Over the course of reviewing Starfield, I logged almost 100 hours. I spent them building outposts on exotic planets in distant star systems, and rising the ranks at my corporate “desk job” at Ryujin Industries in the cyberpunk-like city of Neon. I romanced Sarah, developing a relationship and—I think—getting married on a paradise planet, with beautiful and accurately orbiting moons looming above.
I have a strange history with Bethesda Game Studios titles. Like many people, I’m a fan of the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series. But maybe less like most people, I’ve never completed any of them. It has nothing to do with the quality, but these games were just always missing some sort of hook to dig into me personally, to keep me playing.
It might be easy to recommend Starfield because it’s a Bethesda game. You’ve spent hundreds or thousands of hours in other Bethesda titles, so why not this one as well? But I want to tell you why Starfield deserves to be played. Not just because it’s a Bethesda title, but because it’s a truly incredible experience that I enjoyed every second of the way. One that, even now, I’m itching to return to.
Starfield (PC[reviewed], Xbox Series X|S)
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Released: September 6, 2023
Welcome to Constellation
Your open-world adventure in Starfield begins just as we saw in the Starfield Direct back in June. You are a new employee of Argos Mining at a new mining site where a strange object has been discovered. As the new guy, you’re sent in to check out and obtain the object so it can be sold to a buyer. Upon touching the object, you have an intense vision that causes you to temporarily black out.
When you wake up, the buyer has arrived. The buyer is Barrett, a member of Constellation, an organization dedicated to space exploration and finding out the secrets of the galaxy. Barrett informs you that due to your interaction with the object—which he calls an Artifact—you should be the one to take it back to the other Constellation members.
But it turns out Barrett was being tracked by some pirates who want to take the Artifact off your hands. This is our first taste of combat in Starfield, a big part of this open-world RPG.
A familiar yet refined combat system
Fans of the combat system in previous Bethesda Fallout titles will feel right at home. There is no VATS, but most of the other staple gunplay is there. There are many different types of weapons types including rifles, pistols, shotguns, swords, and more. You can also utilize various different types of grenades, land mines, and other explosives. You’ll find a plethora of weapons throughout your adventure with unique attachments, modifications, and bonuses. In true RPG fashion, these bonuses increase the stats on your weapon, making them more effective.
The combat in Starfield is fluid and fast-paced. As you progress you’ll find better weapons that keep combat fresh and fun. You’ll also gain other other effects over the course of the story that further evolve combat in interesting ways. There are constantly new additions to your combat arsenal, allowing you to strategize to take down tougher enemies many levels higher than you. Of course, you can have a companion nearby to help out as well. You can even give them specific weapons and gear you want them to use, which is definitely worth doing.
Some of the best weapons I found inflicted various status effects such as corrosive or fire damage. Crafting weapons lets you get exactly the type of gameplay you’re looking for, too. Want to get up close and personal? Use a powerful shotgun and melee weapon combo. Prefer to keep it at range? Try a long rifle and assault rifle setup. Up to ten weapons can be equipped in quick slots at a time, so you can easily adapt to any sort of fight. However, these slots are also used for other actions like healing via consumables.
Can’t forget your ship
Eventually, you’ll find yourself engaged in combat in space as well. You’ll start with the Constellation ship Barrett gives you, but will eventually outgrow it. Space combat itself is more active, as opposed to a space sim; more like Everspace 2 than Elite Dangerous. You also have to manage where power is being routed to your ship in real time, which can be exhilarating in the middle of a space battle, as you route power between weapons, engines, and shields. Oh, and don’t forget to save some power for the grav-drive, just in case you have to warp out to prevent losing your ship.
Ships have their own stats too, and some ships have their own special focus. Early on, I actually stole a ship from a mining outpost that had a massive cargo hold. It wasn’t the best in combat, but the player can upgrade every aspect of their ship, including its weapons. For those just wanting a quick upgrade, you can do so by simply purchasing a better ship part that automatically replaces the existing one. But if you’re feeling more creative, there’s an intricate and in-depth ship-building system where you can literally build and upgrade your ship piece by piece.
