This is a wildly condensed version of a post I had written this morning. You’re welcome.
Starfield is the one thing I had wanted to see out of the spate of “not-E3” presentations of last week. As a sci-fi fanatic and an enjoyer of much of Bethesda’s output throughout the years, Starfield is what would happen if I commissioned a game to be made specifically for me (with a few instances of miscommunication thrown in to appease the gods of Entropy). Some of the things I’ll talk about in this post were featured in the original presentation during the Xbox + Bethesda presser, and some are taken from a post-presentation interview with Todd Howard at IGN.
I won’t rehash what the video shows because I assume you’ve either watched it. If you haven’t, it’s embedded above, right there. What are you waiting for?
I feel like the presentation covered all of the systems that we should expect in the game (i.e. no unmentioned curve-balls, unless they have co-op nestled up their sleeve), at least at a cursory level.
- Ground walking
- Scanning, cataloging, and harvesting
- FPS combat
- Hacking containers
- Crafting goods
- Base building
- Character customization
- Ship customization
- NPC interaction
- Basic story overview
- Ship combat
Scanning seems cool, and I can see how it contributes to the Internet’s chorus of “it’s like No Man’s Sky!” but scanning in NMS is not something I do often; completing the Galactipedia is not high on my to-do list. Finding harvestable materialsis, however, so it’s nice to see a quick and efficient method for doing so.
One thing that did catch my eye was how very much the inverse Starfield’s initial landing zone was from what we’ve seen in Skyrim. In the latter, we’re constantly having to navigate tall peaks from below sea level, making it feel like we’re always cut off from whatever is over the next ridge line, which makes exploration inherently exciting. In the former, starting from a point of high vantage, everything seems so open…and so empty. Sure, we can walk wherever we can see, but will it be worth the effort?
FPS combat seems too standard to elaborate on, so we’ll keep going.
Hacking containers seems like a simple variation on The Elder Scrolls “tumbler” method which has the user trying to fit pegs into holes. See also: hacking in Mass Effect.
Crafting is either going to be a hit or a miss. I like crafting systems where the player has some kind of input aside from “throw materials into a black box and receive goods” style that is used in 95% of all CRPGs these days. I didn’t see anything in the video that would lead me to believe that Starfield will join that hallowed 5%, and it looks like it might just be a re-skinned version of the crafting system from Fallout 4. I am disappointed in this assessment, but it will be what it will be.
The customization systems seem really good. I usually always take “the default” character model or just use the randomizer because I’m not looking at myself and don’t really care, but I appreciate the options available for those who like that kind of thing and because it sets a precedent for future games of this type. Base building and ship customization are two big systems I can get behind.
The base building seems like it offers more than just “something cool to decorate” as the video shows UI elements indicating storage as well as power and staff accommodations. It’s mentioned that bases can be used to harvest raw materials, so that in itself is a big deal, and being able to hire NPCs to handle this aspect while you’re off adventuring ensures that crafting is well funded.
Starship customization also looks to have big benefits. Swapping out modules allows players to create whatever type of ship we want. Want to carry cargo? Add cargo pods. Want something faster? Bigger engines. Like blowing things up? Guns. Lots of guns. Still, such systems must have practical applications. Even in multiplayer games with housing, how often do we get to show off or even use those houses for practical purposes? And how much effort should we put into a cool looking starship if the only people who see them are the ones who customized them? Aesthetics are important, but functionality in a single player game is really where these systems count.
I wish Beths had upgraded their NPC interactions from the “dead-eyed lipsync” tech used in Fallout 4 to something a bit more interactive. I saw someone mention that this specific style, with its entire reliance upon voiceovers, means we can’t really skip through irritating conversations (unless the NPC dialog is summarized at the point where we get to offer our own side). I dealt with it in Skyrim and deal with it in ESO, and also in a similar game, The Outer Worlds, so I can deal with it here.
The story is a big question-mark. In the IGN interview, Todd Howard mentioned that you’d be joining an outfit that’s looking for a “key to understanding” of the Universe and alluded in passing to the notion that it’s an “old Earth artifact”. What does this mean for the ongoing lore of Starfield? Is Earth dead? We see what is assumed to be the Curiosity rover on Mars, and “Sol” does appear in the star map, so we can go Home in some degree, but the idea of an “artifact” treads dangerously close to finger-waggling (see: Destiny, the Halo TV series, Mass Effect, Shadowrun, etc.). I like my sci-fi as sci-fi, or with an overabundance of plausible science behind reasons why something that looks like magic is actually just really advanced technology. Having a MacGuffin to explain life, the universe, and everything is also kind of a penultimate goal, so going after it in the first instance of a franchise sets the bar ridiculously high for future installments (not to mention the inevitable Starfield Online). I’m also kind of burnt out on god-tier-goals in CRPGs. How about working to achieve something closer to home and not deciding the fate of Humanity for a change?
