Starfield Experimental Pre-Review

(Once in a while, a game comes along that has been promoted enough, coming from a well-enough-known developer, that the hype hits critical levels. Starfield is one of those games. The exercise I'm trying here is a guess at what a review for this game, still 10 weeks from release as of this writing, would look like - either from me or maybe someone else. 

To be clear: the review you're seeing below is a "lie". It was all written months before the release of the game with me making educated guesses at what my impressions will be, having only seen publicly-available promotional materials and video, reading interviews, and listening to podcasts, without having played the game at all or even having seen it played live. This is an experiment to compare what I can "predict" from a review for one of the biggest games of 2023 to what the real reviews will look like.)

Back in 2018, the existence of Starfield was officially confirmed by Todd Howard and his team at Bethesda Game Studios, the creators of Elder Scrolls games like Oblivion and Skyrim and the resurgent Fallout games. Howard, already a recipient of a GDC Lifetime Achievement award and who many consider to be an industry legend already, said this was a game he wanted to make for a very long time. Additionally, recent promotional speech said Starfield was "25 years in the making" - not that it took that long to make, but instead that the veterans at Bethesda had been thinking about a game like this for decades. 

Not so coincidentally, this is also the first completely new IP and blank slate that this studio has gotten to play around in for that length of time, too. That means no old books of lore to have to adhere to, and no previous games in the series the fans would inevitably compare it against. It's a fresh look into a setting that is well established, but completely new for this top-tier game development studio. If any of this sounds exciting, well, many of Bethesda's fans out there would agree.

Now, having played Starfield for as long as I dared before sitting down to write this (along with all of the mainline Bethesda games from the past 20+ years in addition to several of the big space games that it's easy to compare Starfield to), I can comfortably say: there is no other game studio in business today that could have made a game anything like this. 

Wait, what does that mean?

I know, I didn't tell you whether the game is good or not. Not yet. First, we have to discuss the massive scope of this game. Starfield is another first- and third-person RPG vaguely in the style of Skyrim or Fallout, but this time it takes place a few decades into our own sci-fi future after humans have colonized many star systems out in space. As a lone "nobody" character, you'll build your legacy working with organizations and completing quests for them out in the inky black of space and on the thousand-plus planets that the game takes place on. And as you level up, make a name for yourself, and build ships piece-by-piece, you'll eventually start progressing the main storyline and uncover long-dead mysteries that have huge implications for the galaxy. 

It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Almost like it's a dozen sci-fi, spacefaring Skyrims and Fallouts all piled into one game, plus they threw in a huge sandbox to explore as well? Admittedly, yes, that assessment is a bit too good to be true, and the reality is something much more grounded than how that sounds. But if I total up everything that's not procedurally generated (more on that later), I'd say it's got about 3 times the content of Fallout 4, Bethesda's last game. That includes all of the quests, cities, outposts and installations to adventure in, weapons and gear, types of ships you can build, all the voice acting, and everything else that was lovingly put together for this game. 

The planet surfaces are created through some fancy math and procedural generation, then occasionally hand-tweaked especially when the game's quests take you through to those places. But the fact is that most of the touted 1,000 planets the game has are barren and lifeless moons and other "empty" worlds (which is fairly realistic to have, based on what we know of how most real star systems actually are), and while the large majority of the planets you visit are rendered beautifully, they admittedly are mostly empty landmasses. There are still things to see and do on them, however, especially with how the game allows you to scan for points of interest and target them to land at for further investigation, but these particular activities are sparsely populated. Oh, and that still leaves dozens of planets with lush life, each with multiple biomes to explore along with points of interest and quests scattered throughout. 

Your Character

You'll start in Starfield as you do in all of Bethesda's games. You wake up and get thrown into a quick primer into the world, an excuse is presented to give your character a bit of a blank slate to choose your appearance and background from, and then you'll be tossed into the character creator. Starting from dozens of presets, players can tweak their character's face and body to a fairly decent degree that will feel quite reminiscent of what we saw in Fallout 4, although I have to say that unfortunately, the facial hair options are pretty ugly here. But then after that, we get into the real good stuff - the backgrounds and traits.

