Starfield’s trailer reveals fascinating new technologies – and age-old concerns


Starfield's trailer reveals fascinating new technologies - and age-old concerns

It’s fair to say that Starfield is one of the most anticipated games, and it’s not hard to see why – Bethesda, for all its flaws, has built its empire with large-scale open-world RPGs. There’s a reason games like Skyrim remain popular to this day – the meticulously crafted worlds and sense of freedom fire the imagination. On paper, Starfield feels like the logical conclusion, a game that expands beyond a single planet through the vast expanses of space. I thought it would be fun to dive into Bethesda’s presentation and see what we can learn about the game – from 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 footage varies in clarity. Interestingly, gameplay sequences seem to lack any form of anti-aliasing, leaving you with razor-sharp edges throughout with visible aliasing. Conversely, the more cinematic 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 a sense of the development team’s design goals by looking at how Starfield handles wide open areas on the planet, interiors, character rendering, and eventually outer space. For example, in an outdoor scene, we can see that the game has shadows from a great distance, which is crucial for retaining distant detail. This is one of the main issues we’ve identified with Halo Infinite, and it’s great to see that Starfield has a solution in place.

What can we learn from the Starfield revelation? Quite a lot – as John Linneman notes.

Starfield also appears to have a system that displays localized fog volume in valley crevices, which looks great. In general, the atmospheric rendering seems pretty robust, as we can see in this demo. What’s not clear to me yet is the sky system – it looks very promising, but due to the low bitrate of the trailer footage we had to watch it’s hard to tell if we’re dealing with a proper volumetric sky system or one simple skydome. Regardless, it delivers attractive results – we just have to see how dynamic it is in the final game.

Everything is then tied together through the terrain system – it’s likely that planetary surfaces and structures will be built using a combination of procedural generation and manually placed assets, which is a common approach these days. The terrain rendering itself is similar to previous Bethesda games, but pop-ins are kept to a minimum and detail can be seen far into the distance. While attractive, the rendering capabilities don’t push the envelope – which is understandable given the game’s large scale and long development time.

Inside, things are different – large-scale shadows that were low-resolution and grainy outdoors are clearly defined internally. This section evokes a mood not dissimilar to Doom 3, with direct light piercing the darkness while specular highlights play on the surfaces. Compared to Fallout 4, the jump in fidelity is significant as this game has rudimentary interior lighting and a distinct lack of texture and object detail.

This raises an interesting omission – the lack of reflections. In the original teaser trailer we noticed almost RT-like reflections, but there is no evidence of screen-to-space reflections in any gameplay sequence, let alone RT reflections. At best, we see simple cube maps. For a setting that’s flush with metallic surfaces, this strikes me as a little odd, and reflections in the screen area would go a long way towards improving overall picture cohesion.

Again, there are many positive elements. Weapons, for example, look fantastic. I’ve never been a fan of the designs in Fallout 4 – the modeling and animation work left me cold – but Starfield introduces weapons that look both stylish and powerful. Enemy animation is also much better in general. As an RPG, it still feels like draining a health bar rather than dealing direct damage, but the reactions are greatly improved. The only thing missing is per-object motion blur on weapons and enemies.

Fallout 4 characters in the creation screen look surprisingly similar to Starfield.

Character rendering has also improved significantly since Fallout 4, especially when looking past the character creation screens and instead focusing on actual in-game appearances. Subsurface scattering, which is absent from all scenes, could improve things even further, accurately reflecting how light interacts with the skin’s surface. It’s present on the ears in the footage we’ve seen, but it doesn’t apply to the rest of the skin, which overemphasizes the normal maps. Also, the tear duct geometry is a bit too glossy, picking up lights to the point where it almost appears to glow. Aside from those small points, however, there’s a big boost in animation quality. Conversations in Fallout 4 featured stiff and even ugly animations, while Starfield looks much more elegant in comparison.

Starfield’s last major setting is outer space, and while we only got a glimpse of it, the effects like laser beams and explosions are promising – certainly an improvement over the low-resolution smoke of landing on a planet. The big question I have about space travel isn’t so much about looks as it is about possibilities – I’d like to see ship management intervene in travel. Imagine stepping out of the captain’s chair to explore the ship while managing resources and systems. I think this could make the journey between planets more exciting and challenging. However, it’s unclear if this is an option or if the player simply becomes the ship while flying.

There are a couple of other technical criticisms worth noting, and that’s the game’s indirect lighting. This has become a major focus in recent years and is key to realistic rendering – simulating the phenomenon of photons bouncing off a surface and indirectly illuminating another area. The problem right now is that areas that aren’t directly lit in Starfield have a uniform grayish color that doesn’t match the expected lighting results. Raytrace Global Illumination would work well here, but has a high performance penalty. An offline-baked solution using probes might also work, but with so many planets, the GI data would probably be far too large. This is a difficult problem to solve when making a game of this scale.

The game’s interior offers a notable improvement over previous Bethesda games, but could still benefit from improved GI and reflections.

Then there’s performance. The trailer footage we have has been encoded in a 30fps container, which limits the amount of analysis we can perform. However, there still seem to be issues worth reporting, namely the fact that all gameplay captures have significant performance issues, regularly dropping below 30fps. That’s not unusual for a game at this stage in development, but Bethesda’s track record of highly variable launch performance on console gives me pause. It’s the most noticeable flaw in the presentation and I hope the performance will improve by launch, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The other aspect I’m curious about relates to cities – in previous Bethesda releases, larger cities were typically divided by loading screens, while smaller cities were seamless. So can you land on a planet and go to a big city with no loading screens? I hope we will find out soon.

While I have my nitpicks, Starfield is still shaping up to be the most compelling Bethesda game yet – most of the uglier bits that plagued Fallouts 4 and 76 have been eliminated and we have some nice environments to explore instead. Starfield also features structures and scale unlike anything they have built in the past. The whole 1000 Planets feature seemed ridiculous at first, but you can imagine that key planets were built and carefully designed while being able to rely more heavily on procedural generation to do the rest. If the gameplay structure supports it properly, it could be intriguing. Even as someone who’s largely burned out on open-world games, I’m very intrigued by Starfield.

All of this means Starfield will be a difficult game to analyze when it releases next year – but I look forward to the challenge.

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