We don’t get proper space exploration titles every day. Sure, we get a lot of space-themed games, but nothing that gives the feeling of flying through space and exploring new lands. Hence, when Starfield, the new RPG by Bethesda, was announced and the developers revealed that you can explore 1,000+ planets in space, it turned a lot of heads. These are the brains behind the Elder Scrolls and Fallout, two well-known Western RPG franchises. And while the recent titles by the team have been flawed in various ways, overall, they deliver a great package.
This time, the team promised to offer us numerous galaxies to explore in a classic Bethesda RPG game loop. That was enough to entice me. My 70-odd hours with Starfield have been one of my comfiest gaming experiences of late, made possible courtesy of a code provided by the folks at Bethesda. At the same time, some problems stand out like a sore thumb. So, let’s jump into this in-depth review of Starfield to learn what Bethesda did right and what can be improved.
A Journey Through the Unknown
Starfield follows the journey of a player-created character, following the footsteps of other classic Bethesda titles. You create one using the in-game creator with unique traits and character backgrounds. These traits and backgrounds are your roleplaying gateway. Once ready, the story starts unwrapping. While I agree that the start is painfully slow, it also sets the pace for things to come. I would say that the beginning hours of Starfield make it clear how Bethesda intends you to play the game.
The main story follows the journey of the in-game exploration faction named Constellation. Led by the charismatic Sarah Morgan, we can create certain similarities to the adventurers and explorers throughout history. You become a member of this group after encountering the elusive Artifact, which the Constellation is tracking down to unravel its mysteries. From this point onwards, how you play the game is up to you. And to make this journey enjoyable, you have companions to bring with you, each voice acted and filled with personality.
While the main story focuses on artifacts, the game never forces you to finish it. Starfield wants you to explore, take it easy, and unravel the various small missions littered through the planets and spaces. Called activities, these are Starfield’s side-missions that breathe life into the world. These missions are also what I thoroughly enjoyed, more than the main story. For example, in one side activity, you’ll need to ensure that a lab under siege is rescued and freed. This became a lengthy storyline of my character, who is seen working to make sure the scientists and security are safe. Similarly, a random secret document from a dead enemy resulted in another quest involving a deceased vigilante and her possessions. Outside these side stories, you can join one of the four factions in-game and do their questlines.
Starfield ensures that the world around you isn’t a secondary product but something worth exploring. It became evident when a random NPC’s dialogue in Neon turned into a small yet detailed questline involving an investigation into a person’s death. It immediately saw me start exploring the world for such stories. Of course, you also have the signature environmental storytelling, where item placement in a particular area allows you to conclude the story of that area. The game sees you take your time and explore the vast space and planets.
Where it falters by a mark is the main questline. It has the same problems I had with Fallout 4, where my most memorable times with the game went into the side activities. Starfield’s story is quite unhappening and only ramps up in the final hours of the game. At that time, the urgency kicks in, becoming a race against the clock. That is when I was hooked on the game.
Starfield’s side-missions breathe life into the world
And once you are done with these side activities and the turbulent main quest, you have the New Game Plus mode. Starfield follows the coattails of the current multiverse craze in movies, attempting their twist to it. We’re refraining from dropping the main spoilers for the storyline and what leads to the NG+, but the game tries something clever. With every NG+ run, your first encounter at the Constellation changes. In our gameplay, we met with my character standing with the Constellation for the first time, like at the beginning of the game. This implies that we are now in a different timeline in a different universe.
Similarly, multiple people have pointed out that they encounter changes in subsequent NG+ runs. This compelled me to finish and try the game again with my existing character. Since you bring over your unlocked skills, you have nothing to lose. However, my complaint is that the game should have changed some late-game or mid-game encounters outside of the Constellation encounter to add that uncertainty to the game. Currently, the only thing that changes in NG+ is the Constellation encounter.
The overall plot of Starfield is simple. Skyrim and previous Bethesda games have had a deeper main storyline than this one. However, more thought and focus went into the side content for the game. That is where it shined a lot.
Space-Battles and Exploration
Now, since it’s called Starfield, you would expect Bethesda to have added space exploration. Fortunately, they did. The whole galaxy is open to you and your playground. Since it’s an open-world title, you can explore the planets and star systems. And for exploration, you have your trusty spaceship in Starfield. While several players complained about the spaceship exploration of Starfield, I didn’t find it disappointing. I preferred how the game allows you to fast-travel to any discovered planet or star system at any point without having to sit through tedious orbital entry and exit sequences.
The expanse of space, however, is not safe as you can encounter enemies during exploration. Fortunately, you have a spaceship with some artillery capabilities to combat these intruders. Spaceship combat works uniquely, where you ensure the power allocation across your weapons, engine, shields, and grave drive is even. It becomes an additional mini-game where you try to find the sweet spot.
