Obsidian Entertainment promised the world–actually, many worlds–with its newest, Fallout-esque, first-person, role-playing space opera, The Outer Worlds. What it delivered, on the other hand, was the hollowed-out husk of an idea that has more potential than it does content. The game feels like it had the best of intentions, but never quite finds its footing, haphazardly hopping from one good idea to another without ever fleshing out a single one. Sadly, good intentions alone cannot deliver on a promise. Brought to you by the same people that brought you Fallout: New Vegas, anyone jumping into Obsidian’s newest game expecting “New Vegas in space!” will be sorely disappointed.
The Outer Worlds
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Producer: Private Division, Take-Two Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Windows PC
Initial Release: October 25, 2019 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC), TBA 2020 (Nintendo Switch)
MSRP: $59.99 (PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Windows PC)
You start the game thawed out like a turkey, and crashed like Dorothy into the land of Oz, on an alien planet just minutes after a doozy of an explanation delivered by a man that looks like Dr. Emmett Brown. This is, of course, only the first planet of many in The Outer Worlds.
The Outer Worlds has the retro, dystopian artistic design typical of the Fallout series, but transferred to a whole new setting. We’ve traded the post-apocalyptic ruins of Earth for the further reaches of the galaxy where a full blown corporatocracy is in effect. Much of the human race exists in corporate-owned colonies, and the game continues to take jabs at runaway capitalism throughout its entirety.
Within thirty minutes of climbing out of the initial rust-bucket you start in, you will enter a town to see the poverty and fear of the colonists living in Halcyon Holdings’ interstellar territory. The rest of your story will unfold from there; the people you meet, the places you go, and the decisions you make all revolving around the Corporate Board’s control.
The Outer Worlds is an unmistakably pretty game. From the first to the last planet, from the shanty port town, to the corporate mega-ship, to the underground robotic lab, no two places look the same. The skies are always enchanting enough to guarantee at least a few periods of staring. Although, the heavy use of a constant neon spectacle can, at times, detract from the experience rather than build on it, blending what should be completely new terrain into a level of artificial familiarity.
As you roam the maps you will stumble on towns and outposts inhabited by both friends or foes, you will encounter natural hazards, and soon enough, you will have found everything there is to find. Unlike the Fallout titles its so clearly modeled after, The Outer Worlds isn’t as open world as it wants to to believe it is. It is a game set in small areas, connected by an interplanetary menu that tries to hide that you are in, essentially, a hub-world.
Worse, planets are populated by large majestic mountain crags, hills & cliffs, and rivers of lava that you can’t climb or explore, relegating you to predefined paths between a very few “towns” (which are more outpost than town) and corporate facilities. Exploration of any real sort is fleeting, nigh ephemeral, and always painfully linear. The abundance of side-, faction-, character-, and story-quests that can pile up will always lead you back to the same places.
The game play itself, while fun, is limited and filled with its share of annoyances. For example, a fall greater than five feet will damage you. Consequently, you will perpetually damage yourself with even the smallest bit of off-road exploration; made all the more annoying by the sheer exaggeration of the damage animation. Combined with nonsensical invisible walls (that hinder your travel, not just at the edge of the world but even within towns, stopping you from, say, passing by a shipping crate), it’s often feels like Outer Worlds is punishing you for breaking script.
As the towns, industrial factories and caves roll by in this Good vs. Evil Choose Your Own Adventure, you recruit a crew to travel with you, each with their own backgrounds and reasons for coming aboard. Each has a place they want to go to, a person they want to meet, or a goal they need to accomplish. Sometimes it takes a few trips from planet to planet, but they often take but a few minutes, leaving for a very anti-climatic quest.
After the quests end, and in fact after any quest ends, you’ll never hear of it again. This becomes abundantly clear when, at the very opening of the game, you’re forced to make a dire choice between sending a separatist group back to the dredges of corporate life or forcing the corporatist town to abandon its haven. Despite its narrative framing as a life-or-death situation, you will find that–immediately after the quest ends–the populace of either location will never, in fact, leave.
Separatists will be immutably gathered around a campfire lamenting the fact they have to leave, but they will never actually leave. This may seem like a minor complaint, but in a world defined by its claustrophobic areas, invisible walls, and a hub-world menu disguised as exploratory travel, it only cements how sterile, lifeless, and how non-organic the outer worlds really are.
Despite some quirky repartee, and jokes about the only two foods our party can manufacture or the whole four creatures in the game, your teammates never seem to undergo any deep character growth, and they typically don’t react to any thefts you might commit or any decisions you might make. They exist, after their quests, to offer banter from the background. Well, also to help shoot stuff, which they’re very good at. Maybe even too good, but we’ll save that for later.
In terms of dialogue, anytime there’s an opportunity to speak you’ll get four base options to chose from: be agreeable, ask a stupid question, say something funny or be an asshole. All issues, big and small, can be solved positively, negatively, or in a neutral fashion. A run through could be boring as dirt, or full of interesting twists and turns but even so, a lot of stuff feels ineffective, inconclusive, and shallow. All the stuff you do on the sides is fluff around the base skeleton: Take sides with the bad guys or take sides with the good ones.
