It’s fair to say that Starfield is one of the most anticipated games and it’s not hard to see why – Bethesda, for all its flaws, has built its empire on large-scale open-world RPGs. There’s a reason games like Skyrim remain popular to this day – the carefully crafted worlds and sense of freedom capture the imagination. On paper, Starfield feels like the logical conclusion, a game that extends beyond a single planet through the scope of space. I thought it would be fun to dive into Bethesda’s presentation and see what we can learn about the game – from basics like picture quality and performance to the general approach to technology and design.
Let’s start with the display resolution – the trailer is presented in native 4K, but the shots vary in brightness. Interestingly, gameplay sequences seem to lack any kind of anti-aliasing, so you get razor-sharp edges with aliasing visible everywhere. Conversely, the more cinematic shots use TAA in a manner similar to Fallout 4, which should be more in line with what we’ll see in the final product.
In addition to simple resolution, we can get an idea of the development team’s design goals by looking at how Starfield handles large 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 shadows, which is crucial for preserving details at a distance. 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 a localized volume of fog in valley crevices, which looks great. Overall, atmospheric rendering seems fairly robust from what we can see in this demo. What I’m not clear on yet is the sky system – it looks promising, but due to the low bitrate of the trailer footage we had to look at, it’s hard to tell if we’re looking at a real volumetric sky system or a simple sky dome. Either way, it yields attractive results – we just need to see how dynamic it is in the final game.
Everything is then linked together by the terrain system – it is likely that planet surfaces and structures are built using a combination of procedural generation and hand-placed assets, which is a common approach today. The rendering of the terrain itself resembles previous Bethesda games, but pop-in is kept to a minimum and details are clearly visible far into the distance. While it’s attractive, the rendering features don’t push any boundaries – which is understandable given the game’s large scale and long development time.
Inside, things are different: large-scale shadows, which were low-resolution and grainy outside, are sharply defined internally. This section evokes an atmosphere similar to Doom 3, with direct lights piercing the darkness while specular highlights play off the surfaces. Compared to Fallout 4, the jump in fidelity 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 teaser trailer, we almost saw RT-esque reflections, but in any gameplay sequence, there’s no evidence of any reflections in the screen space, let alone RT reflections. At best, we see basic cube maps. For a setting that is flush with metal surfaces, this seems a bit odd to me, and reflections in screen space would go a long way towards improving overall image cohesion.
There are also many positive elements here. For example, weapons look fantastic. I was never a fan of the designs in Fallout 4 – the modeling and animation left me cold – but Starfield introduces weapons that seem both stylish and powerful. Enemy animation is generally much better too. As an RPG, you still feel like you’re draining a life bar more than you’re dealing direct damage, but the reactions have been vastly improved. The only thing missing is per-object motion blur on weapons and enemies.
The character rendering has also improved significantly since Fallout 4, especially if you look beyond the character creation screens and focus instead on the actual in-game appearance. Underground scattering, which is absent in all scenes, could improve things even further, by accurately portraying how light interacts with the skin’s surface. It is present on the ears in the images we have seen, but it does not apply to the rest of the skin which accentuates the normal cards too much. Also, the tear duct geometry is a bit too shiny and absorbs light to the point where it almost seems to glow. Apart from these minor points, however, there is a big boost to the animation quality. Conversations in Fallout 4 contain stiff and even ugly animations, while Starfield seems much more elegant by comparison.
Starfield’s last major setting is space, and while we’re only getting a brief glimpse, the effects, such as laser beams and explosions, are promising – certainly a step above the low-resolution smoke when landing on a planet. The big question I have regarding space travel is less about visuals and more about capabilities – I’d like to see ship management play a role in travel. Imagine getting up from the captain’s seat to explore the ship, managing resources and systems. I think this can make the journey between planets more exciting and challenging. However, it’s unclear if this is an option, or if the player just “becomes” the ship while flying.
There are also a few other technical critiques worth mentioning, which 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 at the moment is that areas not directly lit in Starfield show a uniform grayish color that doesn’t match the lighting results you would expect. Ray-traced global lighting would work well here, but has a high performance cost. An offline baked solution with probes could also work, but with so many planets, the GI data would probably be way too large. This is a difficult problem to solve when building a game at this scale.
Then there is the performance. The trailer footage we have is encoded in a 30fps container, which limits the amount of analysis we can do. However, there still seem to be issues worth mentioning, 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 stage of development, but Bethesda’s track record of highly variable launch performance on console gives me pause. It’s the most noticeable blemish on the presentation and I hope performance will improve at launch, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The other aspect I’m curious about relates to cities – in previous Bethesda releases, larger cities were usually divided by loading screens, while smaller cities were seamless. So can you land on a planet and go to a big city without loading screens? I hope we will know soon.
But while I have my nitpicks, Starfield is still going to be the most engaging Bethesda game yet – most of the uglier bits that plagued Fallouts 4 and 76 have been eliminated, and we’re left with some beautiful environments to explore. Starfield also shows structures and scale unlike anything they’ve built in the past. The whole ‘1000 planets’ feature seemed ridiculous at first, but you can imagine that major planets have been built out and carefully designed, while relying more heavily on procedural generation to handle the rest. If the gameplay structure supports this well, it can be fascinating. Even if one is largely burned out with open world games, I am very intrigued by Starfield.
All of this means Starfield will be a difficult game to analyze when it comes out next year – but I’m looking forward to the challenge.