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Starfield is the most flawed game I’ve truly loved in a long time

There's something truly morish about Bethesda's spacefaring RPG.

Starfield concept art of a nice sunset
Image credit: Bethesda.

One of the most interesting things about my relationship with Starfield is how it has changed over the short time I’ve had my hands on the game. At first blush, in the earliest stages of the review period, I was vaguely worried about Bethesda Game Studios’ latest. It was slow to start. The opening was boring. And the flow of exploring its open world is more menu-driven than Bethesda’s games. I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

But then, after a few hours, it clicked. This didn’t take twenty hours or whatever as some have said - for me, it was more like two. I began to hit a rhythm, and I began to embrace the cadence and tempo of the exploration.

It’s interesting, because this is fundamentally the same sort of game as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, but the need to constantly open the menus does somewhat change things. That age-old adage of “You see that mountain over there? You can shag it” is gone, as you can’t really see anything in the distance, except for here and there during planetary exploration. You’re following waypoints, scanner pings, and other such instruments more often than not. It feels different, and I dare say for some this might feel more boring - but I didn’t find it so. I just found it different.

Anyway, point is, it began to click. But as I sit down to put pen to paper for this article, I’m approaching the 150-hour mark on Starfield - and the deeper I go, the more I realize that this might be one of the most flawed games that I’ve ever truly loved.

Because, yes, I do love Starfield. It’s a little bit dry, a little bit boring. I’ve heard it called soulless, and I don’t think that’s right - but I can see where someone is coming from. I saw another game critic describe it as “dull” the other day while also saying he stands behind his 4/5 review - and while the concept of Bethesda popping “Dull - 4/5" on the back of the box is belly-laugh funny on paper, but at the same time, I completely get it.

For me, Starfield has begun to scratch the same itch as stuff like Minecraft, Animal Crossing, or Cities Skylines, back when harbored a serious addiction to those games. It probably would’ve been more out-and-out fun to plough those Minecraft or Cities hours into, say, Street Fighter or that replay of the Mass Effect Trilogy that I never finished. But I enjoyed the sheer hangoutitude of those games. I’d sink hours into fiddling with the minutiae of a city’s road system, of the layout of my house, or in cultivating luxury for supremely uninteresting and entirely useless villagers. I can’t explain why I wanted to sink so many hours into it; I just did. It was scratching some freakish itch deep in my subconscious. I imagine this is also why people play stuff like Powerwash Simulator.

This is what has come to pass for Starfield. A tweeted image of an incredible recreation of Star Fox’s Arwing crafted during development by a Bethesda QA sent me spiralling. I began to criss-cross Starfield’s systems gathering the necessary parts - and cash - to build one myself. Then, Arwing under my command, I took a load of missions that I knew would result in ship-to-ship combat to pretend I was playing a highly advanced Star Fox for a bit. Whoops, 10 hours gone. Then it was time to find a home where I could display my growing collection of Old Earth artifacts - but I needed to gather various resources to do so. So, off I go, collecting resources, working towards that. Whoops, there’s another 10 hours.

Starfield Star Fox ship
I mean look at this lovely thing. | Image credit: Bethesda:

It’s a vibey game, I guess. I’ve got into the habit of sticking on a podcast or audio book as I play and just letting the vibes wash over me. Time just disappears. A great wine pairing style recommendation for that, by the way, is the audiobook version of classic British spacefaring sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf, “Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers”. Which can be listened to not entirely legally on some video streaming site or another. But I didn’t tell you that.

So, yeah, it’s fair to say I love Starfield. But the more I play it, the more acutely aware I am of something else: it’s one of the most deeply and obviously flawed games I’ve loved in this way.

A lot of it is little things. Uncanny, weird facial animation that sort of puts me off truly getting to know large swathes of the cast. Those bloody walk and talk sections. The way that on Xbox, the menus regularly lag and take what feels like forever to open. How dialogue options are strangely uneven, so I (a Freestar Ranger) can ask someone what the Rangers are cluelessly, while other times being a Ranger materially changes storylines for the better. The way every time I go to the Red Mile to sell my contraband, the lady behind the bar takes about 30 seconds to exit some sort of trance-like state and animate sliding up to the front of the bar so I can actually talk to her. The list goes on.

It’s a nitpicky list, too. But these things do add up. Poking, prodding, needling - death by a thousand cuts. Or it might be, if the formula that Todd Howard has his team working to weren’t so resilient. As it stands, each of these attempted cuts just sort of glances off. Because despite all the stuff that sort of sucks, is beginning to feel outdated, or both… for everything like that, Starfield has something that’s drop-everything compelling. Something that’ll suck you in for another twelve hours, then spit you out inches from tripping into something else equally as gripping.

Sometimes you love things even though they have flaws. Starfield is one of those things - though it’s absolutely not a game I love thanks to its flaws. It’s in spite of them. I can’t see any end to my Starfield journey in sight - my adoration extends past its weirdness. But when I think about the future, I’m not convinced Bethesda will be able to release a game like this again. Time marches on, technology improves, and expectations grow. Next time, they may very well have to do better. For now, however - my love affair with the Settled Systems continues.

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