Reprising their mastery of the ‘entirely worth buying but at least partially broken’ first person open world RPG Obsidian Entertainment start compelling conversations about capitalism, slavery, individualism, state surveillance, and government corruption by way of monopolized corporations in the first several hours of their latest sci-fi shoot, loot n’ talker The Outer Worlds; The next 20-30 hours of the game is then spent backpedaling for the sake of their audience, manufacturing the illusion of choice between a few dozen thoughtful examples of complex human suffering and shared disenfranchisement. These grey acts of kindness you bring might propose the player as the narrative glue re-binding a series of fractured and malnourished colonies but this manufactures little more than a bland sense of progress for the dead-eyed, overindulged video game enthusiast (such as myself) to loosely spec their playthrough around. The premise for The Outer Worlds is a different skin on an old, ragged killing machine’s body — You’re going to be a piece of shit murderer, philanderer, and general interloper intent on reigning as king of all that you see. Well… if you want to have any real fun with the actual gameplay you’ll eat trash, kick ass, and ask a lot of questions along the way. Manifest destiny is no less inevitable in your hands when you ‘mean well for your people’ after being awakened from a too-long cryosleep but it is the people you befriend along the way that make the mayhem all seem worthwhile.
As I walked through the bare-bones capitol city, Byzantium, a place of supposed wealth and opulence roughly the size of a linear mission in Batman: Arkham Asylum I’d realized no matter how much time I spent considering moralistic options in The Outer Worlds the game was increasingly driving me towards the choice to kill or be killed because the developers had to wrap things up quick. Either I was going to start killing these corporations off or they were going to take me in as staff and that choice does become black-and-white sooner or later. The start and the end of the story were inconsequential outside of this decision, a suggestion of a thoughtful experience that never actually amounted to more than a sci-fi skin written over bland western RPG ‘fetch / shoot / repeat’ open world quest design pulled straight from the days of Fallout 3. Nostalgia for that last decade of Bethesda published giants is satisfying as The Outer Worlds introduces itself but, the ‘miniature science fiction first person Fallout‘ reality of the game meant every bit of referential charm the game brought was met with horrendous facial animation, Oblivion levels of bad voice acting, and hilariously inconsequential enemy encounters. All of this comes with a sense of humor that lands somewhere between the cheesy grin of Firefly and the esoteric, sentimental later seasons of Futurama. The sum of The Outer Worlds is the illusion of depth, a grand undertaking that appears at least twice as deep and large as it actually is. None of it worth more than 19.99 USD and at this point you could get 300 hours of The Witcher 3 for that.
“Alright dude, but Fallout: New Vegas fuck’n ruled!” Yeah, actually, I’ll admit the compulsion to jump into these plastic dioramas of melting human garbage, these garbage-eating worlds, and do all of the quests, explore every cave etc. since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind sold the ‘ridiculously large expanse of impenetrable mediocrity’ as a video-gaming pastime for good reason. I could pick up Fallout 4 today and it would take 200+ hours to be satisfied, but I’d get there overpowered and bored. Why doesn’t The Outer Worlds work for the completionist in me, in the same way? I am so sick of being a rat, scurrying around false expanses and picking through garbage (and corpses!) for food and money. Instead of stretching 40 hours of gameplay over 200 hours of mundane content Obsidian have stretched about 5 hours of decent storytelling across roughly 25 hours of gameplay while lowering the difficulty and increasing combat options without providing any compelling combat to engage in.
We begin with the allegory of the cave… Ah, but there is dynamite blocking the exit. You run into an injured corporate slave (er, employee) who you can easily convince to hand over his weapon and the implied goal is to shoot the explosives. You can also just shoot him and it turns out this nets some immediate experience points and doesn’t effect any major plot points going forward. I’ve left out several key details and some world-building, lots of exposition but these opening moments are much of what the game has to its credit. Stepping into the light I personally couldn’t bring my eyes into focus… because of how fucking neon the half-loaded textures on this shit-bag Playstation 4 port of the game. The Outer Worlds has a gaudy and thoughtless color palate sprayed all over these ornate alien worlds and this foliage may as well be SpeedTree assets splattered into life by a very balanced match of Splatoon. The dead grayness of Fallout 3, the red rocked blast site of New Vegas, the craggy ruin strewn hills of the Nine across Oblivion, each brought a sense of not only environment but suggested great cause for the manner of the inhabitants. The sense that everyone is on borrowed time comes a bit later, in truth you are not meant to learn about these colonists from the landscape but from their dingy cubic pop-up hovels and filth strewn homes. In The Outer Worlds all sincerity and demeanor is hidden behind behavior appropriate for colonies suppressed and malnourished by generations of colonizers who could never have acclimated to their poorly chosen home post-Earth. The manner of the people is implied but also nuanced as you peel back their personal layers, earning trust or slaughtering them mercilessly. This is the core of the experience, pulling the humanity out of people oppressed by authority or shooting them in the face if they place themselves in your way. The great unmissable spark of the storyline is the use of evil corporations and their various rebellions as factions across the colony. I’ll offer the least consequential spoiler for this game possible by saying there is no moral choice, no one group of people is safe or smart to align with outside of Groundbreaker and hell, it’ll be obvious enough which ending you’ll get depending on how you act. It is a narrated slideshow anyhow, don’t anticipate it.