Picking a background will bestow three base skills out of dozens of possible ones, and give you a bit of a career history that can sometimes be used in certain conversations or possible combat scenarios to your advantage. After that, you then choose anywhere from zero to three traits, each of which gives your character some interesting flavor along with both positive and negative effects simultaneously. Some are just for fun, while others are focused more on combat or exploration. 

The skills sit at the core of how your character will improve, as while you do level up through a rather standard system of gaining experience points for completing quests and killing enemies just like so many other RPGs do it, Starfield does not have core stats like Strength or Intelligence. Each level-up allows you to pick from a slowly widening tree of new skills each time, and then separately from leveling, you can complete challenges within each of your unlocked skills to improve that skill and make it more powerful. For example, the Security skill centers around picking the game's fancy tech-based locks, and as you pick more locks, you'll level up the skill which allows picking harder ones and will eventually make the lower-level locks much easier to get into. 

Similarly, you can level up skills to improve things like your jetpack abilities on your space suit, pickpocketing, resistance to forms of damage, diplomacy, ship-building, weapon proficiencies, galaxy navigation, and much more. Most of this will feel vaguely familiar for veterans of Bethesda's past releases as well as other games over the years, but I found it to be a pleasant system filled with interesting skills that most certainly help in all kinds of situations, both inside and outside of combat.

One thing about the interface, since we're talking about choosing skills and the like, is that it's rather spartan and no-frills as you level up, manage your inventory, and check your quest progress. The simple look certainly does a good job of not getting in the way and it does kind of match the function-oriented style of the game's fictional approach to technology, but it also doesn't have that fun, added flavor of something like the Vault Boy in the Fallout games. For some this might be kind of a welcome change to keep things simple, but I really liked how much of the interface in Fallout 4, from the Pip-Boy to the perk selection screen, is entirely themed around the cheerful little cartoons that Vault-Tec had made.

Starting with Constellation

Early on in your adventure you meet up with a group called Constellation, a tight-knit set of characters who, unlike everyone else who's so wrapped up in just trying to make a living out there in the galaxy, still wants to chase some of the galaxy's biggest mysteries out there. They've gotten wind of a set of crazy unexplained artifacts and for whatever reason, your character seems to be somehow "in tune" with them. So they bring you into their group, and ask you to go out and start looking for the rest - plus, they will offer to come along for the ride as well.

But you'll quickly find out your lowly ship is not equipped to handle the long warp-jumps to the remote star systems you need to visit, nor do you have the skills or the diverse crew you'll need to handle tough environments and enemy encounters. So even as you improve your character in ways RPG fans are used to, there are some ways to progress and improve here I haven't seen any modern RPG even attempt.

To start, Starfield offers you the chance to improve your ship - not by slotting some icon representing an upgrade onto a "paper doll" like we've seen even in advanced space sims, but instead by physically attaching modules in 3D to make your ship bigger, different, and hopefully better. The ship builder tasks you with actually finding a place to attach these modules, which will also change the interior layout of the ship based on your own modifications and designs. So once you have leveled up, skilled up, and built out the ship you need for the nasty situations and long hauls required - and don't forget to recruit people and robots to act as your crew - you'll be ready to take on the game's big challenges. 

The Presentation

Here's a good point to stop and just take stock of Bethesda's presentation here. Simply put, Starfield looks and sounds wonderful. The textures and art seen in settlements and on planets, the detail in ships and on various armors, and the special effects seen with ship travel and weapons fire - it's impressive throughout nearly the whole game with only rare signs of a slightly blurry surface or cheap-looking particle effect. 

Meanwhile, the sounds and music combine to emphasize both the vast bleakness of space and the epic work being done by you and your crew. The character faces and animations aren't quite as detailed as we've seen in quite a few recent games, but it is overall a step up from Fallout 4 and I have to point out that there are many more NPCs here than most games have. The characters' lips aren't terribly well synced to the voice work and really don't show much an improvement over their past games, but I can forgive it considering there was no realistic way to do performance capture on such a vast amount of voice acting. 


