Starfield's down to mixed reviews on Steam, while the community laments 'the magic is just missing from [the game]'

An astronaut relaxing on planet Venus with a spaceship in the background
(Image credit: Bethesda)

Bethesda has a reputation for these big, deep, open-world RPG you can get lost in for years. They have a legacy of large, technically impressive worlds filled with detail and places to explore. To this day, Skyrim endures as a world people want to return to—which 12 years after launch is genuinely impressive.

Starfield, which was meant to be our 'Skyrim in space', was meant to carry on that tradition. All of Bethesda's pedigree, expanded to over 1,000 planets: a near-infinite universe you could explore for years

And yet, less than half a year since its launch, the exhaustion's set in. Starfield now, at the time of writing, has mixed reviews on Steam, both All Time (69% positive) and Recent (48% positive).

As I pointed out when I wrote about the game's singular nomination in this years' The Game Awards, Starfield isn't a bad game. It is, however, a big game. A game with a massive amount of promise stacked behind it—and yet it fell short of the eternal blockbuster Bethesda, and its fans, were expecting. 

Any other year, with any other game, a fanbase cooling off post-release wouldn't even be noteworthy. But this was meant to be the game we'd all be hearing too much about for the next 15 years. What happened?

Before I throw my two credits into the pot, let's look at those Steam reviews. Even the recent positive ones aren't particularly raving—one user with 147 hours at the time of writing calls it a "warm drink of water when you're really thirsty." Another player with a similar amount of hours reflects: "Do I regret buying it? No, but I'm not playing it as much as I thought I would".

One review really sticks out to me, though. It's written by player Square Zer0, catching enough traction to cause a developer response. In it, Square_Zer0 writes: "That [Bethesda] feeling of 'go anywhere, be anyone, do whatever you want, choose any side you desire' is…gone." 

The whole review is an impassioned speech by a long-time Bethesda player, summarising the weirdness of entering the studio's biggest game, but feeling like there's nothing to explore. In particular, they lament the inability to really roleplay in Starfield, calling out the Constellation as being insufferable goody two-shoes, limiting your ability to play morally ambiguous (or even outright evil) characters. They're not entirely wrong. The only real 'evil' companion is Vasco, because he's pretty much a toaster with legs, incapable of passing moral judgement on your actions.

My character looks very disappointed in Vasco from Starfield, a chunky robot.

(Image credit: Bethesda)

As our own Morgan Park pointed out—Starfield lets you flip-flop between factions, which led him to asking "What does it mean to be a Freestar Ranger if a few hours later I'm prancing across the galaxy in UC blue?" That's not exactly a new thing for Bethesda RPGs. In both Skyrim and Oblivion, you can become top dog of the Mages' guild and a nationally-feared super-assassin. But it feels worse here, somehow.

The developer response, though, kinda just bums me out. "We are sorry that you do not like landing on different planets and are finding many of them empty," it reads, before just outright disagreeing: "Some of Starfield’s planets are meant to be empty by design—but that's not boring." It then goes on to quote a developer insight from a NYT interview back in September, that the astronauts who went to the moon certainly weren't bored, because there was nothing there.

That's a sentiment I'm still not sure I agree with. Those astronauts weren't bored because they were the first people on the goddamn moon. They were looking at Earth from a vantage point no living person ever had, not playing a kinda-disappointing video game. Starfield isn't profound enough to give people a William Shatner-style existential crisis, guys.

The response insists: "try creating different characters with backgrounds and characteristics that clash or are opposite of your previous character … There are so many layers to Starfield, that you will find things you never knew were possible after playing for hundreds of hours." 

Look. I don't want to come down too hard on this person—partially because this is just their job—but also: every developer sees the best in their game. Even games that miss their marks are massive, complex, nightmarish engines that take years to create. If developers didn't believe in them, they just wouldn't get made.

Astronaut on alien planet

(Image credit: Bethesda)

But I really don't think they're making a good point here. Not all player feedback is worth listening to, but this is a widely shared sentiment among your community, and part of a growing wave of critique. You can't just publically 'nuh-uh' it and expect that to fly. Even the Starfield subreddit—which should contain the game's staunchest defenders—has a thread on the subject where its top-upvoted comments aren't even that shocked. 

"I very much enjoy it, but I can totally see why somebody wouldn't," writes user Passey92 to the tune of at least 5,000 people agreeing with them. "They should have focused more on a few planets and fleshed them out," says another player (tragically enough, that could've happened, according to an ex-Bethesda dev). 

Another player even echoes Square_Zer0's feelings, almost down to the letter: "I keep trying to play it after completing the story and find myself logging off after a few minutes. A game with such a large scope feels completely uninteresting to me and that’s the biggest shock … the magic is just missing from Starfield."

Steam's reviews aren't even just an isolated incident, either. On the Microsoft store, the game has 3.4 stars from around 5,000 reviews. Its user score on MetaCritic has sunk down to 7/10. Again, these are just temperature checks for public sentiment—which is changeable and subject to trends. But it's hard to ignore.

The fact remains: Starfield is this year's most unexpectedly average game, and that's unfortunately a big deal for Bethesda. No studio should have to bear the weight of great expectations—and a game doesn't have to be perfect to be worth your time. It doesn't even have to be perfect for you to love it. I love plenty of things with flaws, that's just part of being a person.

But I think we were all expecting a little more out of Bethesda's next big mainline project. Fallout 76 was certainly far messier than Starfield was at launch, but I think we all saw it as an outlier. Something new, experimental—Bethesda's first steps into the world of multiplayer. Starfield, though, was meant to be Bethesda in their element.

That dev response to Square_Zer0 repeats something from a recent Todd Howard retrospective with Wired—a large portion of Bethesda's studio, around 250 people, are still working on Starfield. And I hope it gets better, I really do, but for a game with this much hype behind it—to the point where one superfan put together a 1,000 page compendium on its pre-release info—being average doesn't cut it.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.