Starfield Is More Like A Sci-Fi Theme Park Than An Open World Adventure
Starfield is finally here after a long five-year wait, and it's great! I’m roughly 23 hours in, so I still have many galaxies ahead of me, but read Game Informer’s Starfield review for in-depth thoughts on the overall package. With years of build-up and anticipation, I, like many Bethesda Game Studios fans, let my imagination run wild with what this new open world RPG could be. Now that I’ve played a decent chunk of it, it’s quite different from the studios’ Elder Scrolls and Fallout series in some ways. Those two franchises are significantly more open world than Starfield. In fact, Starfield feels more like a great sci-fi theme park with exciting points of interests rather than an open world adventure. But players looking for a replica space-based Fallout or Elder Scrolls adventure might find disappointment amongst the stars.
From the jump, Starfield’s brand of sci-fi reminds me a lot of golden age Disney, both the overall company and its first two theme parks, Disneyland and Disney World. Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers imagined space as a great, big, beautiful frontier ripe for exploration and human advancement, straying away from the dangers lurking in the great beyond. Of course, Disney is trying to sell an entertainment experience, so short of a somewhat scary, short-lived Alien ride in Tomorrowland, its take on space felt extremely optimistic, the kind of bright-eyed joy that sells theme park tickets. It’s this same kind of optimism for space exploration and humankind’s place in it at the heart of Starfield.
There are large orchestral pieces that make you feel like the hero (if you choose to be), with wondrous planets to visit, and not a harmful alien in sight. Jumping from planet to planet is exciting (save for the various but quick load screens you’ll encounter each time), and when you land, it feels like you’re about to explore something brand new. Music swells, your companions remark on the beauty of a place, and what lies before you is an exciting mystery. Of course, these vibes are mostly top-level. Starfield is an action RPG, after all, meaning it doesn’t take long before you’re taking out other humans with various guns, killing space creatures, stealing to your heart’s content, and taking out space pirates in dogfights. But for a fleeting moment, at every new location, I feel like a kid at a theme park, about to ride an attraction for the first time.
I wonder what I’ll see, what the music will be like, where the camera will flash (or, in this instance, where I’ll stop to utilize the game’s photo mode), what I can buy or pick up afterward at the gift shop (see: trading outpost or city merchant), and more. I love this approach to galaxy-spanning travel, but I admittedly had to learn to love it because it wasn’t what I wanted or expected out of Starfield.
I expected an open world adventure, but I quickly realized that Starfield isn’t interested in the slow ambient moments that color my experiences in, say, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Fallout 4. Those games have various points of interest on their maps, like a city built out of a baseball field or the expansive Whiterun of Tamriel, but between them are open fields, forests, cavernous dungeons, mountains, and more. Part of the experience is exploring to your heart’s content between stops from Whiterun to the next city and discovering something you had no idea about.
For the most part, Starfield is missing those moments and that experience so far. It’s intentional, though. In Starfield, you travel to hundreds of planets across entire galaxy systems. And while I wish I were manually flying to and from planets a la No Man’s Sky, that’s not what Bethesda’s doing with this game. Instead, your spaceship’s cockpit becomes a detailed GPS where you pick where you want to go and fast travel there (which is why you’ll see a lot of loading screens in Starfield).
Because of this, you won’t find any of those slow, ambient moments exploring the path between, say, megacity New Atlantis and a nearby outpost. If this were Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, you’d walk to each point of interest and likely discover enemies, loot, dungeons, and more along the way. In Starfield, you’re fast-traveling from New Atlantis to that outpost on the same planet.
It’s in that way Starfield feels less like an open world adventure like Skyrim or Fallout 4 and more like a theme park. The game’s not interested in those moments of exploration between points of interest or “rides” or “attractions.” Instead, it’s interested in fast-passing me to the next Disney World ride of a city, outpost, or cavernous dungeon. It gets me to those points of interest almost immediately, and while I’m sometimes thankful I don’t have to walk from ride or ride or outpost to outpost, in Starfield’s terms, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it.
Without those moments in between, the excitement and mystery of reaching a new destination can only do so much. Adventures need the lows, the soft or quieter moments, to accentuate the highs. My level of excitement stays high in Starfield, but if it’s constantly high, how will I feel when all is said and done?
At times, it feels like what I imagine is the difference between Disney’s Animal Kingdom Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction and a real safari expedition. Sure, the former has real animals in realistic locations and they’re living as they might in the wild, but they’re placed where Disney wants them to be for me to see to maximize excitement, every time I ride.
A real safari likely has stakes, nonmanufactured moments and excitement, and an element of surprise. Perhaps a lion appears and sits on top of my jeep like I’ve seen on YouTube. Maybe no lion appears but I see a group of elephants sharpening their tusks on trees. The point is, you don’t know what you’re in store for when the safari starts. Disney’s attraction, however, is scripted, meant to pull out specific feelings from me with a 99% hit rate. It’s still great – it’s just not the real thing.
Starfield has plenty of amazing locations and moments that, while exciting, feel scripted for that particular instance. These moments are still great; I just wonder what they might be like if they were more organic.
Twenty-three hours in, I’m having a great time inhaling Starfield’s theme park fumes, but is it possible to do so for another few dozen? I’m not quite sure yet, but the narrative and mechanical pulls are there for now, and I look forward to finding out.
For more about the game, read our Starfield tips guide and then check out our thoughts on it in Game Informer’s Starfield review. If you're planning to play on PC, here are the Starfield PC specs required to run it.
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