Starfield review in progress – an epic RPG emerges from a slow start

The wait is finally over for Xbox players, but can Starfield deliver on its promise of a sprawling, galactic RPG, or has Bethesda underdelivered?

Starfield review: a man with silver hair and wearing an orange space suit with a view of an alien planet and a scientific outpost behind him

September 19, 2023 Our review in progress has been updated now that we’ve hit the 70-hour mark in Starfield.

A thousand planets, hundreds of thousands of voice lines, ship and outpost building, spaceship dogfights, jetpacks, flora and fauna to document, resource mining, and a central narrative that looks to answer a simple yet poignant question: ‘what’s out there?’ It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of ground to cover in our Starfield review. We’ve just passed the 70-hour mark in our playthrough on the Xbox Series S, so how is this year’s most anticipated RPG stacking up? Well, despite a slightly tedious and mediocre opening few hours, Starfield has fully ignited its boosters and has set a course for a spot on our best RPGs list.

I begin though with a warning about first impressions – Starfield takes a while to get going and is hard to appreciate at first. Your opening three or four hours will, most-likely, feel underwhelming in comparison to how the game has been talked about and hyped before launch. There is little narrative build-up or weight to you joining Constellation, the main Starfield faction of space explorers wanting to locate mysterious Artifacts scattered throughout Starfield’s universe. The first ship you get, and the introduction to space flight, is frustrating. The menus – particularly the Starfield map showing you all the systems and locations – will bamboozle you.

It’s surprising that Starfield starts this poorly and that the user experience is this complicated, given how much of an opportunity Bethesda has to attract new players to its games thanks to Starfield launching on Game Pass (and the huge marketing push it’s had as well). However, things will get easier, and as everything begins to open up, Starfield starts to feel a lot more like the game it was billed to be.

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The main carrot that Bethesda has dangled in front of gamers before launch is the prospect of traversing over a thousand Starfield planets. This was the hyper-ambitious crux of the game, letting players loose in an enormous galaxy filled with a mixture of hand-crafted and procedurally-generated content, with spaceflight and grav jumping carrying you between each star, planet, moon, or space station.

When your boots are on the ground, Starfield really sings. I’ve already been impressed by how many hand-crafted locations there are, how many of them feel very distinct and memorable, and how crammed with content they are too. The Starfield cities and even some of the smaller towns, settlements, and space stations are a joy to explore. NPCs, vendors, and environmental storytelling are everywhere you look in these areas – Bethesda’s renowned for its worldbuilding, and it has once again excelled at this in Starfield.

When venturing out beyond main settlements and locations, smaller points of interest like abandoned research facilities, caves, or natural features will initially lure you in and convince you to go exploring. I will concede though that these get repetitive very quickly. While Bethesda made no bones about these small locations not being hand-crafted before launch, I didn’t expect there to be such little variance between them. Nevertheless, they function as useful places to either farm XP or to get excellent rewards. The rather annoying oxygen system does put up a bit of an unnecessary barrier to planetary exploration, so I recommend investing skill points and wearing gear that will increase your O2 regeneration.

Starfield’s slick and enjoyable combat has also impressed me. Combat is often an afterthought for Bethesda RPGs, but not here. The variety of weapons, and how good each of them feel, has been a pleasant surprise, and fights with human, robot, or alien foes feel extra fun when movement mechanics like sliding and the boost pack come into play. Starfield powers add another layer to encounters, and while some are a bit underpowered or too situational, there are plenty of strong options that really make you feel, well, powerful. Stealth can also be a viable approach, but it will require you invest your skill points wisely, attach the right mods to weapons, and wear gear with the Chameleon trait, which can allow you to go invisible.

Starfield review: A man wearing an orange spacesuit standing on a rocky, forested planet with his hands on his hips

While the on-planet experience is excellent, I can’t say the same for when you’re off-world and at the controls of your ship. It’s here that things are pretty forgettable and underwhelming in my opinion. The vistas out of your cockpit window occasionally provide a ‘wow’ moment if you’ve got a particularly pretty planet in front of you. However, ship combat really isn’t as fun and as fleshed out as I’d hoped, and it will definitely feel that way for the majority of players in the opening 10-30 hours of the game, depending on how long it takes you to get one of the best Starfield ships. Once you invest in either a better, new ship or upgrade a decent one you’ve already got, dogfights still don’t really get much more exciting. Easier, sure, but enjoyable? Not really.

What irks me the most about ships though is how grav jumping and spaceflight in general is nothing more than contextualization for what is essentially a fast travel system, and you don’t even have to be in your ship to benefit from fast traveling most of the time either. So far in my playthrough, my ship has basically served as a place to stash loot and resources. I’ve found myself wanting to spend as little time in the cockpit as possible, and simply want the quickest route to the next boots-on-the-ground location.

