The Outer Worlds Review: It’s Fun Until it’s Not

I think everyone was expecting a lot out of this game. I mean, the marketing didn’t pull any punches at all. Following the failure of Fallout 76, Obsidian comes along with this game and markets it as being made by “Fallout’s original creators” which, to say the least, has unspoken implications. For a long time it felt as though Bethesda had a monopoly on the mainstream action RPG genre because, although plenty of other types of role playing games had been released over the years, we can’t pretend that everyone in the world is a nerd who enjoys CRPG’s like me. And sure, the Witcher 3 exists, but despite that game being so popular and talked about, you’ll still find much more discussion surrounding Bethesda titles. So, to be honest, I was just thankful someone else would be making a modern, mainstream action RPG, and the fact that it just so happened to be Obsidian was a big plus. All I wanted to know was how much would they innovate? How much fresh air would they breathe in this somewhat outdated form of RPG? And what would they do to convince us the Outer Worlds is unique compared to it’s competition?

The answer was nothing.

As much as a negative plummet that may feel for the start of a review, it is true. The Outer Worlds, for all it’s gravitas in it’s marketing, feels very generic. It follows the modern action RPG formula to the letter and, as far as innovative and creative design decisions go, there really isn’t any. If you’ve played Fallout 3, New Vegas, Oblivion, Skyrim, or any other modern action RPG you will already be intimately familiar with the skill progression, perk progression, story structure, DLC integration and so on, and so forth, of the Outer Worlds. So for a game that boasted that “Fallout’s original creators” were back, it’s honestly surprising it had nothing to follow up with. But most of all, it’s disappointing. And, perhaps for the first time in a long time, I find myself attributing the decayed hype for this game to the decisions made by the developers themselves for this marketing rather than any unrealistic expectations set by fans (excluding those who wanted this game to be Fallout New Vegas in space).

The thing is that, disappointing as this is, the game isn’t actually bad. The plot goes like this: You are a cryogenically frozen human aboard an abandoned colony ship who is awakened by a mad scientist and told you are going to help him rid the Halcyon system of the Board – the dystopian corporate government that rules with absolute authority and left you to be abandoned in space forever upon that ship before you were rescued. You soon become a captain of your own spaceship and travel the system amassing a small crew. In a Star Trek-like manner, you take your crew on adventures to other worlds to solve problems and discover new things. The game ends with you either bringing the Board down with your mad scientist friend or siding with the board to achieve… Something…

Okay. The Board doesn’t really make sense. The colony is starving to death and food is becoming harder and harder to grow, with absolutely nothing coming from Earth because the planet has gone silent and left the Halcyon them in the dark. Their plan is thusly to cryogenically freeze themselves for, like, a really, really long time and then wake up when things are better and their workers have fixed stuff. The problem is that this plan isn’t sustainable. Well, maybe for a couple of rich dictators it could be, but not for a massive company. Wouldn’t they go bankrupt with all their CEO’s sleeping for hundreds of years? The hierarchy of their companies would be destroyed by new generations of politicians that they left in control of workers they have long mistreated. I mean, even their loyal subservient followers have had their soul, hopes and dreams sucked out of them by this depressing way of life to the point where I don’t realistically believe they could bring about the creative changes needed to keep the system alive.

And the more you think of it, the less the Board feels like a company. If you replaced “The Board” with [generic authoritarian government] and replaced their “employees” with “slaves“, the story would probably continue more or less the same. I think a major contributor to this is the fact that, rather than being cunning and cut-throat, the Board is highly militarised and aggressive. Surely if you’re making a game about the dangers of corporate monopolies in a dystopian future, the Board should outwardly appear like the best thing since sliced bread, only for the rotten underbelly to show towards the end of the second act? Maybe then, instead of armed guards in huge armour patrolling the streets, the player instead pitted against a secret police – Gestapo style – just to add to that sense of intrigue and resentment. The Board potentially having good PR would also give the player a reason to side with them beyond the reason of them simply wanting to do an evil playthrough, since there is no incentive to do so otherwise.