Overall, even the slightest ship upgrades are worthwhile. I was once having trouble taking out some higher-level pirate ships for a side mission so I decided to upgrade the weapons on my ship and give it another try. Before, I was barely making a scratch to their shields and hull HP, but with the new upgrades I was decimating both.
So much to do in the vast field of stars
After taking out the pirates you will head to New Atlantis, the capital city of the United Colonies. It is here you will meet your fellow Constellation members. Afterward, the main story of Starfield begins as the player is tasked with tracking down more of these Artifacts and trying to figure out their purpose. At this point, Starfield becomes a massive open-world sandbox. From here on out your journey is whatever you want it to be.
Personally, I did a little bit of everything. This is where Starfield really shines: the freedom to do what you want in a massive sandbox. I’d often warp to a system where I planned to complete a main story mission, only to encounter someone needing my help. Hours later, I’d be lightyears away from where I originally warped, constructing a new outpost and genuinely forgetting how I got there. I didn’t help because it felt like I needed to, but rather I wanted to. The writing in Starfield is top-notch, even in side missions that may seem like an inconsequential part of the galaxy.
There’s really so much to do in Starfield. For those into exploration, you can literally scan every planet and moon in the entire game. Each planet has its own resources, flora, fauna, and special landmark sites on them. Finding and scanning everything a planet has to offer will grant Survey Data, which you can then sell for a nice profit or return to Constellation to advance their exploration efforts.
Resources aren’t just for looks, either. You can mine various deposits scattered amongst the surface by hand, or even build a mining outpost to extract resources from a planet while you are away. Over time you can even build up your outpost to have production facilities as well, converting your resources into various manufactured goods. Eventually, you can have several outposts on various different planets all automatically sending resources to each other. Starfield essentially takes the settlement building from Fallout 4 and cranks it up to 100. And at the end of the day, this is still just one of the many things to do in Starfield.
In fact, a lot of the fully fleshed-out activities could literally be their own game. I spent hours climbing the ranks of the corporate ladder of Ryujin Industries, a megacorporation in the city of Neon. Not because I had to, mind you. In fact, I’m sure some people may never even experience this part of Starfield. Ryujin Industries is your typical corrupt megacorporation, doing anything to increase profits. My first job was to do a coffee run to the Terrabrew down the street, but before I knew it I was planting evidence and considering assassinating a high-value competitor. I won’t say Ryujin is Starfield‘s Dark Brotherhood… but maybe?
Over the course of my playthrough, I did a little bit of everything. Whatever Starfield threw my way, I was excited to try. I once stole an item worth a measly 500 credits—it was an honest mistake, I swear—and didn’t even realize I had the stolen item on me. Apparently, there was now a 550 credit bounty on my head, and a United Colonies ship spotted me leaving a planet and apprehended me. I definitely didn’t think all this fuss was worth it over a measly 550 credits. But on board, the ship captain, a higher-up in the UC military, basically blackmailed me into working for the UC to have my charges dropped, or face harsher penalties. This started a whole new plot line where I was now infiltrating the most infamous pirate gang, the Crimson Fleet, as a double agent for the United Colonies. I’m not joking when I say this entire plotline could have been its own game.
Character growth done right
In total, there are 80 different skills across five different trees from which to choose when building out a character in Starfield. Each skill also has four ranks, requiring the previous rank and completion of a challenge tied to it to unlock the preceding rank. And each successive rank is better than the previous.
The physical tree focuses on skills that increase your physical prowess. This includes melee damage but also health, carrying capacity, food and drink effectiveness, and more. For those more interested in how they socialize with others in Starfield, the social tree give increases your efficiency with things like diplomacy, intimidation, and persuasion. The combat tree—as the name would imply—focuses primarily on increasing combat effectiveness, such as increasing damage with certain weapon types. The science tree enhances your scientific capabilities, such as scanning and outpost efficiency, and even increases the resources obtained by mining and harvesting. Finally, the tech tree focuses primarily on increasing the effectiveness of your ships, as well as hacking (lockpicking) and how you interact with robotics.
