While I had my qualms with Fallout: New Vegas, I have to admit that the story of its creation is hilarious. A big studio like Bethesda cranks out a pseudo-RPG that re-popularized the long lost Fallout license, but which, in hindsight, was pretty rubbish from a design and writing perspective. Fun at the time, but in desperate need of mods to make replaying it at all interesting. Then the ambitious lads of Obsidian Entertainment are brought in to make a little tie-in game, only for New Vegas to become a cult classic that continues to eclipse anything Bethesda has done with the Fallout license.
Sadly that humor was lost on the boring executive types who run the gaming business these days. Obsidian was famously denied a bonus for its work on Fallout: New Vegas because the Metacritic score averaged out 1 point below Bethesda’s standard for quality. Only through the timely popularization of crowdfunding did Obsidian stay in business, eventually bringing us to The Outer Worlds; Obsidian’s answer to Bethesda’s continued mishandling of the Fallout universe.
Comparisons to New Vegas are as inevitable as they are unfair. The Outer Worlds is a new and unique setting, which didn’t have the backing of a large games publisher, nor the luxury of being able to lean on existing art assets and systems. The games have a lot in common—I actually like The Outer Worlds more than I liked New Vegas—but it is a game operating on a different scope.
Firstly, the setting. The game starts off on establishing the backstory of your custom character. You are one of many bright individuals who were put in cryogenic sleep and dispatched to the distant Halcyon system, with the intent of establishing a prospering colony there. Something went awry and your ship—The Hope—has been left abandoned for many decades now. Way past the point where waking up from cryogenic sleep is feasible. Unless you happen to be a brilliantly mad scientist, of course.
You are rescued by one Dr. Phineas Welles; a chaotic scientist with a rebellious mindset and a good heart. He explains that he wants to rescue the colonists aboard The Hope from their cryogenic purgatory, but this will be a tremendous effort and he is a wanted man. The Halcyon system has been colonized by a second batch of settlers, but it’s been ruled over by a nebulous cooperation of unethical companies known as The Board. They have an iron grip over the colony, and its people who have long since been broken into servitude.
Welles needs your help to rescue your fellow colonists and overthrow The Board, though you of course might have your own ambitions now that you’ve been set free.
Gameplay will feel familiar to anyone who has played the modern Fallout games, but The Outer Worlds does a far better job at blending the FPS and RPG elements together. Right from the start, character creation is made very interesting. You got 6 different attributes to set your specialization in, representing your physical and mental capabilities. These then provide bonuses and penalties to all the skills you can work with. There are skills for different combat styles, stealth, diplomacy, technical knowhow like science or medicine, or even leadership skills. You could specialize in being a good leader that strengthens their companions or you can be a sneaky thief who can hack or lockpick anything they come across.
These playstyles also feel worthwhile thanks to the game’s well-designed quests. Combat is a big part of the game of course, but quests oftentimes permit you a variety of different ways to tackle them. You could talk or lie your way out of a combat situation, lockpick a door instead of looking for a key, or hack someone’s computer if they refuse to give you information. You can always be certain that you can finish any quest you’re given, but it feels great when you can nab a shortcut or get some extra rewards thanks to your skills and ingenuity.
The story that is told through these quests is also just really interesting. Some can be straightforward bounty hunts or fetch quests, whereas others might go through several motions or lead into entirely new quests. One that stood out is when I needed a rare (and expensive) navigation key to reach a new planet for the main quest. Due to a lack of funds, the character I had to buy it from offered me a deal where I could go to a planet and steal a bunch of corporate secrets. I went along with this, but eventually got so invested in the storylines of the characters on this planet that I helped them instead. Eventually, I just raised the money to buy the navigation key outright.
Later I realized that I could have gone to the planet without the key, but I’d be dropped at a landing site infested with powerful monsters. A difficult battle for sure, but not an impossible one.
Also nice are the companion quests. You get the opportunity to team up with a handful of colorful characters, all of whom have a different worldview and place in Halcyon. The quests they give you feel very personal, like helping your nervous engineer prepare for a date or accompanying a dubious priest who wants to unravel the truth of his faith.
My only complaint with the story is that the tone feels inconsistent, which then causes problems when you’re asked to make moral choices. Most of the corporate factions are depicted as comically evil; unapologetic slave-drivers who’d rather let every single worker die than surrender even a fraction of their wealth. You’re constantly dealing with rivalries between these corporations and local resistance forces, but there’s never any reason to back the corporations outside of wanting to play a pure evil character.
