With Starfield, Bethesda Game Studios went bigger than ever in its game world scale by letting players traverse over a thousand planets across more than a hundred solar systems in the galaxy. But let’s be real, a big space in a space game means a lot of empty space.
Even game director Todd Howard himself knows that exploring empty planets can be boring, and that’s the point of it all, making meaning out of nothing as you explore the (procedurally-generated) unknown.
I’ve spent hours upon hours doing just that: explore a planet to survey and document all the flora, fauna, resources and other geological anomalies. This could be missions from the mission boards come from Constellation, or from the League Of Independent Settlers after you talk to the poor lad Phil Hill in Cydonia, Mars.
I’m not doing it just for the sake of it, there are random missions that point your way to a planet worth surveying for the promise of measly credits, and there just isn’t enough credits if you’re spending too much time tinkering with the ship builder. So there’s some intrinsic reason why a player would want to land on a presumably empty planet and explore a barren map.
And you know what, there is some fun in surveying planets. But there are so many flow-breaking gameplay mechanics that really makes it more cumbersome than its worth.
Each time you land on a planet, Starfield generates a map of a specific biome and proceeds to fill it with hotspots. These can range from structures (either derelict or active), geological anomalies, caves and more. These serves as the carrot on a stick, to lure you out of the ship and begin running to a specific direction.
And you do be running, a lot. These spots usually spawn about 400-1000 meters away from your ship. You’re expected to be running for more than a kilometer to one spot, and possibly more if you’re surveying the whole planet.
The problem is that throughout that long run, you really have nothing to do. Sure, you can scan lifeforms and cut rocks along the way, but that’s really it. In a game like Skyrim or Fallout 4, the long run towards the objective has you trudge through a crafted world where sometimes you want to take it all in and enjoy the sights. Starfield’s planets may sometimes give you breathtaking views and wonderful lighting moments, but the scenery is too repetitive. I wonder if how long it would take for doe-eyed astronauts filled with wonder started to get bored after landing on another barren rock. Because for me, it took a good five hours.
And traversing the planets on foot isn’t that fun either. Because you usually can take a direct path toward any hotspot, you just want to infinitely sprint all the time, which you can’t. I find it slightly enjoyable after getting the full rank on the Boost Pack Training skill, allowing me to bunny hop and sprint to the objectives, using the time in the air to recover the O2 bar to continuously sprint.
Starfield is the perfect opportunity to introduce vehicles in a Bethesda Games Studios game. There are rover-like vehicles and forklifts in the world, but they are only used for set dressing. What if you can customise a little buggy for some off-road, off-world exploration?
Or maybe the distance between spawned hotspots should be tighten up just a smidge, as the need to run through empty space a lot gets tedious really quick.
There’s another cumbersome thing I discovered when surveying planets, and it’s that you can’t do everything you wanted through the scanner. Here’s an odd discrepancy. You can cut minerals while the scanner is on. You can also harvest plants and scavenge boxes or dead corpses (which gameplay-wise, is just another box) from the scanner.
But to harvest liquid and gas materials, you can’t do that through the scanner. You have to toggle it off, get close enough and then acquire them. This whole process could have been streamlined by just one slight change. And I won’t be surprised if some folks just don’t know how to harvest liquid and gas materials because of this. It happened to me.
And finally, the one issue I have with planet surveying is when surveying fish. On some planets, the fauna you need to scan includes fish. The game doesn’t label this clear enough. You can click through a planet’s biome and see all of them going 100% but you’re missing the scans of 1 or 2 fauna type, and that’s likely because you need to scan fish. And to do this you need to click on the planet on a starmap screen until you see the affix “(coast)” appears in the landing area you selected, so you can land on the ocean cost.
Once you land there, well, good luck in determining which way the coast is actually at. The compass doesn’t label it. The terrible surface map doesn’t highlight where a body of water might be. And if you’re playing on a potato PC with graphics on low, plus on a planet with foggy atmosphere, you just have to guess which direction the coast is. And that too takes another 400m-ish run until you see the actual coast. Why not have the ship land closer to the shore?
Also, surveying fish is weird, as Starfield doesn’t allow you to dive underwater. So you really only see the outline of the fish unless it was killed and its body floated upwards. I don’t mind the challenge of some planets having hazardous water. It’s a pain if you don’t have that Boost Pack Training skill, though, as you have to risk your life trying to get close to the fishes, but not ending up sleeping with the fishes.
Sometimes, when these gears don’t grind in the specific ways I’ve described here, Starfield’s empty exploration feels magical. You really have no idea what’s out there, and you can end up empty-handed, but the sights you see, some beautiful, some cursed, are worth it.
It provokes this profound emotion of how much space out there outside of our tiny Earth. Yet, space can be so empty. It’s either left for us to make meaning out of it, or to make it the space that isn’t empty, the world we have right now, ever more meaningful as there’s nothing out there that can outright replace it.
From a game design perspective, I get why Starfield is designed to be filled with boring exploration. And I get it. It’s not a tight theme park designed game, but a sandbox left for the players to not only find their fun, but find their own meaning behind the interactions they are allowed to make.
Though I wish some of these nitpicks do get addressed in some way. For some, exploring Starfield with the gameplay features and mechanics offered as is is not worth the time. And definitely not worth the credits rewards either. Not with so many flow-stopping mechanics still in the way.
That all said, I still am having an overall good time with Starfield. Our review of the game is a glowing one, but it’s not without faults to criticise on.
Starfield is out now on Xbox Series X|S and PC (Steam, Microsoft Store).