The honeymoon period that ensues as you gain a mission, a ship, and a crew is the reason to buy this game and play it for at least 10 hours. In that amount of time you’ll likely have gotten a taste of the questing, exploration, morality-based character interactions and likely reached the Groundbreaker, the absolute best ‘vertical slice’ of life in The Outer Worlds. The rest of the game is an obligation and an intermittent joy to play. If you decided to go to Monarch first there’ll be some redeeming exploration and a vital set of faction quests to balance but this is where the heart of The Outer Worlds dies as the combat systems can be heartily exploited with the resources on this planet. As I completed the major quests on the colony ship and the sabotaged planet of Monarch I hadn’t yet realized the game was now a funnel towards the end, padded by fetch questing for the sake of being strong enough for the final encounter.
You’ve woken out of cryostasis and thawed through a complex cocktail of drugs and this chemical reaction gives you the ability to slow time that is dependent on movement but, at some point you’ll stop using it because upgrading weapons on a regular basis will trivialize combat challenges. Weapons come in three basic types: Ranged, melee, and ‘science’ which are unique versions of vanilla weapons with modified effects that can range from shrink rays, atomic hammers, and security batons named things like “mouth mangler”. Experimenting with weapons is fun at first but you’ll have to specialize and upgrade if you’d like to beat the game. A few thousand credits worth of upgrades (Tinkering) at a workbench will net enough damage/defense to take down the most challenging enemies in the game within a minute or two granted you’ve chosen a unique and specialized weapon enhanced by your player sheet. The shooting itself is loose, plain, as Obsidian seemed to be aiming for a last-generation standard of quality in terms of control, feel and general weight to actions. Directional dodging, boosted leaps, and slow-motion enhancing attributes add to your combat arsenal but again, by the time you’ve finished Monarch your armor and weapons are enough to complete all but the very last encounter in a high security prison planet — Unfortunately Monarch is effectively the only place where combat isn’t just a matter of mercilessly killing people in small and samey corridors. The world and each respective environment will begin to feel incredibly small once you’ve traipsed through it and completed most of the side-quests. The five or six main points of interest on each planet range from rebel encampments, abandoned factories, caves, poison pooled hills, crashed ships, and ghost towns full of rabid alien hounds and giant insects.
I took a more ‘centrist’ angle for most of my playthrough as I’d wanted to gain maximum experience possible before I’d start to fuck with my reputation among the numerous corporate factions, four of which have any major alignment beyond the board (of the Halycon Holdings Corporation) who own this Halcyon system. There are four less important corporate entities or anti-corporate sub-factions who specialize in various pious and unsavory acts but again all people are inherently flawed in this world, save the doe-eyed doofus Parvati. If your reputation gets low enough with any faction you’re downgraded to ‘shoot on sight’ status and this usually stems from killing a leader or defying their given quest. The SubLight faction, a mercenary shipping & scrapping conglomerate, are presented as fairly crooked but after choosing them as the lesser of two evils I was able to go back and kill some of them for fun later on, in this sense the first playthrough lets you mess around with your actions a bit without damning you to a life of crime and murder. Replay value doesn’t come from milking quests though, but is implied through various character builds with various types of specifications for character types. It is an accessible RPG-lite in this sense and min-maxing stats doesn’t create an exceptional amount of variety. A ‘stupid’ character who focuses entirely on brutish melee can be built at the character creation screen just as easily as one that focuses on combat, dialogue etc. skills but the ‘stupid’ playthrough isn’t exactly flawless in terms of immersion and NPC interaction. I chose to focus on dialogue, stealth, and technology as my focus to start until diminishing rewards pushed me towards a plasma rifle/headshot focused build focused on dialogue options for persuade, science, and engineering alongside a heavy focus on lock-picking. Customizable loot and a constant influx of new gear to be stolen and/or ripped from your trail of dead can also specifically boost these stats/attributes, vitally leaving extra points earned from every other level up to go towards main specialties. If you put a Lockpick +5 helmet on each of your party members, you get that bonus too. By the time I’d reached level 30 each of my stats were reasonably high save melee. The ability to easily specialize in most every specialization trivializes the idea of the specialty and boosting any to maximum early on is pointless, except lock-picking which offers an insane increase in loot gathered from the multitudes of locked crates across the game world.
