I wanna be a (space) cowboy, baby…
Obsidian’s latest is an unreserved hidden gem. A strange thing to say about a game from the developers behind some of the 21stcentury’s most beloved western RPGs – Fallout: New Vegas chief among them – but say it I must. The Outer Worlds was released without much in the way of the usual razzle dazzle we’ve come to expect from the marketing team at Take 2. I’d hazard a guess that many of us, now used to a steady diet of painfully long waits and enough hype to shake a big stick at where any notable release is concerned, failed to notice it. The game certainly sailed under my radar at release despite being made by the minds behind New Vegas and the similarly excellent Star Wars: KOTOR II. I’m glad that it did because the game is the nicest surprise to grace my PlayStation 4’s disc tray in quite some time. There’s nothing particularly innovative about it. It (largely) doesn’t break any new ground. It’s not the prettiest game on the shelves or the longest. So, what is so great about The Outer Worlds? Well, where do I start…
The story of The Outer Worlds is largely paint-by-numbers sci-fi fare: you are awoken from hibernation by a mysterious benefactor (the hilariously bizarre Phineas Wells) as the sole survivor of the doomed Hope, one of a number of inter-galactic colonisation vessels dispatched from Earth to forge a new path for humanity amongst the stars. When you awake in the Halcyon system, you realise that all is not what it seems. The New World is not quite as new as was promised. The colonies are infested with monstrous alien wildlife and riven by every kind of warfare (class, information and territorial) between competing factions. So far so Mass Effect.
The beauty of The Outer Worlds is in the detail. Evil corporations suck the Halcyon colonies dry at the expense of their employees, whilst they struggle at the coalface of the frontier for barely a living wage. The colonists are heavily taxed (even having to lease their own grave sites from their corporate masters) and treated as nothing more than resources. In Halcyon, suicide is a crime – a destruction of corporate property for which the perpetrator’s next of kin must pay. The harsh realities of frontier life provide a fertile breeding ground for revolutionary movements, black market operators, scoundrels and bounty-hunters. This game has a clear anti-capitalist message which, depending on your political leanings, has the potential to either grate or resonate. Personally, the message resonated but the writing delivers its punches with such irreverence that, provided you approach it with a sense of humour, the game won’t be offensive to even the staunchest conservative. It’s that writing prowess which really sets the narrative apart from so many other stories dealing with similar subject matter. It is consistently goofy yet believable, tongue-in-cheek yet alarmingly close to home, ridiculous yet undeniably familiar.
There is also an awful lot of it. Obsidian have (almost) perfected the concept of role playing and player choice here. In an extremely satisfying and no doubt extremely time-consuming move, the game gives you the option to flip the narrative on its head early doors and turn your would-be saviour over to the clutches of the Board (the fanged cabal of capitalist masters shaping the colonies to their own ends). If you choose to do so, the story adapts and follows an entirely different arc. I can’t recall playing any game which gives the player so much agency. Your choices in The Outer Worlds do not just affect discrete corners of the game, like the fate of a character or faction, but have the potential to fundamentally change the entire experience from the get-go. I didn’t have the stomach for it, despite being inherently suspicious of Phineas, but am amazed by the fact that the option is there. The option is never taken out of the player’s hands. I wrestled with it throughout my journey, as the bitter reality of life in Halcyon set in and I became more and more jaded by it. I started off as Han Solo. By the end of the game I was teetering on the edge of becoming Boba Fett. Everyone here is out for themselves – why shouldn’t I get mine?
Add to the depth of the writing the equally deep character customisation system – with stats and perks aplenty to support almost any build – and you have a highly polished role-playing experience which empowers you to be the hero (or anti-hero) of your own legend. That is to say nothing of your companions, all useful in their own way in and out of battle, and the newest and most welcome addition to the formula: flaws. Flaws are, as the name suggests, weaknesses arising from the way you play, and add a novel strand to the usual role-playing experience. By the end of my playthrough I was an ass-kicking, eyebrow raising, handgun-toting, head exploding, smooth-talking son-of-a-gun with a drug-addiction, a crippling fear of heights and a weakness to a particular type of damage. If these flaws sound like a potential pain (they certainly can be) it is open to you to choose whether to accept or reject them, but accepting a flaw grants an additional perk. Perks are so powerful that you will want to accept some flaws to get access to more of them.
Player choice of this magnitude probably can’t be realistically (read: commercially) woven into the fabric of an “AAA” game nowadays. It would be too much for a developer to attach all those graphical bells and whistles to two narratives. The Outer Worlds does not look like The Last of Us Part 2 or Ghost of Tsushima, but it does boast an attractive, colour-drenched, cartoonish aesthetic. The soundtrack is serviceable, the dialogue excellently and fully voice acted. The sound-effects, whether the squelch of a well-placed headshot or the wail of an approaching mantiqueen, are suitably gory and, in the latter case, terrifying!
