Sunday, February 04, 2024

First Play Review - Starfield [2023]

While I have dabbled in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and did spend an hour in the original Elder Scrolls: Arena I've largely somehow managed to not play a Bethesda Game Studios game to any significant degree. I'm acutely aware that both the Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises are recommended, I have in fact every single, and I mean every single game in those franchises (including the non-BGS games) in my backlog library still unplayed. I'm well informed that for the most part they're considered great. especially Skyrim but I never just got around to installing or playing them yet.

In 2018, Bethesda announced Starfield, their first new IP in over 25 years and one set in the vastness of space. The subsequent 5 years of hype led to the belief that we were going to get a true next-generation Mass Effect-rivalling space RPG adventure with exciting FPS shooting, in-depth spacecraft and outpost building and enough open world exploration on 1000 planets to last 10 real years. I knew before too long that this was going to be my first ever properly played BGS game. When the game was finally released on September 6th 2023 however, the expectations from the hype began to be shattered. What we did get was a mediocre RPG with a lagging main plot, last gen graphics (with no DLSS, HDR settings or an FOV slider*) pushed by an ageing creation engine, and while 1000 planets were delivered, they all had the same identical structures which most players were bored of within 10 days let alone 10 years. Most egregiously - all of the game systems and areas were separated from one another by literally dozens of loading screens as if from the age of gaming gone by.

Initially, Starfield is an exciting new prospect, you create your character and embody a miner who uncovers a buried artefact of unknown origin and experience a mesmerising vision. You join up with a group of privately funded space explorers to find answers and unlock the mystery you have discovered. I was warned not to expect too much from the 'main plot' of a Bethesda game and being well versed in completing side quests before advancing any main plot I basically collected every faction quest, side quest, odd job, bounty and delivery mission I could and did a whole lot of that before continuing the plot. Once I came to terms with the idea that faction quests and some side missions were far more interesting than unlocking the secrets of the universe, I enjoyed myself a lot more.

Traversal varies from OK to abysmal. In city areas (with no map) for the most part, you're always on foot but can use a boost pack to increase speed or altitude depending on where you're going. It makes sense while exploring the unknown to use it especially as for some stupid reason Bethesda didn't give you any vehicles to use in their open world areas that cry out for some way of quickly traversing their mostly featureless landscapes. FPS combat is actually pretty good for an RPG; Id Software (whose publishers are Bethesda) were brought in to help with that for obvious reasons, and their expertise is clear from the quality of the combat and weapons. Space combat isn't too involved and gets trivial when you get the hang of upgrading your ship beyond all competition. 

While there are no 'survival mechanics' in the game (probably for the best), there is a punishing inventory system which is possibly the worst I've ever encountered  in almost 30 years of inventory management since Diablo. In a world where you have technology like artificial gravity, you have a pitiful carrying capacity compared with the amount of equipment you feel you should be carrying around with you. It's worse in the early game because you don't have weight-limit reducing equipment or perks and you actually want to pick up stuff to sell for credits. But if your ship is 3-5 minutes away on foot and your carrying loot, it becomes a 10 minute journey because when you're encumbered, you're slower and you develop breathing trouble if you try to run - and unlike every situation in the rest of the game where you can just fast-travel - when you're encumbered, you can't fast travel! This is the only time when you literally would always chose to use fast travel and BGS says no! It's infuriating and the only thing I eventually modded out of the game was the numerical "weight" of all items. If I couldn't do that, I'd have quit.

I sunk considerable time in the researching and modifying of weapons, ship construction and base building. I genuinely enjoyed playing with these systems especially creating your own star ship where I was able to eventually craft a near-invincible vessel which shredded enemy spacecraft in seconds. Personal weapons were also interesting to upgrade and I reached a point where I was carrying the best weapons to eliminate any mob, human pirate or alien beast and carry thousands of rounds of ammo for each. These situations posed their own issue, when the slightest hit from your least powerful weapon one-shots your enemy it does seem a bit cheesy, so I turned up the difficulty for the first time in a game in a very long time to compensate for being so overpowered due to crafting min-maxing.

