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Outer Worlds - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Corporate dystopia narrative
  • Companion skill buffs
  • Callbacks to previous actions and choices -- even seemingly mundane ones
  • Streamlined interface and inventory
  • Not filled with time-wasting filler content
  • Stable performance
  • The "dumb" ending

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Power leveling till competent in every skill
  • Often too easy to get optimal outcomes
  • Combat is dull and repetitive
  • Perks are dull
  • Campaign is short and anti-climatic

Overall Impression : C-
Is it over already?

Outer Worlds - cover

Developer:
Obsidian Entertainment

Publisher:
Private Division

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam, Epic Game Store, or GoG),
PlayStation 4 (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download),
Switch (via retail cartridge or Nintendo Store).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $50 USD (PC) | $60 USD (consoles)

Original release date:
25 October, 2019 (Epic and consoles),
23 October, 2020 (Steam)

Genre:
sci-fi satirical action RPG

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
30-40 hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language

Official site:
outerworlds.obsidian.net

Obsidian Entertainment's follow-up to Fallout: New Vegas was a hotly-anticipated game for me, but it's timed exclusivity on the Epic Game Store meant that I had to wait an extra year to play it. I probably could have gotten it on console. I didn't because I was worried about performance limitations, but I don't recall reading or hearing too many complaints, so maybe it was fine on consoles. Ah well, much like Outer Wilds, I may have ended up waiting unnecessarily long to play The Outer Worlds. Unlike Outer Wilds, The Outer Worlds is not the instant-classic that I had hoped it would be.

Here I come to save the worlds!

The early hours of Outer Worlds seemed promising enough. The game is based largely around the same factional conflicts that drive the plot of Fallout: New Vegas, with the player dropping into an unfamiliar situation, and solving the locals' problems in one of several ways. Most quests will require the player to chose sides in a conflict and fight the opposing side, unless you have high enough speech skills to negotiate some kind of peaceful solution.

This sort of stuff is, of course, the highlight of the game. The relationships between quest-giving characters and their respective factions are like little puzzles for the player to figure out -- puzzles that can be solved equally effectively with kind words, as they can be with a gun, or sometimes both a kind word and a gun. Outer Worlds rewards the player for doing that little extra bit of due diligence to complete an optional objective, or to hack that terminal to find some juicy bit of intel that I can use to sway an NPC to give you what you want.

Players also assemble a crew of companion characters, each with a strongly-defined role. Each companion provides buffs to certain player skills. Parvati provides a buff to engineering skills, Ellie provides a buff to medical skills, Max provides buffs to hacking, and other characters provide various combat skill and intimidation buffs. These buffs can stack together and get quite large too, especially after you take one or two perks to improve them. I hardly ever needed to use food or drugs to buff a skill because my companion characters almost always provided me with enough of a boost to get me through most quests.

Players create a crew of companion characters to go questing with you.

I was actually surprised at how early in the game I had recruited all possible crew member. All but one come off of the first world, and the final one can be acquired on an early game quest on another world.

Which companions I take on a particular quest is, therefore, important. I found it was a good idea to pay attention to the dialogue from quest-givers to get a better idea of what lies ahead for me in a given quest. It's also worthwhile to check out the quest log to get any insight on what I'm expected to do. Going on a "bug hunt"? I'll take my heavy-hitters like Nyoka or Felix. Need to hack my way into a derelict outpost and get it operational again? Take Parvati and Max. Need to rescue some colonists who are trapped in a cave? Take Ellie and Nyoka in case anyone needs medical attention.

Or at least, that's how it works in principle. Remember when I said that the game seems promising in the beginning? Well that's because the opening chapter of the game is a very well-constructed vertical slice of everything that Outer Worlds has to offer. The downside is that, unlike Fallout: New Vegas (which has a similarly excellent opening chapter that serves as a vertical slice preview of the whole game), the whole rest of The Outer Worlds is just the opening quests repeated several more times on different planets, and it never gets much harder or more surprising.

In practice, there weren't very many quests that required diverse skills. I only specifically remember having to treat an NPC's wounds twice, and one of those was at the very start of the game before I had Ellie in my party anyway. Even though I kept taking Parvati whenever I thought I was going to need to repair things, there were still only a handful of engineering checks, and I recall them all being relatively easy. Honestly, I found that quests seemed to be much more dominated by speech checks, and my companions were mostly just bullet sponges and pack mules.

