Starfield has been out for over a month to a relatively mixed reception from players (though admittedly favourable reception from critics). One thing that was expected was for the technical state to be behind the rest of the industry, as is the norm for Bethesda games. To the studio’s credit, Starfield has easily been the most polished Bethesda-developed game ever, even if that bar isn’t very high. However, what was peculiar leading up to the game’s release were its PC specification requirements.
Bethesda games are known for not being incredibly efficient. Consistent performance with a modicum of stability always required hardware that leaned towards the higher end of the hardware spectrum at the time Still, no one would have really considered any of the studio’s games as technically demanding games, more just poorly performing games whose performance issues were offset by raw processing power. Regardless, it has only been relatively recently that some previously exceptional hardware has been leaning towards the low-end of PC gaming (RIP my 1080 Ti, you were incredibly faithful). Starfield is no different here, with the requirements listed below:
|OS||Windows 10 Build 19043||Windows 10/11 with updates|
|CPU||Ryzen 5 2600X or i7-6800K||Ryzen 5 3600X or i5-10600K|
|GPU||Radeon RX 5700 or GeForce 1070 Ti||Radeon RX 6800XT or GeForce RTX 2080|
|Storage||125GB SSD||125GB SSD|
The time was here. My old faithful PC that I originally built in 2017 was finally encroaching on minimum specifications for games. I was in the process of acquiring parts for a new PC so I wasn’t extremely worried, but what I wasn’t expecting was to find a PC version of a game released in 2023 that is missing basic features and, when looked at as a whole package, does not run nearly as well as it should.
We will start from the top. Starfield is a game that doesn’t need exceedingly high framerates to be enjoyed. It’s perfectly playable at 30fps and above, but what does matter is the stability of the game. One of Starfield’s more demanding areas is its first core city, New Atlantis. The larger draw distance and scope of the city coupled with the dense crowds mean that Starfield reaches its own limits relatively quickly and so this will most likely be where the game runs at its worst for a lot of players. This area is especially bad on PC as the PC version lacks any form of frame cap which is a basic function that most PC games ship with. Wildly inconsistent framerates can be incredibly annoying, so seeing my new PC go from 100+ fps to 50 fps in New Atlantis is jarring. If I were able to set a frame cap it could help alleviate the woes from this wildly consistent inconsistency in framerate, as the dip from 60fps to 50fps is much less harsh than from 100fps to 50fps. With that brief view out of the way, let’s take a look at the graphics options available:
- Borderless Full Screen – On/Off
- Window Size
- Select Monitor
- Dynamic Resolution* – On/Off
- Render Resolution Scale – 50% to 100%
- *Requires Upscaling to be enabled
- Graphics Preset – Low/Medium/High/Ultra
- Shadow Quality – Low/Medium/High/Ultra
- Indirect Lighting – Low/Medium/High/Ultra
- Reflections – Low/Medium/High
- Particle Quality – Low/Medium/High
- Volumetric Lighting – Low/Medium/High/Ultra
- Crowd Density – Low/Medium/High
- Motion Blur – Off/Low/Medium/High
- GTAO Quality – Low/Medium/High/Ultra
- Grass Quality – Low/Medium/High/Ultra
- Contact Shadows – Low/Medium/High/Ultra
- VSync – On/Off
- Upscaling – CAS/FSR2
- Sharpening – 50% to 100%
- Enable VRS – On/Off
- Film Grain Intensity – 0.00 to 1.00
- Enable Depth of Field – On/Off
Notice a few things missing there? For starters, there is the aforementioned lack of a frame cap, which is an issue in and of itself, but there is a much larger omission in this list – a texture quality setting. That’s right, one of the most basic settings in a PC game is completely gone. In fact, all settings that govern texture and model quality are completely missing. Even an Anisotropic Filtering option is completely missing. Given how much of an impact this can have on performance, this is alarmingly dumb.
What is nice to know, however, is that the settings that are available to change make somewhat of an impact both in terms of performance and visuals, so even without any form of texture or model quality setting you can still have your game looking spick and span. I’ll list what graphics settings have the most impact on performance, though do bear in mind that some of the performance impact is situational, like the Grass Quality.
Starfield Graphics Performance Impact
|Setting||Performance Cost||Visual Importance|
|Shadow Quality||Extremely High||Moderate-High|
|Indirect Lighting||Moderate||Low-Extremely High (depending on the setting)|
|Volumetric Lighting||Extremely High||Moderate|
|Crowd Density||Low-Moderate||Extremely High|
|Grass Quality||Low-Extremely High (depending on environment)||High|
Starfield definitely hinges all its laurels, visually speaking, on its lighting. Todd Howard’s beloved new Global Illumination (a lighting technique that has been in use for almost a decade, maybe even longer, Todd) is where a lot of the game’s performance lies but it’s clear the other settings that play an important role in the Starfield experience can be quite expensive too. Things like Grass Quality and Crowd Density, which can feel like the make or break for the experience for some, are potentially large contributing factors to where your performance may go when playing Starfield on PC.
