isn’t worth forgoing the more efficient choice of mindless violence.
In the game that does this stuff better, if your Persuade skill is high enough, you simply pass the check and that's it. Is it fancy? No. Does it fucking work as a rewarding investment of one's experience points? Absolutely yes.
Starfield’s entire social skill tree is populated largely by ineffective abilities that just waste your hard-earned points. As someone who always favors charisma builds, this is one area I’m truly disappointed in, not least because the Bethesda-published New Vegas did the shit better. Then again, Obsidian developed that one too.
Social abilities are truly abysmal, but every skill tree has lots of complete garbage on it. Many practical abilities require you to play slower and less conveniently to find excuses to use them. Nothing is ever more useful than blunt and open murder. Even the insipid lockpicking feature is a letdown much of the time, since the rewards are usually weak equipment or small amounts of money - money that becomes increasingly inconsequential as you progress.
I’ve not been this unexcited about leveling up and gaining skills since the fuckawful Soulslike that literally warned you half its character stats were worthless.
It’s not as if leveling even means much. As soon as you find a powerful weapon or two, combat becomes so trivial you can fight enemies at least thirty levels higher without much bother. I found an incendiary shotgun within the first few hours that was so laughably strong I could take down level 80 aliens while being at level 20.
Aside from the random fleeing, enemies mostly just stand and accept a pummeling. Humans may occasionally take cover, but within seconds they’ll leave it to dance around in the open while melee attackers - who have literally brought knives to gun fights - simply run headlong into your bullets.
The challenge in Starfield comes not from combat, but from navigating the unrefined menu system, disorganized quest journal, and inadequately presented features.
Almost every fresh (i.e. “borrowed”) mechanic fumblingly layered onto Fallout 3’s bleached skeleton isn’t just poorly implemented but terribly explained. Whether it’s selling contraband goods, engaging with the sprawling crafting system, or even just using the map to fast travel, crucial features are barely touched on by tutorial notes, or sometimes not mentioned at all, despite how needlessly serpentine everything is.
Many features, like the aforementioned fast travel, are way simpler than they first appear but implemented in such an obtuse, roundabout way you might miss the straightforward - but needlessly padded - sequence of button presses that’ll get you from a sea of trashy menus to your desired location.
Oh, and there’s no real local map, either. Hope you don’t have a memory disorder like this poor bitch, or you’ll forever be trying to remember where all the shops are.
Fuck, this game is stupid.
With its boring story and obnoxious characters, Starfield’s universe of space colonists and space corporations doing space stuff liberally helps itself to everything The Outer Worlds built except its sense of humor or general likability.
It comes to something when the Adoring Fan, a companion character Starfield goes out of its way to present as annoying, comes off as way less of a cunt than any of the main cast. At least he’s a funny callback to Oblivion with some genuinely good lines and a sympathetic nature. The guy's downright adorable! He’s not insulting you for daring to accept quests or picking up loot like Sarah "Smug Prick" Morgan. He actually wants you to enjoy the game!
Starfield’s most lovable character is the guy it thinks you’ll hate.
Most of ‘em - when they’re not simply expies from the cast of Star Wars - are defined not by their personality but their motivation. A majority of storyline companions you can meet are some variation of “serious person with a job to do.” Same goes for the background characters who haphazardly litter this universe’s empty planets and tiny cities. They’re flat and lifeless automatons whose only personality trait is being so fucking useless they all rely on a complete stranger to handle their shit as if they’re in an episode of Paw Patrol.
Also, I’m very much over the trope of the Disrespected Protagonist, where roughly three quarters of an RPG’s citizenry acts like snide little penises to the heavily armed asskicker who routinely saves their lives. The constant hostility of these games' populations has killed my enthusiasm for them, and I'm beyond sick of hearing guards and barkeepers constantly talk shit to me as I simply try to walk around and deliver flyers or whatever other tawdry busywork some bone idle dork has charged me with.
There’s a lethal obstacle course on one of Starfield’s planets - The Red Mile. After running the Red Mile and finishing it in record time, a random dickhead immediately scoffed at me and said I couldn’t run the Red Mile. He was in the room when I was loudly celebrated for running the Red Mile, but he didn’t register that achievement because there are developers out there who still think it’s funny when random NPCs act like jerks regardless of context or circumstance.
It was never funny, and in a game already stuffed with archaic tropes, the unprovoked contempt its civilians have for you is just plain demoralizing.
