The first few minutes of Skyrim are some of the most iconic in video game history. That achingly slow cart ride through the forest might have its downsides, but it gives way to a perfectly-crafted introduction to the land of the Nords, and acts as the gateway to a game that's still capturing players' hearts more than a decade later. I'm not sure that Starfield's equivalent will come to be thought of in the same way.
This article contains spoilers for the opening 30-60 minutes of Starfield.
You start your journey in Starfield as a miner, new to the job, being coached by two of your more experienced colleagues. They put you to work before calling you to a discovery – as you extricate it, bright lights and loud music ring in your ears, and the next thing you know you're in the medbay, doing character creation. You're told that someone's on their way to investigate your discovery, but almost as soon as they land, an opportunistic pirate ship lands. Once you've fought them off, you'll bounce from planet to planet for a while, as you try to find a proper lead among the world you've stumbled into.
Eventually, things open up a bit. I've recently found my way into a few quests that have helped to open up the galaxy, showing off different frontiers, but they don't distract from the fact that the first hour or so of Starfield doesn't hold a candle to the experiences that Bethesda's other games have offered.
Back in time
In Fallout 76 – one of the studio's weaker offerings – you're given a place as one of the first to return to a world just starting to recover from the ravages of nuclear war. In Fallout 4, the retro-futuristic life you've built for yourself is stripped away as you literally flee from the falling bombs, and then watch helplessly as your family is torn apart. In Skyrim, you sit opposite a man who reportedly committed regicide with just his voice, before surviving an attack from a creature believed long-extinct. In Fallout 3, you live an entire childhood trapped in a vault before fleeing it as part of some chaotic mutiny and stepping out into the 3D Wasteland for the first time. In Oblivion you're embroiled in an attempt to save the Emperor from his assassination as he tells you about his hellish dreams. Even Morrowind places you immediately into its fantasy, putting you at the center of mysterious prophecy – which was some pretty sophisticated story-building for a game released over 20 years ago
All of these games weave you into the center of their narratives while showing you just how big that narrative is. Amid the grand fantasy and apocalyptic sci-fi, the mutinous fathers and doomed kings, your life and the lives of the people around you are immediately thrust to the forefront. The characters matter because they matter to you. In Starfield, the characters matter because you're told they matter, your place in the world quickly reduced to glorified messenger as you bounce from planet to planet.
You're finally awake
As I made my way through those first hours – spending a little too much time in the Gravjump screens for my liking – I cast my mind back to Skyrim more than any of Bethesda's other games. The Elder Scrolls 5's intro has become legendary, but the more I've thought about it, the more I've been impressed by what it tries to do. It's subdued, but there are immediate stakes; regicide, civil war, mysterious powers, not to mention your own potential innocence. The dragon attack is the big blockbuster moment, but even that cart scene – regularly accused of dragging on far too long – is crucial in providing you a space in its story before Skyrim's excellent underground tutorialization kicks in. By the time you emerge onto that hillside above Rivington, you're swept up in this world, in this story.
Starfield has none of that. There's no great narrative to grasp you from the start, no enigmatic character, no deep mythology, no blockbuster moment. You find an artifact, dispatch a paltry handful of pirates, and then fast-travel around some planets for the rest of the opening hour. There's none of the courage of conviction that Fallout and The Elder Scrolls games seem to have in their settings, nothing really to set this apart from any far-future sci-fi setting until several hours down the line. Perhaps that's the result of Bethesda's attempt to set up a brand new universe, a brand-new franchise separated from the conventions of its previous works. But while Starfield does eventually open up to let you find the stories you want to tell within its universe, its opening is more of a case of Failure to Launch than Brave New World.
Check out our Starfield review.