There comes a point in every diary playthrough when the Comet of Invention meets the Cowpat of Diminishing Returns, when the Foot of Agency meets the Covert Hedgehog of Limited Design, when Fucking Around meets Finding Not Much Out. I fear we are reaching that point with the life and times of Mary Read, my Starfield character and nowadays quite accomplished space pirate, who has sworn never to land on a planet ever again.
Immediately after conquering the Chimera in Part 2 of the Starfield No-Planet Run, I commandeered a UC Longsword II on the other side of the same system. The Longsword has proven a predator without equal, charging straight through opposing craft even when they've got several levels on me, its unforgiving autocannons forming the dominant bassline of every encounter. Frankly, it's getting repetitive, and while the obvious remedy is to plunge cackling and crying into a star system with an AI threat level in the high double digits, I doubt that will really alter the rhythms of Starfield's ship combat - it'll just mean I have to do some grinding.
I'm finding it harder and harder to unearth colourful possibilities when boarding ships, too. The most fun I've had in the past three hours has been hijacking a sloop full of lower-level characters, who wisely refused to open fire. I had a little sitdown while they blew about the cockpit, like spiders fumbling around the inside of a jar. I didn't have the heart to kill any of them. Go with god, UC Narcissus.
I need a Mission. Not a scripted adventure, but an endgame play objective of some kind, to jump-start the fitful circuitry of my imagination and power us out of the doldrums. It could be contriving ways to build a base on an asteroid using Starfield mods, or making the long voyage to a sun's surface and discovering what lies on the other side. What do you reckon? While we think it over, I do have a collection of notes and anecdotes that demonstrate beyond dispute that Starfield is absolutely more fun as space sim than a game of planetary exploration. I might be leaking momentum, but thanks to Mary Read, I've churned away at this overstuffed space RPG for much longer than I thought I would, after spending my opening few hours on terra firma.
1. Encumbrance? What encumbrance?
Every now and then, Mary Read fires up the old interstellar commsbox and eavesdrops on planetary radio chatter, with particular attention to the doings of Starfield reviewers. It sounds like an absolute mess down there, with garbled talk of unheistable story missions and "buttplug cacti" and worst of all, encumbrance limits that drain your O2 (aka, stamina) when you run while overloaded. Gosh, how irritating! That's the kind of nonsense somebody should have done away with around, oh, two Fallout games ago.
Well, Mary Read doesn't have to worry about this, because being a straight-edge Spacer she is rarely required to move large distances on foot. I'm not sure she's ever walked more than 25 metres in one go since leaving Earth. Plus which, firefights within spacecraft often take place in zero-G.
Indeed, from the perspective of an incorrigible void-dweller, Starfield's inventory system is liberating rather than restrictive, because while the game might punish you for being over-encumbered, it doesn't actually hard-limit how much you can carry. Mary has found this useful, inasmuch as when her ship's cargo hold fills up, she can just transfer the whole boatload into her character inventory without penalty.
The upshot of this is that Mary currently has a mass of 1361. Which is to say, Mary has a mass greater than that of a Warwolf class Battle Cruiser. Her actual ship is increasingly just a kind of optical distortion or quantum interface surrounding a point of infinitely accumulating density. It is conceivable that, if Mary's reign of space piracy continues, she will begin to drag other celestial masses into her orbit. It is probable that, at some stage in the hopefully distant future, planets will attempt to land on her.
2. Everything you need from planets is already in space!
I really thought never entering a planet's atmosphere would impose fascinating constraints and spark a whole new Idea of Starfield, but it turns out you can get access to all the role-playing and customisation systems on space stations. You can rebuild and switch between the ships you've registered, buy and sell gear, steal from shops and engage in fulsome dialogue with NPCs who are charmingly willing to forget that you've just slaughtered the entire security staff because one of them made fun of you for wielding a particular make of shotgun. There are even - hawk, spit - quests up here.
3. Delete the planetary maps, and outer space in Starfield feels like... outer space?
It's amazing how cohesive the universe becomes when you stay out of the atmosphere, even though you're still using fast travel to hop between orbits and solar systems. The cinematic transition feels slick rather than jarring, partly because you can execute it from your ship's cockpit by aiming at a distant planet or system with scanner mode (unless, annoyingly, there's a planet between you and the destination).
It's probably the cabin fever talking, but I want to offer up Starfield's astral volumes as proof that strictly level or zone-based design is better for the player's attention span and dare I say, their immersion. OK, so a lot of those orbital zones are empty, and others harbour disatisfying quests and random encounters of the "pls help, our Grav drive broke - HUZZAH, we're actually bandits" variety. But the sense of a self-contained scenario is bracing nonetheless, while trundling across planetary maps is an exercise in amorphous distraction with zero pace-changers, and no clear point at which to break off a play session.
In terms of how it feels to explore each orbital expanse, Starfield is far more engaging when it gives you asteroids or wreckage to weave through. It's all about that admittedly very implausible sense of geography, of relative size and momentum. It makes me think of how the under-sung Chorus and the better-loved Everspace 2 rely on vertical monoliths pitched against a "galactic horizon" of sorts, or mix things up with enormous derelict interiors. They're more like cave-diving games than space sims, at times. Starfield can't match these games ship for ship, but it's wheezing and bumbling valiantly in their direction.
4. It's the most sociable way to play
Some would have you believe that it's desperately lonely in space, that it's all but impossible to recruit companions and crewmates without setting foot on a planet, that solo pilots will eventually become crazed and do unspeakable things for want of human contact. Lies! Mary isn't lonely! You're the one who is lonely!! Just look at all the friends she's made while hijacking spaceships!!!
This is Freddie the Whip, galley slave and gentleman cracksman, clean as a thistle, sharp as a whistle SHUT UP FREDDIE I'M TALKING NOW. He's a Rank 4 Chimney Sweep with a sidebar in Mudlarking, and cooks a mean Horse Leather Stew.
This is Hutch "Max" Starjumper, our gallant co-pilot, famed for his ability to operate spacecraft controls with his knees, gonads and feet. Prior to joining Mary he was part of a travelling circus outside Neon City, but our heroine broke his shackles and the two embarked on a whirlwind love affair, laying whole star systems to waste in their passion before Max had his legendary centrifuge accident. Was it really an accident? Ha ha Mary won't tell.
Here's Doctor Kindly, ship's physician, devouring a nice box of tissues. She's got all of her own teeth and an appetite like you wouldn't believe. Woah Doctor, save some for the rest of us!
And this is Baron Skyrim, ship's engineer, partaking in a spot of luncheon with a calming view of some fuel lines. Wait, don't stare! Baron Skyrim doesn't like it when you stare, and when Baron Skyrim doesn't like something, he's intolerable, forever whispering whispering whispering whispering whispering about Mary's past in Mary's ear while she tries to sleep, till at last she has to open the airlock to let all the whispers out.
5. Spaceship hijacking is like hitting shuffle on a playlist of neat sci-fi dungeons
While the ship architecture does get old - the same astro-kitchenettes, the same sideroom full of shelved oxygen cylinders that marks the point where the builder ran out of budget, the same faux-tivational posters and whiteboards with chortlesome graffiti like "I hate space" - that's swiftly addressed by travelling to a solar system owned by another faction and sampling a new species of NASApunk. I just wish I didn't win every boarding action by finding a ladder and waiting at the bottom of it.
Mary's tale of woe continues! Part 5 is over here.