The Starfield no-planets run: space pirate Mary Read is born

You may have seen that Alice Bee has started a “land on every planet” run of Bethesda’s Starfield. By total coincidence – I promise you it’s accidental, I was so pleased – I’ve been working on a “land on no planets” run of Starfield. The reasoning for this is as follows: people say that outer space is the worst part of the game, because it’s just an irritating interval between the maps where the majority of quests, loot, intrigues, etc are found. It’s a fast travel loading screen you can fly about in. But what if you double-down on the space stuff?

An image of a player character called Mary Read in Starfield, wearing a spacesuit and holding a shotgun.
Mary Read, in all her Level 6 glory. | Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda

What if you never descend from orbit, not even to repair, modify or upgrade your ship and offload inventory? What if, rather than buying new ships or building them, you progress exclusively by boarding other captains and making off with ship and cargo? How well does Starfield scrub up as a thoroughbred space sim that leans towards bloodthirsty piracy? Here to answer these questions is Mary Read, my custom character and budding astral freebooter. She’s named for her distant ancestor, the legendary 18th century English buccaneer Mary Read. She’s had a crack at life on shore, setting foot most recently on Earth’s Moon, but from this point on, her fate and fortune lies amid the stars. Arrr!

Was Starfield worth the wait? Liam and Alice B discuss this question – and more – in the video above.Watch on YouTube

Leaving Luna to the Spacers who prowl its mech graveyards, I head to orbit in my barely upgraded Frontier – the game’s starting vessel – and set out to wreak terror upon the Sol system. My voyage clearly has the blessing of the gods of the Seven Seas, for I immediately stumble on a drifting Star Parcel freighter off the shoulder of Pluto. The freighter captain begs me to assist with an important delivery, and after badgering them into paying some compensation upfront, I agree. Even as the funds transfer, I’m already circling behind the other ship and opening my targeting computer to perform a surprise attack on their Graviton drive, my fingers itching in anticipation of a bloody boarding action. Haha, this will be like taking candy from a ba-GREAT JENNY’S TEACUP!

An image of a freighter shooting rockets at the player's spaceship in Starfield.
Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda

The freighter reacts to my playful bit of skyway robbery with a point-blank fusillade of missiles and lasers. I wobble into some kind of attack vector and just about manage to blast the “helpless” ship apart before it chews through my last percentage point of hull. Blow me down, Bethesda, what have you been feeding your freighters? This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. I’ve played a hundred space sims and everybody knows that freighters are harmless – the gentle bison of the cosmic wilds, waiting to be pounced upon by the cavalier cowtippers of the space pirate community. Anyway, with the Star Parcel ship reduced to shrapnel, I’m forced to visit other planets in search of prey.

I head to Saturn, and immediately get into difficulties with the United Colonies security forces. A pack of Longsword ships make a beeline for my position. One hails me and demands that they let me escort them to meet some admiral or other. Hold on, this isn’t a routine cargo inspection. It feels like a quest of some kind, and who knows, I might end up getting fast-travelled to a planet if I accept. Fie! I weigh my chances against the UC’s sleek interceptors and decide to cut and run. The UC captains aren’t having any of that, and a few seconds later, my brave Frontier is flotsam. Starfield locks off fast travel when you’re in combat, by the way, so if you suspect an unwinnable dogfight is coming, try to beat a hasty retreat before any of those reticules turn red. (Update – fellow starfarer and RPS supporter zal points out that you can always Graviton jump out of there. It’s only normal rocket travel to other planets that’s forbidden during combat.)

The autosave reloads, the graceful sawblade of Saturn reappears, and I’m once again annihilated by ballistic rounds and lasers, this time without the courtesy of a preliminary hail. After a couple of reloads, I deduce that the game has autosaved after the outbreak of hostilities, dooming me to reappear and get my arse kicked indefinitely. Bless my binnacle, I’m caught in my very own Space Pirate’s Groundhog Day! Ah well, it at least makes for a nice background blooper reel while I talk you through some finer points of cosmic skulduggery.

An image of the player's ship exploding in Starfield.

An image of the player's ship exploding in Starfield.

An image of the player's ship exploding near Saturn in Starfield.

An image of three blue-white United Colonies ships in Starfield, floating in formation close to the player's craft.

Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda

Among the basic tricks a budding freebooter in Starfield must master is not accidentally wrecking a ship you’re trying to hijack. My understanding going in is that I need to engage close-up targeting mode (one of the early Tech unlocks), then target and disable my victim’s engines, so they can’t slip away when I try to dock with them, and also their Graviton drive, so they can’t warp out of the region altogether. But doing this without shredding the other craft proves fiddly.