With all that said, I ran through the game with the Ultra preset on but with CAS/FSR2 turned off, so no upscaling, no motion blur (because it makes no difference to performance and looks terrible), with just my monitor’s native resolution of 2560×1080 (1080p ultrawide). Running the game with an ultrawide resolution also raised another issue I have with this game. The HUD is bound to the edges of the monitor, which means that getting the important information requires you to look towards the extreme edges of an ultrawide. It’s fine if people want to play with that, but not having the option to bring the HUD bounds into a 16:9 ratio while the game continues to be rendered in the extra space of the 21:9 display. A good PC port will factor this in and allow you to modify the HUD bounds. Destiny 2 does it, even Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon pins the HUD to a 16:9 ratio so the critical information needed for playing that game isn’t a pain to read. If FromSoftware can get this right, Bethesda really has no excuse.
Anyways, on to the actual benchmarks of the game. I set up a script that walked my character from the New Atlantis spaceport to the New Atlantis Transit (NAT) to help make the game behave as consistently as possible. I ran this script on a loop for quite a while to ensure that any outlier or performance anomalies were not the make or break for a benchmark. Here are the results:
I’m not going to lie, seeing that my PC struggled to stay at or above 60 fps while at 1080p UW is very disappointing. I understand that a lot of the performance constraints within New Atlantis are CPU-bound, but if a 7950X that is at 5.5GHz across all cores cannot keep up, then the claim that the game is well-optimised can hardly be made. I won’t deny that this is the best that Bethesda could do given the time constraints that a AAA developer would be subject to, but claiming anything beyond that is just doing everyone a disservice.
Todd Howard has previously claimed that people’s PCs aren’t powerful enough to run Starfield the way they would like, and to an extent, I do agree with him. There are some people on aging or aged hardware, but even with the small room for upgrades that having a 3080 Ti leaves me with, my PC still far exceeds the recommended specifications for the game. It has far more memory at notably higher speeds (the recommended spec has DDR4), and a CPU that far exceeds the recommendation, yet with everything set to the highest setting I could only achieve an average of 59.26fps. Admittedly, everything set to the max is not what I play with, as I found some of the more expensive settings could be turned down a little and made a big impact on my performance when adjusted.
- CPU – AMD Ryzen 9 7950X
- Motherboard – ASUS TUF Gaming X670E-Plus Wifi
- Cooling – EKWB AIO Liquid CPU Cooler 240mm D-RGB
- Memory – G.Skill Trident Z5 RGB 64GB (2x32GB) CL32 DDR5-6000
- GPU – MSI GeForce RTX 3080 Ti GAMING X TRIO 12GB (Driver ver. 537.42)
- Storage – Samsung 970 Evo Plus 500GB (OS), Kingston NV2 4TB (game install)
- PSU – be quiet! Straight Power 11 Gold Modular 1000W
- OS – Windows 10 Home (Build ver. 19045.3448)
Either way, I didn’t expect Starfield to truly capitalise on 16 cores/32 threads as no games really use that many cores/threads. The only game that I have played which uses them all is Star Citizen, but that is also barely a game. Still, the IPCs (instructions per clock) on the 7950X are very good, so if this could not keep up then I am perplexed at what should reasonably be able to do so. What this ended up meaning is I tried my best to not be in the cities (especially New Atlantis) too much. Some of the other cities like Akila City aren’t too bad, but I found myself engaged with more of the procedurally generated content of the game (aka the worst part of it) because it had me in places that felt like were actually using the available hardware.
What is also very important to note is the NVIDIA drivers for the game. I am well aware that AMD GPUs have been reportedly rushing this game, and NVIDIA fans (as well as the company) will spin a story about how AMD paid Bethesda to ruin NVIDIA GPU performance in this game. This is just a false claim, and the day one Starfield NVIDIA drivers seemingly lacked any actual optimisations for the game. Usually, the opposite is true. NVIDIA will pay developers sums of money to include technology that is purpose-built to make AMD GPUs run poorly (Borderlands 2’s PhysX, Crysis 2’s tessellated ocean that is constantly loaded underneath the map, The Witcher 3’s GameWorks inclusion). Starfield’s optimisation issues lie with Bethesda, and not AMD. Just look at Lies of P, which is another recent AMD-sponsored title and it runs immaculately. Yes, they are entirely different rendering environments and techniques, but it goes to show that AMD sponsoring a game is often best as it means that optimisations will be made for the console space that trickle down to PC (seriously I can play Lies of P at 60fps on the Steam Deck, it rules).
Ultimately, Starfield is by far Bethesda’s most performant, and polished work yet. People, myself included, were expecting another case of the ‘Bethesda experience’ where the game barely runs properly and is rife with bugs and issues. Unlike Fallout 4, Starfield feels like Bethesda managing to somewhat keep up with the rest of the industry. The lighting is good, as are the textures and materials, and other techniques employed do a great job of making a game that doesn’t feel a generation or so behind. It’s a shame that with all these improvements, Bethesda has made such basic mistakes with its PC version of the game and continued the developer’s trend of having notably inefficient games.