Impressions: Starfield’s sheer scale is already giving me vertigo

Bethesda | Aurich Lawson

There’s a quote from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. “Space is big,” he writes. “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 drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Starfield may as well put this quote on the cover page of its design document. The deafening prerelease hype for the game emphasizes its inclusion of “over 1,000 planets,” across hundreds of realistically rendered star systems throughout the galaxy. That promotion has also focused on just how much stuff there is to do across those myriad planets; Bethesda Head of Publishing Pete Hines said in a recent interview with IGN that he’s spent 150–160 hours in the game and “hasn’t even come close” to seeing everything.

After a few dozen hours with a prerelease version of Starfield, I’m comfortable saying that Hines isn’t being hyperbolic. One look at the game’s intricate star map and the myriad star systems you can reach with a series of warp-speed jumps is enough to give you vertigo.

Just a small corner of <em>Starfield</em>'s massive star map.
Enlarge / Just a small corner of Starfield‘s massive star map.

If you can focus on Starfield’s “core story” questline, which focuses on a collection of mysterious, vision-granting Artifacts strewn across the galaxy, you may well be able to reach the “ending” of the game in a reasonable amount of time. If you’re anything like me, though, you’ll find yourself quickly sidetracked by a cornucopia of optional missions that start to grow almost fractally, with each new quest flowing into offers of multiple further quests along the way.

Many of these missions are one-off simple tasks that can be completed in short order (an inordinate number of Starfield NPCs have been stiffed by some no-show pilot or another). But many more are the start of full-fledged careers, each with a seemingly never-ending series of errands that will send you bouncing back and forth between far-flung planetary systems.

Within a few hours of starting the game, I found myself engaged as a pilot in the Vanguard Navy, working as a (semi-unwilling) undercover agent for a System Defense group and taking on freelance bounty-hunting jobs. And that’s all in between answering distress calls, doing cargo runs, tracking down an electrical drain in a subterranean community, and countless other odd jobs.

The bigness of Starfield (and of space in general) isn’t up for debate. The key question, as it is in the Hitchhiker’s Guide books, is how to go about finding something interesting to do in all that space. And on that score, thus far, Starfield has been more of a mixed bag.

1,000 planets and not much on

Some expectation-setting is important here. Just because Starfield boasts over 1,000 planets, don’t go in thinking you’re getting 1,000 fully realized, Skyrim-level civilizations unto themselves. First off, a lot of the planets are gas giants that you can explore from orbit but not land on (though it’s not clear if those even count in Bethesda’s 1,000-plus number). But even for the rocky planets you can land on, a random “off the beaten path” sampling seems more likely to yield a large, mostly barren landscape than a world bursting with life. Even good-old Earth is subject to this rule, as the planet was made desolate years before the game’s events by the environmental catastrophe that first sent humans to the stars.

To be fair, you can get lucky and pick a random location full of lush vegetation and colorful fauna. I stumbled on one full of large, grazing beasts alongside carnivorous dinosaurs that wouldn’t look out of place in a natural history museum diorama.

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