December 5, 2022

Starfield movie trailer reveals cool new technology - and old fears

Starfield movie trailer reveals cool new technology – and old fears

It’s fair to say that Starfield is one of the most anticipated games and it’s not hard to see why – for all its flaws, Bethesda has built its empire with massive open-world RPGs. There’s a reason games like Skyrim are still popular today – the meticulously designed worlds and sense of freedom appeal to the imagination. On paper, Starfield seems like the logical consequence, a game that extends beyond a single planet through the tributaries of space. I thought it would be fun to dive into Bethesda’s show and see what we can take away from the game – from the basics like image quality and performance to the overall approach to technology and design.

Let’s start with the resolution – the trailer is rendered in native 4K resolution but the footage varies in resolution. Interestingly, the gameplay sequences seem to lack any kind of refinement, so you get very sharp edges with alias visible throughout. Conversely, the more cinematic TAA footage is used in a similar way to Fallout 4, which should be more in line with what we’ll see in the final product.

Besides simple subtlety, we can get a sense of the development team’s design goals by looking at how Starfield deals with open areas on the planet, interior spaces, character rendering, and finally outer space. For example, in an outdoor scene, we can see that the game has long-range shaders, which is critical for preserving distant details. This is one of the main issues we identified with Halo Infinite and it’s great to see that Starfield has a solution in place.

What can we take away from the Starfield reveal? It’s okay – as John Lineman finds out.

Starfield also appears to feature a system that displays the volume of local mist within the canyon fissures, which looks pretty cool. Overall, the atmospheric rendering looks reasonably robust from what we can see in this demo. What I don’t understand yet is the sky system – it looks very promising but given the low bitrate of the trailers we had to look at, it’s hard to tell if we’re looking for a proper sky system or a simple sky dome. Regardless, it produces attractive results – we just need to see how dynamic it will be in the final.

Everything is tied together by the terrain system then – it’s possible that planet surfaces and structures are built using a combination of procedural generation and hand-placed assets, which is a common approach these days. The terrain presenting itself is similar to previous Bethesda games, but the popup is kept to a minimum and details are clear from the distance. While it’s attractive, the display features don’t push any limits – which is understandable given the game’s large size and long development time.

Inside, things are different – broad-based shades, once low-key and grainy outdoors, are now clearly defined internally. This section evokes a mood not unlike Doom 3, with direct lights piercing the darkness as flashlights play off the surfaces. Compared to Fallout 4, the jump in accuracy is significant, as that game features rudimentary interior lighting and a distinct lack of texture and object detail.

This raises one interesting omission – the lack of reflections. In the original trailer, we noticed almost RT-like reflections, but in every gameplay sequence there’s no evidence of screen space reflections, let alone RT reflections. At best, we see basic cube maps. For a setup that’s flush with metallic surfaces, this feels a little weird, and screen space reflections will go a long way to improving overall image coherence.

There are a lot of positive elements here, too. Weapons, for example, look great. I’ve never been a fan of the designs in Fallout 4 – the models and animations left me cold – but Starfield offers weapons that look elegant and powerful. Enemy animations are generally better too. As an RPG, it still feels like you’re draining the life bar more than directly causing damage, but the reactions are vastly improved. The only thing missing is motion blur of every object on weapons and enemies.


The Fallout 4 characters on the build screen look surprisingly similar to the Starfield characters.

Character rendering has also improved significantly since Fallout 4, especially when you look beyond character creation screens and focus instead on the actual in-game look. Subsurface scattering, absent in all scenes, can make things even better, showing precisely how light interacts with the skin’s surface. It’s on the ears in the shots we’ve seen, but it doesn’t apply to the rest of the skin which highlights the regular maps. Also, the geometry of the lacrimal duct is so luminous, catching lights that it almost appears to glow. In addition to these minor points, there is a huge boost to the quality of the animation. The conversations in Fallout 4 featured harsh and even ugly animations, while Starfield looks more elegant in comparison.

Starfield’s last major setup is outer space, and while we only take a short look, effects like laser blasts and bangs are promising — certainly a step up from low-res smoke when landing on a planet. The big question I ask regarding space travel isn’t about the visuals and more about the possibilities – I’d like to see ship management play a role in travel. Imagine rising from the captain’s chair to explore a ship, while managing both resources and systems. I think this could make the interplanetary journey more attractive and challenging. It is unclear whether or not this is an option, or whether the player simply “becomes” the ship in flight.

A few other technical criticisms worth noting as well are the game’s indirect lighting. This has become a major focus in recent years and is key to rendering realistic – simulating the phenomenon of photons bouncing off a surface and indirectly illuminating another area. The problem now is that areas that aren’t directly lit in the Starfield display a uniform gray that doesn’t match the lighting results you’d expect. Global ray-traced lighting would do well here, but it has a hefty performance cost. The baked solution can work offline using probes as well, but with so many planets the GI data is likely to be quite large. This is a difficult problem to solve when building a game of this size.


The game’s interiors offer a marked improvement over previous Bethesda games, but it can still benefit from improved GI and reflections.

Then there is the performance. Our trailers are encoded inside a 30fps container, which limits the amount of analysis we can perform. However, there still seem to be issues worth reporting on, which is the fact that all gameplay footage displays significant performance hiccups and regularly drops below 30fps. This isn’t unusual for a game at this point in development, but Bethesda’s record of extremely variable launch performance on console gives me pause. It’s the most noticeable flaw in the presentation and I hope performance will improve upon launch, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The other aspect I’m curious about has to do with cities – in previous Bethesda releases, larger cities were usually divided by loading screens while smaller cities were seamless. Can you land on a planet and make your way to a big city without loading screens? Hope we find out soon.

However, even though I have nitpicks, Starfield is still shaping up to be Bethesda’s most appealing game to date – most of the ugly parts that plagued Fallouts 4 and 76 have been stripped away and left with some beautiful environments to explore instead. Starfield also displays structures and size unlike anything they have built in the past. The entire ‘1,000 Planets’ feature seemed silly at first, but you can imagine that the major planets were carefully built and designed while they could rely more on procedural generation to handle the rest. If the gameplay structure properly supports this, it could be great. Even if you’re a pretty exhausted person in open world games, I’m very fascinated by Starfield.

All this means is that Starfield will be a difficult game to analyze when it releases next year – but I’m looking forward to the challenge.