For example, allocating more power to your weapon system will make it work more effectively, while more power in the engine speeds up your spaceship. While it is a simple system, it adds a layer of complexity as some of my time in space went into adjusting these settings.
Back to the exploration, you jump from star system to star system to create a flight chart. So, in the future, if you want to revisit any of these star systems, you can do so freely. Inside these star systems, you have planets that you can land on. Some planets won’t allow you to set foot on them like the gas giants. But from our experience, we’ve set foot on most of them. For landing, Starfield does this unique thing. Since we don’t have orbital entry and exit, you put a waypoint on the planet and land on it.
The game will randomly generate a tile, populating it with resources, points of interest, and alien lifeforms. Resources generally stay at the same places where you scan them from above. Once on land, you are free to explore them on foot. Yeah, foot.
Exploration ranges from scanning the planets for resources on foot and checking out randomly generated points of interest. Since the game doesn’t have an on-screen waypoint map, you do it through a viewfinder. This item scans and marks points of interest on the map. While I am at it, Starfield has one of the most atrocious maps in video games. While it will get addressed with a post-launch patch, the current one is so barebones and useless that it makes you wonder, who greenlit adding that in-game?
This is where my biggest complaint about exploration begins. When a tile is as big as the map of Boston from Fallout 4, you expect some mode of transportation as an option. It is the future, and I think humanity figured out a way to stow away all drivable vehicles, dunno how. We have cool spaceships and grav drives, but no drivable cards.
It is the future, and I think humanity figured out a way to stow away drivable vehicles.
This becomes incredibly frustrating and boring when your world isn’t populated with meaningful exploration points. And this is a decision Bethesda deliberately made. Having an optional mode of transportation on the planet would’ve been welcoming. Furthermore, planet tiles occasionally barely populate themselves with meaningful exploration points, making the overall experience tedious. The main culprit here is the procedural generation, and sometimes you’d think that maybe the team should’ve made a handful of these planets but litter them with hand-crafted experiences.
Guns of the Future: Are They Good?
The ruffians you encounter in space also roam the charted galaxies. To fight them, you have new-age guns in Starfield, which are classified between standard, rare, and unique. Depending on the rarity, the gun’s performance varies greatly. Certain guns can also shoot out bullets that deal status damage.
For example, an Equinox with poison lead. The gun combat is incredible, satisfying, and hard-hitting. Bethesda has come a long way from Fallout 3 and Fallout 4. When you use them, you can make the difference between Fallout 4 and Starfield weapons. It’s hard to explain it in words. Try both the games, and you’ll see a difference.
Build Your Outpost, Improve Your Performance
Since this is an RPG title, Starfield has systems where you want to roleplay in a particular way. The sole deciding factor for that is the skill tree. It is divided into five sub-sections, having four more divisions. These skills ensure your character’s performance across the board. Depending on what skills you pick, your gameplay changes.
Each singular skill has four divisions, with level 4 being the highest. These are locked, and you unlock them by fulfilling the conditions set by that skill. For example, you need to kill a set number of enemies using a gun to improve your handgun proficiency. Meeting the criteria unlocks the next level inside that particular skill, improving your gun handling.
Mixing and matching these skills changes your overall gameplay experience. Since my character’s background is an ex-scoundrel, I surely focused on my spaceship and weapon skills, making me formidable in dogfights and on-foot fights. Additionally, I also decided to focus on persuasion to make my character a smooth-talker. There are numerous skills to focus on, targeting a particular play style.
Another addition to facilitate your roleplay is through outposts and shipbuilders. Both of these things have applications in this game. However, their importance depends on you, the player. For starters, you can create eight outposts on any of the discovered planets around the galaxy. These outposts can have various functionalities, such as mining, botany, or a settlement for people to live in.
Starfield utilizes Fallout 4’s settlement builder but has fine-tuned it to make it feel better. You have two camera perspectives to make it easier to place structures. Better structures are unlocked by research, done through research benches, which require components. These are collected by mining from various planets. Components get utilized to build structures, giving importance to the exploration. Understanding how it works allows you to create a grand settlement from scratch. Granted, you have your necessary components.
Another thing added to the game is a shipbuilder. In it, you can create your homebrew ship, separate from the pre-built ones. Shipbuilder lets you purchase or put parts to build or upgrade a spaceship. In terms of customizability, it’s very in-depth. I have seen people using it to make Millenium Falcon from Star Wars or the Magic School Bus from the cartoon show of the same name. Speaking from ease of access, it is a nightmare to browse through the menus and UI. Having a simpler shipbuilding menu might help more people to use it actively. This system can become a core part of your space exploration if you want to.
However, it is worth mentioning that Outpost and Shipbuilder is an optional system. While Fallout 4 dropped this urgency of making you build your settlement, Starfield doesn’t. If you don’t want to do either, the game never stops in its tracks. I’ve only used the outpost builder once throughout my 70-hour playthrough. And not once did I feel the need to touch the feature. The same goes for the shipbuilder.
