Starfield review: The space exploration game that somehow drags itself down from the stars

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."

Douglas Adams' words in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were probably ringing in Bethesda Game Studios' ears when they were pitching the idea of Starfield, the first new universe the studio has created in decades.

But despite the expanse of everything to reach for, Starfield plays with a lot of familiar tropes from the space exploration genre and mashes them into a lot of Bethesda's usual role-playing game (RPG) formula to produce something that's middling in its execution and won't be for everyone.

With shadowy cabals and a plethora of side quests to explore, there's much to be done in Starfield, if you fancy getting distracted from the game's main story. 

This is perhaps where Starfield stumbles a little - it's maybe too big for its own ambitions.

Set in the 2300s, you play a miner who's thrust into the world after finding an 'Artifact' (the MacGuffin of the game) while on a routine job. After word gets out, you're recruited into the strangely guarded Constellation group, who decide you're their future and task you with finding more of these Artifacts around the galaxies.

And with that, it's off to the stars to explore Starfield's vast and expansive universe.

Well, sort of.

The thrill of a space exploration game is in the exploring. 

When David Braben and Ian Bell's Elite launched way back in 1984 on the BBC computer, the world was giddy with it. The iconic game presented a chance to trade minerals, build up your ship and travel to different worlds, try docking in a space station without crashing as the 'Blue Danube Waltz' played in the background; there was a lot in this game that revolutionised the idea of a space explorer.

It's space Jim, but not as you may know it.
It's space Jim, but not as you may know it. Photo credit: Bethesda Game Studios

Yet Starfield takes away much of that joy and allows you to travel between worlds with just the press of an 'X' button after sorting out your ship's inventory and making sure there's enough fuel for the jump. It's like doing the filing without the thrill of putting the folders back in the cabinet and slamming it shut in a satisfied manner.

But that's a large part of Starfield too - there's a lot of time spent doing admin of sorts, from the customisation of your character to the detailing of what's in your ship. Honestly, people will have to hurl hours into this game to even get somewhere and it's hard to debate the merit of so much time being spent on the banal of a game that's supposed to be escapism.

Yet there are also moments when Starfield shines. There are plenty.

There are moments to marvel at in Starfield.
There are moments to marvel at in Starfield. Photo credit: Bethesda Game Studios

The game is gorgeous, with the graphics showing off the very best of the latest Xbox's capability - as lens flares hit in scenes, you'll be grateful if you're playing it on the biggest TV possible. 

The game's central hubs shine too - some planets are teeming with life and have people bustling about, feeling like a lived-in episode of Star Trek; environments glisten with day after tomorrow styled technological looks and look like they belong in the latest James Cameron movie or streaming show.

But in some ways, the highs also complement the game's lows.

Characterisation feels shallow and not as deep as one may expect from a Bethesda RPG. 

While the dialogue feels as stilted as any badly written sci-fi with people talking more in exposition than in daily life, the game's use of a persuasion tactic in interactions is a clever one.

Essentially when trying to get a conversation going, you can choose the route you want to take it down - the higher the risk of trying to get your own way, the more chance of a result. It doesn't always pan out (such as in conversations with pirates, who are often going to pirate anyway no matter what you say) but the attempts to spruce it up are welcome.

A brief burst of space in Starfield.
A brief burst of space in Starfield. Photo credit: Bethesda Game Studios

One thing Starfield does very well is adhere to its own rules. It builds the world, then lets you live with the consequences like any good RPG should do.

A visit to a bar at one point in the game saw my character steal a bowl from a nearby table (just because it was there and because everyone knows your kleptomaniac tendencies should be listened to) and all hell broke loose. 

After being ratted out, the guards came for my character, then other bar patrons joined in - it's kind of funny in a way, but it demonstrates just how much Bethesda Game Studios has committed to the differing minutiae of what life would be like in the future and on other planets.

At the end of the day, you'll know whether Starfield is for you. If you want to sink hours upon hours of your life into creating the perfect character and just going out there and being, then it's the game for you.

But if you want a more linear game with a sense of progression among the stars and a chance to see the best the galaxy has to offer you, it's probably time to dig out an old computer and dust off a copy of Elite.

Three stars.