As we've seen in Bethesda's previous titles, the quest lines in Starfield can be picked up, progressed, and completed in any order you want, putting something on hold at any time to start up something else if you like. Some quests are very involved with cool locations to visit and interesting quirks in their objectives, while others can be a little basic - which I sometimes actually found kind of refreshing . After all, not every storyline needs to have a twist because if it does, then the twist starts to become expected.

Variety is added between playthroughs in two big ways: the random encounters are "seeded" differently each time a player starts a New Game, so if you find an outlaw camp on some planet, your buddy might find something entirely different in that same spot, and you'll see something else if you start a new playthrough. The other way variety is added is that picking different skills can drastically change the best way to approach tense situations - your interactions with NPCs can often be made more advantageous if you've chosen a particular background or have a certain skill, and that includes both in conversations and in combat. 

I was surprised to see so many conversation options, considering that Fallout 4 gave us fewer than past games. With Starfield, we're back in the other direction again, which I find to be highly satisfying. With that said, I don't want to detail out specific examples as it leads into spoiler territory, so I'll leave it with this: overall I'm thrilled with just about all of the storylines and quests I've experienced in Starfield so far, and I can't wait to find even more quests and encounters out there. 


Starfield offers more freedom and ways to build than any of their past games. Not only can you buy a ship and customize it piece by piece, but you can also violently board and commandeer someone else's, and then send that ship back to a shipyard so you can swap to it and start modifying that one later too. You can also secure living quarters in the game's cities, and can even choose a remote location off on some planet somewhere and build your own base, piece-by-piece, and use it as your home base - then customize it with item placements within it. You'll be able to upgrade your space suit and armor as well, and then tweak your weapons' performance with improved parts to increase damage, fire rate, and handling.

The design of the ships and outposts in Starfield is done in a visual style Bethesda calls "NASA Punk". It's a silly name, but what they're going for here is a function over form approach - after all, a space ship that can take off from a planet and leave atmosphere under its own power doesn't exactly need to be sleek and aerodynamic, does it? This means Starfield's ships are often blocky and chunky, focusing on their usefulness rather than looking good. 

So no, you won't be doing any Star Citizen-style racing in atmosphere here, which is about the only place where aerodynamics would even matter. The overall aesthetic is intentionally a bit ugly but also quite practical, much like the real-life International Space Station. That style extends from the ships to many of the player's other creations, too. I'm sure the community and maybe modders will come up with at least a few cool ideas to recreate some of sci-fi's coolest ships and designs directly in game, but at least to start, it's a utilitarian approach and it won't be easy to design a proper-looking Millennium Falcon, Normandy, or Python from Elite.

Being in Space

The experience of walking around, fighting enemies, and completing quests in a Bethesda game is something many of us have done for hundreds or even thousands of hours, but it's the space flight that's entirely new for some of us and certainly a new venture by this studio, so I wanted to take some time to discuss it. While Starfield doesn't give you complete control from takeoff to landing or when moving between planets in a system - those are automated and shown behind cutscenes, which limits immersion but saves on repetitive tasks - you are in complete control for combat and other scenarios. 

When it's time to travel to another system, you get to open up a three-dimensional galaxy map built for plotting a course to another star, even if it takes multiple jumps to get to the final destination you set. Unlike with most space RPGs like Mass Effect (including Andromeda) or Knights of the Old Republic, there aren't just a handful of set planets to land on, complete quests on, and explore just a little bit. No, you get much more of a sense of true openness here. 

What you won't see, however, are star systems that are so remote that it would take you hours or even days of jumping your ship continuously to get out there (I'm looking at you, Elite: Dangerous), so that's a big part of why we "only" have roughly 1,000 heavenly bodies to reach. Simply put, the vastness of even just the Milky Way alone is quite mind-boggling, so for the sake of gameplay, Starfield's explorable area is not as ridiculously large as some of Starfield's space-sim competition.


Sometimes, the encounters in space are like meeting an NPC, with a communication channel sometimes opening so you can negotiate. If it doesn't go well, weapons systems come online and it's time for a fight. 

