If you go in with low expectations, you’ll never be disappointed, right? That was my thinking when approaching Starfield on Steam Deck. The year's biggest Xbox Series X title and potentially one of the best PC games we’ll see in quite some time isn’t the sort of project that was designed with Valve’s handheld in mind.
Recently, I’ve grown to massively appreciate the handheld PC after being an elitist ignoramus who still owes every Steam Deck owner a massive apology. With that said, I’m still keenly aware of its limitations.
This is a piece of portable hardware that was designed to make indie darlings sing. Serve Steam Deck the likes of Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, Dead Cells or kitty-centric sensation Stray, and you’re going to have a blast.
Starfield, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of game the Deck wasn’t built for. With thousands of sprawling procedurally-generated planets, this is a space saga painted on the broadest of canvases.
On paper, Starfield is exactly the sort of game Steam Deck wasn't built for"
With its relatively meager AMD APU — which consists of a Zen 2 CPU and a GPU that runs on 8 RNDA compute units — it clearly can’t match the power of the best gaming laptops.
From a purely technical perspective, Starfield vs Steam Deck looks to be about as fair a match up as pitting Little Bo Peep against King Kong over 12 rounds. And yet, it’s actually not quite the technical horror show I was expecting.
Stacking the Deck
Don’t get me wrong, Starfield on Steam Deck is definitely playable but it isn’t going to blow your space socks off. You're also going to have to drop literally every graphical preset to low (and I really do mean every single one). You also have to enable AMD’s subpar FSR2 upscaling technique to have any chance of locking down a consistent 30 fps at native 720p resolution.
If you can stomach a whole lot of visual cutbacks, though, the game often hovers between 24-30 fps. Not great, but again, 'playable'. Of course, when heated battles break out, performance can tank into the teens.
At time of writing, Starfield has only been out a matter of days, so there’s every chance Bethesda Softworks could implement future patches to boost performance. Steam Deck’s tirelessly committed community will also no doubt come up with clever mods and tweaks to improve the experience of playing this epic sci-fi RPG on Valve’s handheld hit.
Right now, both Bethesda and the modding community have work to do across the board. Playing Starfield on Steam Deck shines a light on its biggest visual flaw, and it’s a problem that plagues both the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S versions, too.
Regardless of whether you’re playing on Xbox, one of the best gaming PCs or Steam Deck, Starfield has a serious HDR problem. The game’s high dynamic range features currently appear to be borked on Microsoft’s consoles, while there’s no native HDR support for the PC version at all.
The only way I could make contrast performance look semi correct to my obsessive eyes was by going into the Game Optimizer on my LG C2 OLED TV and turning the Black Stabiliser all the way down from its default setting of 10 to a big fat zero. Hardly an ideal or elegant solution to fixing a visual flaw that should have been addressed before the vast space adventure was released.
In this respect, Starfield on Steam Deck is doubly screwed. Not only does its 7-inch LED screen pale in comparison to the best OLED displays when it comes to generating convincing black levels, but the poor little handheld isn’t helped by a baffling in-game omission on Bethesda's part. Drum roll, please…
Starfield currently has no in-game brightness slider. And no, that’s not a typo. At time of writing, there’s no way to manually tweak how bright or dark you want Starfield’s image to look from the game’s menus. As I said, a truly head-spinning omission.
Bethesda has at least admitted there’s an issue with Starfield’s HDR output / general color gamut issues, with its support team tweeting the following statement (thanks, Pure Xbox):
Hello, our team is still investigating the issue with HDR. Please continue to submit this issue via feedback as its the best way to bring it to the attention of our development team https://t.co/oOATs9IO1rSeptember 9, 2023
In the meantime, we just hope Starfield’s current performance problems on Deck and general HDR issues across all platforms can be addressed post-haste. If you’re playing on PC, mods like this are trying to fix the game’s washed out image issues.
Until Bethesda confronts these technical hiccups head-on, though, I fear Starfield isn’t going to shine quite as brightly as it should; be it on Steam Deck or Xbox Series X.