My former colleague Roland Moore-Colyer likes Bethesda’s latest title a fair bit more than me, and I get where he’s coming from… to an extent. In his excellent Starfield review, my old boss described Bethesda’s sweeping sci-fi adventure as “the apex of Bethesda’s open-world games and a killer Xbox Series X and PC game, giving players a slice of galaxy to explore, exploit, raid and wander for ages.”
Before I go to town dunking on the biggest Xbox exclusive of the year, let me make a few things clear. First off, as you can see from the paragraph above, this is in no way Tom's Guide's official Starfield review, merely my own personal take on the time I've spent with the game. I'm also in no way either a Bethesda or Xbox 'hater'. I adored Skyrim and I literally used to pay the bills working for the UK's (sadly defunct) Official Xbox Magazine.
So with that cleared up, let's get back to it. I think Starfield is a perfectly okay game. Albeit with a heavy emphasis on the ‘okay.' It’s the video game equivalent of a big dollop of intergalactic vanilla ice cream. Translation: it’s utterly unobjectionable. But who the hell goes for vanilla when you can have raspberry ripple?
Fundamentally, I don’t overly disagree with any of the points Roland makes in that statement. I think the scope of the game is certainly admirable, and there’s no denying the Xbox ecosystem needed such a big hitter when PS5 has been slaying it with exclusives like Horizon Forbidden West, Returnal, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and the recently released Marvel’s Spider-Man 2.
I’m not sure the “wander for ages” is all that much of a selling point in my book, though. I’ve probably clocked up around a dozen hours in Starfield at this point, and there’s definitely been a whole lot of wandering. Trouble is, I’ve found it to be largely aimless. And most of it has involved ambling around procedurally generated planets that look roughly as interesting as gigantic bowls of celery soup.
I’ve killed some big space bugs that look like they’ve come straight from the set of Starship Troopers, I’ve merced a bunch of space pirates during surprisingly decent firefights and I’ve… ugh, jumped around a big city that I can’t remember the name of a lot purely because the jetpack is a hoot to use.
Lost in space
But my two abiding Starfield memories don’t paint the action-RPG in a flattering light. The first is that truly awful opening. When a game promises you literally thousands of planets to explore, then forces you to play the role of a sci-fi miner as you potter around a dreary network of caves, something has gone awry.
In a parallel universe, it would be like the movie equivalent of Spielberg deciding to open Raiders of the Lost Ark not with that incredible setpiece full of spike traps, spiders and that boulder, but with Indy meticulously going over his students’ archaeology homework.
Compared to Skyrim’s electrifying “Am I about to get my head chopped off? Oh no wait, here’s a dragon to save the day by burning my enemies alive," it’s a stinker of an opener. Add in the fact those caves look so horribly washed out due to Starfield’s questionable HDR implementation, and it’s like the game actively goes out of its way to make the worst first impression it possibly can.
My other lasting memory from Starfield? Painfully fiddling about with the camera in tiny increments so I could look at juuuust the right gap of a glass exhibit that, if you get the finicky technique right, means you can nab the excellent Mark 1 Spacesuit from the Lodge in New Atlantis without any lockpicking skills. As memorable moments go, it ain’t exactly up there with BioShock’s “would you kindly…” monocle-dropping twist.
So yeah, Starfield is a bit dull and its opening hours have caused me to bounce off it hard. And I’m not the only one. A cursory overview of some Steam Charts stats don’t paint a pretty picture for the game’s long-term player base going forward. Certainly not on PC, at least.
At time of writing, Starfield’s concurrent peak number of players over the last 24 hours is 47,455. It’s all time peak — and bear in mind the game has only been out for a little over a month at this point — is 330,597. That’s quite the drop off.
Delving deeper into the numbers, the peak number of players over the last 30 days is 187,094, which represents almost a 50% decrease in the amount of players diving into Starfield on Steam on a daily basis compared to nearer its launch window.
Running out of Steam
To put those already daming figures into a wider context, over the same period, Cyberpunk 2077’s peak number of daily players hit 273,990 — no doubt thanks to its excellent Phantom Liberty DLC. While recent RPG smash Baldur’s Gate 3 can boast a whopping high of 389,351 peak players during the last month.
It might be a slight overstatement to say Starfield’s Steam community is sinking like a certain ship after it got too intimate with a giant block of ice. Yet the numbers paint a picture of alarming decline considering this is still a new game, and certainly the most high-profile one of the year.
Can Starfield bounce back and find a new lease of life through canny tweaks and generous expansions ala No Man’s Sky? Absolutely. For a game that rode the hype train quite like any other in recent memory, I hope Bethesda keeps supporting its cosmic quest with new content to keep those previously highlighted numbers from truly dropping off a cliff.
My slight concern is the megaton studio’s attention will now almost entirely shift to The Elder Scrolls 6, leaving less room for Bethesda to focus on feeding Starfield the fresh content it will need to keep players wriggling on its space hook as time passes.
It’s somewhat reassuring that the developer is working on at least one major expansion (called Shattered Space), but it’s unclear when this piece of DLC will launch.
If my faltering Starfield attention span (alongside those concerning Steam stats) are anything to go by, I worry many interstellar explorers will have ventured onto pastures new by the time it comes out, never to return.