Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Frontier. Its continuing mission: To explore strange new worlds, seek out alien artifacts and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
If I had to describe Starfield’s vibe in one re-appropriated quote, it’d be this. It’s hard science fiction to the nth degree for the most part. Everything about its visual language, spacefaring setting, technology, the ways characters live their lives, hell; even the way it sounds evokes a certain kind of yearning and wanderlust that a specific future of humanity could have gone down before the history of the last twenty years took place and popped humanity’s collective bubble in regards to space travel. It’s the kind of science fiction game that a group of people who all grew up really wanting to join NASA wanted to make. It almost feels melancholic at times. Grieving for the kind of progress that humanity could have made if things had panned out differently. And even though I’m only in the early hours of Starfield, this is the main emotional hook that’s got me interested in playing more of it than any other game that Bethesda has made to date.
The main setup that the opening quote so succinctly summarizes is this: you are a simple miner for the Argos Extractions space mining corporation and while on a routine job, you find a mysterious alien artifact. Afterwards, you get attacked by space pirates looking for it, get a ship from the guy the space pirates were chasing and join up with an independent group of space explorers known as Constellation. From there, it's an adventure. I won’t lie, Starfield kind of throws you into the deep end. And while I managed to find my footing with the story, I’m still a bit weirded out by how it got there. This is sort of a collective issue I have with Bethesda games in general in that while I like their approach to In Media Res on paper, it leaves me feeling a bit bewildered. Skyrim and Oblivion did the same thing for me and while I’m not the biggest fan of their approach to Fallout, there at least, I’m provided context. I guess it’s one of those things that is supposed to make the world feel lived in, but it ends up confusing to me. I do hope it gets better.
Main quest writing aside at the moment, I do like how the character creation lets you try to tell a story of your own. You get a ton of backgrounds that can serve as a jumping-off point for the character you want to make, case in point: I went with a background that gave me proficiency in speech checks, pistols in combat and ship piloting in an obvious homage to Han Solo. It’s even called Space Scoundrel. This gave me some needed base covering to ensure that I could fly, talk, and shoot my way out of situations. There were at least two times I avoided combat by just fast-talking my way out of it and it was great. The other times that I had to fight, I was greeted with some decent First Person Shooting that weirdly made me feel I was more accurate shooting from the hip than aiming down the sight. It still weirdly felt better than most Bethesda games combat not named Fallout 3 because the shooting there could be bypassed entirely by VATS. So by that metric, it automatically makes this the best playing Bethesda game by a wide margin.
The last major pillar of the game is the space travel. The main appeal of Bethesda games for a lot of people is that they are these wide-open sandboxes that have a lot of interesting stuff in them. But that’s usually where they start to lose me. I prefer stuff more like The Incredible Hulk Ultimate Destruction, inFAMOUS 2 or Insomniac’s more recent output on Spider-Man, where the size is comparatively smaller, but the main means of traversing those worlds is significantly more involved (Hulk’s Jumping, Cole’s Parkour, and both Peter and Miles’s ability to swing across New York). Hell, another good example is the Lands Between in Elden Ring where despite being only the five areas of Limgrave, Liurnia, the Caelid Wilds, The Altus Plateau and the Mountaintop of the Giants, are all varied with their own traversal challenges with your Spectral Steed Torrent in mind.
Starfield joins all of these examples by giving us spaceships that are involved to fly, but not so involved as to become a space flight simulator. If I had to compare it to anything, I’d say the ship controls and combat feel like a simplified version of Star Wars Squadrons, which is good because that game is rad as hell. You can divert power between weapons, thrusters and shields and your ship can be upgraded to make it more hardy and hit harder as well. And this is on top of increasing the power of your scanners which is how you can uncover resources for crafting. But there are also times when you just can’t be bothered to do all of that, so you can just open up the star map and plot a course to the destination of choice. I personally adore this because it means I can choose how I can interact with the universe, maybe I want to see if I can fly the entire way and be sidetracked by something else, or maybe I want to just jump straight there. But when I choose the former, it almost always engages me in a way that travel in Bethesda games normally doesn’t. The vast infinity of space has me wanting to see what I can find and it brings up that aforementioned wanderlust I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. And for that, I say “good shit”.
Will I keep going with Starfield? Definitely. It manages to translate Bethesda’s formula and mechanics into ways that my brain can understand them and does a good job of it. I’m gonna put it back on the shelf for a bit if only because it’s still going to be on Game Pass when I get back to it and this release season is fucking ridiculous (case in point: Lies of P came out this week and it's the next piece of writing). But yeah, Starfield had my curiosity.