Saturday, September 02, 2023
Comparing the incomparable
So the first reviews of Starfield are in, and on average the review scores are about 10% lower than those of Baldur's Gate 3. But, as usual, things are a bit more complicated than simple review scores suggest. In this case, there is an added complication from console gamers. Starfield releases on September 6 (unless you buy your way into a few days of early access) in the XBox, and has no release confirmed on the Playstation. Baldur's Gate 3 releases on September 6 in the Playstation, with a possible release on XBox "later this year", moved forward from a previous "2024" release date. Which is to say that on September 6 and the days following it, a lot of people who own an XBox will play Starfield, while a lot of people who own a Playstation will play Baldur's Gate 3. So now, in a typical sour grapes moment, some of the people who only own one console, or are especially fans of one console, are claiming that the game that is not available to them is worse than it is. Or that somebody who is giving a bad review to the game that is available to them is just a shill for the other side in the console wars. Sigh!
On the more questionable side, it appears that Microsoft has been marketing Starfield aggressively. It goes way beyond giving some streamers early access to drum up the hype a few days before release. I have seen an unboxing of the goodies that they sent out to major streamers, and the box contains a nice quality quilted Starfield jacket, a $160 Logitech mouse, and a $150 stream deck. This to me seems to be on the upper end of what is usually in swag bags. And the number of paid content on Twitch and YouTube for Starfield also seems higher than that for many other games, but I have no idea how much Microsoft is paying. I remain somewhat skeptical of influencer marketing beyond a "have a free early access review copy of my game". The only advantage I see is that marketing always gets the core competencies of some streamers wrong, and ends up persuading somebody to play their game publicly who isn't really into that genre, which can be both hilarious and very revealing.
If you are a PC player, like me, what you think of Starfield in comparison to Baldur's Gate 3 depends on a lot of very different considerations. First of all, a month is a long time in gaming. Not everybody has finished playing Baldur's Gate 3 yet, but a good number of people have either finished the game, or stopped playing without finishing. The 24-hour peak number of concurrent players is down to a bit over half of the all-time peak. It is completely possible for some RPG fans to have played and enjoyed Baldur's Gate 3, and now ready to play and enjoy Starfield. The next consideration is cost: Starfield on Steam is $10 more expensive than Baldur's Gate 3, but if you are subscribed to the XBox Game Pass for PC, you can play Starfield as part of that subscription. Which is what I am going to do. I'm not sure I would have paid $70 for it. But, in my case and that probably being true for other people as well, the shooter gameplay of Starfield makes this a *very* different game for me than the turn-based combat of Baldur's Gate 3. While for others genre is very important, and SciFi vs. Fantasy makes a big difference.
If you try to be as objective as possible, and compare what is comparable, while ignoring the differences of platform, underlying combat system, or genre, I do think that the average review scores aren't too far off the mark. Just watch 5 minutes of video of a dialogue involving a persuasion check in both Baldur's Gate 3 and Starfield. The graphical quality and facial expressions of Baldur's Gate 3, as well as the clarity of the user interface explaining the result of the persuasion check, are very clearly superior in Baldur's Gate 3. And the previously leveled accusations against BG3 that you couldn't use it as a standard because of the amount of money and time Larian put into the game doesn't really work here either: Starfield had a 2 year longer development time than Baldur's Gate 3, Microsoft has a lot more money than Larian, and there were 500 developers working on Starfield compared to 400 on BG3. Thus I believe that a direct comparison of comparable features is fair enough, and Starfield isn't winning that.
Maybe the best is to ignore BG3, and just look at Starfield in isolation, or compared to games that are more similar in genre. A lot of the people who played it say that it is very comparable to previous Bethesda games like Fallout 4 or Skyrim, with the obvious "No Man's Skyrim" jokes thrown in. I'd even venture that a comparison to the September 26 relaunch of Cyberpunk 2077 would be interesting. In any case, Starfield compares very positively against Fallout 76, which was some people's biggest worry. Still, it isn't wholly flattering if reviewers say that Starfield has few bugs "for a Bethesda game", because that is just a polite way of saying that there are still a rather noticeable number of bugs left, they just aren't game-breaking. Watching some streamers who aren't Bethesda game veterans playing Starfield also left me with the impression that the user interface is somewhat confusing and not very intuitive. I do think that how much you liked Fallout 4 or Skyrim is probably a good indicator of how much you are going to like Starfield. It seems to be a solid enough game, and I'll certainly try it out after my holidays. Personally I don't expected to be enchanted by it, but 2023 is full of releases of exceptional games that are closer to my personal preferences. There are at least 20 major "game of the year" awards, all with their different biases, and it isn't impossible that Starfield wins one of them. But if there is some website that compiles a ranking of number of GOTY rewards, my money would still be on either Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom or Baldur's Gate 3.