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July 2024


Platform(s): PC, Xbox Series X
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Bethesda
Release Date: Sept. 6, 2023


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Xbox Series X Review - 'Starfield'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Aug. 31, 2023 @ 9:00 a.m. PDT

Starfield is a next-generation role-playing game set amongst the stars, where you create any character you want and explore with unparalleled freedom.

In Starfield, your protagonist is a down-on-their-luck space miner who is working on a backwater planet. During the course of regular mining, they stumble across a mysterious metal artifact. One touch later, and they start having visions, and a lot of people are hunting them down. Their only ally is Constellation, a group of scientists and adventurers who have been working to explore the secrets of the universe. They've already tracked down several artifacts, and now it's a race to hunt them all down and see what secrets they hold for the universe.

Starfield's plot opens up strong with an interesting mystery, but each answer makes the mystery less interesting and more mundane. By the time you reach the major antagonist, it loses a lot of its momentum and feels rather lacking. The plot feels quite unambitious. You spend most of the time collecting trinkets, and when the big reveals come, they lack the impact to be exciting. The ending is neat, but the villains feel like they needed someone to fight because it's a shooting game.

The main cast is one of the less memorable slate of companions in a Bethesda game, with the standout probably being Barrett, the science adventurer who gets into and out of scrapes with regularity. They could've used more rough edges and flaws instead of being affable and friendly.

Thankfully, the side stories are stronger. While not every side story hits the mark, there are plenty that are enjoyable or pose morality questions. For example, you can go undercover with the nastiest pirate fleet in the Settled Systems, and you're asked to make choices about what is the correct option to maintain your cover. You may need to decide if it's worth letting a criminal go free to preserve the stability of a colony. Sometimes the morality is a bit basic, and there's almost always a "good guy" option.

The best way to describe how Starfield plays is Fallout 4: Space Edition. If you've played Bethesda's previous game, you're going to feel very familiar with Starfield. The core gameplay, movement, and the UI are all basically the same or similar. Even a lot of weapons and items make reappearances, but many have a new, space-themed skin. Movement is a bit swifter and more natural, and you can now use the boost pack to do double-jumps or zoom around the battlefield, but that's most of the differences.

Likewise, combat feels similar. VATS is gone, so combat is almost entirely real time, but the same basic ideas and mechanics are at play. Even if you're not using VATS to target the foe, aiming for the head still stuns and blinds them, aiming for the arms can cripple them, and so on. Most of the fighting is going to be done using guns or a variety of hand-to-hand weapons, but as the game progresses, some other options open up to allow you to approach combat in different ways. (We've been asked to not discuss these options, but I recommend rushing through the early parts of the main story to reach the more distinct elements of combat.)

Enemy AI has been made smarter, which is a mixed blessing. Enemies are more proactive about finding cover and flanking you, which makes combat more engaging. Enemies also are more prone to breaking if a fight is going badly and may panic or run away. This gives them more personality, but it also leads to some frustrating moments where an enemy ran away and hid in a corner, and I had to track them down to finish the requisite fight. The necessity of indoor spaceship combat does mean that stealth and sniping can occasionally feel weaker than having a big ax and a shotgun, but that balances the inherent power of those builds. As the game progresses, you become absurdly powerful. Beyond a specific point in the plotline, you're going to effectively be a walking god, and by the end, you'll only be challenged by the strongest foes.

Starfield does away with character stats almost entirely, instead tying most of what you can do to a series of skill trees. Every time you level up, you get one skill point to invest in any tree. Each tree has multiple options and four separate levels, and by default, you can only invest in the first level. You need to spend more points to reach higher levels. Each skill also has four separate levels that you can reach, with each one getting better bonuses. For example, the laser skill makes the laser weapons do more damage at level one and makes them set foes on fire at level four. Between each skill level, you complete a skill challenge to level it up further. Piloting may ask you to destroy multiple foes, weight lifting asks you to run around while heavily encumbered, and so on.