If you find yourself a spaceship with good specs, you have no requirement to use these systems. It feels like Starfield uses some of the pre-existing systems from past Bethesda titles and redid and polished them for a better experience.
Starfield PC Performance Overview
Since we played this title on our PC, we can only speak about our overall experience with Starfield on the same. We tried the game on two separate machines. We performed the majority of our performance tests and playthroughs on the following setup:
- CPU: AMD Ryzen 5 5600, running at base clocks
- GPU: NVIDIA RTX 4070 Ti; playing at 1080p
- SSD: WD SN570 512GB Gen 3 NVME.
- RAM: 16GB DDR4 @ 3000 MHz.
At launch, Starfield had some performance issues on PC, which, at this point, everyone knows. The reason is the game’s reliance on the CPU. We saw a noticeable 70% CPU usage, with the 4070 Ti reaching up to 70% usage. We first tried the game with its suggested settings. This means everything got maxed out at 1080p. We preferred not to opt for FSR2 in our testing.
On New Atlantis, we saw a noticeable dip in frames and a CPU/GPU usage spike, averaging around 72%. At the same time, the framerate dropped below 64 right after we crossed the viewport and went to the fountain area. This drop worsens when you go to the MAST area of New Atlantis, dropping down to 55. In both instances, we didn’t touch any settings. The experience, barring Neon, stayed similar in Akila City, where we only got a maximum of 63 frames inside the settlement area. It fared better on the emptier planets with only vegetation or fauna to render. In such cases, we’ve noticed an average of 125 frames consistently.
Tweaking a few options, like population density, shadow quality, and volumetric lighting to medium or high, barely improved Starfield’s performance. We saw a measly 2-3 frames gain. Same for the planets. We tried using more of the fixes suggested in another article by us. Unfortunately, performance gains, once again, were negligible. This proved our assumptions of the game relying on the CPU, with 5600 barely providing the required juice.
My colleague Upanishad used his Lenovo Legion 5 Pro from 2021 to play the game. He uses it for daily activities and collaborated with me on the Starfield coverage. As such, he had equal amounts of time with the game. This machine’s specs were:
- CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 5800H
- GPU: NVIDIA RTX 3070, running at 140W
- SSD: Samsung 970 EVO 1TB
- RAM: 32GB DDR4 @ 5200 MHz
In the case of Upanishad, the situation worsened. While granted, he played the title on 2K resolution, Lenovo Legion 5 pro at an average pulled was approximately 45 FPS. The framerate exceeded 60 frames in better situations, mainly at the planets. In this case, we couldn’t determine whether the CPU or the GPU was the culprit. After all, the laptop houses a 140-watt RTX 3070, over the 220W standard GPU within our desktop. Hence, it might be the case of the GPU underperforming.
However, we did test the game with the DLSS mod introduced by the community. While Upanishad opted for the mod by PureDark, which uses the DLSS 2.0 for the free version, I went for LukeFz564’s mod. Additionally, we both had the new NVIDIA drivers installed. While the driver doesn’t do much for the 30-series card, it gives a 5% performance boost for the 40-series card.
Getting back to the DLSS mod, in Upanishad’s case, he saw a performance boost at places where he had noticeable frame drops. The mod took advantage of the tenser cores of the RTX card, providing better performance. Similarly, in my case, I saw a performance increase at Akila and New Atlantis settlements, where framerates went up from sub-54 to 80 frames. This number only further improved at emptier planets. Of course, the new NVIDIA driver is also at play here because Neon, which averaged 65 frames, had a consistent 75 with V-sync turned on.
Overall, you are out of luck if you are on a CPU below a Ryzen 5 5600. Bethesda has promised to add official DLSS support and work with GPU manufacturers to improve the performance via driver updates. Only time will tell how effective these commitments are.
Starfield Review: Should You Buy It?
Starfield is by no means a perfect title. It has its woes. Be it the performance inconsistency, the occasional bugs, the omission of basic QoL features from the PC port, or the lackluster main story, Starfield sure has issues. However, it also has that signature Bethesda RPG charm of exploring an overarching world for the tailor-made storyline or environmental storytelling.
Granted, sometimes the game feels grandiose and over-ambitious when considering the 1,000-odd planets and 100+ solar systems. But, considering the one hundred planets with hand-crafted material, the fulfilling gun combat, the hand-crafted side missions, and even the ambitious main storyline, you cannot help but root for the game. My best times with Starfield were spent when I roleplayed as the space scoundrel from Neon on my character’s home planet.
The game wants you to take it slow, enjoy the exploration, and let things happen naturally. And I am all here for it. Try the game out once. If you don’t want to buy it, get Xbox GamePass and give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.
Buy Starfield ($69.99)