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Starfield: A Disappointing Voyage Through the Cosmos

As a lifelong gamer and astronomy enthusiast, I‘ve dreamed of the ultimate space exploration RPG. A game that would let me chart a course through the stars, encounter alien civilizations, and carve my own path in a sci-fi universe. On paper, Bethesda‘s Starfield seemed poised to deliver that. As the studio‘s first new IP in over 25 years and their initial foray into an epic space opera, expectations could not have been higher. Sadly, after sinking dozens of hours into the final product, I have to report that Starfield is a mediocre game that I cannot recommend, at least in its current state.

Technical Troubles Tarnish the Experience

Let‘s start with Starfield‘s performance issues, which are baffling for a game with a seven year development cycle and backing from Microsoft. Even on cutting-edge PC hardware like the RTX 4090, Starfield struggles to maintain 60 frames per second at 4K resolution. Digital Foundry‘s analysis found frequent frame rate dips into the 40s and 50s during intensive scenes like cities, battles, and space travel. Hitching, stuttering, and long load times are persistent issues that disrupt the flow of gameplay.

These technical shortcomings are exacerbated by Starfield‘s outdated Creation Engine 2, which powers the game‘s simulation, graphics, and physics. While it‘s an upgrade over Fallout 4 and Skyrim‘s technology, Starfield still feels stuck in the past generation. Textures are muddy up close, animations are stiff, and the lighting and particle effects pale in comparison to other AAA titles. Pop-in, clipping, and wonky collision detection abound. It‘s clear that Bethesda‘s tech is straining to keep up with their interstellar ambitions.

Procedural Planets Fall Flat

Speaking of ambition, one of Starfield‘s key selling points was the promise of over 1000 explorable planets scattered across 100 star systems. In interviews and marketing materials, game director Todd Howard emphasized the incredible scale and possibilities for discovery afforded by procedural generation. In practice, this feature ends up being Starfield‘s greatest weakness.

The vast majority of planets are barren, lifeless rocks with barely anything to find or do. You‘ll spend much more time pulse driving between points of interest or scrolling through generic planets in the system map than actually exploring. When you do land on a world, you‘re often greeted with a monochromatic hellscape, sparsely populated by repetitive, computer-generated terrain and forgettable, copy-pasted outposts. Even the most alien landscapes quickly lose their luster.

Starfield ugly procedural planet landscape
Starfield‘s procedurally generated worlds offer little in the way of handcrafted points of interest or visual variety. (Image credit: Bethesda)

Bethesda‘s past games succeeded in environmental storytelling and making every location feel purposeful and placed for a reason. Think of Skyrim‘s hand-sculpted vistas, filled with unique ruins, characters, and lore. Or the meticulous set dressing and environmental storytelling of Fallout 3‘s wasteland. Starfield‘s over-reliance on procedural generation robs its universe of that authorial intent and sense of curation. Exploring feels monotonous rather than magical.

The few hand-crafted areas like cities fare better, but are still underwhelming compared to genre standouts. Quest lines and characters rarely deviate from standard RPG tropes and archetypes, lacking nuance or branching paths. Aside from a couple of companion storylines, I struggled to remember any NPCs or get invested in Starfield‘s write-by-numbers plot. The worldbuilding has intriguing snippets of lore, but most of it is relegated to dense text logs rather than being experienced through play.

Lackluster Gameplay Loops

It would be easier to forgive Starfield‘s bland setting and story if the core gameplay loop was utterly engrossing. Alas, that is not the case. The "explore, loot, craft, fight, repeat" cycle that‘s typical of Bethesda‘s design philosophy grows stale alarmingly fast when stretched across an entire galaxy. Granted, Starfield‘s systems are expansive on paper. You can pursue multiple quest lines from different factions, establish outposts to generate resources, farm materials, mod equipment, and hire a crew to outfit a customizable spaceship.

The problem is that very little of this ties together in a meaningful way or contributes to a satisfying sense of progression. Outposts and ship upgrades feel largely superfluous and tacked-on rather than an integral part of gameplay or story. Loot is doled out at a glacial pace, and most of it is worthless junk. Crafting is convoluted and rarely results in gear that‘s better than what you find. Character builds lack synergies or skills that truly alter the flow of gameplay. It‘s as wide as an ocean and deep as a puddle.

Combat is functional but never thrilling, bogged down by spongey enemies, poor AI, and a lack of physicality. Gunplay retains Fallout 4‘s airy, imprecise feel, with reticle bloom and lackluster sound effects. Dogfighting in space is initially exciting but ultimately simplistic, with little need for tactics or fancy flying beyond locking on and circling targets. Larger ship battles are visually spectacular but play out more like barely interactive cutscenes than Tests of skill or strategy.