Combat is standard first-person shooter mechanics, for the most part. You will get handguns, rifles, shotguns, plasma variations of those, and melee weapons, either one- or two-handed. With the use of workbenches, weapons will need periodic repair. Through tinkering and modification, your favorite guns and melee arms can become overpowered killing machines with additional status effects and elemental damage.
At the bench, you can also modify your armor and helmet to be virtually impenetrable with perks that can make encounters with you lethal without you raising an arm. Worse, enter the combat field two crew members, and you will lay waste to foes; human, creature, and robot alike. Your crew, virtually unhindered and unencumbered by any type of equipment, become so effective at producing human and non-human carrion that, excepting boss encounters, you often needn’t do anything yourself at all.
Let combat start, wait a second, and continue on. This presents the combat’s one real flaw: For as fluid as the combat itself is, and even forgiving a relatively minimal assortment of upgraded-but-rehashed weaponry, the combat becomes so painfully simple, so unforgivably unchallenging, that within the first few hours of the game the combat may as well not be there at all.
There is a perk system which is deeper for you and slightly shallower for your crew members. With every other level-up, you can choose one perk which will bolster your characters abilities. The developers wanted to add spicy, experimental new elements (but… why?) so they established a “Flaw system” in which you can accept a handicap in favor of additional perk points.
Since you max at level 30, you only get a total of around 15 perk points, but the flaw system makes it possible to have more. This seems like a good idea, except the perks are unconditionally never worth the massive handicap. “Hey, wouldnt it be fun to play the whole game without the ability to run?” No. Not at all. “How about being allergic to bullets? Dying immediately sounds fun.” Way to overcompensate for your lack of actual combat challenge by offering to make the game virtually impossible.
Fallout‘s V.A.T.S. system is replaced in Outer Worlds with a Time Dilation Mode, allowing you to slow time to a crawl whilst you lay waste to an army. Get a row of head shots or shoot them in the junk, it can be a handy feature for cleaning out a crowd. It can be fun for a time, but it never feels essential. In fact, you could make it through the entire game having never used it once.
If adding groundbreaking features was really something they desired with things like the Flaw system, they could have added different atmospheric effects to the planets, say differing gravity or planets with blinding storms. That would add to the ambiance of the world itself and create new opportunities for stealth or suspenseful lack of awareness.
You can play stealthily if you want, mind you, or run in blasting, but it makes little difference. The AI has no tact. Sure, you’ll shoot at them and occasionally duck for cover, but the AI is so basal you eventually you won’t have to think much of their extermination.
There should have been more variety to the enemies, both in how they behave and in their design itself. More types of robots, more creatures, more everything. More anything. The game is so underpopulated, so repetitious that it becomes painfully obvious even at the earliest stretch of the game. The nagging feeling that you’ve seen this all before, even when you haven’t, never goes away.
Understandably, variety isn’t imperative to a fun game. In many of the best games, you only ever shoot the same NPCs with reskinned outfits, but this was a game that encompassed different planets with different habitats and environemnts. There might be a clever cover up for it in the story, but shooting the same two creatures, the same robots, and the same human foes contributed to how easy and shallow the combat eventually feels. Before long, the clusters of enemies in the wilderness are noticeably predictable and woefully scarce.
For its flaws, the game has a cloying, dark humor about it. A hulking, bloated caricature of a hyper-incorporated society that came so far without ever really leaving anything behind. People live in fear of calling off on the consequence of jail time or get sued for killing themselves. This game is over the top in its predicaments, it’s notes of hysterical work policies and bureaucratic hellholes, and it’s zany, psychologically damaged company.
There is not one boring person in this game, everybody is comically flawed. Everyone is quirky. The thing is, weird, absurd satire shouldn’t get old yet Outer Worlds feels, at times, over saturated. Everything was so ridiculous that the preposterous becomes normal. Perhaps with more intermission, more story, more quest, and better combat, the break between may have moderated the games wackiness and brought a more moderated tone. Sadly, we’ll never know.
The Outer Worlds was widely compared to Fallout: New Vegas, due to both its origins and its similarities to the beloved franchise, and perhaps that’s not fair. It’s not a Fallout game. Nothing should be fully defined by comparisons, but one of the points driven furthest in building hype for this game was that it was “From the people that brought you Fallout: New Vegas!”. If that is Obsidians fault or not is debatable, but it certainly didn’t help temper expectations.
All the areas in Outer Worlds felt the same. Every every planet looked different, even like a place you’d need to be on drugs to register sometimes, but the creatures, enemies, and general obstacles offered no variety. The story was simple and shallowly presented, but swathed in colorful humor and wacky details, and for all the decisions you could make, the game felt like a shallow prototype of an idea that could’ve been pure greatness with more time and more developmental effort. The Outer Worlds is a fun ride that lets its own spectacle rob it of depth, that strands the game, leaving it amusing but one-dimensional.