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Starfield's May Update Causes Head-Scratching New Problems

The enormous update adds a number of long-awaited improvements to the game, but punishes players for making use of them.

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Starfield's massive May update--the biggest to hit the game since its September 2023 launch--arrived last week, introducing tons of new quality-of-life features (like improved scanner function and surface maps) and long-awaited bug-fixes for some of the game's most important quests. The May update ostensibly has it all, from options to tweak combat difficulty to increased inventory space and even improved ship-decorating mechanics.

As a fan of Bethesda's previous games (and a huge space nerd), I was excited to get my hands on the update and take it for a spin. Disappointed by the state of the game at launch, I'd awaited this update with bated breath, hoping Starfield would finally get the Cyberpunk 2077 treatment and rise like a phoenix from its buggy, underwhelming ashes. Unfortunately, upon firing up the game, I discovered something incredibly disheartening: Rather than drastically improving Starfield's gameplay, the May update instead makes the game's flaws even more evident and introduces new bugs. Later, I stumbled into an even more painful truth: Although the update itself is available free of charge, some of the update's best quality-of-life improvements come with a surprising price--one that players might not be willing to pay.

Players who take advantage of Starfield's new settings may be unhappy to learn that some quality-of-life improvements come at a surprising price.
Players who take advantage of Starfield's new settings may be unhappy to learn that some quality-of-life improvements come at a surprising price.

Playing on Xbox, I fired up an old save and immediately proceeded to test out the new surface maps and scanner functions. Functionally, the new three-dimensional surface maps do a fantastic job of helping players get their bearings and allow them to survey a planet's topography without having to physically run around to see if there's anything worth finding on it. The new maps don't exactly scream, "Hey, there's a really cool point of interest over there!" but the 3D details that now appear on a planet's surface map mean players can spot buildings, unusual rock formations, and other details that may indicate the presence of an interesting locale they might wish to explore.

There are 3D maps for major buildings, as well, which make getting from point A to point B significantly easier when exploring large enclosed areas with multiple floors. Prior to the update, players could only rely on a trail of arrows that would appear on the ground while using the scanner, pointing them in the direction of their current objective. Those guide arrows are still there, and still have a tendency to disappear at random, but players now have more options than simply putting the scanner away and taking it back out again to get them to reappear. The new update's 3D building maps make it much easier to figure out which floor certain destinations are located on, but appear to be available only for large or unique buildings, like the fully enclosed city of Cydonia on Mars. If a player finds themselves struggling to navigate oft-reused structures, like the Robotics Science Facility on Volii Chi, they'll still have to rely on the guide arrows.

Starfield's new surface maps make navigating easier, but also demonstrate how empty the galaxy feels, even on major planets like Mars.
Starfield's new surface maps make navigating easier, but also demonstrate how empty the galaxy feels, even on major planets like Mars.

The new 3D surface maps work well but also demonstrate exactly how empty many of the game's 1,000+ planets truly are. POIs are still extremely sparse on most planets (even those with large settlements, like Mars), and players are still going to find themselves running for several minutes straight--with nothing but rocks to look at on the way--to get from their landing zone to the undiscovered POIs on their maps. Even with a fully tricked-out Boost Pack and a dose of Amp (which temporarily increases movement speed by 35%), getting around in Starfield remains an exercise in frustration. Traveling from one POI to another on-foot still takes far too long, but on the bright side, Bethesda has announced that ground vehicles are finally in development. In the meantime, Starfield's scanner has been updated with a useful new feature: When activated, POIs now pop up on the scanner, allowing players to select them and fast-travel instantly, without having to waste time navigating through multiple menus to do so.

Unfortunately, there's a downside. Naturally, players cannot fast-travel to undiscovered POIs until the player has unlocked them by first reaching the location on foot. But returning players will likely be displeased to discover that even POIs they've already discovered must be re-unlocked if they want to fast-travel there with the new scanner function. I've already explored every inch of New Atlantis, for example, and while I can still fast-travel to The Lodge and various other locations via the menus on the starmap, those locations are not unlocked for me on the scanner. This also means returning players will be repeatedly bombarded with "New Location Discovered" notifications when arriving at POIs they haven't visited since before the May update, and will obviously not be earning any XP for re-discovering these locations.

Returning players must re-unlock visited POIs to use the scanner's new fast-travel function.
Returning players must re-unlock visited POIs to use the scanner's new fast-travel function.

Speaking of XP, one incredibly important detail Bethesda left out of its marketing for the May update is the fact that making use of certain new features can affect how much XP a player earns. One of the best features in the update is the ability for players to tweak things like the difficulty of ground combat vs. space combat from the game's settings menu. Players can even increase the amount of credits that vendors have on them (making repeated trips to sell off stolen goods a thing of the past) and tweak how much weight their character can carry. But there's a price: Increasing your character's carry weight will decrease the amount of XP you gain. Increasing the distance from which you can access items in your ship's cargo hold will have the same effect. Changing your character's carrying capacity from Normal to Increased will decrease the amount of XP you earn by 6%. Upping your carrying capacity to Greatly Increased will cost you 8% of your earned XP. Allowing yourself to access your ship's cargo hold from anywhere will knock off another 6%. Increasing vendor credits from Normal to Greatly Increased decreases your earned XP by a further 4%.

