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Bethesda's Starfield is a fabulous playable space opera with a forgettable story

Explore hundreds of planets, battle pirates, and make a galactic name for yourself in Starfield.
Bethesda Softworks
Explore hundreds of planets, battle pirates, and make a galactic name for yourself in Starfield.

In Starfield, space is no longer the final frontier. Exploration is a thing of the past.

When the game begins, you're a miner working in the Settled Systems. No one really goes on voyages of discovery anymore — that's the romantic dream of a bygone era. But when you stumble on a mysterious artifact deep inside a cave, it sets off events that will take you deep into the unknown.

I was more than down for that journey. I've spent entirely too much time tooling around on backwater planets, examining new flora and fauna, and debating between joining the Freestar Collective and United Colonies. I've brought coffee to a janitor in New Atlantis and gotten arrested for stealing on Mars. I've even set up helium outposts on the moon. Starfield offers fantastic adventure, if you have the patience for it.

Sky-high expectations

It's difficult to overstate how long-awaited Starfield has been. It's not that it's the first game of its kind — other space opera video games exist, as do open-world sci-fi titles — but it still feels revolutionary. Bethesda, the studio behind iconic franchises such as The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, has created their first new universe in over two decades for this game — and what an incredible universe it is.

Plunder valuable rewards from the wreckage left from interstellar dogfights.
/ Bethesda Softworks
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Bethesda Softworks
Plunder valuable rewards from the wreckage left from interstellar dogfights.

The question is: Does it live up to the hype? I'd say that entirely depends on what you're hyped about. The bottom line is that Starfield is an epic, expansive game that you can shape to fit most desires. If you want a heroic odyssey, you can create that narrative for yourself. If you want to scout new worlds, build outposts and rule a little empire, you can do that too. Or if you just want to bum around and take on missions as you see fit like a gun-toting renegade, that's an option too. But if you're looking for a concise, story-driven game, this isn't it.

A sandbox in space

I'll say it flat out: I adore this game. Everything about it feels like it was made for me, a space and science writer. The exploration angle, the science-focused path you can take — it's very much my jam. But if you're unfamiliar with Bethesda's "make your own fun" approach, Starfield might feel overwhelming and aimless. While its "NASA punk" aesthetic invites comparison to Star Trek, I'd say it's more like No Man's Sky, but with more structure.

A Starfield sightseeing tour in three parts. Part one: red planet.
Swapna Krishna / Bethesda Softworks
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Bethesda Softworks
A Starfield sightseeing tour in three parts. Part one: red planet.

It doesn't all add up to a stellar story, despite tight mission design and millions of scripted words. While the writing is certainly tolerable for people happy to forge their own experiences, if you're specifically looking for a narrative to draw you in (like in Bioware's acclaimed Mass Effect trilogy), I can't say that Starfield's vague dialogue would inspire much urgency.

But I can say that Starfield is a technical achievement, with gorgeous graphics that really sing on the Xbox Series X. Though I've heard of some hilarious and nightmarish glitches, I didn't encounter many of Bethesda's infamous bugs myself. The character customization settings really get down to fine details, and while I struggled with some early choices, I soon realized they didn't matter all that much. This game is so big that where you start out is pretty inconsequential.

That cosmic scale is both Starfield's biggest strength and its weakness. I'm more than 50 hours in, and I haven't even scratched the surface. I spent four hours just cataloging and exploring a planet (and honestly didn't get bored with it!). There's so much to do, so much to find, so many quests to take on, so many factions to figure out, so many characters to meet — and it never really stops.

A Starfield sightseeing tour part two: snowy planet.
Swapna Krishna / Bethesda Softworks
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Bethesda Softworks
A Starfield sightseeing tour part two: snowy planet.

Taking its time

As a busy parent, it's remarkable that I love this game despite the time investment (and yes, partially because of it). Because the overarching narrative isn't really the driving force of the game, I don't feel like I have to accomplish anything in particular. Starfield is all about the journey, not the destination. It doesn't want you to get lost in a specific story, it wants you to wander and craft your own. It's very easy to lose yourself in this game for hours, but because of the discrete nature of individual missions, you can also pick up the controller for 30 minutes just to finish something off.

It's also got some nice quality-of-life features, including a tired, low-effort person bonus: the game's lowest difficulty setting is really easy. The toggle between first-person and third-person view works seamlessly, and I wish every game had these options. Ship controls and combat are simple to understand, and if you get tired of flying your ship from planet to planet, fast travel works well enough. The game feels designed to teach you what you need to know in the first five hours of gameplay, and then it sets you loose on the universe.

A Starfield sightseeing tour part three: green planet.
Swapna Krishna / Bethesda Softworks
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Bethesda Softworks
A Starfield sightseeing tour part three: green planet.

If all that sounds exciting to you, remember that this isn't a game to binge. It feels different than The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, another massive open-world title, because that game has a showdown it's clearly leading you towards. It felt like I needed to finish it for a sense of completion, whereas Starfield begs you to pace yourself.

That open-endedness definitely is the point. Starfield isn't about conquering the galaxy, it's about the joy of discovering it for yourself. A lackluster main story doesn't obscure just how much its stars really shine.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Swapna Krishna

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