I found it far too easy to negotiate optimal solutions to many quests.

The character power levels very quickly (up to level 50 in each stat). Most questlines seem designed to force the player to have to make tough moral or ethical choices about which of multiple competing factions or characters I want to help. However, if I can pass one of multiple speech checks, including either Persuade, Lie, or Intimidate, I can talk my way into a resolution in which everybody compromises, conflict is avoided, and I keep high reputation with all parties involved. Since I improve 2 or 3 skills with each skill point, it's easy to have at least one of these leveled to the point that I can auto-pass a check for an optimal outcome, and any deficiencies in my stats can usually be offset with a particular party member's presence, or the skill buffs from clothing or consumables.

These compromise outcomes also rob the game of a lot of its thematic weight. There is always a compromise option that grants the best of the other two competing options, with almost none of the downsides. This is in stark contrast with New Vegas's philosophy of asking the player to make difficult moral and ethical choices between competing ideologies or philosophies. New Vegas' central plot, and most of its sub-plots are about taking an ideological stand between centralized republicanism, absolute totalitarianism, plutocracy, or libertarianism. The push and pull of more than 2 competing (and mutually-exclusive) ideologies in New Vegas forces the player to have to seriously consider the merits and drawbacks of each one, and it's always impossible to appease one faction, without necessarily upsetting at least one of the other factions.

Quests always provide a peaceful solution.

Outer Worlds, however, errs toward the Mass Effect-style "paragon" and "renegade" binary morality. But instead of asking the player to jump whole-heartedly into one approach or the other in order to maximize the rewards of that one path (like Mass Effect does), Outer Worlds always offers that milquetoast middle-ground solution that is just so obviously the best option.

This maybe wouldn't be so bad if the writers didn't always go so far out of their way to point out that a compromise solution is possible. I'll be talking to the quest-giver, ready to complete the quest in his faction's favor, and he'll basically just stop the conversation, look off into the sky while stroking his chin, and say "... If only we could get the other faction's leader to see reason...". Then an optional quest objective will pop up in the corner that basically says "OPTIONAL: talk other faction leader into obvious optimal outcome."

The final quest came up suddenly.

Wait, is it over?

The reason for the quick, simplified skill progression seems to be that the campaign is short for an RPG. I got to the point when the game prompts me that I'm approaching a point of no return, and that I should finish all my side quests first, and I thought I was approaching the half-way point of the game, or maybe even the end of the first act. Perhaps I might be locked out of completing old quests because the story would move forward, but surely there would be more story after completing the point of no return. But then there's the recap vignettes and the credits started rolling.

There were only like 2 or 3 quests in my quest log that I hadn't completed. I did all the companion quests, collected all the secret weapons, and did all the faction quests for everyone except for Sublight and Byzantium (because screw those guys!). It wasn't like I had powered through the story and ignored all the side content. I did what I wanted to, and what fit into my play-style and time constraints, and that was it.

[Show Spoiler] [Hide Spoiler]

I kinda figured that I was wrapping up the plot-line about reviving the Hope colonists. I did kind of wonder if maybe the corporation(s) or the Board might throw another wrench into the plans to make me jump through more hoops. Even when the ending vignettes started playing, I thought maybe I was at some kind of "act break", in which the game world was going to change in response to my actions. I assumed old quests would no longer be available, but new quests would pop up, and I'd have more quests and support from the factions that I'd helped.

Or maybe the plot would shift more towards the issue of the loss of communication with Earth? Maybe the game would flash-forward a few months, after all the Hope colonists had been revived, we'd started reforming Halcyon, and then the stakes would go up when we start investigating what happened on Earth.

I assumed the next act of the game would pick up on the plot point about losing contact with Earth.

After all, there were still 2 or 3 planets that I hadn't visited at all because they were locked off. So surely there must be more game, right?

Nope. The locked planets are part of the DLC expansion quests. Since I wasn't as impressed with Outer Worlds as I had hoped I would be, I didn't bother buying any of the DLC. That DLC probably would have prolonged the campaign to be much closer to the length I was expecting the base game to be, and it probably also would have allowed me to gain enough stat points to start really specializing in a few key skills. But I don't know, because I didn't play them.

Instead, I can only assume that the plot point about losing contact with Earth will be picked up by the sequel, which was just announced as I was working on this review. Maybe the sequel will do some kind of Mass Effect thing where it picks up where the previous game left off, and imports all the player's key decisions from the first game? I don't know at this point, because the teaser trailer doesn't provide any information about the game's story.

