To be fair, StarCraft is one of the most anticipated games, and it’s not hard to see why — Bethesda, despite its flaws, built its empire out of a massive open-world RPG. There’s a reason games like Skyrim are still popular today—the carefully crafted world and sense of freedom capture the imagination. On paper, Starfield feels like a logical conclusion, a game that goes beyond a single planet and travels through space. I thought it would be interesting to dive into Bethesda’s demo and see what we can glean from the game – from the basics like image quality and performance to the overall approach to technology and design.
Let’s start with the rendering resolution – the trailer is rendered in native 4K, but the sharpness of the footage varies. Interestingly, the game sequences seem to lack any kind of antialiasing, so you get sharp edges and visible aliasing. Instead, more cine shots use TAA in a similar fashion to Fallout 4, which should be more in line with what we’ll see in the final product.
Beyond the simple resolution, we can get an idea of the development team’s design goals by looking at how Starfield handles the open areas on the planet, interior space, character rendering, and finally outer space. For example, in an outdoor scene, we can see the game has distant shadows, which are critical for maintaining detail at a distance. This is one of the key issues we found in Halo Infinite, and it’s great to see that Starfield has a solution.
Starfield also seems to have a system that shows localized fog volume in valley crevices, which looks great. In general, atmospheric rendering looks fairly robust from what we’ve seen in this demo. I’m not clear on the sky system yet – it looks promising, but due to the low bitrate of the trailer we have to view, it’s hard to tell if we’re looking at a proper volumetric sky system or a simple celestial dome. Regardless, it does produce attractive results – we’ll just have to see how dynamic it is in the end game.
Everything is tied together by a terrain system – planetary surfaces and structures are likely built using a combination of procedural generation and manually placed assets, a common approach today. The terrain rendering itself is similar to earlier Bethesda games, but pop-ups are kept to a minimum, and details in the distance are noticeable. While it’s appealing, the rendering capabilities don’t push any boundaries – which is understandable given the game’s scale and lengthy development time.
Inside, things are a little different – low-res and grainy large-scale shadows become sharp inside. This part evokes a different mood than Doom 3, with direct light penetrating the darkness as specular highlights play on the surface. Compared to Fallout 4, the jump in fidelity is notable, as the game has basic interior lighting and a noticeable lack of texture and object detail.
This does raise an interesting omission – a lack of reflection. In the initial trailer, we noticed almost RT-like reflections, but there was no sign of any screen-space reflections in every game sequence, let alone RT reflections. At best, we’ll see a basic cubemap. For a flush-to-metal setup, which strikes me as a little odd, screen-space reflections would greatly improve the overall image cohesion.
There are a lot of positives here too. For example, the weapons look great. I’ve never liked the design in Fallout 4 — the models and animation work chills me — but the weapons introduced in StarCraft look sleek and powerful. Enemy animations are generally better too. As an RPG, you still feel like you’re draining health bars rather than directly dealing damage, but the reflexes are greatly enhanced. The only thing missing is a per-object motion blur for weapons and enemies.
Character rendering has also improved significantly since Fallout 4, especially when you move beyond character creation screens to focus on the actual in-game appearance. There is no subsurface scattering in all scenes, which further improves the situation, accurately rendering the interaction of light with the surface of the skin. It’s on the ear in the shots we’ve seen, but not on the rest of the skin where the normal map is overemphasized. Also, the geometry of the tear ducts is a little too bright, picking up light to the point where it almost appears glowing. But aside from these little hiccups, there’s a big improvement in animation quality. Where the dialogue in Fallout 4 featured stiff and even ugly animations, Starfield seemed much more elegant by comparison.
Starfield’s last major scene is outer space, and while we’ve only got a glimpse, effects like laser blasts and explosions are promising — certainly a step up from the low-res smoke of landing on a planet. My biggest problem with space travel isn’t the visuals, it’s the possibilities – I’d like to see ship management play a role in travel. Imagine getting up from the captain’s chair and exploring the ship while managing resources and systems. I think this can make the journey between planets more engaging and challenging. However, it’s unclear if this is an option, or if the player simply “turns into” the ship while flying.
There are a few other tech reviews worth mentioning as well, namely indirect lighting for games. This has been a major focus in recent years and is the key to realistic rendering – simulating the phenomenon of photons bouncing off a surface and indirectly lighting another area. The problem now is that areas in Starfield that are not directly lit are a uniform grey that doesn’t match the lighting results you would expect. Ray-traced global illumination works well here, but at a high performance cost. Offline baking solutions using probes would also work, but with so many planets, the GI data might be too large. This is a difficult problem to solve when building a game of this scale.
Then there’s the show. The trailer we had was encoded in a 30fps container, which limited the amount of analysis we could do. However, there still seems to be a point worth pointing out that all gameplay footage exhibited noticeable performance issues, often below 30fps. That’s not unusual for a game at this stage of development, but Bethesda’s highly variable launch performance record on the console gave me pause. This is the most glaring flaw in the demo, and I expect performance to improve after launch, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Another aspect I’m curious about has to do with cities – in previous versions of Bethesda, big cities were often split by loading screens, while small towns were seamless. So can you land on a planet and travel to a big city without loading screens? I hope we will know soon.
Still, despite my nitpicking, Starfield is going to be the most engaging Bethesda game to date – most of the ugly parts that plagued Fallout 4 and 76 have been ironed out, and we’re left with some beautiful environments available to explore. Starfield also showed a different structure and scale than anything they’ve built in the past. The whole “1000 Planets” feature seems absurd at first, but as you can imagine, the key planets have been built and carefully designed, and they can rely more on procedural generation to handle the rest. If the game structure properly supports this, it can be fascinating. Even if someone burns out in an open world game, I’m very interested in Starfield.
All of this means that Starfield will be a difficult game to analyze when it releases next year – but I’m looking forward to the challenge.