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Skyrim follow-up Starfield is more small step than giant leap

The first few dozen hours of play reveal that Bethesda’s long-awaited franchise might be the most incredible game ever, but only if you’ve got lots of patience

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Screenshot: Bethesda

What is it about space travel that makes everything seem not just important, but the most important? John F. Kennedy explained that the reason for going to the moon was because it was a hard thing to do, it was worth doing because of that. More recently, the richest and stupidest man in the world has decided living on Mars is a better goal than living on Earth. Even video game space isn’t immune to it: 2016 space adventure No Man’s Sky famously became a victim of its own hype, based on the assumption (unfair or otherwise) that it would allow players to fly a spaceship anywhere and do anything when they got there.

Which brings us to Starfield. The developers at Bethesda Game Studios have spent years pushing it as an Important video game. One that matters. And it’s hard to fault them for making that argument—after all, this is the studio that previously made The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, one of the best-selling and most popular video games of all time. And Starfield (as has been touted in the marketing) is an entirely new franchise that’s “25 years in the making.”


Whatever Bethesda was going to do after all that build-up was going to be a big deal, and that becomes exponentially more true simply because this is a game about going to space (and because it has the added scrutiny of being exclusive to Xbox and PC, a first for this studio). Bethesda already makes games that drop you onto a big map and essentially leave you to do your own thing—be it the fantasy realm of Skyrim, or the dystopian Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3—and Starfield was introduced with the promise that it’s just like that … but you have a spaceship. You’re dropped onto a big map and left to do your own thing, but it’s a whole damn universe this time.


And that’s what Starfield is, as incomprehensibly vast and potentially awe-inspiring as that is. But—after 30 or so hours with the game—it’s also not much more than that. It’s Skyrim in space, which is awesome, but if you go in expecting a life-altering experience like Kennedy’s vision of the moon landing (but in terms of video game achievements), you might spend a few dozen hours being pretty bored.

If there’s a “problem” at the heart of Starfield, one that drags down its opening hours more than it should, it’s that Bethesda is a little too enamored with the world it has created. That world is impressive, to be clear, and Bethesda seems to have fully sketched out centuries of human history to justify why the Earth is barren and why most of our descendants have split into two factions—the slick and corporate Star Trek-y denizens of the United Colonies versus the Firefly-esque cowboys of the Freestar Collective, who have fought several wars against each other by the time you show up—and the studio, understandably, wants to make sure you see all of that.


Unlike Skyrim, which opens with you as a prisoner about to be executed, and leaves you to figure out who you are and why you’re there, Starfield forces you into a life as a space-miner who is so crucial to the plot that there are moments where it supersedes any decisions you make in the otherwise cool character creation system. (Which allows you to pick traits that alter the game in small, funny ways, like making it so your parents are alive, and they love you—but you have to send them some of your money every once in a while—or let you join a cult that gives you an addiction to hyperspace travel).

Backstory choices you make for your character will impact certain dialogue options, but there will also be times when they don’t feel like they matter as much as they should: You show up at the planet where your character was born, you’ll tell someone “hey, I was born here” and they’ll still say “yeah well it’s changed a lot since then,” just so the game can give some exposition about what that planet’s whole deal is for players who didn’t decide they were born there. The issue with that has more to do with expectations than anything—because you wouldn’t necessarily go into any other game and demand that it completely shift its narrative to suit the expectations that you went in with—but it still grates a little when you perceive your character one way, and the game insists on gently nudging you another way.

Starfield Direct – Gameplay Deep Dive

But a funny thing happens as you get acclimated to the universe of Starfield, as your colleagues at the Constellation explorer’s club get more and more hands-off with their newest recruit, as missions start paying you in the thousands rather than in the hundreds, and you can suddenly start to afford to go out into the universe and really make it your own: It all starts to feel … awe-inspiring. It’s hard not to buy into the hype when you redesign your spaceship the way you want, when you fill its cargo hold with all of the little plushies you’ve collected on your travels, and when you pick a point on the intergalactic horizon and just go there to see what there is to see.


That’s when the idea of this being “Skyrim in space” starts to feel less reductive, and more transcendent. That game sold how many millions of copies? And how many people actually finished the story? Maybe five or six? Why expect something different here? It takes some work to get to this point, but—at the risk of being repetitive—Starfield eventually offers the same feeling of freedom, the same intrinsic rewards for simply seeing or experiencing something cool, an improved social system where you can talk your way out of a lot of encounters that otherwise would’ve led to bloodshed, a relatively stunning lack of the bugs and glitches that Bethesda games are historically known for, and you have a goddamn spaceship.

Skyrim was basically a once-in-a-lifetime video game—a zeitgeist-capturing single-player RPG that eventually made its way to multiple game systems across multiple generations. It seems unfair to the breadth of this video game to determine (even after more than two dozen hours of play) if Starfield will live up to that. But it’s impossible to deny that there’s something special here. Maybe something that speaks to humanity’s fascination with space travel? Or maybe not. Starfield may or may not be the most important video game ever made, but it is Skyrim in space, and that’s awesome.