You would be forgiven for thinking that The Outer Worlds was more than a little familiar the first time you sat down to play it. It wears the pedigree of its developer, Obsidian Entertainment, and its influences on its sleeve. Rather than shy away from what has come before it, it exudes and resurrects the not-so-distant past warmly; a proud badge of honor. Obsidian have taken care to build on the legacy of the past, while launching into the stratosphere of what could be.
Part of the reason why this is so important and notable is that Obsidian’s discography of games has always been an intertwined vine of dizzying highs and myriad pitfalls, often within the same release. Games like Fallout: New Vegas and Knights of the Old Republic 2 are much lauded critical and commercial darlings, but couldn’t be recommended without caveat. Truncated development cycles, disastrous bugs and missing questlines are just as much a hallmark of an Obsidian title as the incredible dialogue, memorable characters and weighty stories. Just like Bethesda, the sad truth is that any new title from Obsidian is always going to be put under far greater scrutiny and critique for bugs than would be from an ordinary studio. The Outer Worlds, therefore, had a lot to live up to.
Thankfully, for the most part it accomplishes just what is says on the tin. It’s a warm, cozy blanket of a game: familiar, friendly, and unchallenging mentally. Best of all, it’s almost completely bug-free, with no notable glitches, or crashes, or NPC’s floating above the ground or anything of the sort. You are a spacefaring vagabond, cryo-frozen on way to a new colony in the stars. Revived by a mad scientist after the ship was abandoned, you’re tasked with ensuring the safe revival of the remaining colonists, trapped in their frozen doom like you.
…but you don’t have to do that, if you don’t want to. Instead, you could turn in the mad scientist at the first available space cop, and set off on a whole different adventure. The solar system is controlled by a conglomerate of corporations, which rule every aspect of the life of the spacefaring populations. Instead of working for the benefit of the people, maybe you want to help them instead? Right from the off, it’s an Obsidian game: your choices matter, and will influence the world around you again and again. A main story quest early in the game forces you to deliver power to one group over another: the slum-like canning factory ran by a corporate dictator-cum-moron, or to a small group of mutineers who have started a peaceful colony growing plants and curing the sickness that plagues the canning town. Simple choice, right? But a smart dialogue prompt from a companion reminds you of the cost of the change: cutting power to the town might stick it to the man, but it would destroy the lives of all the innocent families working in the factory. You can’t progress until you make a hard choice. What would you do?
That’s the crux of The Outer Worlds: do you side with the revolution, or the establishment? Thankfully, this potentially clichéd plot is ameliorated by a simply wonderful cast of characters, an absurdist capitalist nightmare of a world, and a genuinely laugh-out-loud script. Humour requires good writing and good delivery, and both are scarce in nearly all games released. A mediocre script, or an uninspired performance, coupled with a bad camera cut or scripting of the action usually sees most attempts at jokes in video games fall as flat as a pancake. Thankfully, these are tuned like the gears in a Swiss watch in The Outer Worlds. You can tell that a great deal of micronic attention was paid to the breaks between lines or the facial expressions of the characters: Obsidian clearly cares about making sure their delivery is top-notch, and it shows. The world as a whole is dripping in this absurdist, Kafka-esque madness, with corporate double-speak and slogans dripping from the corners of people’s mouths like an oversoaked sponge. Soldiers and security guards will parrot the jingle of their bosses while they die, as though they’ll be punished for not informing you of the savings you could be making whilst they bleed to death. It’s wonderful, deeply absurd and overwhelmingly professional and polished. This is the first thing that will draw you into the reaches of The Outer Worlds, and it’s shined to the nth degree.
