Depending on how much you bought into the hype during the long run-up to the release of Bethesda's Starfield, it's hard to know quite what you might have been expecting when you finally sat down to press the start button and get stuck in. Was this going to be some monumental step forward for video games, a piece of interactive art that forever changed the landscape, a seismic shift for the RPG genre as a whole or just, well, Skyrim in space?
Luckily for us, all we really wanted was the latter, because that's pretty much what we've got here. Yes, in the end, Starfield isn't some dramatic, game-changing moment. It's very much in line with what's come before from this studio, a great big sprawling RPG that's full of heart, full of fun and full of the kind of jank we've pretty much come to expect at this point with Bethesda. Its menus are a pain in the neck, its maps and inventories are bewildering at the best of times, it often feels like there are too many ways to do the same thing (can I fly straight to my destination, do I fast travel, should I hold X or open a menu and jump from there?) and all the usual messy cameras and misbehaving NPCs are present and correct.
But to focus on these relatively minor points - and in the grand scale of things they are relatively minor - would be to sweat the small stuff while a galaxy full of excellent adventures awaits. There isn't the level of freedom we expected (or were perhaps led to believe), this isn't anything like No Man's Sky, and there's been plenty of chatter online already about the barriers you'll run into on planets, we don't need to regurgitate any of that. However, for all the things that haven't transpired as we may have wanted or expected, there's so much good stuff here that, in the end, we've fallen entirely in love with Starfield.
This is Bethesda's best RPG, there's no doubt about it, and for as much jank as there is, it's still far more polished on release than anything that's come before from the studio. It looks fantastic overall, a galaxy packed full of awe-inspiring vistas, incredibly evocative planets (even when they're entirely barren) and some of the best large hubs and cities we've seen in the genre. There's a fantastic universe to set about exploring, quite simply. If you want a sprawling sci-fi narrative that goes to some surprisingly interesting and emotional places (no spoilers here), seemingly endless side quests, activities and breathless exploration to indulge in, it's all here. We love Morrowind, were utterly spellbound by Oblivion, have bought pretty much every version of Skyrim (not a proud boast) and yet this is the one, we reckon this is the one we'll end up loving the most in time.
Amidst all the frivolous side missions and narrative strands that break off in multiple directions to less serious stuff, classic sci-fi themes are explored to interesting effect as you follow along the main storyline. Humanity's place in the universe, the meaning of existence, religion vs science and all that stuff that keeps our beds nice and sweaty at night is married to an aesthetic that harkens back to the 1970s, to that grim and grimy vision of space travel that takes something so fantastical and roots it in a kind of gritty reality. It's an excellent choice, making the world feel so lived in, dirty, beaten up, and you can see the years of work that's gone into the details here, with every major location jam-packed full of lovingly-crafted environmental storytelling. Spaceship cockpits are made up of huge banks of wonderfully bleepy and bloopy buttons and complex graphs and, listen, it may seem like a small thing to focus on, but the doors in this game...so many wonderful doors.
The game's larger hub areas are all nicely distinct from one another, managing to evoke memories of the likes of Mass Effect through the rather sterile New Atlantis, the Fallout series in the form of Akila, and even Cyberpunk 2077 when you finally get around to visiting the aptly-named Neon. There are also plenty of smaller settlements, outposts and camps to discover as you blast from planet to planet (via some menus, unfortunately), ensuring that you'll get your fill of meeting strangers to take on random silly errands, solve small-time local problems and disappear into or down every unexplored cavern and facility you come across in classic Bethesda fashion.
In terms of the combat, well, it's easily the best we've seen in a Bethesda RPG. There's a messy, kinetic madness to the shooting action here, it actually feels weighty, enemies are just about smart enough to make engagements interesting, locations provide all the explosive barrels and other components you need to make a right old mess and there's an exquisite range of guns and melee weapons, grenades, mines and hacking tricks and traps to make use of as you go.
The combat has been the biggest surprise for us really, it's not just serviceable or an afterthought when compared to any other aspect of the game, it's genuinely great, punchy and satisfying stuff - even if we do still sorta miss the ultra-violence of VATS. Oh, and the ship to ship action, the space dogfights, they may be rather small-scale and a bit repetitive, but they're fun, mechanically solid encounters that feel great and give you a chance to put all your ship upgrades and skill tree unlocks to work.
There's the usual expanse of factions and various parties to join (we recommend UC Vanguard for an early game tour of this universe's lore), surprisingly deep customisation for weapons, tons of cool gear and cosmetics to hunt down, as well as a galaxy's-worth of spaceships to steal, upgrade and even design from scratch. You've got outposts to construct, homes to purchase and furnish, endless planets to survey and explore, cooking, crafting, skill trees, powers...it goes on and on, and it's all backed up by super tight core gameplay and a narrative that actually delivers.
The essence of Bethesda's classic RPG magic hasn't been lost in this dizzying mix either, all the sneaking around and nicking stuff for no reason, the endless books and notes to read, the unlocking of millions of doors and chests and just endless wandering, discovering and getting into trouble. It's all here, even if it does feel a little more serious than usual. Without wanting to spoil anything at all, we should also mention that the New Game Plus aspect of this game is clever, it's handled in a way that immediately pushes you into more exploration, further playthroughs and a feeling that things are actually not nearly as wrapped up as you may have thought. That's all we'll say on that front.
Of course, as we mentioned at the top, there are also some notable issues. The constant menus, the amount of time you need to spend in inventories, the many, many loading screens, the fiddly and often confusing nature of travelling here and there and the bugs that see you talking to the back of a head or spinning around during an important conversation, all of this stuff can grate. There isn't the level of "next-gen" advancement that we expected overall, but if you can accept that, if you can accept that Starfield really is just the next big Bethesda RPG, that it's very much in line with its predecessors, then you can get on with having a very good time with a game that is, despite its flaws, right up there with the very best of 2023.
One of the very first things we did when we started exploring Starfield, and we're sure we're not alone in this, was to make our way to Earth, landing our ship in a vast, lifeless desert and going for a lonely, silent wander. We didn't find anything beyond a few craters and caves, but just being there, wandering this barren landscape, stopping to look up at the night sky and just considering this reality, it's one of the most powerful experiences we've had in a video game this year. This is exactly the sort of knockabout Bethesda RPG we know and love, but it's also got its moments of feeling like something more, something deeper, and we can't wait to see how it develops and grows in the weeks, months and years to come.
Starfield is Bethesda's best RPG to date, an enormous space odyssey that serves up some incredibly evocative and engaging exploration, satisfying combat, and a narrative that had us hooked right to the end. Yes there are issues here with the usual jank, and some very messy and fiddly menus and interactions, but all of these problems feel minor when compared to everything this game gets right. In a year that's been packed full of absolutely essential games, Starfield manages to sit right up top with some of the best of them. After all the hype and bluster, this is just a very, very good RPG and a game we'll be playing and replaying for a long time to come.