Unshackle my fetters, please. I cannot stand all of this power, this tiny world, and this illusion of a timely and profound plot… You’ve made a murderer of me! Actually, going back to my earlier mention of Byzantium, there was a point where I snapped in the big city. Folks from the colonies who’d worked their whole lives had a chance to win a ‘retirement’ lottery in a classy hidden suburb. Yeah we’ve all seen that movie, it ends in a death robot bloodbath for the retirees. A wealthy woman was jealous of this, despite her not having to work, and she sent me to investigate. Amidst the pile of corpses, skeletons and my own robot smashing slow-motion cam-kills I decided to go and kill her too. Then… I killed every single person in Byzantium, chasing them down alleys and shooting each one in the head along with their robots. A few days later I rolled my save back and instead talked to that wealthy woman, convincing her the retirement community was great, specifically following her to the area and dancing over her corpse as the robots killed her, taking a screenshot in the process. The strength of the story/quest designs in The Outer Worlds iterates frequently on this anticipated strong reaction, often providing disgusting people (such as the zealous religious rebel leader on Monarch) and always offering a ‘safe’ way to murder them for the sake of vengeful satisfaction. If I sound like a twisted fuck detailing all of this, sure I am. As I’d stated earlier, the alternative is to play the goober Starfleet officer who follows the prime directive to a fault and bungle your way towards the same ending I’d gotten regardless.
The best part of the game, hands down, is the numerous side quests that involve your cast of six companions who can join you for a party of three during combat *and* conversation interactions. I chose the asexual lesbian mechanic Parvati and the sadistic higher-power seeking east coast charm of Vicar Max as my constant companions but I’d warm up to each of the other four characters as they’d bring character developing side-quests to the table when conversed with while in the party. Getting Parvati a girlfriend, the leader of the Groundbreaker, and finding Max’s inner peace were the best and most memorable parts of The Outer Worlds and echoed some of the depth of Mass Effect 2‘s character building quests, or Final Fantasy VI‘s similar endgame character extending dungeons. Companions aid quite a bit in combat as they level up bringing unique perks that not only stack with your own but each other’s, you can fully equip each companion and give them commands on the fly which include special attacks unique to each character. I didn’t use these special attacks at all until the end of the game because The Outer Worlds dumps everything on you with a barrage of twenty info-graphic screens just as you finish the tutorial of the game and I’d missed the one detailing special attacks. So, there is a good core experience here despite the very plain sci-fi world built. A dull main storyline that amounts to a series of about 25-30 goalposts isn’t such a problem if this is your type of RPG. Why do I sound so fuckin’ salty then? It is a sloppy last generation assed bug-infested shit show on consoles.
The game isn’t ugly but it did run poorly on my Playstation 4 Pro with noticeable texture pop-in on most terrain, buildings, and faces… Muddy half-loaded character faces make for creepy blow-up doll looking conversations (which are zoomed in a la Fallout/Elder Scrolls) with lip-sync worse than Oblivion. I’d posted a few gameplay videos from the late game on my YouTube channel and the first thing you’ll notice is that completing quests quickly using fast travel is impossible because there is a long, very long, like the first The Witcher long… loading screen following fast travel, entering your ship, entering dungeons or colonies. If my task was to fly to Monarch, get an item from a ‘dungeon’, then fly to Groundbreaker to get a reward that task alone could entail up to seven loading screens and possibly more if you don’t fast travel straight inside the ship. This means more time was spent loading than playing the game (on average) during the item or maguffin fetching quests that flesh out the story of The Outer Worlds. This is where my rating for the game dropped down to average-at-best as loading times and insufficient rewards killed off the joy of breaking into a new world and playing with all of the interesting improvements made to a quickly aged ‘more is more’ video game design ethos.
There is definitely more to say about other mechanics in the game such as Flaws, the whole Emergency Medical Inhaler system but these are become more important to tune the experience on higher difficulty or true role-playing playthroughs. You’ll have to create your own difficulty, though, as Obsidian have crafted an experience that trivializes many of its narrative details and adjunct systems for the sake of an accessible lowest common denominator experience. They’ve likewise trivialized whatever possessed them to portray a ‘corporation-ruled solar system, doomed to death by starvation and genocide by way of an inactive bureaucracy’ by quickly selling out to Microsoft and becoming an in-house studio in the meantime. So, why exactly does this corporate fuckin’ video game studio lead their latest game so heavily with a sneering, space-cowboy parody of the corporate death of humanity? I don’t know, and whatever depth The Outer Worlds might suggest on the box (or in previews) ends at “help might come, might take up to 90 days”… Its not a bad time at all, though, get the PC version if you can. Easily the best garbage-eating, aim-assisting, rat-fink rebel simulator since Bioshock Infinite.
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