Starfield's cosmic sandbox promises a life of piracy and drug smuggling, exploration of alien worlds, corporate espionage and even sandwich theft, with diversions around every corner—all wrapped up in a grounded sci-fi universe. This is not particularly evident when you're following the critical path. Within moments of firing up Bethesda's RPG, I'd uncovered a magical artefact, and soon found myself employed by some do-gooder space archaeologists to hunt down more of them, all while experiencing mystical visions.
All of this feels largely disconnected from the rest of the galaxy—a fantastical and often awkward juxtaposition to the NASApunk vibes found everywhere else. Bethesda's not going for realism here—it's still full of space cowboys and ugly alien critters—but it's considerably closer to hard sci-fi than, say, Fallout's delightfully eccentric retro-futurism.
Teaming up with Constellation, the organisation hunting for these aforementioned artefacts, feels a bit jarring for other reasons, too, creating friction between the sandbox and main quest. Despite promoting itself as a neutral organisation, that's only really when it comes to its politics. It doesn't care about the rivalry between the Freestar Collective and United Colonies. It's still largely law-abiding, though, and your colleagues will be disgusted with you should you go around being a wrong 'un, or God forbid, shoot at some space cops who are trying to kill you.
You're offered some thin justifications for why a wannabe pirate (or anyone who just isn't that interested in mystical objects) might join this group of explorers, but it's weird that they'd want you on their team if your main goal is just stabbing people.
Starfield, then, is a much better time if you veer off the critical path and instead become embroiled in its endless diversions. This, of course, will not be news to veterans of Bethesda's library of RPGs. But if you're a new player, you might find yourself compelled to spend the bulk of your time being Constellation's agent—that would be a mistake.
To Starfield's credit, it's constantly trying to nudge you in new directions. Just take a stroll through one of the main settlements and you'll soon find your quest log full of activities. The problem is that there's often very little context. These will appear when you overhear conversations, usually, but if you're tuning out the ambient chatter (which is rarely immediately interesting enough to make you stop and listen), you'll probably have no clue what these new entries in your log are referring to. Follow the quest marker, though, and you'll soon find out.
Plenty of other side quests can just be discovered by striking up conversations—sometimes an NPC will call you over, or you might be chatting to a shopkeeper and they'll start moaning about a problem they're having with gangs or cops or the competition.
It's here that I should probably temper expectations somewhat. A lot of these diversions are bottom-of-the-barrel affairs. I spent most of an evening in the cyberpunk dystopia of Neon, for instance, doing one-note quests for its residents: beat up a criminal and get a reward, persuade a shopkeeper to stop paying protection money, beat up another criminal, deliver a parcel… just endless drudgery. But then I ended up going for a job interview at a shady corporation and becoming one of their top operatives, engaging in corporate espionage, weeding out moles, infiltrating rivals and, eventually, netting myself an implant that lets me control minds.
You never really know what you're going to get: a five-minute fetch quest or an elaborate misadventure that swallows up your whole evening. Last night I had to make a delivery for a smuggler who'd just been arrested, which I was expecting to amount to nothing, but now I'm part of a drug operation, cooking up treats for people looking to have a good time.
Joining the Freestar Rangers, meanwhile, let me uncover a corporate conspiracy and netted me an incredible ship, which blew my starter vessel out of the water. And even now that I've finished with the Rangers, I'm still considered part of the organisation and get things like additional dialogue options as a result. The same goes for my corporate gig. So there are absolutely loads of benefits to going off the beaten path—ones that will stick with you for the rest of your interstellar adventure.
More work can be found posted on terminals dotted all over the place, but I'd honestly avoid them. Most of them amount to going to a location to kill a person, transport some cargo or survey some worlds, and the payouts are usually pretty poor, especially when you consider how much cash you'll get from doing proper side quests and selling loot. As a rule, if it's a terminal giving you a quest rather than an NPC, it's probably going to be shit.
If you're worried that getting off the critical path will leave you flying solo, don't be. While the main quest gives you a bunch of companions to crew your ships, work in your outposts and follow you around, there are plenty of folk looking for work outside of Constellation. Now, these are not fleshed out story companions, but they still have personalities, specialised skillsets and, crucially, they will be entirely cool with you blasting space cops away with your laser rifle.
This is not to say there aren't any benefits to powering through the Constellation missions. Some of the companions quests I've run through are solid, and after finding a few more artefacts for the space archaeologists you'll start getting some more esoteric rewards that I won't spoil here. As you spend more time with Constellation, you'll also get some side quests with some very tasty payouts. I recently helped Walter Stroud, Constellation's money guy, with an issue at his staryard and, as thanks, got the fanciest ship I've seen so far. Unfortunately, after exploring its five decks, I went to sit in the pilot's chair only to discover my piloting skill isn't high enough to flit around in it yet. Brilliant.
So you won't want to avoid the critical path forever, but by just giving it a wee nibble here and there, between the mountain of diversions, you'll have a much better time.