The Outer World 2 teaser lampoons game trailers, and provides little details about the story.

[Hide Spoiler]

The problem, thus, isn't so much that the game is relatively short; rather, my problem is that the ending felt very sudden and a bit jarring -- not to mention anti-climactic. The factions who you helped over the course of the game will even show up in the final quest to distract the enemy troops and help you through the level, but there was no point at which I had to rally those factions to my aid. They just sort of show up without any rhyme or reason that I was aware of. I would have expected a series of quests requiring me to at least check in with each faction. So yeah, I was just kind of playing the game, having a good time, then suddenly I'm on the final boss.

To be honest, the shorter length and lack of excessive padding could potentially be a selling-point for some players. If you don't have a ton of time to devote to a 90-hour, sprawling open world game (your Skyrim, New Vegas, Witcher III, recent Assassin's Creed games, and so on), then Outer Worlds might be a streamlined package meant just for you!

Each planet has distinct vistas, but only a very small map to explore.

Being set on different planets means that there is no one, sprawling open world for you to spend hours walking around. Each planet has a relatively small, arena-like space that, if all were combined together into a single map, would probably still only add up to being on the smaller end of modern open world maps. Since the environments aren't too huge or too complex, and questlines are largely self-contained, Outer Worlds can easily be enjoyed in chunks of just an hour or two at a time. I had no problem sitting down at 8 or 9 PM on a work-night, playing a single quest or two, and powering off for bed around 11. Do that a few nights a week for a month or two (and maybe some extra play time on the weekends), and you've just finished yourself an RPG!

The relatively short length of the game should mean that it is replayable. Taking knowledge of the quests and so forth into the game could potentially reduce a playthrough to 30 hours or less (much less if you skip most of the dialogue). But since I managed to get the optimal outcomes for almost (if not every) quest, including the final quest, I don't really have any pressing need or desire to go back and do anything differently. There just doesn't feel like there is much that I could do that would lead to sweeping changes to the outcome without also feeling like an objectively worse outcome.

There are only a handful of locations to visit.

And even then, if all I want is a different outcome, I can just spend a few minutes looking that up online (like I did for the "dumb" alternate joke ending). I don't have to replay the entire game because very little of the game changes in meaningful ways over the course of the campaign, no matter what choices I may make. Hopefully, these issues were mostly limitations of budget and resources (Outer Worlds being more of a "middle-shelf", "double-A" game), and hopefully the relative success of The Outer Worlds will allow Obsidian to be more ambitious with its sequel.

A gun is a gun is a gun

The relatively short length of the campaign was also a bit of a blessing because it meant that I didn't have to spend quite as much time with Outer Worlds' bare-bones action. I enjoyed most of character interaction, the dialogue trees, and exploring this corporate dystopia, but it didn't take long before I started rolling my eyes whenever a red triangle appeared on my compass and it became time to pull out a gun.

The gunplay in Outer Worlds is dull and repetitive and comes up far too frequently. The small maps are absolutely littered with aggressive wildlife and bands of cannon-fodder marauders, such that I'm wandering into combat every minute or two while traveling between major settlements. Thankfully, I was able to fast travel for repeat journeys, and was able to skip re-fighting these respawning enemies.

Since the player doesn't have grenades, every combat arena is littered with explosive crates.

None of the guns really feel all that different from one another, even with the mediocre-at-best upgrades attached to them, and there just isn't much variety or options in how you deal with mortal threats. There's melee weapons and guns. That's it. No grenades. No mines. No explosives of any kind (other than a grenade launcher). Even the fancy sci-fi weapons are basically just guns that have some special modifier that debuffs the enemy temporarily. There are explosive containers scattered all over most combat arenas, and a lot of firefights involve either exploding these barrels to deal large chunks of damage to enemies, or you simply shoot the enemy with whichever gun has the most DPS till the enemy is dead.

Bethesda's combat engine was crap, but I'd rather pay a skirmish in Fallout: New Vegas over Outer Worlds. Sure, Outer Worlds' gunplay is a bit smoother and is more comfortable to play, but at least New Vegas gave me options.

