Starfield Review

I played Starfield from Sept 4-10 and beat pretty much the whole game.

Xander Dunn, 10 Sept 2023


Bethesda RPGs have played a huge part in my life, all the way back to Morrowind. I played Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim to completion multiple times, the latter two starting on release day. I'm known for my Skyrim modding! I've been eagerly awaiting Starfield for years. If there's one thing I love even more than witches and wizards, it's spaceships, aliens, and AI. As I told a friend, why are we doing any of this if not for the sci-fi future? That same friend asked for my 10-word review of Starfield: Skyrim in space, disjoint mini-games, sci-fi past, incredible dungeons.

The Good

In general, the classic Bethesda RPG boots-on-the-ground shoot-em-up, traverse dungeons, get loot, rinse and repeat was a lot of fun. Most notably, the pirate questline was phenomenal. That one gave me the "woah" several times.

Science fiction invariably must deal with the big questions: Why are we alone in the universe, why is there a universe at all, what else is out there, what or who created our universe? Bethesda went there, and I really appreciate that they were audacious enough to confront those questions. Constellation directly asks those questions when it would've been far easier to politely sweep them under the rug. To quote one of the characters: "I'm not a fearful man, but I am just... a man."

One thing Bethesda gets very right is not over-hyping the game prior to release. They show off the product a few times and no more. Cyberpunk, for example, was so overhyped before release it was impossible for it to do anything but disappoint. And then there's the other space RPG, Star Citizen, which is not a game at all, but a bottomless money pit.

Sci-Fi Past

Science fiction should be about the future. Starfield, unfortunately, shows us a vision of the past. Robots repeatedly say they have no emotion and can’t relate to people and speak in robotic “beep boop” synthetic tones. Today in 2023 we have AI far more advanced than this. chatGPT is rated by humans as more empathetic than most humans. We can trivially make voices that sound perfectly like any human, including Johnny Cash singing Barbie Girl. In Starfield, a voice recording is incontrovertible proof of the highest war crime, and yet today in 2023 we already can't trust the provenance of a voice recording, because it might very well be AI generated. In Starfield, data and money are somehow physical and fragile. They're hard to transmit and easy to destroy. "Data slates" and "credsticks" are all over the place. And yet, in 2023 we already have digital currency and trivially redundant data copies across geographically diverse data centers. Somehow ships move faster than the speed of light but information cannot? 🤔 Today, I can throw my laptop out the window or drop my phone in the ocean and lose none of my data or money. The lost ship full of money conjures images of Captain Barbossa, but it's a severe anachronism in the present day, let alone the future. Somehow we have faster than light travel but no credit cards? Finally, in Starfield, “encryption” is a rare, super high-tech commodity. We have to establish a special “secure connection,” or use a special “encrypted slate” for valuable information. There are "levels" of encryption that are trivially hackable at the press of a few buttons. Again, in 2023 our technology is already far more advanced. Encryption is global, ubiquitous, and completely free. Everything is encrypted, and that encryption isn't hackable. The words you're reading on this website were encrypted as they were sent to your computer, and there is no hacker in the back room of a bar who can break that encryption.

Starfield features a future that was only science fiction in the 70s: punch cards and computers as giant machines with tons of knobs, dials, and sine waves. What happened to iPads? Even Kubrick's 2001 had iPads! Somehow a movie made in the 60s saw the future far more clearly than a video game made in the 2020s. The cockpit controls in Starfield's starships would give Elon Musk an aneurism. He would be screaming until all of it was reduced down to a single touch screen. And that's in 2023. Why aren't cockpit controls just neural implant projections in the year 2300, or literally anything else that is a future possibility rather than a distant past?

Starfield may be historical fiction more than it is science fiction. Instead of a bold new vision of the future based on what we know today, we essentially get The Jetsons: A harmless regurgitation of very old ideas. Vasco is Rosey the Robot and I am George Jetson toiling away at Spacely's Space Sprockets where nothing ever changes. More than anything else I wish we'd gotten something that builds on the present rather than yearns for the past. There's something wrong when our sci-fi is less sophisticated than our present. There's something wrong when the phone I pull out of my pocket during Starfield load screens is more capable than the technology depicted in the sci-fi grand opus. Give me a vision of the future worth reaching for.

Multiverse is massively overplayed, and it's a writer's cop-out. If I can't make interesting characters or an interesting plot within the constraint of the world I've created, why not just make infinite copies so I can pick and choose? We should consider Everything, Everywhere, All At Once to be the final word on multiverse and move on from it. I find multiverse particularly irritating because it was born out of the Many-worlds interpretation, which merely says that when a single particle is observed in the double slit experiment, the interaction looks like non-existent particles were interacting with it – what if those were particles in another "world?" This isn't sufficient explanation to invent all imaginable worlds. There's a good high level explanation here, but I would add the caveat that there's no rule that everything you can imagine is actually compatible with a possible path in the multiverse. Multiverse isn't science fiction, it's a poor fantasy writer's crutch.

