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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Simon Parkin

Starfield review – an exquisite, electric, faintly rickety universe of possibilities

Starfield screenshot – a figure standing in a rocky ravine with a planet in the sky above
Requires its player to submit to the spell being cast … Starfield. Photograph: Bethesda Softworks

There’s a feeling when you approach your ship, a snug and plucky little star-hopper named Frontier (of course), as it squats on the circular expanse of a landing pad. An inkling of stars pricks through the dusky sky; the hatch hangs invitingly open, a furnace of light spilling from the ship’s belly on to the tarmac. You stride past your robot butler, who has awaited your return with the infinite patience of a machine, clamber over whatever trinkets you’ve scattered across the ship’s floor to make some room in your backpack, and lower yourself into the pilot’s seat. A bank of buzzing CRT monitors, analogue switches and lights blinks back at you. As the ship’s thrusters flare, there is this sensation – rarely felt in our world, where every copse and cul-de-sac has been Google-sapped of all intrigue – of possibility, of range, of the opportunity to chart the unknown. A universe of storyline threads awaits, ready to be gathered up and laced.

Not at first, though. Starfield, the latest game from Bethesda, a studio known for big-hearted and bug-ridden worlds that strain at the seams of their supporting technology, starts blandly. You play as a miner who happens upon a fragment of an ancient artefact that, when touched, sends you tumbling into a psychedelic vision. This experience earns you an invitation to join a Masonic-like guild of explorers known as Constellation. The group believes that the artefact could relinquish some of the universe’s deep secrets, a conviction burnished by the fact that, when its fragments are brought close to one another, they float and fizzle with arcane energy.

Mystical MacGuffins do little to move the discerning sci-fi lover’s heart, however, and Starfield’s best hope is to quickly side-quest its player into more down-to-Earth dramas, of which this game has an entire galaxy’s worth. This, too, takes time. First you must learn to navigate the foibles of its nested menus, especially the star map used to skip between planets and systems. You must grow accustomed to the brittle feel of the world’s interactions, the distracting loading screens (not only when flying from one planet to the next, but often when walking from one shop to the next), and lines of dialogue that babble across one another as you jetpack through the world. And, most urgently, you must flee the starting city of New Atlantis, a soulless capital that, with its acres of concrete, glass-fronted malls and ornamental lakes, feels a bit like a retail park on the outskirts of Croydon.

In time, though, Starfield’s breadth of ambition and imagination is revealed. As well as your role as space archaeologist, you are free to ally yourself with dozens of different factions, from arms companies to peacekeeping volunteer forces, from buccaneers to debt collectors. You encounter these groups naturally as you flit between planets, and most have dedicated job boards at which you can sign up for missions to earn the credits used to upgrade your equipment and ship, or loosen stubborn tongues. You are free to choose, to some extent, how you approach these goals, opting for diplomacy, bribery or force, depending on whim, temperament or how you have chosen to spend your character’s skill points.

Starfield cityscape screenshot
Breadth of ambition and imagination … Starfield Photograph: Bethesda

For example, you might need to locate a brilliant scientific researcher who is hiding from his creditors. Do you clear the debt from your own pocket, or hack into the database to digitally lower the amount owed, or complete his research project and sell this information to the industrialists to clear his name? Each choice has costs and benefits. Some feel more consequential still. When you are invited to join a faction of tech-savvy outlaws, will you do so as a true pirate, or as a plant working for the galaxy’s equivalent of Nato? All routes are open and inviting, but eventually the consequences of your decisions accumulate and solidify to form a unique identity and bespoke journey.

Your time divides, broadly, between exploring planets and moons (some barren wastelands, others that groan under the weight of their human settlements and dramas), fighting and looting (many corpses carry a rictus fistful of credits and some shotgun shells) and dogfighting in space. A nest of deeper, fussier activities supports these fundamentals: researching innovative technologies in labs, harvesting raw materials, installing upgrades, establishing outposts, allocating team members and even, once you earn your citizenship, purchasing property. The life-sim components can feel undercooked, or perhaps just under-explained, when compared with long-running, fully furnished rival games such as No Man’s Sky or Elite Dangerous. Starfield’s joy is not found within the interplay of its systems, but rather in how the scripted missions elevate and energise the rather rickety and familiar designs that underpin it.

The world is exquisitely designed – from every piece of blinking tech to every pneumatically sighing door – as if by a team of Nasa product designers whose aesthetics got stuck somewhere around 1973 but whose funding became, at some point, limitless. The benefit of the game’s enormously broad canvas is that it has allowed the designers to create distinct pockets of civilisation, each with their own ambience and history: from the gunslingers and saloons feel of Akila, to the snowy tourism of New Homestead, or the hot temptation of Neon, a steaming futuristic Shinjuku, all exposed pipes and loops of wiring, pink and orange signage, and furtive protection rackets.

Inevitably, there is an unevenness to the many plotlines. The most compelling, generally, are those that involve subterfuge. (In one memorable example you must find a way to steal a bejewelled award from a luxury ship that is hosting a black-tie gala.) Others, in which you mine for resources at a rockface, or attempt to track down first editions for a book collector, feel jarringly trivial. The freedom to choose a companion to accompany you on your travels – there are more than a dozen, and each will comment on the morality of your choices according to their own personality – adds to the feeling that your movements through this world are both observed and consequential.

Starfield, as with Bethesda’s previous work, requires its player to submit to the spell that is being cast. The rewards for those who can overlook the often awkward delivery of dialogue, bodies that glitch through scenery, the confusion of menus and the flimsy feel of combat are considerable. Because that feeling of electric possibility – when the horn section swells as you touch down on a new planet, stride into the nearest settlement, then pick up whatever threads of story interest you – never wanes.

  • Starfield is out now on Xbox Series S/X and PC; £69.99, or playable with an Xbox Game Pass subscription

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