What about the RPG elements then? The refined, upgradeable skill system finds the perfect sweet spot between being too simplistic and over-complicated, so zero complaints there. Background traits help flesh out your character right from the get-go and are not just freebies – there is a risk-reward consideration to make for all of them. Dialogue options allow for a decent level of expression. The Starfield character creator gives you a huge amount of choice when it comes to appearance, and it’s very easy to change your appearance in Starfield as well at a later date. So, as you can see, there’s plenty of freedom to go about crafting your own story.

However, your hurried introduction and recruitment to Constellation right at the start of the game does come across as a bit jarring if you’re trying to play as a more rebellious or evil character. If you want your Starfield character to be a wannabe space explorer or general do-gooder, then I can imagine this is no problem. For those who wanted to play the game as more of a blunt, battle-scarred mercenary (like myself), the rather upbeat, starry-eyed start to the game does make your character’s backstory seem a little redundant. This extends to the main Starfield companions too – while there is some nuance to each of them, they are all Constellation members, and as a result most of them frown upon, well, pretty much anything that is morally grey.

Starfield review: Artifacts float in a ball of mysterious light, while a group of people gather around a table in front of a large wooden bookshelf

For the most part, the main questline pretty much forces you to be the good guy and to fit into Constellation’s agenda, which did frustrate me for the first 15 hours or so. However, some narrative curveballs and the incentive of finding more artifacts (and therefore adding more powers to your arsenal) made me more than compelled to carry on. While I do wish there was a bit more narrative freedom here, the main questline is still a very enjoyable play, and having recently wrapped it up, I can say that it ends in a slightly predictable but still poignant, satisfying way that cleverly feeds into Starfield New Game Plus – more on that in just a moment.

Outside of the gaze of Constellation, Starfield does become somewhat more flexible and lets you play your way. Faction quests, companion quests, and side quests have regularly pulled me away from the main storyline and have mostly been brilliant. In typical Bethesda fashion, these introduce you to interesting characters and take you to places you probably wouldn’t have otherwise found in Starfied’s sprawling galaxy.

Starfield review: a bald man in a grey and blue military spacesuit

I’ve now also taken the leap into New Game Plus – something I’d heard a lot about from other players before reaching that point. I enjoyed the transition between my original playthrough and NG+, and hats off to Bethesda for making weaving this mechanic into the narrative rather than simply sending you back to the main menu and saying: ‘Go on then, try it all again’.

I also loved the subtle differences and unique dialog options you now get in New Game Plus, and I’m excited to try and tackle things in an alternative way this time around.

While you do get used to it after maybe 30-40 hours, I do have to say that Starfield suffers from some user experience issues. I am envious of the PC players that can already tap into mods to improve some truly bizarre menu choices from Bethesda. I also can’t get over the fact there are no detailed city maps – I’m not sure how Bethesda can hype up New Atlantis as the biggest city its ever built, and then simply not tell you where everything is. Luckily, our friends at StarfieldDB have you sorted with their own handy New Atlantis map. Vendor and cargo menus also always catch me out as well – the handy side-by-side menus of Fallout 4 have been banished for single-pane ones, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally sold something I thought I was buying, or transferred something to my character I thought I was depositing in my ship’s cargo hold.

It’s also important to talk about Starfield’s performance on console. One big concern I had before hopping into Starfield was that I would be playing this enormous, demanding RPG on my Xbox Series S. Generally, the small but mighty console has done a fairly decent job. However, I’ve had some frame rate drops and stutters in content-packed areas like Neon or Akila City. I also encourage everyone to quick save regularly, as in my roughly 70 hours of game time, I’ve had probably had close to 20 crashes or freezes that have sent me back to Xbox dashboard. I imagine this is more a Starfield problem than a Series S problem, but judging by my experience, you’ll be lucky to get through Starfield without at least a few of these moments.

Starfield review: A man in an orange jacket and white and black trousers holds one hand out in front of him as a circle of energy appears from it

While these are frustrating chinks in Starfield’s armor, I can’t stay mad at them for long. For every sigh-inducing moment Starfield throws up, you’ll get a dozen that make you smile in return.

Overall, I’ve been really enjoying Starfield. But as you can tell, it’s far from perfect. Promises of epic dogfights and traversing the universe in your ship haven’t been fully realized, the user experience is surprisingly clunky, and there have been some performance hiccups. Nevertheless, I’m fully hooked by Bethesda’s world-building, Starfield’s boots-on-the-ground combat, and the staggering amount of hand-crafted content in this game. Despite initial concerns, the main story has won me over at this stage, and I’m even more impressed with the side quests and faction missions I’ve experienced so far.

Every 20 hours or so that I sink into Starfield, I’ll come back and update this review-in-progress, and I’ll be slapping our final verdict and score on the game at around the 100-hour mark. What’s that saying? ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint’, right? If you’re still on the fence about the game or picking up a Game Pass sub to play Starfield through that, keep checking back to see how The Loadout’s playthrough shapes up.

Still looking for more? While a good Starfield wiki can be a handy source of information, our new Starfield Database goes further, offering you daily news, searchable databanks, and even interactive tools.