Bethesda Game Studios’ Starfield releases on September 6th for Xbox Series X/S and PC, and has gone from its first new IP in over 25 years to Microsoft’s biggest new release in the last few years. Its magnitude and sheer scale are already impressive. The real question is: How does it stack up to The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, previously the benchmark for mainstream open-world RPGs for many years and Bethesda’s most successful title to date?
What are the major differences between the two, especially given how time, technology and development tools have evolved? Let’s go over 15 of them here.
Sci-fi vs Medieval Fantasy
While The Elder Scrolls series is high fantasy, with magic and mythology clashing with rudimentary technology, Starfield is a space sci-fi title. Players will venture across the deepest reaches of space, cataloguing different creatures and potentially meeting alien species, using futuristic technology like faster-than-light travel and spaceships. Bethesda’s Todd Howard has referred to Starfield as “Skyrim in space”, and promises “a bit more hardcore of a role-playing game than we’ve done.”
Joining Constellation vs Escaping Execution
How the player starts in both worlds is a different matter entirely. Starfield sees the player discovering an alien artifact, and then being contacted by Constellation to fulfill their desire to explore the stars. More artifacts possibly await, and you’re on a journey to learn about the universe. By comparison, in Skyrim…well, you’re finally awake and whatnot, en route to execution before Alduin the World Eater shows up and ruins everything. Cue joining the Imperials or Stormcloaks (or neither), becoming the Dragonborn, etc.
Boost Pack vs Mounts
Your spaceship is your main means of transport from planet to planet in Starfield, but the actual traversal is on foot. Howard confirmed that there are no land-based mounts or vehicles to get around the planets, but insists that the Boost Pack was a valid alternative. By comparison, Skyrim gives you mounts like horses (and eventually dragons) to traverse the region and potentially climb mountains.
Over 1000 Plants vs One Province
When it was first released many moons ago, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim was praised as one of the biggest game worlds in content, despite only taking place in a single province of Tamriel. By comparison, Starfield gives you over 1000 planets to explore, with a catch. Even though several will have different activities and species, about 90 percent are lifeless. Some also don’t have any real purpose, but you can land on them and look around, which is neat.
Procedural Generation vs Hand-Crafted
Bethesda has spoken quite a bit about using procedural generation to craft Starfield’s planets, but this doesn’t mean they’re fully randomized a la No Man’s Sky. Some individual areas are handcrafted and deliberately placed, and you can expect cities and the like to follow suit. By comparison, almost everything in Skyrim is handcrafted, from the dungeons to the locations. There is some randomly generated content like the Radiant Quests, and that will likely pop up in Starfield as well.
While exploring different planets in Starfield, you encounter various animal species, some hostile and others apathetic. Even if you choose to observe, there’s a reward for photographing and cataloguing creatures. Such a thing isn’t possible in Skyrim, though it’s still very much possible to hunt things depending on the need.
Character Creation Options
Remember the days of endlessly mulling over creating your character in Skyrim? It’s probably going to happen again in Starfield. Along with adjusting body type, skin tone, build and so on, new options include walk style and expanded face customization. Then again, Skyrim did have different races on offer for even more freedom, so it should be interesting to see how extensively the two stack up to each other.
Backgrounds vs Race Skills
Speaking of Skyrim’s races, each offered different starting bonuses, like the Nord having higher starting stats in Speech, One-Handed, Light Armor, Smithing, Block and Two-Handed. They also had Battle Cry to cause enemies to flee and 50 percent Frost Resistance. By comparison, Starfield offers Backgrounds like Explorer, Long Hauler, Bounty Hunter, Chef, etc.
These offer a wider range of starting Skills, like the Cyber Runner specializing in Stealth, Theft and Security, while the Explorer is about dealing more damage with Laser weapons, Astrodynamics and Surveying. Each game leans into role-playing a specific character befitting their Skill systems, so it’s not a 1:1 comparison.
However, one thing Starfield has that Skyrim doesn’t is Traits. These offer unique starting bonuses, which can help and hinder in different ways. For example, choosing Introvert means consuming less oxygen alone but more when traveling with companions. Another one causes the Adoring Fan from Oblivion to appear as he becomes a crew member (though it seems he can be killed, which is another use for those lifeless planets).
Skills and Differences in Upgrading
Both games feature skills, and there is a bit of crossover between how they’re leveled. Skyrim has 18 skills spread across three categories, and using them in their intended ways – like crafting gear for Smithing – will level them up. You then access perks which provide bonuses as that Skill stat becomes higher. You can also meet Trainers, complete quests and gather Skill Books to raise a Skill’s stat.
As for Starfield, you level up and gain a Skill Point to unlock a Skill. Alternatively, you can increase an existing Skill’s rank for better bonuses. However, to unlock further ranks of Skills, you must complete challenges. For instance, the Intimidation Skill’s challenge requires intimidating five people successfully for Rank 2, 25 for Rank 3 and 50 for Rank 4. The limited amount of Skill Points also seemingly means that you can’t max out every single Skill in the game, forcing you to make some choices.
Both games offer first and third-person combat, and while Starfield does have melee combat elements, it’s more of a shooter at heart. You have a variety of weaponry, from pistols and rifles to magnetic weapons and lasers, while also being able to fly around with the Boost Pack. Zero gravity environments also impact your movement in combat, as weapon recoil can push you back.
Compared to Skyrim, which leans more into hack and slash, Shouts, spell casting and whatnot, it’s a different flavor entirely. Nevertheless, you may find melee weapons and even psychic powers which can mimic the Elder Scrolls feel in some ways.
Creation Engine 2
Skyrim runs on the Creation Engine, while Starfield is on Creation Engine 2. The numbers would make you think they’re completely different, but not quite (which is a separate discussion on game engines). Nevertheless, Bethesda has made numerous improvements over the years, with AI physics and visuals in Starfield being superior to its previous titles. It also uses Havok Engine for character animations, making them look more natural.
Outposts vs Homesteads
Base building is a major feature in Fallout 4 and Fallout 76, and Starfield embraces that by letting you create outposts. After scanning the area, you can start the process of building, zooming out to an overhead camera to make things easier. Once power and other facilities are available, you can assign different characters to research and even act as guards.
By comparison, Skyrim has five pre-made houses to purchase in the base game, while Hearthfire, its second paid DLC, lets you build and manage a homestead with stewards, bards and whatnot. You can have up to three homesteads, while Starfield should theoretically allow for an outpost on every planet.
Unfortunately, Starfield won’t have fishing, confirmed Todd Howard. It could arrive later, though, since The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim also launched without fishing. It was later released in the Creation Club and for Legendary Edition owners for free. You could angle more than 20 different kinds of fish and keep them in an aquarium or cook them.
Main Quest Length
Bethesda’s games are generally known for their replay value. Even without mods, there is usually a lot of optional side content. Take the base version of Skyrim, whose story is about 30 to 35 hours to complete but where a completionist run can take over 200 hours (not factoring in mods).
In terms of story, Starfield promises to be 20 percent bigger, which means 36 to 42 hours, but arguably a lot more to do in terms of optional content with ship customization, planetary exploration etc. Even without mods, players will likely have a different experience just from rerolling a new character thanks to Traits, Backgrounds and how Skills are handled.