After years of breathless anticipation, a leather-clad Todd Howard finally revealed Starfield to the world at the Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase. This early look at Bethesda's spacefaring RPG amounts to less than 10 minutes of actual gameplay, but it packs a hell of a lot in. I'm a big science fiction fan, but not all sci-fi is equal. Curious to find out what approach Bethesda is taking to the genre, I decided to cast an analytical eye over the footage. Here's what I discovered.
Starfield's gameplay reveal begins on a barren, volcanic planet with steam spewing from cracked fissures in the ground, scrubby red flora, a turquoise-tinged atmosphere, and skittering crustacean-like creatures. Later we see a temperate Earth-like world with blue skies, hanging ivy, and green trees. Maybe it is Earth, or a planet that's been terraformed to have a similar climate.
There's a planet with a thick, red Mars-like atmosphere and an underground cave with immense glowing crystals jutting out of the rock. We also see a lush jungle world inhabited by large, armoured creatures with bird-like beaks, an old-looking planet with strange symbols carved into ancient stone structures, and a Hoth-like ice world with a settlement surrounded by a vast snowfield.
While this is only a small sample of Starfield's 1000 explorable planets, it seems Bethesda is taking a grounded, realistic approach to its galaxy. The environments look nice enough, in a restrained sort of way, but none of it feels particularly alien or exotic. It may be astronomically accurate, but c'mon, this is a sci-fi game. I hope there are some wilder, weirder worlds out there to land on.
A thousand planets is nothing compared to the 18 quintillion in No Man's Sky, but Bethesda still has its work cut out for it. There will undoubtedly be a lot of lifeless, rocky worlds (such is the nature of the cosmos), and I'm intrigued to see how exactly it'll make them interesting. I'm hoping there's plenty of hand-made things to discover, not just endless procedurally generated desserts.
By 2330, when Starfield is set, it seems humanity has a pretty solid foothold in the galaxy. Some of these are more tentative than others, like the base we see established on the aforementioned volcanic planet. This research lab looks like it was cobbled together from prefabricated parts. It seems makeshift and temporary. You'll be able to build bases like this yourself in Starfield.
Elsewhere, things are much more permanent. One of the game's big cities is New Atlantis, on the planet Jemison, which features gleaming modernist skyscrapers, peaceful gardens, and a bustling spaceport terminal. This place has an optimistic, utopian sci-fi feel, reminiscent of Star Trek's Starfleet Academy. New Atlantis is the home of Constellation, "the last group of space explorers."
Other settlements are less idyllic. We see glimpses of scrappy, rough-looking outposts, which have a distinct Wild West vibe. This could be Starfield's equivalent of Star Wars' lawless Outer Rim. We also see what looks to be a luxury hotel, the Paradiso, on a tropical planet abundant with palm trees, and a shadowy industrial city splattered with neon signs that feels very cyberpunk.
I'm into the idea of this being a future where humanity has left Earth behind, but is still a relatively new presence in the wider galaxy. None of these settlements feel like they've been around for long. I get the sense that we're seeing our species' first steps into the unknown. Which makes me wonder: are there intelligent, sapient beings in Starfield other than our own? Bethesda won't say.
There are surprisingly few ships in this gameplay footage, but the few glimpses we get paint a clear picture of how Bethesda is approaching its spacecraft design. In the '70s and '80s—a golden age for sci-fi cinema—prop makers would use a technique called kitbashing to create craft like Alien's Nostromo or Star Wars' Star Destroyers. They'd buy plastic model kits of aeroplanes and tanks and stick the pieces together to build their own fantastical creations.
I'm telling you this because the ships in Starfield feel like they could have been made the same way. They're not elegant and streamlined: they're messy, utilitarian, and covered in greebles—a term used to describe the little plastic bits harvested from model kits. These are bulky, unwieldy vessels designed to do a job, not look good flying through space. I've always loved this kind of industrial, practical design, so seeing it in Starfield is encouraging.
Later we see the ship customisation system in action, and this only reinforces the idea of these vessels being kitbashed. You can stick a seemingly huge array of parts together to create your own bespoke craft, which I admit I'm quite excited about. Parts like the landing gears, thrusters, exhaust ports, and blister cockpits all look straight out of a '70s sci-fi movie—and the combinations demonstrated suggest you can get creative when it comes to mixing and matching.
The player ship configuration used throughout the gameplay trailer is great looking. It reminds me a lot of the titular Prometheus from Ridley Scott's Alien kinda-prequel—especially those big downward thrusters, which kick up a storm of dust as you set her down on a planet's surface. It also seems the various parts you stick on your ship will also serve a practical purpose, such as increasing your hyperjump range. But it still has to look cool, right?
Adding weight to my theory that, in this future, humanity is still figuring out life on other worlds, Starfield's technology is quite modest for a sci-fi game. This is especially evident inside the player's ship, which has the hard, practical feel of a submarine—which was, incidentally, part of the inspiration for the Nostromo in Alien. There are very few comforts here. No carpets, paintings, or cosy soft lighting like Star Trek: The Next Generation's Enterprise-D.
This taps into the idea that these craft were made with necessity in mind, not making its passengers feel at home. You can see this in the cockpit too, pictured above. There's nothing extraneous here: just the controls, a console covered in important readouts, and a chair with an emergency pack strapped to it. There might be more lavish ship interiors in the game, but I hope Starfield leans heavily into this compelling flavour of rugged, hard-edged sci-fi.
Interestingly, there's a pretty even mix of the old and the new here. I spot desk fans, whiteboards, binders, ceramic coffee mugs, and other remnants of the past sitting alongside high-tech machinery and computers. Humans are creatures of habit, so perhaps we're clinging onto these old relics despite rapid advances in technology. Whatever the case, I like it because it grounds the game's sci-fi. It's the future, but not too far in the future. We still need paper.
I also have to give Starfield credit for using actual computer displays, not those impractical, contrived holographic interfaces that are so beloved by a lot of modern sci-fi. I'm over people waving their hands across see-through holographic screens hovering in front of them, and I'm glad Starfield resisted the urge. From what we've seen of the game's UI, it's clean, bright, and refreshingly free of needless visual flourishes. I wonder if it's a little too sterile, though.
I was pretty disappointed by Starfield when I first saw it. It struck me as drab and lifeless. But the more I look at it, and study the finer details, the more I appreciate what Bethesda is trying to do. I'm still unsure about its heavily desaturated palette. I'm not expecting a Chris Foss painting, but a little colour wouldn't hurt. Even so, I'm quite taken by its restrained aesthetic and practical design sensibilities. This is a universe I'm eager to explore. I just hope Bethesda can remain consistent with its world-building, which is something it often struggles with.
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