New Vegas was rightfully praised for the complex ideologies of its factions which utilized the intricate lore of the Fallout universe. The Outer Worlds feels more like a Fable game by comparison. They attempt to salvage this with some South Parks-like centrism, arguing that, actually, both sides kind of suck. This rings insincere, because everything we learn about The Board’s policies is absolutely monstrous, whereas the rebel factions are nowhere near as flawed. Sometimes the rebels are just a bit standoffish or they have a problematic member, which you can usually do something about.
Both sides, amirite?
Since the game has you hopping from planet to planet, this also has impact on the world design. You don’t get one big sandbox map like the Mojave, but instead explore a selection of smaller maps spread across different planets. Each of these maps is entirely different, with its own unique settlements, people, culture, and conflicts to resolve. A positive side-effect of this is that travel time is always shorter than you’d expect. No objective is ever more than a few hundred meters from you, which makes questing around a breeze.
Visually, the game is quite nice, though rarely stunning. I admired the detail on the character designs and I did enjoy the atmosphere of each planet, but rarely had much reason to stop and admire where I was. Oftentimes you get the nicest vista right as you exit your ship, after which the dilapidated towns and untamed wildernesses don’t manage to really impress at all. At least it looks better than yet another Fallout wasteland.
Another positive surprise was the combat. Fallout‘s gunfights tend to feel rigid, owing to the slow, imprecise nature of its weapons. The VATS system was praised for its spectacle, but was often just plain necessary to deal with the frustrating handling. It’s not a good look for an FPS games when players are choosing to delegate shooting to the computer, because it’s just not particularly fun to do so yourself.
The Outer Worlds has a more modern feel to its gunplay. This does make it feel more like an action shooter than an RPG, but also makes combat actually fun to engage with. Encounters are exciting and full of variety, as both you and the enemy can use anything from sci-fi plasma guns to oversized anime scythes. Fights are frequent enough that you never get bored, but also offer enough room for you to do quests and explore without being constantly interrupted.
Instead of VATS you get a power to slow down time, but due to the improved gameplay this feels more like an extra rather than a necessity. Depending on what perks you choose as you level up, this bullet-time power can serve entirely different purposes. You can just use it to get some good shots in of course, but you can also put points into perks that let you close the distance for stealth attacks, inflict crippling status effects, or get a head start on running away. My second character was a stealth one and I used the bullet-time to let me get from hiding spot to hiding spot, even when enemies would normally have seen me.
Combat is further spiced up with how customizable your weapons are and what perks you choose as you level up. I especially put a lot of time into modifying my guns by installing modifications and tinkering to improve the damage output. You can fit a better scope on a sniper rifle and then make it do corrosive damage or make your armor shock any enemies that hit you with melee weapons. At one point I bankrupted myself trying to squeeze as much DPS out of my assault rifle as possible; totally worth it.
However, it does have to be said that the difficulty curve of The Outer Worlds is unreliable. New areas are usually obnoxiously difficult the first time you enter them, thanks to bullet-sponge enemies that can tear you to pieces in seconds. I sometimes got stuck for half an hour, just constantly retrying the same battle. Or having to run laps around a rock while slowly whittling down a monster’s impossibly long healthbar. Then you find one or two new weapons and all that difficulty just evaporates.
Within an hour I could go from pitched, nearly-hopeless battles to running around without a care in the world, ending every fight in literal seconds. That’s certainly cathartic in a way, but I found myself wishing there was more of a middle-ground between these extremes. By the end of the game I had thousands of rounds of ammo for every type of gun, hundreds of health-restoring items, and a backpack full of food; I either always died before I could use any or I’d never need them to begin with. Suffice it to say, I didn’t exactly face much of a challenge in the final level either.
While that is regrettable, I overall found myself thoroughly enjoying The Outer Worlds. It’s one of those RPGs where I am already imagining my next character while playing, just because there’s so many different approaches that all feel worthwhile. Maybe next time I’ll play a pacifist who tries to sneak and talk his way out of every encounter. Maybe I’ll be an engineer with a bit of hacking on the side. Maybe an evil run where I focus on intimidation and leadership, so my companions can do all the fighting on my behalf.
Obsidian produced an amazing FPS-RPG hybrid. There are improvements to be made and places where I felt creativity was lacking, but it’s the first game in a long time where I felt tempted to actually buy the DLC. I wanted to see more of The Outer World and hope that Obsidian gets to iterate on its successes here.