The new settings are great, but the price players pay for using them is rather steep.
The new settings are great, but the price players pay for using them is rather steep.

With my character's carrying capacity set to Increased, vendor credits set to Greatly Increased, and my ship's cargo accessible from anywhere, I was earning a total of 16% less XP per activity than I otherwise would. But even stranger than that, tweaking combat damage (in space or on the ground) has zero effect on the XP you earn. It seems odd that Bethesda is set on punishing players who want to avoid repeatedly fast-traveling back and forth to access their ship's cargo hold, making multiple trips to multiple Trade Authority locations to sell their goods, or listening to their companions repeatedly complain out loud that they're carrying too much because the game's woefully inadequate default carry capacity means they're constantly finding themselves overencumbered. Why give players the option to play the game their way and then punish them for it?

Players looking for a challenge will be rewarded, however, as decreasing vendor credits, ship cargo accessibility, and carry weight will increase the amount of XP players earn. But this makes the fact that there's absolutely zero XP penalty for increasing the damage one does in combat (or decreasing the damage enemies can do) even stranger. I tested this by running the "Eyewitness" quest with max player damage and minimal enemy damage--reducing the difficulty so severely came with no XP penalty but did make the battle laughably easy, reducing one of the game's most formidable monsters into a creature roughly as dangerous as a Radroach. One wonders what Bethesda's goal is with regard to XP penalties and bonuses.

Many of Starfield's persistent bugs are harmless and hilarious, but others can prove quite frustrating.
Many of Starfield's persistent bugs are harmless and hilarious, but others can prove quite frustrating.

On the topic of Radroaches, replaying the Terrormorph questline also revealed that there's still quite a lot of work to be done in terms of squashing the game's many bugs. I encountered naked miners on Cydonia, saw my companions walk around without a spacesuit on planets with no atmosphere while brandishing invisible guns, and had an entire conversation with the back of an NPC's head (it seems the issue with the game's camera glitching out during dialogue sequences is still alive and well). After disposing of the comically feeble Terrormorphs that attacked New Atlantis, I turned around to discover that a vital NPC companion appeared to have been downed or killed in the fight. The option to speak with her was still appearing, but selecting it didn't wake her up, so I made my way back to the UC Vanguard soldiers who I'd left to hold the line behind me.

Upon striking up a conversation with the soldier who was meant to debrief me, the game entered a dialogue scene, but presented no dialogue options for me to choose from. Unable to exit the dialogue or access the game's menu, I was forced to restart, and upon doing so, discovered the automatic save created when I exited the game had been corrupted, renaming my character to "Dude Mack" and changing her level from 31 to "##." I went back to a previous save, made in the moments after I put down my last Terrormorph, and loaded in to find that the entirety of New Atlantis had become a game-breaking shade of yellow that made it almost impossible to see anything. After restarting the game once again, the save finally loaded correctly, and the mysteriously downed NPC was alive and well.

Bugs are still alive and well in some of Starfield's most prominent quests.
Bugs are still alive and well in some of Starfield's most prominent quests.

Starfield's May update is certainly a step in the right direction, and features like the ability to decorate one's ship in the same manner as an outpost or player home are fantastic. Updates to Photo Mode now allow players to choose from a variety of facial expressions for their character, and they can also change the pose and expression of whichever NPC the player has accompanying them, making photo ops more appealing. The 3D surface and building maps are extremely helpful, as is the new ability to fast-travel from the scanner. But ultimately, Starfield still suffers from the same issues that plagued it at launch, from frustrating bugs to empty planets with little of interest to discover. By far, the biggest issue with the new update is that some of its most useful features--like the ability to access ship cargo more easily, carry more items, and make fewer trips to Trade Authority vendors--come with a built-in punishment for players who dare to make use of them.

Though Bethesda hasn't shared when players can expect to gain access to ground vehicles for planetside exploration, their addition will hopefully improve the core experience of the game, and one hopes that the Shattered Space expansion coming this fall will also add a bit more depth to a game that currently feels a mile wide and an inch deep. I'm still hopeful for the future of Starfield and am looking forward to the new expansion. But after experiencing the game's biggest update yet, I fear that Bethesda's decision to penalize players for making use of sorely needed quality-of-life improvements and persistent bugs in some of Starfield's biggest quests will continue to negatively impact the game, and I find myself wondering if other features planned for the game might also come with a hidden price. Vehicles are all well and good, but not if I'll have to synthesize my own gasoline to use them, or suffer an XP penalty for daring to cram a few too many space sandwiches in the trunk when I embark on an interstellar picnic with Andreja.

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