All this to say that this game isn’t very immersive in part due to the story pertaining entirely to an uninteresting, generic and vague main villain. This game isn’t a AAA game either so it’s not as though this is a Skyrim where you can ignore the poorly developed story in favour of doing your own thing. I mean you can, to an extent, since there are interesting side quests to be had pertaining to factions like Sublight, the Ground Breaker and some weirdoes in Byzantium, but you won’t get a big, distracting open world experience. The way this game works is that you travel from planet to planet and each one has a mini area you can explore at your own pace and in your own time, but you won’t find the same amount of depth in the locations unless you are visiting them alongside a relevant NPC or for questing purposes. For me this is fine because I always enjoy having an in-game reason to explore, but I realise there are others who want to be free from the very start of the game and that isn’t always the case in the Outer Worlds when coming upon new locations. However this is only a flaw if what you want is to be free from the beginning, since the game is very clearly designed and structured to be played in a way that is contradictory to that. It wants you to earn new locations by doing quests to unlock them. Again, for me this is fine but I can understand why others might not like it. That said you can unlock new areas very quickly in the early game by playing both sides of the story and accepting quests from your goodie-two-shoes scientist friend, and the moustache twirling board at the same time.

But if there is one place the Outer Worlds shines it is in the dialogue. Almost every conversation in the game has a skill check in it, and no that doesn’t just mean you need “speech 25 to arbitrarily pass this check”, but you often need scientific knowledge, stealth, temperament, or skills with weapons to obtain certain information from characters. It ensures that your character can progress through conversations in an interesting way without them being the cliché smooth talker that I think we’ve all crafted in an RPG at one time or another. On top of that the dialogue is actually good and, in the case of your crew, actually very well acted. What’s more is that companions will often tune in during conversation. No, I don’t mean like in Fallout 4 where they say a singular line of approval or disapproval about an opinion your character expressed, I mean they actually join in. In some cases a two-way conversation becomes a three-way one when a companion can help – This one time I asked if Parvati, my engineer, would do good-cop/bad-cop routine with me when we were interrogating a murder suspect and it was really fun. While we are still a fearfully long way from having NPC’s interacting with each other outside the Player’s involvement in a meaningful way, this is a very big step in the right direction that makes interacting with NPC’s feel a tad more real. Companions aren’t just blank slates that have only and will ever only talk to you anymore, they actually try to involve themselves in a way that often (if not always) matters.

As far as action goes in this action RPG, it is okay. Not fundamentally bad and not great either, it’s simply serviceable. I think the lack of weapons in the game is the culprit here, with the game reusing many weapons as upgraded versions of themselves, rather than opting for a more diverse set of them. It makes the base weapons of the game feel a bit lacklustre, especially as the weapon and armour upgrade system is as simple as paying to have more damage or resistance until you can no longer afford it or out level the equipment so that you need to pick new stuff. As a result you don’t get attached to a specific loadout or playstyle even if you’re exclusively running one set of weapons for the whole game. However the inclusion of science weapons does alleviate this a little; These are a weapons with unique effects like the the self explanatory shrink ray, all of which are very fun to use. I forget the name, but there’s this one heavy weapon that fires a big blob of goo over enemies that causes them to float in the air as gravity no longer applies to them. Some are placed in relatively obvious areas, while others a harder to find. There is a quest associated with them that I think does wonders for the otherwise dull combat loop. The fact the damage of these weapons is tied to your science skill rather than your combat skills also gives you incentive not to put all your eggs into one basket while levelling up. That said, using tactical time dilation, a time-slowing effect that allows you to inflict status effects upon enemies like blinding, knockdown or stunning, adds a surprising amount more depth to the combat, but I’ve found only gets truly fun if you’re willing to invest a lot of perks into upgrading it. It’s obviously inspired by Fallout’s VATs system, but uses some of the status effects you’d have seen in the classic games to make things more interesting that simply crippling an enemy for a short while before you land the killing blow. Resultingly, it’s a great tool to use in some of the boss fights and against high level enemies. Also… Some of the ragdoll effects are funny.