The player targeting a spaceship's systems in Starfield.
Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda

This is partly because ships tend to move about when you fire rockets at them, so that your shots often strike components you’re not aiming at. And it’s partly because, gah, I don’t know. What am I missing? The game’s navigation and scanner HUDs are violently confusing. Each HUD plays some part in the process of locking onto ships and targeting their systems, but I keep mixing them up. In one HUD, clicking the right stick performs vital mid-combat hull repairs. In the other, it engages Photo Mode. It’s as though my ship were in the hands of two captains, one of whom is trying to make the cover of Time Magazine.

Having rolled back to the save before my infinite UC destruction loop, I experiment with reducing the power of my weapon systems, allowing for subtler ship surgery, but this just leads to me being outgunned. After watching Mary Read get voided a few more times, Starfield tries valiantly to meet me halfway by serving up another civilian vessel in need, the doughty UC Econohaul. Your helmsman clipped an asteroid, you say? Why certainly, I can assist with repairs. Let me just position myself behind you so I can transfer the parts and – oh whoops.

The player destroying a spaceship in Starfield.
Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda

The game also considerately feeds me a few inter-factional dust-ups where I can, in theory, pick a winner. At one point, I arrive in orbit to discover a battle underway between the UC and the ne’er-do-wells of the Crimson Fleet – my salty comrades-in-arms, except that true pirates have no allegiances. This is perfect! I’ll let them duke it out, then descend upon the survivor like the wrath of Blackbeard and, you know what, never mind.

An image of the player's ship exploding in Starfield.
Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda

There’s nothing for it. I’m going to have to resort to that most craven and dishonourable weapon of the enterprising Black Bart – the art of conversation. I’ve read somewhere that you can bully or trick other pilots into letting you dock with them, and start accepting a few hails and dipping my toe into a few quests, eyes peeled for a “lower arms and prepare to be boarded” option.

First on the menu is Dr Sohla Banglawala, a scientist I meet in a debris cloud somewhere, who sounds like a proper side character with a multi-stage questline. “It’s been a long time since I had company,” she sighs. I attempt to flirt my way aboard, but alas, my cunning overtures are met only with absent-minded requests for lithium and bad jokes about geologists. So I try to murder her in cold blood, and she escapes to hyperspace. Let’s do this properly next time, Dr Banglawala.

An image of the player talking to a side character, Dr Sohla Banglawala, in Starfield. The doctor is requesting geological samples.
Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda

Then I encounter a Settler Econohaul. The ship’s captain isn’t important enough to have a name, and the vessel is barely armed. But they prove astonishingly pugnacious when I try to shout them into submission, forcing me to make another attempt at ballistic sabotage and, yep, thar she blows. I probably should have put more points on Social at the outset, but then again, I can’t fly a spaceship with sheer force of charisma.

An image of the player in dialogue with an enemy ship captain in Starfield. The other captain is refusing to hand over their cargo.
Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda

The minutes and hours fly past like pieces of shattered hull. I’ve gained a couple of levels and amassed some ship parts by picking off small fry here and there, but my fond dreams of sallying through another vessel’s airlock with a cutlass between my teeth are fading fast. Am I doomed just to eke out my nautical career harvesting bits of blown-up space lorry? My pride has sunk lower than Davey Jones’ Locker, and I’m running out of local planets to prowl. Might as well go test the waters down Mercury way. Sail ho! Hmm, what do we have here, a UC Transpo.

I move in dutifully for the kill, and something occurs to me: what if I risk leaving the other ship’s Graviton drive intact, and just focus on nuking their engines, to minimise the chances of inadvertently destroying it? I’ve been operating on the principle that they’ll just jump to hyperspace if they’re given the chance. I mean, it’s what I’d do. It’s what a sensible person would do. But it occurs to me that Bethesda NPCs aren’t celebrated for being sensible.

OK, UC Transpo, let’s rid you of those engines – bang bang bang. Off they go! Now, which HUD mode am I supposed to be using again? Hang on, has that “Dock” prompt been there all along? Oh my god oh my god.

An image of the player's spaceship docking with a civilian vessel in Starfield.
Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda


With a yo ho ho and a sawn-off shotgun I’m finally aboard another ship, hooting and hollering down the corridors. Avast, ye bilge-sucking star plankton! Come back here and take your medicine, ye sons of biscuits. Look, please come back. I appreciate that you’re probably delivering teddy bears to an orphanage or something and that you’ve only got one popgun to share between you, but please – put up some kind of fight. I really need this.

An image of a player boarding a spaceship in Starfield, with a dead crew member in the foreground and another running down a hallway behind.
Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda

Having joyfully massacred a lot of innocent space truckers I slide behind the UC Transpo’s steering column, blood thundering in my temples, the foul, rum-spiced breath of my legendary ancestor whistling in my ears. The vessel is mine! I promptly cut my starting ship loose and plot a fresh course to Mars. I’m a real pirate, mum. Now to open the Hangar menu and consider my prize. Oh wow!

An image of a transport ship in the player's hangar menu in Starfield.
Image credit: RockPaperShotgun / Bethesda

It’s a piece of shit!

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