Saturday 10 February 2024

Starfield

Back in the mists of time, or 1998 to be precise, I bought my first-ever gaming PC (233mhz, Pentium II). The very first game I purchased for it was The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, from Bethesda Game Studios. I thoroughly enjoyed the huge, open-world roleplaying adventure with its interesting quests and main story, obfuscated as it was by a vast number of bugs and by a huge amount of jank generated by its world being so vast it had to be procedurally generated. Bethesda themselves seemed to agree this was a problem, dropping the procedurally-generated part of the game to focus on smaller, more handcrafted worlds through sequels Morrowind (2002), Oblivion (2006) and Skyrim (2011), as well as the similar games in their Fallout series: Fallout 3 (2008), Fallout: New Vegas (2010, not made by Bethesda but using their tech and game design paradigm), Fallout 4 (2015) and Fallout 76 (2018). I played and enjoyed all of these, some more than others.


Launched in late 2023, Starfield is Bethesda’s latest take on their traditional gaming structure, in a brand-new universe. If the Elder Scrolls series is high epic fantasy and Fallout is post-apocalyptic SF, then Starfield is full-on space opera. Set 300 years in the future, after Earth has been rendered uninhabitable and a human diaspora to other worlds has taken place, Starfield casts you as a space adventurer. You choose your gender, name, homeworld, stats, skills and even things like if you have parents or not (and if you say yes, your parents periodically show up throughout the game to offer support, with appropriate levels of embarrassment).

The game opens with you taking part in a mining operation, but it’s not long before you have encountered a Weird Space Rock™, touching which grants you mystical visions. An organisation called Constellation soon gets in touch. Other Weird Space Rocks™ have been found and they think these objects hold the key to proving whether or not sentient alien life exists elsewhere in the galaxy. Soon you find yourself with a spaceship, a credit balance and a growing arsenal of weapons as you scour the Settled Systems for more Space Rocks™. Along the way you bump into a vast array of factions, corporations and individuals who are eager to employ you to sort their problems out for them (which you do, easily and almost instantly), resulting in a vast tapestry of missions and options on how to proceed. As you complete missions you gain in experience and money, allowing you to level up your skills and get better equipment, weapons and ships.


This is all pretty standard for a computer/console roleplaying game in 2024. The gameplay loop here is also very familiar to anyone who’s played a Bethesda RPG before, as you cycle through missions, gain faction loyalty and occasionally have to make morally murky, tough decisions. You can be helped in this by a growing crew of companion characters, some of whom you meet at Constellation, others encountered throughout the game. These companions can be assigned to your ship or to outposts, bases you can build on planets through the game to mine resources at a larger scale. These in turn allow you to build better bases, ships and equipment. One companion at a time can also join you on missions, lending an extra gun and inventory space, and occasionally generating new missions.

Again, nothing shockingly original here. We’ve seen it all before, but it works, and is indeed quite a lot of fun. Customisability is a cornerstone of the game’s design and getting just the right combination of gear, ships, spacesuits, jetpacks and guns can be quite entertaining.


Where the game starts to falter is in something it can’t really afford to falter on: its core structural design. Every previous Bethesda game back to Morrowind has worked in an identical manner. You have a reasonably large map and you explore each map, going to specific locations to fulfil quests but having random encounters along the way. In a Fallout game you might be directed to go to an abandoned factory to root out some bandits, but along the way you bump into a band of rogue droids and then some Brotherhood of Steel soldiers who you have to fight or ally with, leading to other missions. In an Elder Scrolls title, you might be on your way to a cave to locate a missing magical artifact only to end up in a desperate duel with a dragon. In either, you might spot a weird-looking structure in the distance and decide to investigate, leading to more encounters. The earlier games combined hand-crafted quests with random events to generate memorable moments, what some people like to call emergent gameplay.

Starfield’s very design makes this harder to enact: you can’t walk 15 light-years to your destination, so obviously you have to traverse the distance in your spacecraft. And you do control your spacecraft directly, and you can get into space battles and boarding actions and all kinds of cool, fun stuff in the space part of the game. But this is limited. You can only fly around a small area of space before doing anything else becomes impossible, at which point you have no choice but to hyper-jump to another system, and then land on a planet’s surface wherever the mission is going to take place. Often the ship lands right next to your objective, leaving little opportunity for exploration.

 
Even if you do decide to strike out to explore random areas – and to the game’s credit, it does allow you to land anywhere on a planet’s solid surface, although you are restricted to a radius of around 4km from your ship – you’ll quickly start to find things getting predictable. The game dynamically generates points of interest around you, and these can vary a bit depending on the type of planet or moon, but these will quickly descend into being the same few types of caves, or abandoned installations, or a spaceship landing nearby (generating a rescue mission because the ship has crashed or combat because the ship is full of pirates, or sometimes an opportunity to buy and sell because it’s a merchant). Even worse, there seem to be very few combinations of some of these points of interest: if you encounter a randomly-generated base on a random planet, there seem to be maybe three different layouts for them resulting in extreme fatigue setting in as you keep encountering them copy-pasted everywhere.

