Starfield review: 'delivers a swashbuckling space-pirate fantasy' | Top Gear
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Wednesday 4th October

Starfield review: 'delivers a swashbuckling space-pirate fantasy'

Bethesda takes some risks in its new interstellar game, and most of them pay off

Published: 08 Sep 2023

Having finally run out of ways to re-release Skyrim, the legendary Bethesda Game Studios are taking some chances with their blockbuster spacefaring RPG. Not only is it the studio’s new IP since IHRA Professional Drag Racing 2005, it also deviates from that familiar Elder Scrolls and Fallout blueprint in some pretty dramatic ways. Most of them will put a grin on your face.

There are hundreds of planets here. Customisable space ships. Crew members with rich backstories, and a timeline that plots the next 300 years of human dalliances with space colonisation. It’s grand. It’s vast. So vast that it literally (but not literally) laughs in the face of anyone trying to appraise and review it right now upon its arrival. It’ll probably be a year before everyone knows Starfield well enough to assess its place in the great RPG pantheon. It’s also got some problems that announce themselves very quickly, but ultimately it rises above them and delivers you the swashbuckling space-pirate fantasy you want this to be.

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In time-honoured Bethesda RPG tradition, the start of your epic journey is a humble one. Deep under the surface of who-knows-where, you and a bunch of hard working, wisecracking, blue collar miner types earn a crust firing lasers at rocks. Then you find a curious crystal that gives you a hallucinogenic seizure - always a sure sign that you’re an RPG protagonist - and it’s out of the mines and away to New Atlantis for you, where an exclusive academic organisation called Constellation hastily gets you up to speed with all the plot you’ll need to contextualise the next hundred hours of shooting people.

It’s not quite on a par with that iconic ‘out of the sewers and into Oblivion’ moment, but it serves to sell you the scale you’re dealing with here. Within a couple of hours of Constellation busybody Sarah joining your crew in the search for more seizure-inducing crystals, you’re hopping between planets, moons and derelict spacecrafts like an intergalactic Deliveroo driver.

And there’s the rub. Because although you’re ostensibly travelling between planets in your cool, surprisingly cosy space ship, the mechanical reality of Starfield is that you’re fast-travelling between locations via the map screen. This isn’t an open world game per se, but a collection of smaller hubs that you can’t bridge in real-time. And in a post-No Man’s Sky world, after we’ve become accustomed to hopping in a ship, leaving one planet’s atmosphere and landing on another in one unbroken sequence, that’s always going to leave a bitter taste.

It helps that Starfield’s environments are especially rich in detail when you reach them. Like its older brothers, this game’s so skilled at building big wide worlds using tiny details, like the incidental objects that you find scattered around every room and the voice notes that punctuate your exploration of hostile ships. Constellation’s headquarters, The Lodge, sears itself into your mind because its Victorian bookshelves and wooden furnishings feel so removed from the cold, clinical lines that form the rest of New Atlantis. It’s specific, and it tells you something about the group you’re dealing with without having to come out and say that they’re slightly pompous academic truth-seekers steeped in tradition.

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Its major cities tell you something about them at a glance too. Akila City feels like the wild West, Neon is what you’d think, and The Key is as comfortable and inviting as its name suggests: claustrophobic space station corridors full of shoot-on-sight types.

But in between them, there’s a lot of less distinctly drawn locations that start to feel over-familiar, even deja vu-inducing, quite quickly. That’s always the danger with games that go for grand scale like this - you might technically be fighting mercs on an outpost you haven’t visited before, but you’ve seen all the assets used to build it countless times over.

Indeed, you may even have used them to build your own. Starfield’s systems run deep, and among them is an expanded base-building tool that takes Fallout 4’s settlements, removes the nagging from Preston Garvey and adds more shiny metal sheeting. You can use them as resource-mining operations, crafting factories, or just somewhere to play darts with your mates/serfs. You can see the connective tissue to the old settlement creation tools from Fallout, but they go deeper here and they feel like a natural extension of your journey as an all-conquering colonist adventurer.

Hm? What’s that, the combat? It’s fine. Without the VATS targeting system or dragon shouts it feels lacking a USP, but the weapon feedback and animations that motor it are slicker than Bethesda’s ever managed before. Assault rifles are surprisingly plentiful in space, as it turns out, and the scarcity of resources means you’re often improvising in the early game. Fire axe? That’ll do. Mining laser? Yep, that definitely looks like it hurts. As you develop your ship, your crew and your outposts such ignominious situations as running out of ammo become a thing of the past, and that progression feels rewarding. You’ve got teams of scientists back at base working on your arsenal now. You can probably drop the fire axe from your inventory.

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Space combat is a different matter. Dogfighting among the asteroids should be a riot, but there’s not much finesse to it - whirl around trying to keep enemies in your crosshairs long enough to achieve missile lock, fire missiles, repeat until everyone’s dead. There’s some added depth in that you’re assigning power to your ship’s systems in real time, diverting more energy to the shields or your laser canon as you see fit, but the smart move is to invest in better ships and customise them with wildly OP weapons loadouts so that encounters become a formality.

And although your character class and stats don’t impact combat as dramatically as you’d think, the character creator’s nice and deep, great for immersing you instantly into someone else’s life. You might pick the trait that grants you a luxury home somewhere out there in space, but a crippling mortgage that comes with it. Or the one that means your parents are alive and well, and expecting a visit from you soon. Makes a change from simply ‘You were raised by diplomats so you’re persuasive’.

Where Starfield feels lightyears ahead of Bethesda’s other titles though, is in the visual presentation. It’s not going to melt your console, and you can look directly at it without burning your retinas off from the sheer impossible fidelity of the thing, but… it looks good. Really good, for a game of this scale. Cities bustle with an impressive number of NPCs. Planetary weather systems regularly throw up gorgeous lighting conditions. You’ll find yourself staring at the space suit of whoever’s talking to you, marvelling at all its detailed gadgets. And then you’ll notice that as they speak, their expressions convey actual, convincing emotions and moments of emphasis. For a game that’s 75 per cent talking to people about why you need to go and get the thing for them, that’s a big deal.

You’ve got to sift through some filler to see the best that Starfield has to offer, but when you find it, that best’s worthy of the Bethesda Game Studios name. It’s an RPG that sells you the illusion of a vast space using small, thoughtful details, and paces the rags-to-riches power fantasy perfectly. The vast scale often works against it by creating a sense of copy-and-paste experiences and having to fast-travel everywhere is a real immersion breaker. But you’ll persevere through the turbulence, because in its finest moments it fulfils every space exploration fantasy you’ve ever had.

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