It’s fair to say that Starfield is one of the most anticipated games and it’s not hard to see why – for all its flaws, Bethesda has built its empire with massive open-world RPGs. There’s a reason why games like Skyrim are still popular today: the carefully designed worlds and sense 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 picture quality and performance to the general approach to technology and design.
Let’s start with the resolution: the trailer is shown in native 4K resolution, but the images vary 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 a similar way to Fallout 4, which should be more in line with what we’ll see in the final product.
In addition to simple subtlety, we can get a sense of the development team’s design goals by looking at how Starfield handles open areas on the planet, interior spaces, character rendering, and ultimately outer space. For example, in an outdoor scene, we can see that the game has long-range shaders, which is critical for preserving distant details. This is one of the main issues we identified with Halo Infinite and it’s great to see Starfield have a solution.
Starfield also seems to have a system that displays the amount of local fog in the canyon’s fissures, which looks pretty cool. Overall, the atmospheric rendering looks quite robust from what we can see in this demo. What I still don’t understand is the air system – it looks promising, but given the low bitrate of the trailers we had to watch, it’s hard to tell whether we’re looking for a good volumetric air system or a simple air dome. Either way, it delivers attractive results – we just need to see how dynamic it will be in the final.
Everything is then linked together by the terrain system – it is possible for planet surfaces and structures to be 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 apparent from a distance. While it’s attractive, the display features don’t push any boundaries – which is understandable given the game’s large size and long development time.
Indoors, things are different: Widespread hues, once restrained and grainy outdoors, are now clearly defined internally. This section evokes an atmosphere similar to Doom 3, with direct lights cutting through the darkness as highlights appear on the surfaces. Compared to Fallout 4, the accuracy jump is significant, as that game features rudimentary interior lighting and a distinct lack of texture and object detail.
This raises an interesting omission: the lack of reflections. In the original trailer, we almost saw RT-esque reflections, but in any gameplay sequence, there’s no evidence of any reflections in screen space, let alone RT reflections. At best, we see basic cube maps. For a setup that’s flush with metal surfaces, this feels a little weird, and reflections in screen space will go a long way in improving the overall image cohesion.
There are also many positive elements here. For example, weapons look great. I’ve never been a fan of the designs in Fallout 4 – the models and animations left me cold – but Starfield offers weapons that look elegant and powerful. Enemy animations are generally better too. As an RPG, it still feels like you’re draining the life bar more than you do direct damage, but the reactions are vastly improved. All that is missing is motion blur for every object on weapons and enemies.
The character rendering has also improved considerably since Fallout 4, especially if you look beyond the character creation screens and focus instead on the actual in-game look. Underground scattering, which is absent in all scenes, can make things even better, showing exactly how light interacts with the skin’s surface. It’s on the ears in the photos we’ve seen, but it doesn’t apply to the rest of the skin highlighting the regular cards. Also, the geometry of the tear duct is so luminous and traps light that it almost seems to glow. In addition to these minor points, there is a huge boost to the quality of the animation. The conversations in Fallout 4 contain harsh and even ugly animations, while Starfield looks more elegant by comparison.
Starfield’s last major setting is outer space, and while we’re only getting a brief glimpse, effects like laser beams and explosions show promise — certainly a step above low-resolution smoke when landing on a planet. The big question I ask regarding space travel isn’t about the visuals, but more about the possibilities – I’d like to see ship management play a role in travel. Imagine getting up from the captain’s seat to explore a ship, managing both resources and systems. I think this can make the interplanetary journey more attractive and challenging. It’s unclear if this is an option, or if the player just “becomes” the ship in flight.
A few other technical criticisms worth noting are the game’s indirect lighting. This has become a major focus in recent years and is key to realistic rendering: simulating the phenomenon of photons bouncing off one surface and indirectly illuminating another area. The problem now is that areas not lit directly in the Starfield show a uniform gray that doesn’t match the lighting results you would expect. Global ray-traced lighting would do well here, but it has a high performance cost. The baked solution can also work offline using probes, but with so many planets, the GI data will likely 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 encoded in a 30fps container, which limits the amount of analysis we can perform. However, there still seem to be issues worth reporting on, which are the fact that all gameplay footage shows significant performance issues and regularly drops below 30fps. This isn’t unusual for a game at this point in development, but Bethesda’s record of extremely variable launch performance on console gives me pause. It’s the most obvious flaw in the presentation and I hope performance improves at launch, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The other 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 if I’m nitpicking, Starfield is still going to be Bethesda’s most engaging game to date – most of the ugly parts that plagued Fallouts 4 and 76 have been stripped away and left with some beautiful environments to explore instead. Starfield also shows structures and dimensions unlike anything they’ve built in the past. The whole ‘1,000 Planets’ feature seemed silly at first, but you can imagine that the major planets were carefully built and designed, relying more on procedural generation to handle the rest. If the gameplay structure supports this well, it could be great. Even if you’re a pretty exhausted person at open world games, I’m very fascinated by Starfield.
All of this means Starfield will be a tough game to analyze when it comes out next year, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.
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