It’s the dead of night and I’ve stumbled on a dilapidated research station on some random backwater planet in the middle of nowhere. I’m low on ammo, but hidden in the clandestine shadows harbors a beast of unparalleled strength and power: a Terrormorph. The fight or flight response begins to set in as I um and ah about what to do next.
One thing’s for sure, though: it finally feels like I’ve found that needle in the haystack moment I’ve been waiting for in Starfield. And it’s moments like these that I deeply relish in Bethesda Game Studios’ titles, and wish there were more of in the game.
Indeed, it doesn’t matter how big or small a game is. If you stumble upon a chance encounter — something very few other folks have experienced — it’ll always make a virtual world feel more alive. Bethesda caught on to this fact many moons ago, and quickly became a developer synonymous with immersive, boundary-pushing worlds brimming with interesting and meaningful gameplay ideologies.
After all, not only could you randomly stumble upon a unicorn in 2011’s Skyrim or accidentally bump into a terrified scavenger being chased by a chicken in 2018’s beleaguered Fallout 76, but the US-based developer’s entire M.O. is to place players at the center of a power fantasy where they’re the heroes; or, if the player’s feeling a little more rebellious, the anti-heroes.
Enter 2023’s Starfield, and that design philosophy rings true once again. Instead of taking on the role of a warrior tied to the blood and soul of a dragon or the serendipitous survivor of a futuristic nuclear war, players assume the role of freshly-plucked space miner who becomes embroiled in an intergalactic mystery that could spell the end of the entirety of the universe itself. So far, so Bethesda, eh?
Well, this is the point where the studio’s signature blueprint deviates from what came before. See, as you’re probably already aware, Starfield features over 1,000 explorable planets. We’ll just let that number sink in for a second. Obviously, that’s way larger than anything they’ve ever created before, and as a result, the Skyrim developer has had to implement procedural generation to do some of the heavy lifting to help render the multitude of planets on offer.
Thing is, while I’ve experienced some incredible moments in my 100-hour playtime, I feel like it’s taken a wee step back when it comes to exploration in their games.
At first blush, it’s an amazing feeling wandering around these vast worlds. Not only do they feature their own distinct gravity, ecosystems, atmosphere, architecture, weather systems, and geology, but they have their very own unique points of interest peppered around the map too. These range from abandoned research towers to mining outposts to deserted relay stations, and it’s a genuine thrill exploring these for the first time.
What stymies the exploratory experience, however, is that it slowly becomes clear that many of the locations off the beaten path are largely devoid of any life. Sure, Starfield’s cities are brimming with interesting folks to meet and the core quests are an absolute blast (more on this shortly), but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat disappointed with that specific Bethesda feeling of going wherever my heart takes me. Why, I hear you ask? Simple: doing so frequently — say, nine-times-out-of-ten — led to an empty void, unlike the dynamic serendipitous discovery in, say, an RPG like Skyrim.
I guess that’s pretty realistic in the grand scheme of things when you’re zig-zagging between 1,000 distinct planets across a multitude of galaxies lightyears away. Be that as it may, there were large swathes of time where I’d just be ambling about picking up knick-knacks and doohickeys without much motivation pushing me forward.
While I did have some fond flashbacks to exploring in Fallout 3’s post-apocalyptic wasteland, the fact that the locations on my hand scanner were starting to feel more like the empty dead ends left me feeling slightly deflated.
And then something amazing happened. I accidentally stumbled upon that mysterious research station, replete with a flesh-eating Terrormorph waiting to put me six feet under. This moment felt like a breath of fresh air and a genuine shock and surprise, which honestly I wish there was more of in Starfield.
Yes, I may sound like I have very mixed feelings toward the game’s exploration — and I do — but I guess exploration isn’t just simply wandering about planets. It’s exploring the cities, it’s meeting the residents, it’s flying through space, and it’s experiencing the game holistically. In all, Starfield ticks a lot of boxes and gets a lot of things right.
Truth be told, I’ve been enjoying burning through the main quests and faction missions which, everything considered, are most excellent. To be candid, the core missions are easily some of the best-written and best-designed quests that Bethesda has ever come up with, and the team should absolutely be applauded for that.
Ultimately though, I just wish there were a few more moments of dynamism in the random encounters when you’re out exploring these strange, alien worlds. But I guess they perhaps wouldn’t be as impactful without those hours of emptiness in-between, right?