The biggest let-down for me was the space-based aspects. First was combat. Because combat is the lowest common denominator in games (there’s a clear winner and clear loser, and in games-language it doesn’t get much more clear-cut than that) there’s no shortage of space-based-arcade games out there (Everspace, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, etc.). My personal preference is for a more simulated experience. It’s not to say it’s one or the other; simulations can go crazy-ass in the wrong direction and make everything a chore just as arcade-like games can oversimplify the scenarios to the point of pointlessness. When we’re talking about “games set in space” I’d like to think that a lot of effort would be put into designing a “hero tier” space-based experience. Based on the admittedly small amount of content we’ve seen in the video we’re not getting that. We are, after all, playing a character and not a party or a crew, so the onus is going to be on our single character to take all of the reins when it comes to TCB.
It’s nobody’s fault that most space combat ends in a “joust” where attacker and targets just run at one another, shooting until they have to peel away to avoid a collision. In arcade games there’s not a lot of opportunity to mix this up as the pilot is also the one firing the weapons, which naturally have to be within the visible arc to allow for targeting. It doesn’t pay to evolve “tactics” as a player in these circumstances, and it doesn’t really incentivize developers to create crafty individual AI (difficulty usually shows up as more enemies or larger, tougher enemies). In a simulated game, players can be expected to employ different firing arcs, ranges, and power settings. This will translate into scenarios that require all those involved to attack at varying ranges, speeds, and directions. Each encounter becomes a game of skillful decisions, and not just a matter of who has the bigger guns and more powerful shields. Howard mentioned in the IGN interview that they looked at the MechWarrior franchise for inspiration in their ship-to-ship combat, meaning that dogfighting is going to be a slower, more methodical affair. Considering that the ships we’ve seen aren’t exactly compact fighter craft, that makes some sense, but then seeing the oversimplified way the player was controlling the ship during a dogfight broke my heart.
Second, it’s been confirmed that there will be no atmospheric transitions. Again, from the IGN interview, Howard said “If you try to really spend a lot of time engineering the in-between, like that segue, you’re just spending a lot of time [on something] that’s really just not that important to the player…”. Many comments on that page seem to support Howard’s assessment, but many do not. I fall into the “do not” category, but I will qualify that by saying “it depends on why“. Space to planet flight doesn’t inherently serve a purpose except to provide a feeling that there’s a seamless transition between two very distinct environments, but also to provide a sense of scale. No Man’s Sky, Elite Dangerous, and Star Citizen all have space-to-ground segments, and all of them would be poorer without them not the least because it would create a jarring demarcation between space and ground. Yes, they are distinct, but the sense of one continuous existence feels far more satisfying than what we’re going to get, whatever that is. Plus, in cases where we are able to fly to the surface (or even at surface level, which I suspect we also won’t get) is that we can explore better and make decisions on where to not just from space or on foot, but also on approach. Skimming a planet at high altitude is a humbling experience to say the least.
Howard explained that the decision was made because they wanted to focus on the ground experience being awesome, and the space experience being awesome. There’s not a lot of game play awesome in that in-between space, but that means that the experience I think we can expect is going to be significantly less awesome than any alternative. Although we didn’t see it, I suspect that to land, we’ll have to pick a destination from a globe of the planet or moon we want to approach, and then sit through a cut-scene of our ship coming in for a landing. In RP terms we could explain it as how we’d experience it as a captain telling the navigator to “do the landing thing, over there”. From a player perspective, it kind of sucks because it’s a lame bridge between the awesome of space and the awesome of ground. I don’t know if we’ll even be able to fly around close to the ground, a la NMS, Elite, or Star Citizen, but I’m going to assume the answer is no.
Overall, I am very excited about Starfield, and have now entered that “I know as much as I want to know” before being actually being able to play the game. Know too much and the final result feels shorter because I know what to expect to some degree. Knowing less and I have no idea if the execution is even worth my time. None of the shortcomings I expressed bother me too much, as there will be more than enough other content and systems to pick up the slack. These are also just vignettes into the larger picture, and they were chosen for their sizzle factor. How the minute-to-minute gameplay will feel is still a Great Unknown, but we have the comfort of looking back at Fallout 4 and Skyrim for some degree of understanding. Starfield is going to be huge in terms of experience and hype, and I am hopeful for it’s release.