Xbox has always been propped up by a handful of big titles. While it currently seems to be winning over hearts and minds with the breadth and depth of Game Pass, Xbox has always relied on its heavy-hitters (most famously Halo) in order to keep it in the game. PlayStation is Man City, except imagine City had history. Cash-rich, the best of the best in every department, with an ever rotating team of superstars. Conveniently, they're also blue. Xbox then is more like Liverpool, except imagine Liverpool didn't have so much history. Valiant challengers, becoming more than the sum of their parts, staying afloat with a lot of good offerings but only mounting a serious challenge when one of the few greats in their roster comes out to play. Inconveniently, they're green.
The buying of Bethesda (and then later, Activision Blizzard), changes that. Bethesda is the Darwin Núñez of this metaphor. A 'can't beat 'em, join 'em' splurge of cash to try to turn the tide once and for all. If you don't know sports, then thanks for sticking around but essentially Xbox buying Bethesda signalled not just a statement of intent, but also a huge change of tactics. In a way, it was admitting that PlayStation had consistently won the console battle, even if Xbox wasn't about to concede the console war. Starfield is the first fruit of this new tactic, and it looks exactly how I would expect Xbox's first show of strength to look: way too expensive, far too big, and incredibly generic in an attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience. It's exactly what people say they want in focus groups, online polls, and market analysis, but is it a game anybody actually wants to play?
Of course, the answer screaming in my face is, 'yes! shut the fuck up!', because it's very clear that some people are extremely excited for Starfield, but there are a lot of reasons to be cautious. 1,000 planets is just far too many, and while I know they will be procedurally generated to an extent, that only addresses the technical challenges of making so many planets, not the tiresome act of playing the game. This generation will be used for things like star alignments, rock formations, and other background details, which is a) quite the technological achievement and b) an extremely odd way to cut corners on a problem of your own creation. If you think 1,000 planets is too much, the solution is to trim some down to make the others dense, not to have humans create the skeleton and then build an extremely expensive process to throw meat on the bone – different chunks of meat for each player, wowee!
Procedural generation on this scale can work – a common comparison to Starfield has been No Man's Sky. Let's forget the dreadful state No Man's Sky launched in, and set aside the inevitable issues Bethesda games suffer at launch, even though these issues will rise exponentially as scale increases. No Man's Sky is a deliberately empty game where you set out on your own terms and tell your own story, whatever that may be. When it works, it's a fantastic and unique experience, but that's not what Starfield purports itself to be. It's Space Skyrim. You're supposed to go to each of these planets and find hand-crafted stories, unravel twisting quests, and find a shared experience with other players. The reason players are still on Skyrim ten years later is not because it has ten years' worth of content, nor because of the endless re-releases, but because of the shared experiences. You hear of one player finding a certain NPC, or completing a particular quest in a specific way, and then you want to recreate that in your own game.
That feels impossible in Starfield – there cannot be 1,000 different planets with enough depth to sustain these types of stories. The narrative and characterisation have either been sacrificed in the name of scope and the marketing-friendly 1,000 planets claim, or else several hundred of these planets are completely bereft of anything interesting, and have only been thrown in there to round up the number.
Journalists and players experience scope differently. We often have to get through huge games very quickly, in order to review, critique, or create guides, and so longer playtime feels to us like a chore. We also have greater access to codes, so are less swayed by a cost/length = value equation. I get that for some players who only buy three or so games a year, something as dense as Starfield has an appeal. As much as I enjoy shorter games, for the reasons above and for personal preference, I know longer games have a place in the medium. But they need to offer a reason for their length, and I can't see Starfield ever justifying having 1,000 planets for anything other than a line in an Xbox showcase event while Todd Howard grins in his leather jacket.
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