Although “Starfield” is Bethesda Game Studios’ first wholly original game in 29 years, the project feels eerily familiar. The graphics may have received an overhaul with the Creation Engine 2, and the setting is different as players take on the role of an explorer in this sci-fi epic, but the core experience has a distinct signature.
Like a fingerprint, there’s no mistaking the hallmarks of a Bethesda Game Studios release. It’s a quality that’s intrinsic to the studio, and it shows up in the new universe of “Starfield.” Players take on the role of a newbie miner on Vectera, a moon in the Narion system, who discovers a mysterious artifact.
A TOUCH OF THE SPECTACULAR
Upon touching the piece of metal, the protagonist, which players customize in the beginning, hears music and sees lights before being knocked out. When Barrett, a member of Constellation, shows up to pick up the artifact, he invites the player to join a collective on Jemison in Alpha Centauri.
It turns out Constellation is a near-mythic organization reminiscent of the Royal Geographical Society dedicated to traversing the stars, and the artifact and others like it have caught the group’s eye. Over the course of the 100-hour-plus campaign, players will delve into the curious object and its fantastical origins. They’ll also find themselves in several quest lines that take players around the different factions in the 24th century.
They’ll hobnob with or fight against pirates in the Crimson Fleet. They’ll work with members of the two major factions: the United Colonies and the Freestar Collective. Above all, they’ll be exploring different planets and space stations and end up drawn into planetary dramas. In a way, it can feel like “Star Trek,” and in other ways, players will get a distinct “Star Wars” vibe.
PLAYING THIS BEFORE
All of this is built on the gameplay that Bethesda Game Studios established in “The Elder Scrolls” series, refined in the “Fallout” and fused in the “Starfield” series. The sci-fi epic grabs elements from each game to create a familiar but fresh experience.
The campaign’s combat is divided into two parts. The first is the on-foot action, where players can employ several tactics to tackle a mission. But mainly, players will run and gun, taking advantage of a jetpack that can let them outflank enemies. Initially, this is the easiest and best way to tackle problems, but as players gain levels and skill points, they can explore the five-category skill tree: Physical, Social, Combat, Science and Tech.
The more players level up skills in these branches, the more options they have in quests. They’ll discover that not every mission needs to end with a gunfight and that players can persuade opponents to surrender or give up a needed item. Other times sneaking around is more important than brute force, and players will be thankful for they invested points in stealth. In addition, players will also pick up additional abilities, similar to other Bethesda titles.
SPACE BATTLES AND OUTPOSTS
The other part of combat comes in flight. As players explore, they’ll take part in dog fights when they’re attacked by bandits or help out a UC starship battling Crimson Fleet pirates. Or it could be the other way around if players decide that a life of crime is what they want. If they enjoy that aspect of the “Starfield,” players will devote points to the Tech tree, which opens up abilities to target engines in order to disable ships and board them. In addition, it can improve other aspects of a ship.
Furthermore, players have to worry about where they direct power on their starship because sometimes extra energy is needed for shields in defense while other times powering up lasers can lead to quicker victories. Players can even build their own ships from scratch, but doing so is a complicated and frustrating process. The developers allow players to do it, but they don’t explain the process well, and it’s overly complicated. For those who do master it, they can build fantastic crafts.
The same issue follows “Starfield” when it comes to outposts. During players’ travels, they’ll scan and survey different moons and planets that contain elements and valuable substances. Players will need to build outposts to extract the materials. This is especially important when exploring the outer reaches beyond the Settled Systems.
Players will need to build functioning and well-defended bases. Those familiar with “Fallout” will be familiar with how this works. Those outposts will also be important when trying to build up money to buy the best starships or parts. It’s another avenue of gameplay that can suck up a lot of time.
Unfortunately, much like other Bethesda games, players will see the same kind of bugs and issues. I ran across problems where key ships didn’t appear or a character I was supposed to follow wandered out in the middle of nowhere. A game this big is often filled with glitches.
WHERE IT FALTERS AND SHINES
Although these flaws give the game room to improve, what “Starfield” already excels at is the mission design and universe-building. Director Todd Howard and his team did a clever job of essentially making a sci-fi world inspired by adventure fiction and pulp magazines and dressing it up in what it calls NASA punk.
The game appears more grounded in hard sci-fi similar to “The Expanse,” but as the game goes on, Bethesda makes it clear that “Starfield” has more in common with the works of Henry Bedford-Jones. It feels more like an era when humans probed what they feel is worth exploring save for patches of unknown territory, and these are the places where Constellation ventures forth.
Wrapped up in this universe is a diverse array of locales with distinct themes. New Atlantis is a futuristic utopia with a dark underbelly. Akila City is a Wild West frontier town while Neon has a distinct cyberpunk edge. In all these locales, players are drawn into corporate espionage quests or crime-solving missions, and these story-driven tasks all have a way of sucking players deeper into “Starfield’s” universe and keeps them stuck in its familiar orbit.
3½ stars out of 4
Platform: PC, Xbox Series X and Series S