Though Bethesda Game Studio is a celebrated developer, there are some fair critiques that one could raise against most of its games. Combat isn’t always a high point, main questlines can feel lacking, and bugs can unarguably ruin the entire experience. However, if there is one thing that most people could agree on, it’s that the team creates some of the most compelling digital worlds out there that are rewarding to explore. From the burned-out capital in Fallout 3 to the snowy mountains and deep forests of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda has proven a reliable studio in providing unique worlds players love getting lost in.
Starfield had the potential to do that multiple times over with the limitless potential of space exploration. With over a 1,000 planets to explore, it seemed like there would be plenty of room for Bethesda to do what it does best at scale. Despite that, Starfield at times feels like the most linear game the company has made in decades — an unexpected side effect of a key change to how traversal works.
The final frontier
I’m not going to sit here and claim that I, or anyone else, actually walked across all of Skyrim or any Fallout location. Fast travel is a necessity in these games if you want to finish them within your lifetime. However, you did have to do the work of getting to all the landmarks yourself first before you could skip the hike.
It’s a tiny detail that Starfield rejects, as I largely just fast travel from planet to planet freely so long as I have the fuel. All I have to do is choose a star system, click on a planet, and then select a landing zone. I don’t need to create much of a mental map or learn how the universe works, or even learn the layout of individual planets.
That turns out to be a big change, as the universe of Starfield doesn’t have the same level of cohesion I’m used to in the studio’s games. Instead, I feel like I’m in a linear RPG connected by loading screens between hubs. By not only allowing players to instantly jump directly to their next destination, but also actually preventing them from taking the scenic route, Starfield struggles to build a universe that feels real.
That style of traversal takes away some of the organic wonder of Bethesda’s previous games. Random encounters are few and far between here, interesting sights are hard to come by due to how assets are reused between planets, and mysteries don’t tend to unravel just because you zigged instead of zagged. These were the moments that made places like Skyrim feel real. You remembered that trip between Whiterun and Riften when you saw that caravan get attacked by giants, and I bet most players can even roughly plot out where each major city on that map lies. Walking the world and learning how it worked was crucial to becoming part of it.
After almost 30 hours into Starfield, I couldn’t tell you where any single planet is in relation to the others. The limitless potential of space exploration should have been a dream come true for emergent storytelling and completely unpredictable events full of wonder and awe. Instead, travel in Starfield feels like a chore, which is perhaps the game’s greatest disappointment.
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