Some fun science fiction influences I noticed in Starfield:


Everything other than the standard boots-on-ground RPG felt like a mini-game. There's a space dogfighting mini-game. There's a base building mini-game. There's a zero-G puzzle mini-game. There's a ship building mini-game.

In particular, I didn't care at all for the Temple mini-game to get the powers. Killing dragons to get the Super Prophesied Awesome Dovahkiin Powers was far more fun than twisting my lips and contorting my controller to get the timing just right on the floating lights.

The existence of space was kind of just a pain. The space dog fights were fun, if slow, the first few times, but my ship quickly became nothing more than a place to put extra junk so that I could fast travel to destinations. Anytime I was in space I was just wasting time trying to get somewhere I actually wanted to be. Freelancer, 2003, a game I loved when I was a kid, had a lot more interesting things happening in space.

In 71 hours of gameplay, I never built an outpost because the game never gave me a reason to make one. I can simply buy a house, and so far any crafting materials I've needed can be purchased as well. This was a big disappointment because I love base building, city construction, and resource management games. But, I don't love building things for the sake of building things. I've got to have a reason or a goal, and the game never gave me one. All you have to do is make the best gun in the game a craftable item and I will happily spend 100 hours building an intergalactic economy of outposts just to get that one piece of unobtainium to craft the Super Duper Gun.

I never used the ship builder, either. I upgraded my weapons and shields and purchased a few ships, but honestly I would've preferred doing away with the composability of ship components entirely in favor of greater diversity: Where are the organic ships, or the hive minds, or the unmanned AI ships?


The enemies in the game are mostly identical stormtroopers. They're all cheap, look the same, easy to kill, expendable, unintelligent, and unimportant. As I progressed I was hoping for bigger boss fights with special enemies, and I got that maybe twice, but most big battles were just a ton of stormtroopers. The game created all of these gigantic awesome looking mech assets, but I never got to fight one of them. The big bad robot battle was the same robot I had defeated many times before, just much higher level than me.

The vastness of the game certainly made it more awe-inspiring, but it also served to just make things harder to find. Without the scanner giving me arrows toward my destination, I would've been so lost as to just give up. Even then, I did get quite frustrated at trying to find where I wanted to go many times (the scanner often doesn't work). While the scanner is necessary for finding anything, it also manages to spoil surprises. Several times I had a mission status like "deal with the Ecliptic ambush" pop up on my screen, ruining the surprise ambush I was about to walk into.

The cutscenes are annoying after the first few times. I've seen myself sit in a chair, get up from a chair, dock with a station, take off, and land far more times than I'd like.

The "radiant quests," which are infinite, random, simple, unsophisticated, generated goop quests are just as uninteresting as they were in Skyrim.

The world manages to undergo massive "change," without changing at all. New Atlantis gets attacked several times, but afterward, it's completely identical. The Lodge gets attacked but then goes back to the way it was. I conduct numerous destructive corporate espionage attacks but nothing ever changes with those companies. I'd love to see more dire consequences from events.

I spent way too much time following incredibly slow-walking NPCs. As one of my friends said: "Shoot her in the ankle. She couldn't possibly walk any slower."

I was dripping in money, and I spent 0 perk points on any perks that would've increased my money, like luck or mercantile exchange rate. I completed the game with nearly 1M credits and the most expensive ship I found was 300k and I didn't even need to buy it because I was stealing ships better than that. There was just no challenge to the economic system.

Bugs Galore

The reviews I read online praised how smoothly Starfield ran on Xbox. Xbox players must have incredibly low standards. This is the first time I played a game on Xbox, previously I've always played on PC. I played 4k on an Xbox Series X and I didn't experience smooth at all. Lots of lag, jitter, and hang. The game stutters every time I pull up the scanner, which is a lot. Sometimes the sound cuts out too. I saw a YouTube video of someone playing on PC and I was so jealous of how buttery smooth their interfaces were compared to mine. The Series X often lags so much when I open the main menu that it just crashes.

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet got railed on release for how buggy they were. I played Pokemon Violet to completion in a couple of days and saw some frame skips and the camera moving through the walls a couple of times, but not once did I encounter a bug that hampered gameplay. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about Starfield. I felt like I was play-testing some areas of the game for the developers and had long lists of bugs they needed to address, particularly in late game.

But, ultimately the story here isn't the bugs. I'm sure all of the bugs will be fixed. I think much more importantly and much harder to fix are the sci-fi past and the dopey NPCs.


Skyrim is one of the most played video games ever made. As a result, it would be hard not to just say "Let's do that but bigger," which I think is what we got out of Starfield. But I hope Bethesda leaves behind the boring, safe, bleached white walls of the Imperial City and the boring, safe, bleached white walls of New Atlantis. Take us to the silt riders of Seyda Neen and give us banana-skinned gods. Give me the weird. Show me what you've seen that no one else has seen.