The game plays like an improved version of recent Fallout titles but from an entirely first-person perspective. The shooting mechanics work and are complemented both by a satisfying arsenal of weaponry and an improved “VATS” system. Whilst clearly influenced by VATS, the point-and-click Fallout iteration is replaced with the much more satisfying “TTS” system, which is used more sparingly and requires the player to manually aim at enemies’ varying weak spots in slow-motion, to produce satisfying status effects. Shooting an enemy’s legs cripples and slows them, a headshot will blind an enemy if it doesn’t kill them outright. Shots aimed at weak spots will trigger a bleed effect which inflicts damage over time. Certain enemies are weak or extremely resistant to particular types of damage. Gun barrel diplomacy is of course not the only way to resolve a conflict – the player can lockpick, hack or talk their way out of most problems. Again, none of this is new. Though all of these systems have been cherry-picked from other titles, they have been made to work together and subtly augmented in very satisfying ways.
There are a few problems here, mostly niggles which are par for the course in Obsidian titles and others of this ilk. There are too many loading screens and, at least on my launch PS4, these screens hang around like the last unwelcome guest at a dinner party you’ve been trying to wind down for an hour. There are infrequent, but horrendous, frame rate dips. The game is too easy on normal mode, but this can be easily sorted by switching to hard. Supernova difficulty is too rich for my blood, but it is an option for all the survivalists out there.
My biggest problem with The Outer Worlds is that the key players in the overarching narrative – The Board and Phineas Wells – aren’t well developed enough. I’m sure that is by design, but I personally didn’t appreciate not knowing enough about either to confidently decide who to throw my hat in with. This issue persists literally right up until the end of the game. As a result of this lack of information I kept faith with the developer’s overtly preferred Phineas allegiance, not because I wanted to necessarily but because I didn’t have sight of a better option. By obscuring the cost/benefit analysis from my view the game clipped my wings ever so slightly – an uninformed choice is one I tend to shy away from! I could have been braver, sure, but an early sit down with the Board promising riches and a cushty position if I would only turn in Phineas and become their enforcer instead probably would have been enough to turn me to the dark side. That is true notwithstanding that the writing is so overtly pushing the anti-capitalist agenda that it is clear from the off that doing so would have set me on the black hat path. I never really trusted Phineas but my fragile loyalty to him was not tested in any meaningful way. This feels like a huge missed opportunity, especially given that I found myself quite literally agonising over a great number of the smaller choices relating to individual factions or communities. That final observation speaks to the quality of the writing on offer here, but it is undeniably just a little sad that the writing is weakest where it matters most.
The Outer Worlds is a better Fallout game than the last Fallout. I suspect that will be enough to pique the interest of a large subset of fans who are, like me, consistently disappointed by the shift by many of their favourite developers toward massively multiplayer "games as a service" offerings (cough *Bioware, cough cough *Bethesda). For that reason alone, The Outer Worlds and Obsidian deserve my money and support. Fortunately, The Outer Worlds is so much more than a protest purchase - though it both is and is not a throwback. It is not yet an Octopath Traveller type of experience but, the way things are going, games like this could become just that. I hope instead that The Outer Worlds, brilliant in its own right in the way it makes numerous minor improvements to a beloved formula, marks the start of a resurgence for the modern RPG of yesteryear. This game has quality packed into every moment of a well paced experience, never outstaying its welcome. My playthrough, taking in the vast majority of the side content, lasted around 35 hours. Not short by any means, but just long enough to feel like great value for money without becoming a drag. I never found myself fed up and racing for the finish line. There is no endless gear grind demanding weeks of your time, no lootboxes, no hollow shell of a narrative barely even trying to justify the countless hours repeating the same tasks over and over again. Just some bloody good writing, exceptional world building and a clear beginning, middle and end. The highest praise I can give The Outer Worlds is that I actually look forward to the release of the recently announced DLC - an opportunity for Obsidian to take some more money from me and for me to jump back into this lovingly crafted game. Even more unusually for me, I can see myself giving The Outer Worlds a second playthrough. Second time around, I’ll definitely be reaching for my black hat.
· A genuine role-playing experience
· The world of Halcyon is consistently entertaining and engaging – its own comedy, tragedy and warning
· Improves on a well-established formula in numerous little ways
· Top quality writing
· A better Bethesda or Bioware game than either of those two have made for a long time
· Frame rate dips to make your head hurt
· You’ll never want to see another loading screen as long as you live
· Narrative and concept of player choice stumble slightly where it matters most
· Whilst the writing is consistently excellent, the story lacks a stand-out narrative moment to put it over the top into masterpiece territory. As a result, the game is unlikely to live too long in the memory of many.
Overall score 9/10 (well worth your time).
Next up, some PS5 hype...