Space combat in Starfield is not as simple as just cranking the throttle to maximum, putting the crosshairs on your enemy and pulling the trigger. For most ship battles, you have to carefully balance power between your engine, shield, and weapons systems. Engine power ensures that both your speed and maneuverability are good enough to keep the enemy in your sights while staying out of theirs; shields keep enemy fire from damaging your critical systems; and dedicating power to weapons at the right time allows you to put the hurt on your opponent once you've lined up a shot. Combine this with different weapon types that have their own strengths against shields, hull, and electronics systems, and many firefights become complicated, tense dances as you carefully, or sometimes frantically, manage your resources and fight to survive. 

Later in the Game

Obviously I don't intend on spoiling anything beyond the basic premise of Starfield's story, so I'll keep it vague here. Once you've progressed in the game and completed multiple major storylines, your character will probably be a powerhouse with multiple top-tier skills and a fancy ship with a capable crew. From here, your adventures could take you in several directions beyond just beating more quests. You can pop around the galaxy looking for more of the random non-story encounters, explore planets and deal with environmental hazards while looking for secrets, try your hand at building the very best possible ships, construct unique-looking bases out on some remote world, scan all the planets and life forms you run across, make it a point to take out as many outlaws as you can find, or instead just keep hauling cargo and making money. 

The sandbox element of Starfield allows you to take on a number of vocations: explorer, crafter, cargo hauler, builder, miner, or pirate. While I don't find those activities to all be terribly entertaining, some might, and that's part of the wide-open experience offered here. And of course, depending on your skills, gear, and the strengths of your ship, you can switch activities whenever you want.

Nerdy Space Sim things

Now, what I just described about everything available for Starfield players that aren't on a quest - that's actually not far from what other space sim games like Elite: Dangerous or Star Citizen offer as their main gameplay loop, but Starfield just does that in a single player environment. Although, if you take out the quest lines and look just at everything Starfield's sandbox offers, it doesn't do quite as much or go nearly as deep as those other games do.

In addition, the excitement of feeling like you're truly in control of a ship is limited by both the cutscenes taking over for certain routine activities, as well as the available control methods. The PC version's mouse-and-keyboard and gamepad controls are just fine for walking around, shooting enemies, and flying ships, but only having those controls can be disappointing for anyone who's done the full space sim thing with proper flight sticks and throttles. Those devices are not directly supported in Starfield, and while I'm sure third party software or even mods will eventually offer a way to get them working, I'm skeptical that it'll ever really feel "right" since the game was absolutely built with a regular gamepad in mind. I'd love to be proved wrong about this, however.

For hardcore space sim fans who are disillusioned with what commonly feels like missed potential in so many recent space sim games out there, they may turn to Starfield hoping that one of the world's biggest game developers can make something that finally scratches that itch. And for them, I have to say - they probably won't be happy. The sim elements, diversity of worlds, ability to traverse them, and just overall size and range of the explorable galaxy is all less, or more limited, than what they've been hoping for. 

I bring this up because while I do sympathize with those hardcore sim gamers out there, what I learned after playing Starfield is that I've also been looking for something in these space sim games over the years, but I didn't really know what I was after. And it turns out it was something different than what the hardcore sim enthusiasts wanted: it was a proper storyline with real quests guiding and motivating me to progress my character, improve my ship, and be the best explorer, pirate, or pilot I could be. It's those elements that kept me going while I traversed the seemingly more aimless sandbox elements that we see in so many big space games. Starfield delivers that. It turns out that this was the game I was looking for all along. 

What Can't we Do?

Now, even with a game this big and with so much to do, I can't help but dream up features and activities that I wish were in this game. For example: there are no ground vehicles or explorable oceans (or even deep lakes), nor do we have the ability to change a planet's atmosphere or ecology in any meaningful way. You also can't fly your ship in a planet's atmosphere in order to explore a planet from a bird's eye view, as all landings and takeoffs in your ship transition you directly from the ground or landing pad all the way out into orbit and back again.

It goes further, too. You can't do things like fish, breed animals, build outdoor farms, or deform the terrain to create your own lakes, caves, mountains and the like. And yeah, we can get even sillier: you also can't build a fleet of capital ships, or create a new Empire and conquer the galaxy, or engineer a Dyson Sphere to harness the full power of a star. Oh, I didn't make up these activities entirely out of thin air - there are modern games out there (not necessarily all space games, or even all RPGs) where all of this stuff is actually possible.