With so many options, you can really specialize your character however you want. You get a skill point to place every time you level up, and there is no max level. So in theory, you can always keep leveling up and obtaining new skills. To give you a rough idea of how many skills one might obtain, I was level 35 when I completed the main story missions.
A beautiful galaxy full of life, choices, consequences, and Unity
I’m sure a lot of people are going to be updating their desktop wallpaper after playing Starfield. Bethesda has created a beautiful piece of our galaxy, in many different ways. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where I’ve stopped and enjoyed the view so much. My PC is certainly not a beast by any means. In fact, my CPU is over five years old and my video card, the RTX 2080 Super, is several series behind. But Starfield is extremely well-optimized. I was able to maintain 60FPS or higher for most of my playthrough on High settings. The soundtrack is equally beautiful, reminding me a lot of Interstellar. There’s not a single track I didn’t enjoy, and they all fit with the theme of space and exploration.
Visuals and music aren’t the only beautiful parts of Starfield, though. Many characters have their own charming personality as well. This is enhanced by the facial animations in Starfield which are vastly improved over previous Bethesda titles. Over time connections are built with your Constellation companions. Throughout your adventure, they’ll often join you as a companion or crew member on your ship. They each have their own reason for being part of Constellation, as well as their own side missions that further flesh out their story. You’ll have to make some tough choices along the way, and in turn, there are some rough consequences. There’s some real weight behind the decisions you’ll make, which maintains its intensity throughout the entire game.
There are moments when the beautiful surroundings and intriguing characters come together so well that creates a very realistic feeling. The stakes can be high in Starfield, but sometimes you have to stop and take in the beauty as well. I’m purposefully keeping this review spoiler-free, but know that some of the big-picture narratives of Starfield hit pretty hard. The ending won’t be for everyone; but for me, as the credits rolled, I sat and thought for a while about life, the universe, and my interpretation of it. A definite first for me after completing a game.
A future as bright as the sun
Even though this is Bethesda’s biggest game yet, it may also be its least buggy. Sure there are some trademark silly Bethesda title bugs, like characters loading in bald with no hair, or NPC’s getting stuck walking into a chair or behind held in place by a little mug on the floor. But throughout my nearly 100 hours I never once encountered anything game-breaking.
There are definitely some things I feel could enhance the Starfield experience even further. Even though you can land right next to mission objectives and points of interest on a planet, it would have been nice to have access to some sort of planetary vehicles or even rideable creatures to get around a bit easier. This is especially true when taking on the task of trying to survey and scan an entire planet. Some plants and creatures only exist in specific biomes, and it can be a long-haul trekking from one to another.
I also think it would have been a great touch to be able to actually fly your ship down onto a planet, or fly around in a planet’s atmosphere as opposed to only landing and lifting off. Not only would this be fun, but it would help add to the freedom of being able to truly explore a planet.
Upon completing Starfield you do unlock a New Game Plus mode. Interestingly, NG+ is actually intertwined with the story of Starfield, which is pretty unique and very intriguing. I will say that the bit of NG+ I have played has been just as fun as my first playthrough. Without spoiling anything, I can confirm it adds a ton of replayability to Starfield and even more content to experience in an already massive open-world game.
I’ll be honest, even as I wrap this up, I still feel like I’ve forgotten to include some of the incredible features Starfield has to offer. I know I left out a lot of memorable moments I experienced throughout my play. Realistically, this review could be triple the length it already is. But I don’t want that; I don’t want to spoil anything. Starfield is a truly incredible experience that will be special for everyone. Explore the piece of the galaxy Bethesda has created how you want to, and create your own stories. It’s where Starfield really excels.
I wasn’t sure if it could be done, but Bethesda has managed to raise the bar for sandbox games even higher. In the end, Starfield is an epic sandbox open-world RPG with a beautifully immersive universe, a captivating story, and fun and compelling gameplay the whole way. I’m so happy to have experienced Starfield organically, and I really hope you get to as well.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]