We've Now Seen Starfield, But A Key Gameplay Feature Remains A Mystery
When it comes to traversing the game's 1,000+ planets, players are still flying blind.
Bethesda's recent Starfield Direct gave players an incredibly in-depth look at the game, showcasing everything from ship customization to interstellar combat to the most detailed character creation system to ever appear in a Bethesda game. We also learned about the game's massive collection of 1,000+ explorable planets, but one rather vital detail was missing: How exactly are players supposed to explore a planet once they've landed on its surface?
We already know that Starfield's ships cannot fly low over a planet's atmosphere. Instead, players pick a "parking spot" from orbit, land their spacecraft, and disembark to have a look around. From what we've seen, planetside exploration takes place entirely on foot. While planets with low-g environments and what appears to be a jetpack on the character's spacesuit may allow for large leaps that make for quicker on-foot travel on some planets, one has to wonder how exactly planetside exploration works on high-gravity worlds. Because for all the neat game features seen in the showcase, one vital ingredient still appears to be missing: a rover, or any sort of vehicle meant to more easily facilitate the exploration of a planet's surface.
Although the original Mass Effect's Mako rover was a bit clunky to operate, it still got the job done, and was a heck of a lot faster than wandering the game's planets on foot. (It was also vastly improved in the games's Legendary Edition.) Similarly, No Man's Sky--which seems to have inspired a great deal of the content in Starfield--has an expansive fleet of "exocraft" that make exploring the game's many planets far more convenient. The apparent lack of any sort of surface-traversal vehicle in Starfield is a bit concerning, especially given the fact that Mass Effect 1 only had about 40 planets and moons to explore (not counting DLC-exclusive planets) while Starfield has over 1,000.
Still, in many open-world RPGs, there's a lot to be said for taking the "scenic route" and hoofing it from point A to point B. In Skyrim, for example, opting to travel from place to place without making use of fast-travel points can often enhance the player's experience, because manually wandering around the realm often results in interesting gameplay encounters--an NPC who needs help, an NPC who is pretending to need help but is actually planning an ambush, a giant dragon that needs slaying--the list goes on.
But--based on what we've seen of Starfield--there are three major differences between traversing Skyrim and traversing Bethesda's upcoming insterstellar RPG. First, Skyrim's entire map is roughly the same size as just one of Starfield's hundreds of planets. Additionally, even when going for a stroll in Skyrim, players can ride their horse, which allows for quicker travel (and a much quicker escape, should things go awry). Lastly, Starfield's planets are procedurally-generated, and from what we've seen so far, most of them are relatively sparse, save for the occasional bloodthirsty alien creature. This means the scripted NPC encounters players experience when riding around Skyrim could be absent from Starfield, potentially making for long, lonely slogs through desolate landscapes infested with aggressive wildlife and not much else.
The Starfield Direct didn't even touch the topic of exploration in terms of planetside transport, which is a bit worrisome this late in the game. Players are concerned about this, too, with some referencing Mass Effect's Mako as they express concern about the game's on-foot exploration. Thus far, it appears that Starfield will work in a similar manner to The Outer Worlds, where players park their ship and explore on foot. But even in that game--which features only eight comparatively small planets (not counting a handful of ships, space stations, and small asteroids)--getting around on foot can quickly get tiresome due to the fact that there's almost nothing for players to do but fight (or try to avoid) aggressive wildlife until they've reached their destination. Given that Starfield's cities and settlements appear to be few and far between, there's a possibility that exploring the game's 1,000+ planets will be a similar experience to exploring the planets of The Outer Worlds--except on a massive scale.
Fast-travel points can obviously remedy this to some degree--one assumes that players can fast-travel back to their ship when needed, or between the outposts they've built on a planet. But what happens when a player has spent ages slogging through a new planet's environment only to reach a mountaintop and realize they desperately need more supplies before they can put down roots? A simple solution could be a sort of "fast-travel flag"--perhaps players could have a limited number of flags they can plop down on each planet as a means to quickly return to a point of interest when they're not low on HP, supplies, or anything else they may need.
Overall, Starfield looks quite impressive and has seemingly endless options for players to customize their gameplay experience. But the fact that we've still heard nothing about vehicles or any manner of groundside transport whatsoever is rather worrisome. The Starfield Direct did briefly mention "controlling" local wildlife, but this seemed to refer to using alien creatures for resources or farming, not travel. Still, it feels a bit odd that the Starfield Direct opted not to show players any sort of ground transport aside from the player-character's feet.
It's possible Bethesda is simply waiting to reveal this feature closer to the game's release date, but it's also possible that they have no plans whatsoever to include a planet-traversal mechanic in the game--a choice that could prove disastrous. On the bright side, there's always a chance that player feedback will lead to this feature being added in a post-launch patch, similar to the way No Man's Sky has evolved dramatically in response to players' needs.
Failing that, Bethesda is known for its prolific modding community, which will no doubt rise to the occasion if a vehicle is needed for players to truly enjoy their planet exploration experience. But if that's the ultimate solution--a mod that many will be unaware of, particularly on consoles, where they may or may not even be available--it seems like a shame that the game's exploration may be hindered for those players.