Perhaps most important of all are your companion characters onboard your ship, The Unreliable. They are deep, nuanced and individual to a person, from your sentient Ship VI/AI to the local priest you pick up early. Each feels desperately unique and completely charming, with rapidly developing, interesting personalities and plotlines that weave throughout the 30-odd hour runtime. Parvati, the first companion you meet, has become one of my all-time favorite video game characters. The depth and tone of her performance and character can’t be overstated. Timid, hopeful, adventurous and funny, she is a welcome breath of fresh air, with a unique point of view for a video game companion. Her personal plotline was a highlight of the game, and I found myself drawn to completing her quests as soon as I could. The companions and characters of the world as a whole add such a complexity of flavor and sonorous sound to the world, that being without them would make for half the game that it is today.
As an actual game, it plays kind of like a mash-up of the 360’s greatest hits. A simple explanation would be to say that you’ll explore a Fallout 3 style open world with Bioshock style shooting and looting, and a Mass Effect cast of companion characters and quest design. Sounds terrible, right? It’s pretty great. The level design is small enough to not feel aimless, yet wide enough to allow you to approach encounters your own way, and to discover enough secrets and bonuses to quench the thirst of your inner adventurer. The shooting feels good enough, but there’s very little variety on the weaponry. There is a decent enough modding system to change damage types and weapon characteristics, but I tended to settle on a type of weapon and not change it much. At a certain point around halfway through, I just stopped worrying about looting weapons or armor altogether.
Each time you level up, you’ll get a handful of points to spend upgrading your various skills from 1 to 100. Every twenty points you put into an individual skill unlocks a new bonus ability. So, reaching level 20 on lockpicking might make it easier to break into doors, or level 60 on medicine might make your healing more effective for party members. What makes this system so great is that the skills are grouped into sets of two or three that all grow at the same time. If you put a point into lockpicking, for example, you’d also be getting a bonus point in stealth and hacking. This triple-threat skill idea locks at level 50, where you’ll have to grow each one individually, but it allows you to be a better jack-of-all-trades than you’d normally be allowed in this style of RPG. There’s a full re-spec available from early in the game as well, so you can chop and change as much as you need. This needs to be stolen by every open world RPG moving forward – it’s wonderful.
Another interesting innovation is the implementation of flaws, penalties that apply to your character for repeated failures. Falling off ledges, taking too many drugs, being beaten up by one type of enemy are all examples what could trigger an associated flaw that the player can take in exchange for a benefit. In one section of the game I was being monstered by giant mantises repeatedly, and after a hairy fight I received my first flaw: I’d take extra damage and be less perceptive in fights involved with them, but I received a free perk point to use how I liked. It’s an interesting system that rewards sloppy play, but it felt a little under-developed. The flaws are difficult to find if you’re playing well, and unfortunately the perk points you were rewarded with could be spent on new abilities that weren’t that interesting enough to want to engage with. With a few more flaws and a better series of perks, there would be something to this. It’s an interesting experiment all the same.
The combat itself is also a fairly standard fare, but the difficulty swings wildly. Most fights on normal were beyond a cakewalk, but dialing up the difficulty wasn’t exactly a satisfying answer either. The harder difficulty meant that I had to re-spec my character entirely towards combat survivability, which meant that I was left without my most interesting other abilities. Furthermore, I found that I burned out on the combat and missions design with about 10 hours to go – I still kept absorbing the story and relishing being in the company of my cadre of comrades, but I started to skip more and more fights, incidental stories and loot opportunities. The slightly repetitive nature meant that I’d had my fill of the game before it was done, but thankfully it’s only a 30-ish hour game with all side-quests, rather than some 60 hour Skyrim monster.
I enjoyed my time with The Outer Worlds, even if it wasn’t a revolutionary affair. The intoxicatingly interesting world and captivating personalities of the crew shone far brighter than the relatively standard combat experience, and it’s something I’ll remember long past the credits. It makes such a killer first impression that I was drawn to it again and again, and even if I started to peter out a bit in the end, I still had a 20-ish hour experience that rivals that of any RPG I’ve played in the last decade. It’s a comfortable, familiar style of game that won’t set your socks on fire, but will gently warm you into the night. Plus, it’s on Game Pass for Xbox One and PC – you’d be a fool not to give it a try.