After all this praise, you’re probably wondering why the combat is only “okay” and not “good”. A lot of it has to do with where and when combat occurs. 90% of overworld enemies are standing in the middle of roads for absolutely no reason at all and attack on sight. The environment is almost always flat and contains little to no interesting features to utilise other than a few boxes for cover. And since the laughably dumb AI almost never utilises this cover themselves, it makes combat very one sided for you and your party. Even interior cells have a distinct lack of verticality or interesting set pieces. Apart from the finale, set in a prison facility, I wouldn’t say that the environment ever influenced how I fought – That is unless you discount cheesing the game by running through a doorway that large enemies melee enemies cannot follow through. My conclusion is that although the core mechanics are there to make combat feel fun, you’re very rarely ever in a location or scenario to get creative or experimental. Resultingly every encounter in the game, with the exception of bosses and some DLC enemies, blurs together into a generic mush.

Also there is DLC for this game:

  1. Peril on Gorgon: This DLC starts with you getting a box containing a severed arm, followed by an invitation to a big stately manor. You end up exploring the asteroid called Gorgon and must unravel the mystery of how Marauders came to be. In the base game Marauders were just a copy pasted enemy with no depth at all, akin to Skyrim’s bandits or Fallout’s raiders, but this DLC attempts to give these enemies an interesting reason for being the way they are; violent and unreasonable. It’s a cool idea and set in a cool location, but the story just isn’t that good. Throughout the DLC you uncover information about your employer’s mother and her work with marauders while a mysterious figure tries to stop you uncovering the truth. The plot twist that (oh no!) the mysterious figure is your employer’s mother is so painfully obvious from the start that the real mystery becomes why the writers kept this from us for so long. Honestly the best part of the DLC is that it raised level and skill cap. Oh, and the fact there is a really big build up to a powerful mini boss who has the hilariously anticlimactic name “Charles from Accounting”.
  2. Murder on Eridanos: A murder mystery! With very little combat compared to the base game and the first DLC, but with much more intrigue, refined dialogue and side quests in the area, this is the superior of the DLC’s. It focuses much more on the base game’s strengths and, for the most part, does away with it’s weaknesses. The pace of the DLC is much slower and encourages speaking with pretty much any NPC whenever you can, and even revisiting them once you discover new information that may be related to their role in the crime you are trying to solve. All in all it’s a pretty great DLC… Except it has a really bad ending! Really bad! It turns out the murder victim wasn’t who you thought; It was her never before mentioned, foreshadowed or alluded to identical twin sister, and now the intended target for the murder is out for revenge. Kind of dumb.

Though the DLC section is over, it does bare mentioning that while the dialogue in this game is crisp and solid, so much of the quest writing goes in the same direction: Something bad happens and you are hired to sort it out, then it turns out a corporation was testing a dangerous product that goes awry, you solve the problem and finally turn in the quest after giving some corporate dude a slap on the wrist for being so irresponsible with his products. I honestly found myself rolling my eyes so much due to the frequency at which these types of quests appeared. What’s more is the fact so many of these similar quest wrap-ups are linked to either the main quest or DLC stories.

And it is a shame because it’s obvious that the game had a lot of creative people working on it: I mean, if you play as a dumb character, you can get a unique finale where you accidently fly a spaceship full of innocent people into the sun and end the game prematurely due to your incompetence. There’s also an ice cream ending for both DLC’s and the base game where, after the main characters of those respected parts of the game ask you to further help them make the galaxy a better place, you just say “nah, I want to eat some ice cream”. And what makes this so funny is that there are actual ending slides where the narrator talks about how you sat back enjoying it in your ship while letting everyone else do the hard work and making change in the galaxy. It just makes me wonder why more creativity didn’t go into some of the repetitive quests, as it could have given the game so much more personality.

So, no, the Outer Worlds isn’t a bad game. It’s actually good. But the thing is it’s got nothing special about it and feels as though it’s going through the motions a lot of the time. This coupled with the fact that, even on hard, the game is criminally easy and unchallenging makes it hard to replay. You’ll almost certainly have a blast playing this game once. Hell, if you enjoy it enough maybe even twice. But even unlike a game many would consider lesser, like the shallow Fallout 4, there’s nothing here to keep you hooked or to encourage you to start that next run of the game. I couldn’t even tell you what it’s like to side with the corporation in this game because I got too bored on the playthrough to do it!

It pains me to say it, because so much of me wants to recommend this game on the basis it isn’t bad and offers a perfectly good experience, but it’s formulaic design and content nature give me more reason to, by the skin of my teeth, not recommend the Outer Worlds.

There’s a lot of heart in this one, but not enough soul.

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