So with all of the stuff that Starfield does allow us to do, it can spark our imagination to always think one more step further, but there has to be a limit somewhere. Starfield draws the line at keeping things grounded to an individual RPG experience where one player with an NPC crew can travel the galaxy and unlock mysteries, complete quests, and experience those stories. Yes, there is also plenty of content outside those boundaries, but it's loosely sprinkled out there and presented as more of an aimless sandbox; the real focus is on the core RPG and story experience.

And yeah I know, the developers never promised or even hinted at most of the pie-in-the-sky features I mentioned above, but the hype for this game did include phrases like "go anywhere" and "do anything"; that kind of language has been used many times and it often causes gamers' imaginations to run wild. Then it all feels like flowery but empty marketing speak once the game's released. That's why it's important to keep your expectations in check - Starfield is an excellent game with very much to do, but it's not a literal miracle in video game form. 


One of the very best features of Bethesda's games over the years is the Creation Kit and the ability to create mods and load up mods other people post to get anything from a slightly adjusted system all the way to an entirely gaming experiences with freshly-designed quests, dialogue, gear, and more. It's not just that Bethesda allows people to make mods, but that they actually create the tools to do so, release those tools for free, and then let the community run wild with them with very few restrictions - or at least, that's what they do on PC. The Creation Kit isn't out just yet, but if Bethesda's old habits tell us anything about the future, they'll put it out within the next several months. 

Mods will likely also be offered on consoles, where any mod author who wants to "port" their creation to an Xbox version, and if approved, the mod then can become available directly from within Starfield. The mods on offer are loosely tested to not cause massive crashing or conflicts with each other and usually could be enabled each individually, as many as you want, without any serious problems. Now, I'm speculating on this functionality because it's not in Starfield currently, but this was done in Bethesda's last two games and it was highly successful - I don't see any reason it won't be available here.

Creation Club?

What I'm not entirely sure about is whether Bethedsa's paid-mod system called the Creation Club is going to be in Starfield. Several years back, Bethesda parent Zenimax was looking to monetize their games in new ways, so they added the Creation Club feature to Skyrim and Fallout 4. The intent was to offer a curated and exclusive selection of new content from the modmaking community on both PC and consoles that cost money, again directly from within the game. These mods, generally set up as entirely different offerings from what these modmakers have built and posted for free, would then allow both the mod creator and the publisher to get paid.

Now, some see the idea of anyone (publisher or mod creator) charging for mods as greedy and exploitative, no matter how the system works. For my part, I'm on the fence about it and my position depends on the percent the original mod author gets paid and whether any freely-available mods will ever get "taken down" by their authors and converted into paid ones, which I see as problematic in principle.

So while I do expect that Creation Club will return in some capacity in Starfield, there's no sign of it currently and that makes sense considering the modding ecosystem and community needs time to establish itself first. Either way, as long as Bethesda continues to also allow the creation of free mods and give people the tools to make them, I don't have a big problem if some of the community wants to make some cash by making some exclusive stuff for Creation Club.


Look, Bethesda games have a reputation of being buggy. Sometimes that's warranted, and other times it's not - heck, I've learned that many people don't actually know which games were actually made by Bethesda Game Studios led by Todd Howard in Maryland versus the ones that were released under the controlling company's publishing label - games like Redfall, Fallout: New Vegas, Dishonored, and even more obscure stuff like Rogue Warrior or Brink

Regardless, the reputation of mainline Howard-helmed games having too many bugs and other non-sensical issues is still warranted even if they're fun enough to justify playing them anyway. It is frustrating, however, how many years-old bugs still seem to make it into their re-releases and ports that come out years later.

Here, I'm excited to report that after dozens of hours of play of the PC version, I only saw a few minor bugs and weird performance hiccups. I would play for hours at a time without seeing a single issue. It could be that there are tons of bugs that I just haven't found yet or that my playstyle didn't expose, but so far, I'm very happy with the release quality of Starfield.


