It’s fair to say that Starfield is one of the most anticipated games, and it’s not hard to see why – despite all its shortcomings, Bethesda has built its empire with massive RPGs in the open world. There is a reason why games like Skyrim are still popular today: The carefully designed worlds and the feeling of freedom capture the imagination. On paper, Starfield seems like a logical conclusion, a game that extends beyond a single planet through the tributaries of space. I thought it would be fun to dive into Bethesda’s show and see what we can get out of the game – from the basics like image quality and performance to the overall approach to technology and design.
Let’s start with the resolution: The trailer is shown in native 4K resolution, but the footage varies in resolution. Interestingly, the gameplay sequences seem to lack any kind of sophistication, so you get very sharp edges with aliases visible everywhere. Conversely, the more cinematic TAA footage is used in the same way as Fallout 4, which should be more in line with what we will see in the final product.
In addition to simple subtlety, we can get a feel for the development team’s design goals by looking at how Starfield handles open spaces on the planet, inner space, character reproduction, and ultimately outer space. For example, in an outdoor scene, we can see that the game has long range shaders, which is essential for preserving distant details. This is one of the main issues we identified with Halo Infinite, and it’s nice to see that Starfield has a solution.
Starfield also seems to have a system that shows the amount of local fog in the crevices of the gorge, which looks pretty cool. Overall, the atmospheric rendering looks quite robust from what we can see in this demo. What I still do not understand is the air system – it looks promising, but given the low bit rate of the trailers we should see, it’s hard to say whether we’re looking for a good volumetric air system or a simple air dome. Either way, it gives attractive results – we just need to see how dynamic it will be in the final.
Everything is then connected to the terrain system – it is possible that planetary surfaces and structures are built using a combination of procedural generation and hand-placed assets, which is a common approach today. The terrain that presents itself is similar to previous Bethesda games, but the pop-up is kept to a minimum and details are clear from a distance. Although attractive, the screen features do not push any limits – which is understandable given the game’s large size and long development time.
Indoors, things are different: widespread shades that were once restrained and grainy outdoors are now clearly defined internally. This section evokes an atmosphere similar to Doom 3, with direct light cutting through the darkness when highlights appear on the surfaces. Compared to Fallout 4, the accuracy jump is significant as the game has rudimentary interior lighting and a clear lack of texture and object details.
This raises an interesting omission: the lack of reflections. In the original trailer, we saw almost RT-like reflections, but in any gameplay sequence, there are no signs of reflections in the screen space, let alone RT reflections. At best, we see basic cube maps. For a setup that aligns with metal surfaces, this feels a little strange, and reflections in the screen space will help a lot to improve the overall image coherence.
Here are also many positive elements. For example, weapons look good. I’ve never been a fan of designs in Fallout 4 – the models and animations left me cold – but Starfield offers weapons that look elegant and powerful. Hostile animations are generally better too. As an RPG, it still feels like you are draining the lifeline more than you are doing direct damage, but the reactions are significantly improved. The only thing missing is motion blur of every object on weapons and enemies.
The character rendition has also improved significantly since Fallout 4, especially if you look beyond the character creation screens and instead focus on the actual in-game look. Underground scattering, absent from all scenes, can make things even better and show exactly how light interacts with the surface of the skin. It’s on the ears in the pictures we’ve seen, but it does not apply to the rest of the skin that highlights the regular cards. Moreover, the geometry of the tear duct is so luminous and captures light that it almost appears to glow. In addition to these little dots, there is a huge boost to the quality of the animation. The conversations in Fallout 4 feature harsh and even ugly animations, while Starfield looks more elegant for comparison.
Starfield’s last big frame is space, and even though we only get a brief glimpse, effects like laser beams and explosions show promise – certainly a step above low-resolution smoke when they land on a planet. The big question I ask regarding space travel is not about the visual, but more about the possibilities – I would like to see ship management play a role in travel. Imagine getting up from the captain’s seat to explore a ship and manage both resources and systems. I believe this can make interplanetary travel more attractive and challenging. It is unclear if this is an option or if the player just “gets” the ship during the escape.
A few other technical criticisms worth noting are the game’s indirect lighting. This has become a major focus in recent years and is the key to realistic reproduction – simulation of the phenomenon with photons jumping off a surface and indirectly illuminating another area. The problem now is that areas not directly lit in Starfield will show a uniform gray that does not match the lighting results you would expect. Global beam track lighting would do well here, but it has a high performance. The baked solution can also work offline using probes, but with so many planets, the GI data is likely to be quite large. This is a difficult problem to solve when building a game of this magnitude.
Then there is the performance. Our trailers are coded in a 30fps container, which limits the amount of analysis we can perform. However, there still seem to be issues worth reporting on, which is the fact that all gameplay footage shows significant performance issues and regularly drops to below 30 fps. This is not unusual for a game at this point in development, but Bethesda’s record of extremely varying console launch performance gives me a break. It’s the most obvious flaw in the presentation, and I hope the performance improves at launch, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The second aspect I’m curious about has to do with cities – in previous Bethesda releases, larger cities were usually divided by loading screens, while smaller cities were seamless. Can you land on a planet and go to a big city without loading screens? Hope we find out soon.
But even though I’m a nerd, Starfield continues to be Bethesda’s most engaging game to date – most of the ugly parts that plagued Fallouts 4 and 76 have been removed, leaving some beautiful surroundings to explore instead. Starfield also shows structures and dimensions that are unlike anything they have built in the past. The whole “1,000 planets” feature seemed silly at first, but you can imagine the big planets were carefully built and designed, more reliant on procedural generation to handle the rest. If the gameplay structure supports this well, it could be great. Even though you’re a pretty exhausted person for open world games, I’m very fascinated by Starfield.
All of this means that Starfield will be a difficult match to analyze when it comes out next year – but I look forward to the challenge.