Starfield - Review @ Eurogamer
Eurogamer reviewed Starfield:
Starfield review - a game about exploration, without exploration
Starfield does not begin well. You start this game of space and exploration in an elevator, trundling down through walls of rock to a subterranean mining tunnel. In this one early place Bethesda always likes to keep things tightly coordinated, characters delivering their programmed line of dialogue to you without looking up from their job as rock-shooter and drill-watcher. It's all so precisely on cue, as you walk by, that they feel a little like animatronics on a Disneyland dark ride, the echoes of that same line faintly echoing down the corridor as the next tour boat bobs along past Captain Jack Sparrow.
Your tour guide, mining supervisor Lin, eventually leads you to a deeper tunnel, where you're told a little bluntly to go and pick up something giving off a weird gravitational signal from the deep. This is an Artifact, a mysterious lump of scrap metal, and it teleports you, via seizure-slash-religious-experience, to the character creator.
Clunky as it sounds, absolutely none of this stuff is a problem. In fact really, it's actually classic Bethesda, and much as I'm being a little harsh about the cave puppets' patter I am more than on board with this part: it's the run-up to arguably the best moment of any Bethesda RPG, the "walkout moment", where our typically wordless chosen one begins somewhere dark and claustrophobic - the sewers beneath Cyrodiil's Imperial City, the prison escape through the caves of Skyrim, the vaults of Fallout (so apt, when you think about it, it's almost like that whole series was conceived before Bethesda even had rights to it, just for the studio to have the perfect walkout scenario) - only to emerge out into the grand expanse.
But the moments where it doesn't are too frequent, and in those there's a sense that this elaborate, clockwork universe has been built without anything human to give it purpose. There's even a scientist, in one of Starfield's many audio logs, that sums this up quite perfectly, using an impossibly powerful supercomputer just to recreate the sound of all the world's ducks quacking in unison. He's fascinated by this, despite his supervisor explaining they have the supercomputer precisely so they can work on the most meaningful research in the history of humankind.
In this world, this mode of thinking that Bethesda occasionally seems to slip into with Starfield where its ambition overrides its purpose, the technical capability is the game - 10,000 milk cartons modded into space! Look what it can do! - but this is not a world I think Bethesda should be aiming to build, unless we want our games to play like that Matrix tech demo for Unreal Engine 5. Technology for technology's sake, or scale for the sake of scale, is a trap. In video games like any other medium, the technical craft, however exquisite, exists to serve meaning, not to be it. In Bethesda games in particular that meaning comes in the form of a deep submersion into new worlds, via the studio's ability to create a famously unparalleled, impossibly absorbing sense of place. Note, for a blunt example, the way Bethesda's games are typically named after their settings, over their people. Starfield's problem is its lack of one. It's a non-place, formless, joined entirely by menu screens and hyperlinks replacing the almost divine sensation of direct experience. Rather than being built in service of presentness and a sense of place, Starfield is set entirely in their absence.
Score: 6/10 - Starfield pairs near-impossible breadth with a classic Bethesda aptitude for systemic physics, magnetic sidequests, and weird vignettes. But in sacrificing direct exploration for the sake of sheer scale, there's nothing to bind it together.