Short of an absurd amount of grinding, you're not going to be good at everything. This is where your crew comes into play. You can recruit characters across the space lanes that can join the crew. Some of these are standard Bethesda-style companions, while others are more specialized. A recruited crew member can be assigned to your spaceship or an outpost or follow you around. Each has their own set of skills. You may not want to spend precious skill points on botany, but you can hire a botanist and assign them to an outpost so they can do the work for you.

The system predisposed me toward picking combat and "selfish" options since I could find a crew member who could help with things that I needed. Staying alive and doing damage were the most important things that only my character could do, so I focused heavily on attacking with a small side of Persuade and Security. When I had to restart the game, I shifted away from a more passive character to a more combat-focused one, and it was almost a straight upgrade.

There are some changes to make certain skills feel less required. Persuade is now available by default to all characters and takes the form of a minigame where you are effectively gambling on responses. You need to get a certain number of correct responses to succeed, and different options offer more points toward success but are more difficult to complete. The Persuade skill increases your odds on these chances, but you can probably get by without it. Lockpicking and hacking are usually tied together into the Security skill, so you only need one investment to get into everything.

Starfield is also a tremendously huge game in terms of the sheer number of planets and how in-depth each area is. The cities in Starfield are significantly bigger than those in Fallout or Skyrim with multiple layers, tons of quests, secrets, items to find, and more. Pretty much any significantly big area feels a lot denser than in previous Bethesda games. I was surprised at how many side-quests I found by wandering around. A lot of them were basic, but every so often, I'd run into something a lot bigger. I didn't touch everything in the game; there were countless factories and abandoned outposts I didn't explore and enemy types that I never encountered. There's an absurd number of quests and even a New Game+ feature that changes up some things, so it's easy to imagine people losing a thousand hours to the game.

There are also a lot of really cool quests. Not every single one is a hit, but the set pieces are ambitious and frequently pretty interesting. Probably my favorite involves a facility that is trapped between two quantum entangled states: one is entirely intact and the other is burned-out ruins. You need to travel between the two to progress, and to be fair, a lot of missions involve "go to a place, kill the guys, and leave," but I ran into quite a few that I really enjoyed.

It's a Bethesda game, and that means there is a vast number of ways to approach the game that have nothing to do with the main quest. You can spend hours being a space trucker to earn a healthy wage, join a group of frontier cowboys to hunt down ne'er-do-wells, take on piracy and illegal smuggling, work to earn citizenship so you can buy your own house, and more. If there's any civilization on a planet, you can probably spend a dozen hours there and be happy doing so.

You can even go to alien planets and build your own outposts. This is pretty similar to an enhanced version of Fallout 4's settlement system. You can set up an outpost that is a trading and storage hub, you can create a space to refine rare minerals to craft powerful gear, or you can make it your own personal comfortable living space. You can have multiple outposts, assign crew to them, and have fun with turning a chunk of alien real estate into your own land.

There is one area where I feel Starfield lags behind: actual space exploration. Despite the game being so focused on space, the actual space part feels like an afterthought. There's not any free-roaming space exploration; the only time you're in direct control of the ship is when you are approaching a planet. However, this is less like you're in orbit around a planet and more like you're in a pocket dimension that exists in a small area directly in front of the planet. You can't fly any closer to the planet, and you can't fly away from it or to nearby areas. There's a small section you can drive around that is usually empty but occasionally has some asteroids, enemy ships or a space station.

Instead, the bulk of your travel is done via menus, where you select the star you want to go to, hit warp, and appear in the orbit zone. For a lot of the places, you don't even need to do that after an initial visit since you can fast-travel directly. This ends up making the space element feel weirdly restrictive and forgettable. Since you can use fast travel to get around so quickly, there's not even a feeling of risk or danger in taking off from a planet, since you can't be ambushed or attacked unless the plot is restricting you.