Microsoft has been struggling to claw back industry leadership in console gaming for nearly a decade now, ever since the catastrophic announcement of the Xbox One with features and limitations no one wanted. Microsoft has righted those wrongs, but the damage was done, and it will take years still for them to recover. And to compete with the PlayStation brand, Microsoft have been buying up game studios using cash made in their business division, and now here we are - with the purchase of Zenimax and Bethesda, Starfield, initially announced and intended to be built for PC, PlayStation, and Xbox, is now an Xbox and PC exclusive. 

The console wars have re-ignited with this news and while I always try to rise above the vitriol, I do find it disappointing that these big companies feel the need to compete in this way specifically, as it breeds discontent and anger in the gaming community. Because the PS5's hardware is so similar to the Xbox Series X, Starfield would have likely looked and played pretty much the same on both systems without a huge additional effort, and it would have been just as much of a breath of fresh air for PS5 players as it is for the rest of us. It's unfortunate that competition in console gaming has gotten to this point, dividing gamers in this way and making them so bitter.

For what it's worth, the Xbox version of Starfield runs at around 30 frames per second (which is about the same every mainline Bethesda game has initially launched at on consoles), with a 4K-ish resolution on the Series X and 1440p-ish on Series S. I say "ish" because for nearly two decades, consoles have often rendered games internally at a lower resolution, then used upscaler technologies to make up the difference. And that's fine, as more recent upscaling algorithms do a pretty good job on today's hardware.


On PC, things are a bit more complicated - Starfield runs about as well on a PC costing roughly in the realm of $1200-1500 as it does on Xbox Series X, but you get more options to run with the performance you want by changing the detail settings or changing your screen resolution - although it's generally smart to try and play at your monitor's native resolution. Still, if paying that much money sounds like a bad value, well, it's very difficult to get the same gaming performance on a $500 PC than out of the Series X.

But if you have a more powerful PC, oh man, does this game look fantastic. I played Starfield on a top of the line PC I built with an AMD Ryzen 7950X3D CPU and RTX 4090 GPU, and while I "only" play at 3440x1440 ultrawide resolution, the frame rate was always north of 60, often much more, and I just found it a true joy to play. I also took the game for a spin on the Asus ROG Ally, a small PC gaming handheld, and was able to barely squeeze out some playable frame rates even if I had to compromise a lot on detail. It's still plenty enjoyable, though!

Not a Revolution, but a Dream Realized

Going into Starfield, I had high expectations - I wanted a bigger and better experience in the vein of Bethesda's past games, but I also wanted a realization of all the potential I'd seen in so many space games over the years, many of which recently have had great ideas but missed the mark in many ways. Well, I'm happy to say that Starfield delivers nearly the best of both worlds. It's both a finely tuned action-filled RPG that will make fans of Elder Scrolls and Fallout happy, and that trademark Bethesda charm performs double duty as it also ties together its sandbox space sim elements and keeps players motivated to engage in that too. For all the RPG systems, action-filled encounters, NPC interactions, and quests, you're getting that signature appeal that Todd Howard's team always manages to nail, complete with fewer bugs and oddities than we've seen on launch in quite a while. Maybe ever.

But it's still important for us to keep our expectations in check. There are a few ways I'd like to traverse and a few activities I'd like to do that simply aren't here, but I'm sure some players will be plenty thrilled with what is on offer here. And admittedly, compared to Starfield, yes - I've played more satisfying FPS games, deeper RPGs with better conversation systems, and more complex space sims than what's on offer here. But this game doesn't do just one of those things - it does it all, and it does them much better than I would've expected out of a single game. In fact, there is no other game out there that puts all of this together at the same time. Or, at the very least, no one else has done it with the fantastic production values that we can expect from Bethesda. 

So if any of this sounds appealing to you, then I can wholeheartedly recommend you run out and pick up Starfield. The future seems bright for this game, with the first story-based DLC on the way soon, mod support coming to PC shortly in the future, and hopefully another long tail of years worth of community support, memes, and fun like we always get from Bethesda games. 


  • Amazing visuals, sound, music, and presentation
  • Solid RPG elements
  • Good gunplay and action
  • Combines elements of RPG and space sim previously not attempted
  • The promise of mods and DLC is massive


  • Sandbox activities limited
  • Immersion broken by forcing cutscenes for some travel transitions
  • The true scope of the whole Milky Way is unrealized