Add in a dash of pathetic corporate apologia and the two-faced presentation of cops as a corrupt but net positive influence, and you’ve got the makings of another mainstream videogame with all the literary depth of Sesame Street. Wait, that’s not fair - Sesame Street more often has something to say.
Is there anything this game does well?
I’ve played it for dozens upon dozens of hours, and while much of that time has bored or exasperated me, I’ve not hated it and I’ve had some fun. The fundamental loop of the average loot-based RPG is rarely not compelling, and it’s something this developer’s particular games have always been good at. At least when bugs aren’t getting in the way, it’s easy to lose hours mindlessly scanning alien creatures or gunning down pirates.
One thing I have enjoyed more than expected is the ship-based aspect. While I hated dogfighting at first, it’s actually quite fun when you work it out in spite of the game’s poor explanations. It gets by on deceptively simple controls and a genuine sense of satisfaction gained from whittling down an enemy craft’s shields and battering it until it explodes. Peacefully piloting the ship is rather pleasant too, which makes it even more of a shame that seamless exploration or at least planetside flight isn’t a thing.
There’s a rather uncharacteristically easy to navigate shipbuilding menu that lets you add or replace parts and attach them in multiple configurations to make something that feels unique. There are plenty of ships out there to buy, find, or steal, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and it always feels rewarding to claim a new vehicle.
Sadly the actual controls for building stuff is awkward as all hell, but the results you get for powering through it can be quite pleasing.
If the visual direction wasn't overall uninspired and unappealing, I’d have liked the ship customization even more. One can only get so excited about spaceships that invariably boast the visual charm of a Michael Bay Transformer made from Duplo bricks.
Starfield's art style amounts to “what if Fallout had no aesthetic?” The city of Neon, which roughly amounts to a few dingy corridors, is Baby’s First Cyberpunk Town, a vapid recreation of the bright lights and garish billboards we’ve seen in countless sci-fi media. Various in-game factions are similarly weak facsimiles of existing stuff, robbed of charm and basic as possible. Many of the aliens resemble melted bug puppets from the set of Starship Troopers. None of the visuals stand out in the least.
Robot characters perfectly exemplify the lack of visual flavor... and by that I mean the actual bots, not the NPCs that accidentally behave like robots. You won’t meet bizarre Robobrains or adorable Eyebots here. There’s essentially only one style of robot, featureless walking frameworks that could be confused with Power Loaders if they ever threatened to be more interesting. Boring, unappealing, desperately wanting for charisma, Starfield's robots look like Bionicles designed by the Conservative Party.
Planets are wastelands… simply wastelands. On the plus side you'll have more room than could ever be needed to build your own outposts a'la Fallout 4. Doing so, however, will throw into sharp relief how much originality you're expected to give the environment in place of a development team that elected to simply clone one prefabricated layout again and again and again. It's quite incredible how they gave the player tools to craft their own unique infrastructure and elected not to do so themselves.
Heaven forbid the baseline product goes beyond the bare minimum when its audience can be convinced to go there instead. I expect nothing less from a lineage of games that have always relied upon modders to bring them up to code.
Tempting as it may be to try and justify the cloning of assets by talking about the scale of the game, I think it just makes the case that smaller games with more focused and attentive design are always going to be better than oversized, underpopulated stretches of nebulous fluff. A game that's grown too big for itself isn't all that exceptional - it's just a balloon inflated to bursting point and full of naught but hot air.
I take umbrage with the assertion that Starfield is actually a large, ambitious, expansive game with an impressive sense of scale and scope.
Starfield is, in a geographical sense, big, but its many worlds are desolate, populated by the same terrain features copied and pasted to such an extreme degree each new planet feels the same as the last and raw size means less than nothing. Repetitious NPCs bumble around with little more than a handful of catchphrases to offer, missions devolve into tiresome fetch quests, space travel requires menus to get around because the planets seen from your ship’s window might as well be jpegs, and every cave is the same.
None of this inspires awe, communicates scale, or delivers the sense of inhabiting a living, breathing universe.
Starfield is small.
A small game with a small vision.
If you’re the kind of person who thinks videogames peaked with Fallout 3's launch version and they’ve required neither evolution nor improvement since, this game is absolutely for you. If you believe Bethesda doesn’t need to exhibit growth as an artistic outlet and hasn’t had to change a thing about the way it’s made games since 2008, I can safely say you’ll adore Starfield because it’s all that a Bethesda game has always been... and literally nothing more.
Starfield is a shallow ocean, hiding its lack of creative ambition behind the physical size of a universe that’s minuscule where it counts.
In short, it's everything a fan of these games could love.