Starfield has a very broad gameplay loop, it's probably fairer to say it has several gameplay loops. No game session need be exactly the same - you can proceed with the main plot, do one of the vastly superior faction quests, spend time researching and applying upgrades for your weapons and equipment, design and build a base which can mine resources and establish transport hubs around the galaxy. You can design and build your own spacecrafts, fly around space in said spacecraft as a space-trucker, be a pirate, explore new star systems, be a bounty hunter and destroy pirate vessels. You can travel to and land on planets and explore, kill wildlife, extract resources, raid outposts and collect bounties by eliminating nefarious individuals. There is a lot to do that's up to you how much you want to do of it. 

Starfield's 1000 planets is supposed to be a selling point BGS is proud of. In reality it's too big a player arena. Only some 10 or so planets have meaningful content established in cities or settlements but the other 990 are variants of what you'd expect from what passes for procedural generation among game developers. The overwhelming majority are dull anaemic experiences where you as a player with a mind-numbingly slow jetpack spends far too many long laborious minutes hitting space-bar from your ship to a point of interest. Imagine the jaded reaction you'd have when you reach the point of interest to find out that it's the same procedurally generated structure as the last one you found on a different planet, the only difference is the gravity here is lighter or the surrounding rocks are a different colour. Bethesda seem to think that because Neil Armstrong wasn't bored by exploring our barren moon we should be filled with the same sense of awe. They seem to misunderstand that Armstrong while certainly was in awe and doing something no one had done before, (which was his purpose), but was also doing his fucking job and was being paid to do it! As players were expect exciting entertainment from minute to minute and are paying for that - that's the purpose of entertainment.

Starfield's technology is frankly abysmal. For starters, the Creation 2 engine looks like it's state-of-the-art for 2013. In 2023 it pales in comparison to something like Unreal Engine 5 and it further compounds players bafflement when you're met with loading screens every time you want to go somewhere to enter small areas like one room shops in cities or even when leaving your own ship on a planet which you can clearly see has already rendered outside! The segmented nature of the game suggests the engine cannot handle areas even a fraction of the size that most other game have been doing for the past 10 years or more. There's no atmospheric travel or control over your landing site; something No Man's Sky handles without issue so something with the scale and scope of Starfield feels like a regression of technology by comparison. Loading screens aren't annoying in games from 2003 because people understand they were a necessary solution for the game developers to stitch content together and back then did not know any better. Game designers have since been leveraging technology in the meantime to no longer require loading screens to to modern engines, and when they are required, blank loading screens are masked them with clever cutscenes or using narrow passages between areas where you can only go forward until the content on the other side is loaded. Starfield just gives you blank screen with a timer depending on where you're going and it's jarring to the immersion and totally absurd in 2023.

Final Verdict: Starfield is not a broken game but it's a deeply flawed design at a fundamental technical design level. However, it was still somehow compelling to play and engage with all its systems to see what you can do.  There is a vast quantity of experiences but precious little depth in most of them to back them up and this won't suit everyone. It's honestly not bad enough to hate, or anyway good enough to love and I'm unsure what can be done to fix it as the is the core of the game, decisions made at the outset of its design were fundamentally flawed and I doubt DLC or mods can fix it.

Technicals: 350 hours via Steam on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti at 3440x1440 at 60FPS approx (120 FPS approx with DLSS after many weeks). HDR (available weeks after launch) enabled in game.

Bugs: Starfield is heralded as BGS' least buggy game. I encountered some floating rocks, unclothed NPCs, NPCs that would float into the air, missing spacesuit and helmet visuals while on a planet without an atmosphere but none of these actually prevented me from progressing with anything I intended to. One bug however prevented enemies from appearing on enemy ships, so if you boarded them in space they'd have no crew or if they landed, no crew would disembark. Entering a code in the command line corrected this bug however so it was an easy fix.

Purchase Options: Available on Steam for €69.99. Review copy purchased from Steam for €56.93 in Sep 2023.

 *These features were added in December 2023

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