Given how vast Starfield is as a game and how expansive of an experience it offers, it’s no surprise that it takes cues from several games in different ways, from the emphasis it places on role playing and player freedom, like previous Bethesda Game Studios titles, to its focus on space travel and resource gathering, which bears more than a passing resemblance to No Man’s Sky, to even its power allocation system for spaceships, which is quite similar to FTL: Faster Than Light. And of course, as a sci-fi RPG set in space, it also invites obvious comparisons with BioWare’s Mass Effect series.
For RPGs as a whole, the original Mass Effect trilogy is a benchmark that games are going to continue to be judged against for a long, long time to come, but that’s doubly true if the game in question is a space-faring sci-fi affair. That, of course, is down to the fact that BioWare’s seminal series captured the hearts and minds of the masses with its rich, evocative, memorable interstellar setting in a way that many few games have ever managed to do. But Starfield, as a massive AAA game developed by one of the most prestigious developers in the industry, is going for that crown, whether it was intended to or not- so how exactly does it compare?
Before getting into that, it is, of course, important to note that both are going for very different brands of space sci-fi. Mass Effect, for instance, is more of a space opera than anything else. With its multiple alien races and its high-concept vision of a distant future and all of its technological advancements, it’s much closer to the likes of Star Wars or Star Trek than something like Starfield. That’s because Bethesda’s RPG adopts a much more grounded approach. Its NASApunk aesthetic portrays a future where humanity has obviously taken radical leaps in technological advancements, but all of it is grounded in a function over form aesthetic that makes things look much closer to our actual reality, even in the flashier and more extravagant places like New Atlantis and Neon.
As such, the answer to the question of who does space sci-fi better between Starfield and Mass Effect is one that will obviously vary depending on which of those two styles you prefer. If what you’re looking for is an aesthetic that feels more rooted in reality, Starfield probably takes the cake. Bethesda’s RPG is crammed full of granular, little details that many probably won’t even notice, even after spending dozens of hours with the game. For instance, it’s constantly juggling unique simulations for every planet’s orbit, rotations, gravity, weather systems, and what have you to, and it actually abides by those roles, whether that’s on a narrative level or in terms of gameplay mechanics. For example, in zero-g environments, when you shoot a gun, the recoil pushes you back. When you’re inside your ship, you can see each individual dial and button and lever. It’s an aesthetic that puts a great deal of stock into attention to detail.
If, however, you’re less concerned about that level of detail and are instead looking for a rich and wildly inventive sci-fi setting, it’s hard to beat Mass Effect. Don’t get me wrong, Starfield’s Settled Systems are an excellent setting, and in typical Bethesda fashion, the game is absolutely brimming with captivating lore that you can pour endless of hours into. But while the game’s more grounded take on a space-faring story is a big strength in one respect, in this particular sense, it’s an automatic weakness. Because yes, it’s great to see the different environments and cultures of places like Neon and Akila City and New Atlantis- but all of it is still about humans, at the end of the day, even when the story does go to some pretty far-out places (which it does, but that’s obviously better left unspoiled).
Mass Effect, on the other hand, isn’t bound by that. Mass Effect’s galaxy is full of multiple alien species, each with entirely different histories and cultures and visual designs, and interacting with these species, learning more about how they operate, diving deep into their histories and conflicts- the way BioWare’s trilogy accomplishes all of that is unrivaled in the medium. Mass Effect’s setting feels like a rich tapestry where there’s something wildly imaginative and wondrous to see and experience around every corner, both in terms of the visual and art design, and the lore and narrative.
But though it’s hard to pick a clear winner between Mass Effect and Starfield’s space sci-fi settings on account of how different they are in tone and aesthetic, when it comes to how the gameplay experience utilizes those settings, it’s admittedly difficult to past Starfield. Both are, of course, excellent gameplay experiences, and once again, both are going for very different styles- but here, those different styles are what make it so easy to pick Starfield. Mass Effect’s tight cover shooting (especially in 2 and 3) and captivating choice and consequence mechanics deserve all the praise in the world, yes, but it’s hard for any game to compete with the ambition and scale of Starfield. And because of the breadth of that gameplay experience, it’s able to leverage its space sci-fi setting much better than Mass Effect.
BioWare’s trilogy is a much more linear and story-driven affair, whereas Starfield, like all BGS RPGs, focuses squarely on crafting a gameplay sandbox and then granting players maximum agency in it. In a game with a space setting, there are certain things that you’re likely going to want to do, like flying your own ship or playing around with gravity, and Starfield lets you do all of that, and then so much more- including building your own ship, module by module, using a toolset that offers incredible levels of freedom and flexibility.
Admittedly, the space-faring experience in Starfield can be improved in some fundamental ways. The lack of seamlessness in its open world setting, for instance, is something that’s drawn its fair share of criticism, and it’s not hard to see just how much the experience could be improved even further if you could manually land your ship on planets or fly it into space, rather than having to do so through a menu. Meanwhile, land exploration in Starfield also suffers due to their being no vehicles or rovers or anything of the sort- as opposed to the Mako in Mass Effect 1 (or even the Hammerhead in Mass Effect 2’s Firewalk DLC). And yet, even so, even in its current form, thanks to the sheer scale, depth, and complexity of the experience on offer, and how it uses that to actually do something with its space setting on a mechanical level, Starfield comes out on top, almost by default.
Whether or not Starfield will be able to reach the upper echelons of space sci-fi settings in games the way Mass Effect has been able to do is something we’re obviously not going to find out anytime soon. The Bethesda RPG is barely a few days old right now, and it’s going to take some time for things to settle down and for the game’s legacy to start becoming clearer. It’s undeniable that getting to Mass Effect’s level in this particular area is no child’s play – it’s one of the most beloved and richly built sci-fi settings in gaming history, after all – but if there’s one developer that can deliver something on that level, it’s got to be Bethesda Game Studios. And though we can’t yet say with absolute surety if Starfield is on that level, we can, at the very least, say without a shadow of doubt that it comes pretty damn close.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.