It also leads to what I feel may be the biggest disappointment for those who loved Skyrim and Fallout: The sense of exploration feels far more limited. In Fallout 4, you could pick a direction and walk to see what you found, but in Starfield, you're limited to what you can choose from a menu. There's room to explore the planets, but most of them have objects of interest marked on the planet map, and the majority are rather empty. There are some particularly cool things to discover, but like actual space travel, most of what you find is going to be pretty unexciting.

The spaceship combat aspect also feels underbaked. Being able to design and pilot your own spaceship is incredibly cool in theory, and the robust tools allow you to create all sorts of neat designs. Because of the aforementioned lack of actual space exploration, you only get to use it in the orbit zones, and the majority of those are empty or full of friendlies.

When combat does occur, it's rather basic. You have three weapons to equip (of a variety of diverse types), and your overall goal is to wear down enemy shields and damage their hull. Generally, the best way to do that is to get behind the enemy and activate Targeting mode, which is effectively a slightly more real-time VATS. Time slows down, and you can target specific enemy systems. Target grav drives to stop them from escaping a fight, target engines to force them to slow down so you can board them, target weapons to temporarily disable them, and more. Targeting mode has a limit that is reduced every time you fire, but you can reactivate it pretty quickly.

There's some cool theoretical depth to the combat. Being able to target specific enemy weapons or systems provides some neat ideas for how to fight dangerous foes. Generally, this isn't worth the trouble versus unloading on the enemy or targeting their engines, so you can dock and beat up the crew in hand-to-hand combat. If you have the patience, it's almost always better to dock with enemy ships. Then you can loot them for valuable items or steal the ship if your piloting skill is high enough. It further de-emphasizes the value of space since the best way to beat a difficult foe is to knock out their engines and then go into hand-to-hand combat.

At the end of the day, almost everything involving space flight feels forgettable. Being on the ground is usually fun, but when I spent an hour building a spaceship, it was frustrating to realize that it amounted to a cramped mobile house more than an intergalactic exploration vehicle. There are other games that do the exploration much better and more effectively. Bethesda played to its strengths with the ground exploration, but beyond offering a staggering number of (mostly barren) planets to explore, the "Star" part of the title feels a lot less relevant than the "Field" part.

That brings us to one of the common elements of a Bethesda game: bugs. On the Xbox, the game was pretty darn buggy. There were multiple times when events didn't trigger or enemies explicably stopped moving. For a good hour or two, everyone suddenly lost their faces, so they were just wandering eyeballs. There was a significant patch partway through the review period that helped fix the more serious bugs (e.g., regular crashes), but I still ran into some wonky issues. If you've played a Bethesda game at launch, you know roughly what to expect. Just keep a few backup saves.

Despite the complaints, Starfield retained my interest. Every time I put down the game, I kept wanting to play more, and I hopped right into NG+ once I finished. It may not have everything I wanted, but it still has enough content to keep players busy for hours upon hours. It probably won't change your mind if you weren't grabbed by Fallout 4 or Skyrim, but if you liked the busy open worlds of those games, then you'll probably find quite a bit to enjoy in the myriad of somewhat smaller open worlds in Starfield.

Starfield is a significant improvement over Bethesda's previous games in terms of visuals, but it's also not hugely impressive. The environments are more detailed and expansive, and the character models look better, but the talking animations are still static shots. It looks better than Fallout 76 and Fallout 4, even if it's locked at 30fps. The voice acting is mostly solid, and the directing of dialogue feels like it's taken a step upward, which makes some of the characters stand out better. There are a few hilariously bad lines, but there are so many characters that it's unavoidable.

Starfield both hits and misses the mark. Starfield has both improvements and steps backward from the previous games, and whether you consider it to be better or worse than Fallout is dependent on what you prized from those games. If you're looking for more Fallout 4 with bigger and more detailed environments and quests, then Starfield is pretty much everything you could hope for and more. If you're looking for No Man's Skyrim, however, it's disappointing. Almost everything on the ground feels good, while the space travel and exploration feels lackluster. If you're looking for a Bethesda-style, open-world RPG, Starfield scratches that itch, and Bethesda fans will lose countless hours in scouring every nook and cranny.

Score: 9.0/10

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