Failing to Launch

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Starfield is how much of a step backwards it feels for Bethesda in a post-Elden Ring world. FromSoftware‘s opus raised the bar for open world action RPGs, with stellar art direction, precise combat, rewarding exploration, and opaque but deep lore. It also launched in a surprisingly polished state despite the developer‘s track record for jank. Meanwhile, Starfield oozes "quantity over quality," mistaking more content for meaningful content.

That‘s especially disappointing given Starfield‘s protracted development cycle and delays. The game was first trademarked in 2013 and officially announced in 2018. After a planned November 2022 release date, it was pushed back to 2023 for more polishing time. But instead of emerging from the oven a gourmet dish, Starfield launched undercooked and in need of more time in the development kitchen.

I don‘t envy Bethesda‘s position. Their games have always been hugely ambitious and pushed the boundaries of scale and interactivity. Procedural generation must have seemed like a silver bullet to create a truly massive playground with endless possibilities. But in practice, algorithms and math can never fully substitute for handcrafted artistry, intentional design, and a strong authored vision. A universe a mile wide and an inch deep just leaves you wanting more.

Starfield on Metacritic
Starfield‘s Metacritic average of 68 on PC and 71 on Xbox Series X/S is far below Bethesda‘s usual standards. For reference, Skyrim scored a 94 and Fallout 4 an 87. (Image credit: Metacritic)

It‘s not that Starfield is irredeemably terrible. There are glimpses of something greater beneath the jank and bloat, like an intriguing side quest here or a stunning vista there. With time and polish, it could possibly become a great game, or at least a solid foundation to build on. Many live service games like No Man‘s Sky and Sea of Thieves launched in disappointing states but evolved into beloved classics with continued support and expansions.

But as it stands now, it‘s impossible to recommend Starfield as a premium priced, AAA product. I couldn‘t shake the feeling that my time would be better spent elsewhere while playing it. Why spend dozens of hours wandering empty procedural planets or fighting the same bullet sponge pirates when I could be having a blast with more focused, memorable adventures?

Shoot for the Stars Elsewhere

Ultimately, your mileage with Starfield will depend on your tolerance for quantity over quality, jank, and wasted potential. If you‘re a die-hard Bethesda fan who fell in love with Fallout 4 and Skyrim despite their issues, Starfield might still scratch your exploration itch, albeit with some disappointment. Xbox Game Pass subscribers have less to lose by trying it. But for most everyone else, there are far better space games to sink your time and money into.

No Man‘s Sky, once the poster child for disappointing launches, has completely turned itself around with huge content updates and revamped systems. It now delivers the perfect blend of accessible space exploration, crunchy progression, base building, and emergent multiplayer hijinx. Every planet feels alien and worth exploring, with surprises around every corner. The feeling of wonder and limitless possibilities is palpable.

On the more hardcore simulation side, Elite Dangerous is peerless as a 1:1 recreation of the Milky Way ripe with player-driven intrigue. Flying through the inky abyss, admiring nebulas, and docking at space stations never gets old. It nails the sensation of being a pilot in a treacherous frontier filled with pirates, explorers, miners, and galactic powers in a perpetual cold war. The learning curve is steep but oh so worth it.

For a more guided, story-driven experience, The Outer Worlds and Mass Effect: Legendary Edition are fantastic narrative RPGs with rich universe to explore and lovable characters. The Outer Worlds, especially, feels like a tighter, more focused version of Starfield, with Fallout: New Vegas-style player choice and razor-sharp writing.

And, of course, there‘s always Elden Ring for those craving an epic open world full of mystery, craft, and discovery. No other game rewards curiosity and experimentation so generously while respecting the player‘s time and intelligence. In many ways, it‘s the antithesis of Starfield: confident, cohesive, and packed with thrilling gameplay and secrets around every corner.

The Outer Worlds vs. Starfield
The Outer Worlds may lack Starfield‘s scale, but it more than makes up for it with focus, polish, and razor-sharp RPG design. (Image credit: Obsidian)

In a genre as vast and varied as space adventures, standing out from the crowd is no easy feat. Unfortunately, Starfield opted to go broad rather than deep, offering a galaxy of content but spreading itself too thin. As much as it pains me to say it, I cannot recommend it in good conscience without a constellation of caveats.

I still hold out hope that with time, expansions, and mods, Starfield might eventually become the game it was meant to be. But that game isn‘t the one we got at launch, and it‘s a shame. Until then, I‘ll be getting my intergalactic fix elsewhere among the stars. Starfield simply doesn‘t shine bright enough to warrant the asking price or huge time investment. Let‘s hope a brighter future lies ahead.