Shaped by trials and tribulations

Even the character perks are kind of "bleh". Most of them are just damage modifiers. Outer Worlds lacks the fun and clever perks of the Fallout games. Fallout players could really personalize their avatar and give that avatar genuine personality through a lot of the perks. I personally always enjoy the combination of "Night Person" and "Four Eyes" whenever I play an avatar of myself in a Fallout game. The lack of any fun or character-defining perks makes leveling-up feel less worthwhile and expressive.

Extra perks were rarely worth the permanent debuffs.

Obsidian tried to fill in the gap by procedurally assigning "flaws" to the character based on events that happen in-game. If you keep falling off cliffs or buildings early in the game and take too much fall damage, you can become "Acrophobic", which will decrease your dexterity and perception. If you go on frequent expensive spending sprees at vendors, you can become a "Compulsive Spender", which increases the cost of things that vendors sell (presumably because the character is so addicted to buying stuff that he or she will still pay the price). The character can also develop phobias of certain wildlife, or addictions to certain drugs or chemicals. The character can even get a hernia from carrying around too much gear.

At the point that you earn a flaw, you have the option to either accept the flaw and gain a perk point, or reject the flaw and nothing happens. It's an interesting concept. It's an example of the game allowing the player's play to inform characterization and create consequences for our actions, rather than enabling the player to express ourselves in ways that are defiant to how we actually play the game. On paper, the trade-off makes sense, but since perks never felt worthwhile after getting the good ones early in the game, I didn't feel much incentive to accept the permanent debuffs from most of the flaws that were offered to me.

Biting dystopian satire

More generally, Outer Worlds is pretty good at making callbacks to previous events in the game. Even if I'm not accepting the permanent consequence of a flaw, I still came across frequent call-backs in dialogue to things I had done previously. A few of the NPC companions also feel like they grow or mature as a direct response to how the player treats them and how the player resolves situations.

I didn't really go too gung ho during my playthrough, so I didn't experience how well the game handles sequence-breaking or killing plot-important NPCs. I've heard or read from other sources that the game's writing accommodates that sort of stuff surprisingly well, even if it doesn't lead to dramatic changes in the game world or story itself. In general, Outer Worlds is very well polished, is stable, and is bug free. So Obsidian very successfully managed to eliminate the single, biggest criticism of New Vegas (which was its buggy, unstable engine that Bethesda forced Obsidian to use). I don't recall running into any major bugs or glitches, but (as I mentioned before) I didn't do much in the ways of stress-testing the game.

While much of the plot does borrow a lot of ideas from Obsidian's previous Fallout games, Outer Worlds clearly owes a lot of its aesthetic inspiration to the TV series Firefly, right down to having a preacher crew member with a dubious past, and having a quest involving buying a fancy dress for the ship's endearingly naively-perky engineer. It takes place in a single solar system colonized by humans who are cut off from Earth. It has western-inspired themes of living on the frontier and of monolithic institutions interfering with and de-valuing people's personal lives.

This particular corporate dystopia is an amusing twist on an otherwise well-worn grungy sci-fi aesthetic.

The most substantive change from Firefly is that the theme of government oppression is substituted for themes of corporate oppression. This was the one area where The Outer Worlds totally shined. I loved the satirical corporate dystopia criticizing contemporary corporate culture.

Every location in the game and almost every NPC character seemed explicitly designed to communicate some aspect of the dystopia. I was constantly impressed with how each new colony or settlement had some new thematic relevance to the overarching story thanks to some hilariously-bleak circumstance of the colony or settlement's operation.

Outer Worlds has things to say about everything from corporate greed, to the commodification of human labor, to advertising, to the commercialization of healthcare, to the vapidity of corporate-sponsored scientific research, to ecological and environmental issues, and so forth. And all of it includes examples of how these issues affect everyday people at the bottom of society. But almost everyone is conditioned by corporate propaganda and social pressures to accept their lots in life, and are unable to imagine a structure of society that is any different.

Outer Worlds does not shy away from making socio-political statements.

I just wish this biting corporate dystopia had been attached to a game that had been as bold as its theme. Despite some really high production quality for a mid-budget title, Outer Worlds's gameplay and quest design play it so safe that the whole game just kind of falls flat. The core RPG is simply so easy that the moral and ethical conundrums come off as toothless, and the gunplay that makes up the bulk of the fluff is drab. I enjoyed playing The Outer Worlds in the moment enough that I kept playing it through the final credits (especially once I could just fast travel past all the tedious combat encounters), but I was never once wow-ed by it.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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