You can do other things on planets, like gather survey data on them. This involves scanning for flora (plants), fauna (animal life) and mineral resources. However, the Settled System seem to have been pollinated from the same, relatively small pool of such things. The same animals and plants can be found repeated across planets dozens of light-years apart, which seems unlikely. Scanning each planet in full requires repeatedly scanning these elements, sometimes relocating if an animal or plant species only exists in another biome (particularly notable with aquatic species). The limitations on the game also become more obvious over time: clearly not having enough resources to develop undersea biomes, the game just makes almost every single ocean, lake and pond in the game about two feet deep, which is bizarre.

 
I have to admit the first couple of times I surveyed a planet in full like this it could be fun, and the game occasionally generates those moments of sparse beauty that Skyrim and Fallout 3 could be famous for, with you feeling alone in a hostile but scenic landscape. Starfield goes a step further by making you feel like you might be the only living, sentient being for many light-years in any direction (at least until walking around for another ten minutes invariably triggers a landing spaceship or a pirate base spontaneously appearing three kilometres away). As the game continues, you invariably start seeing through the illusion more and more quickly, and eventually visiting these random locations loses its lustre.

The game’s spine is its core storyline, which is heavy on the Space Rocks™. Bethesda at least have poured more time and attention into this story than some of their others. The story is not ultra-urgent, giving you plenty of time and reasons to pick up side-quests (unlike Fallout 4 where you were tracking down your recently-kidnapped son but also had time to cosplay as a 1930s pulp action hero for the sake of random comedy). But it’s also surprisingly interesting, unpredictable and the direction it goes in is way more 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar than Mass Effect. It’s a cerebral SF story that takes the game in a gratifyingly weird direction as it goes along. It’s more original than I was expecting from Bethesda, although as usual it’s not very long (maybe 20-25 hours and that’s being generous).

 
The meat of the game lies with side-quests and especially the faction storylines. The United Colonies, Freestar Collective, Ryujin Industries, Constellation and the Crimson Fleet pirates all have their own storylines, some of them quite long and detailed, with their own array of sub-quests and objectives. Doing each faction storyline takes some time, and allows you to level up and build up new networks of allies and assets, some of which you can continue to tap later on. These questlines have different focuses, with some on undercover operations and stealth, and others on all-out combat. For the most part they are entertaining, although there are also a few fetch quests which may make your eyes roll in boredom.

There are also the offbeat, weird quests that Bethesda have become known for, like having to negotiate a legal dispute between a generation ship crew who arrive at their destination to find it having been colonised decades earlier by FTL-equipped explorers, or arriving on a planet inhabited by clones of famous Earth figures who are having an almighty barney over who’s in charge (similarities to the classic Red Dwarf episode Meltdown are, I’m sure, purely coincidental). There’s definitely fewer of these than in some of their prior games, but their deranged nature comes as a sharp relief after so many po-faced missions lacking in humour or originality.

 
Combat is very solid and the best it’s ever been in a Bethesda game, with a reactive feel to weapons and a solid choice of guns and grenades. Enemy AI is slightly better than earlier games, with more attempts to flank you and flush you out with explosives, but still no great shakes. Your Weird Space Rock™ encounters grant you superpowers which nobody else has, which soon allows you to curb-stomp any opposition with ease. Space combat is less accomplished, with you simply keeping an enemy ship in your sights until they explode, occasionally executing an afterburner boost to lose missile locks or ordering an emergency repair.

Graphically, this is easily Bethesda’s best-looking-on-release game since Oblivion, with well-rendered environments. Unfortunately, people still look plasticky and firmly in the uncanny valley, with dead, bulging eyes. Character animation is also stiff and uncomfortable. NPC characters also don’t have the schedules they did in other Bethesda games, working in the day and sleeping at night, instead staying where they are at almost all times. The cities are busier than in any previous Bethesda game, but the cities are still microscopically tiny for what they are supposed to be, still feeling like the medieval towns of Skyrim rather than bustling future metropolises. The worldbuilding is also dubious, particularly merchants having tiny amounts of money on them to buy things and almost nobody having a car, mobile phone, bank account or email account, forcing you to traipse 50 light-years to just report to somebody in person that you’ve completed a mission for them.



Starfield’s problems also feel exacerbated by a very poor choice of release date. The game came out a month after Baldur’s Gate III, one of the best-written, most reactive, funniest and most characterful RPGs of the last decade. It makes Starfield feel undercooked, underwritten, predictable and flat in comparison. It also came out a month ahead of Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, whose dynamism, amazing character animation, superb voice acting and excellent first-person action all show up Starfield fairly badly. Bethesda got away with a lot of iffy design decisions on their earlier games due to a lack of competition (Fallout 4 did start to suffer from comparisons, as it came out just after The Witcher 3). In the face of high-quality alternatives, Bethesda can’t really afford to keep on pretending it’s still 2006.

Still, Starfield is very far from unenjoyable, or awful. There are some great moments, some fun quests and some very solid battle sequences. The main quest, although artificially extended and repetitive in places, goes in a cosmic, weird SF direction that is pleasingly unconventional. Some of the planets are downright gorgeous and fun to explore. The game has a very chill atmosphere which I found welcome after very intense sessions of playing Baldur's Gate III where your brain needs to be in first gear. There is enormous, untapped potential here. Whether Bethesda can extract that potential through updates and expansions remains to be seen. As it stands, Starfield (***½) is solid but underwhelming.

 
The game is available now on PC and Xbox. A PlayStation 5 version is rumoured for latter this year. The first expansion to the game, Shattered Space, is expected later this year.

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