For every drab mining outpost full of penny-ante goons, you’ll stumble upon a phosphorescent fungus forest, a ritzy zero-gravity casino, or an interstellar school bus full of sixth graders eager to interview a real-life starship captain.
The wonder of discovery is everywhere in Starfield. Say you’re just minding your business, scanning for minerals when some snake-worshiping wiseguy takes a pop at you. You could choose to off his entire crew and commandeer his vessel. You might not need a new spaceship, but hey, why not? Point that ship in any direction, and you’ll find countless stories big and small — a far-flung trading crew who got fatally ill from the cargo they were hauling, a galaxy-spanning conspiracy to conceal hideous crimes.
But frustrations are abundant in Starfield, too. Fundamental mechanics are either buried far too deep into the skill tree to bother with (inventory management), or entirely absent for no clear reason (city maps). My playthrough was also rife with visual glitches, though a recent patch seems to have addressed a lot of them.
While I was occasionally annoyed by Starfield, I was certainly never bored. If you’re a Bethesda-head who’s excited about the prospect of Skyrim or Fallout 4 in space, you’ll find a lot to love here. Sure, some of its systems are unnecessarily obtuse. But if there was ever a compelling reason to get Xbox Game Pass, Starfield is it. If you want bang for your buck, this is the Costco rotisserie chicken of games. It’s not the best thing you’ve ever had, but there’s a whole lot you can do with it, and you’ll keep coming back to it.
A Tale of the Stars
Starfield opens by placing you in the boots of a rookie recruit at an interstellar mining company, tasked with the grunt work for a dangerous job. You unearth a mysterious relic that gives you a profound vision, and shortly thereafter are conscripted into an organization known as Constellation, which is in search of similar artifacts across the galaxy.
I can’t talk much about the central storyline of Starfield in a way that uses proper nouns, but what I will say is that the twists and turns are a decidedly mixed bag. One is narratively satisfying, another offers clever commentary on the nature of single-player games. But one in particular is so obvious and overdone in the Year of Our Lord 2023 that I howled “noooooo” like Anakin Skywalker at the end of Revenge of the Sith. (You will know it when you find it.) On the whole, the main story is hooky enough to keep you interested without giving you a sense of FOMO if you leave it on the back burner for a while.
Where Starfield truly shines is in its mind-boggling amount of “optional” content. There are three factions jostling for power in the galaxy, and each has its own elaborate storyline with enough setpiece action sequences, dramatic decisions, and unique characters to fill an entire game of its own. Like a Russîan nesting doll, there are dozens of sidequests nestled within sidequests, and many of them are surprising and memorable. It reminds me a lot of Star Trek and Next Generation in that respect, where you’re just sort of bopping around the galaxy helping folks who found themselves in a bit of a pickle. Many scenarios have a wide variety of solutions, which enhances the immersion and sense of embodying a character.
The possibilities aren’t actually endless, much like the 1000+ planets you can visit. But Starfield manages to maintain the illusion for far longer than most. This is in no small part due to the simple pleasures of exploring planets and their satellites. In low-gravity environments, you can sprint everywhere and never deplete your oxygen. And golly, using booster packs in these places sure is delightful, because you can just hang in the air like a kite. In high-gravity environments, you’ll quite literally get sprains and dislocate limbs if you try to jump too far. You will get burns and frostbite almost constantly in other biomes. This is a game that revels in hostile environments like Mortal Kombat revels in dismemberment.
The amount of stuff to do in Starfield pales in comparison to the sheer amount of stuff in Starfield. You can find awesome gear pretty much anywhere, so you’ve always got some new toys to play with. But there’s a limit to what you can carry, and when you’re finding new weapons, equipment, food, and materials everywhere you look, you’re gonna hit that limit mighty fast. So you start filling your companion’s inventory. And your other companions. And your ship.
Here arises one of my biggest beefs: There is no consolidated inventory system where you can see, sell, or swap all your items at once, unless you get very deep into outpost construction, which requires an enormous time investment in specific tranches of your skill tree. I basically stopped engaging with any kind of crafting or research, because I had no idea where all my stuff was. You’d think in a game where you can own multiple residences, you could just store everything there, but nope!
My other grumble about Starfield is while its large cities are very large, atmospheric, and memorably designed, the game’s otherwise generous fast-travel policies do not apply to them. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get to a medical clinic or find a kiosk to clear my bounty. I had a whole entire mortgage that I just never paid because I couldn’t figure out how.
Despite claims that Starfield is the most “bug-free” experience Bethesda has ever shipped, my experience of the middle hours of the main questline was marred by persistent visual disruptions. Characters’ heads went missing, their faces occupied only by unsocketed eyes and teeth. Floors, walls, and skyboxes were sometimes replaced by gray slabs or rendered completely transparent, allowing me to see into rooms alongside and beneath me. During one extended combat sequence, all enemies became completely invisible other than their stat boxes.
Bethesda released a day-one patch toward the tail-end of the review period that aims to address many of these problems. My performance did noticeably improve after that, and I never lost meaningful progress, even if I was reloading saves more often than I would have liked.
Starfield is more about the journey than the destination, and this is the source of its greatest joys and greatest frustrations. There is so darn much to see and to do, so much to take and to make. Bethesda’s latest is bursting with “just one last thing” attention-grabbers that will keep you up well past your bedtime, night after night. Its imperfections are vexing, but its allure is undeniable.
Starfield launches September 6 on Xbox Series X|S, PC, and Game Pass. Inverse reviewed the game on Xbox Series X.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.