Back to the real wasteland
For the uninitiated, when publishers wanted a sure-thing studio to come in and elevate an existing IP, Obsidian was the one developer you called. They rocked The Old Republic for BioWare and continued the Neverwinter Nights series. Look, they made the best modern Fallout game, New Vegas. Our audience even agrees!
In the past nine years they’ve mostly stuck to the Baldur’s Gate-esque Pillars of Eternity series (plus Tyranny), a one-off adventure with a South Park RPG, and a joint MMO venture with Allods Team. What I’m saying is: I want more Obsidian in my life.
And with The Outer Worlds, a massive first-person RPG in the same vein as New Vegas, I got it.
The Outer Worlds (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One)
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Private Division
Released: October 25, 2019 (PC, PS4, XB1) / TBA (Switch)
If you were expecting something irreverent and subversive that didn’t take itself too seriously: congratulations, you’re going to love Outer Worlds. Our journey takes us to Halcyon: a perfect society “guaranteed to maximize your productivity.” I got immediate Sorry to Bother You vibes from the whole professional servitude angle, and one of the first lines of dialogue is “not likely, bootlickers.” Oh hell yeah, this is my kind of game.
Naturally, a rebel group sparks conflict at the start of the game’s events, and that’s where you come in. Said rebel leader cherry-picks one of the many hibernating citizens (you), which is how they cleverly justify the character creation process. Said process, mind, is extremely customizable, allowing you to jack up (or down) various parts of your personality, which impacts skills like melee or ranged attacks, tech, stealth, lock-picking, defense, and dialogue-based options.
There’s even a (mostly flavor) “aptitude” rating that defines your former career/life. For my first playthrough I was a silver-tongued, crackshot cashier, which is another way of saying I was living my best virtual life. The whole system is rife for replays, which plays into the multiple endings angle. After your avatar is good and ready you’ll jet down to a planet surface to help out (or betray) your benefactors. It’s open-ended like that.
It must be said upfront: this is not a fully open world game, and you know what? I’m glad. Zones are broken up into planets or space stations (which you can jet to using your ship), and there isn’t one big map to connect them all. Because of this choice, each zone gets its own chance to breathe a little without the stress involved with pixel-hunting icons (or radio towers) on a map.
It helps that my first impression of the initial planet was positive. You can see out into the distant, beautiful horizon, and the segmented approach helps differentiate each area. Due to the isolated nature of the planet-by-planet structure, it’s natural to feel cut off from the universe as a whole; like Outer Worlds is smaller than it really is.
Thankfully, Obsidian keeps treks (and load times) to a minimum as it focuses on planet-centric storylines without having to hop across the galaxy for errands. The flow kind of reminds me of the new God of War, moving around to different medium-to-large-sized zones through a hub interface. Your ship, which houses your companions (yes, this is one of my favorite Obsidian things too), is also home to ADA, your wisecracking AI. It’s safe in some respects, keen to not jettison every modern RPG trope.
It’s got marauders (evil flesh-eating mercs, classic), lock picking (though thankfully not a minigame this time, just a button prompt), that sort of familiarity. It’s comfortable at times. But it also has the classic Obsidian charm, filled to the brim with clandestine political discussions, plenty of (well-timed and funny) outbursts of cursing, and that rusted vibrancy aesthetic they do so well. Although walking around can sometimes feel lifeless — especially when so many buildings are closed or layouts repeat — that feeling often fades when you see a weird new lifeform or a ship fly by in the sky to remind you that you’re not alone.
That humor also pays dividends when you’re doing the actual RPG bits. This is one of those games where you’re often presented with five branching choices, which will spur a lot of save file diversity just to see where it all deviates. You’ll see what I mean when you try to talk down a major confrontation and can’t do it due to a lack of persuasion rating.
Just like the Bethesda-era Fallout series it draws upon, The Outer Worlds‘ bread and butter is first-person combat, but with a time-slow ability (that can be tweaked) instead of V.A.T.S. The emphasis on constant motion makes everything feel more action-oriented as a result, which Obsidian doubles down on with a double-tap/click jump dodge (melee is also formidable in Outer Worlds because the time-slow mechanic benefits both ranged and close-quarters styles of play). Of course, there’s always the non-violent/stealth option, and interesting optional “flaws” can pop up after messing up one too many times (like acrophobia if you fall too much).
From a UI perspective, it also isn’t a complete mess on consoles in spite of the complexity. The inventory system is clean (with an option to instantly mark items as junk and pawn them off en masse), there’s a respec (build change) tool, and best of all, food buffs you for a limited time — no more pausing the game to spam 25 apples to recover health.
You can solve conflicts non-violently through your words, murder everyone, extort them, or chastise them and make them apologize for off-handed comments. You’ll also have the chance to convince unsuspecting NPCs that you’re a space inspector instead of confronting them upfront, then kill them when they’re walking away. This sort of openness extends all the way through to the end, where exhaustive satisfying epilogues are provided for all major characters (at least in my case).
The absolute highlight of Outer Worlds though has to be the companion system. It’s no bullshit, shucking any sort of unfun micromanagement or restrictions. Once you meet a companion you can always quest with them anywhere, and they’ll constantly chime in with their opinion on the task at hand or open up new quests/avenues of play. They passively buff your skills and carrying capacity by just existing, and while the AI is decent by default, you can customize their basic strategy through menu options. Companions also sport over-exaggerated skills (which are supers, really) and can be fully kitted out with their own inventory, gear, and perks. Plus you can have two with you at all times!
Although I did not encounter any crashes on PS4, there is jank. Sometimes the game says you’re in combat when you clearly aren’t, forcing you to retreat a bit (or even fast travel) to sort of clean the errant glitchy pipes and allow you to interact with a key item. Companion powers are shaky too, and sometimes buggy (teleporting them across the field instantly), but they’re fun to look at and always connect as a result.
An open world game also has to have open world bugs, right? During my playthrough on PS4, I encountered some frame-skipping (nothing too major, unless you’re playing on the max difficulty setting, then it can cause problems), and the game-over screen is super sudden, which is annoying when coupled with an infrequent auto-save system. Loading screens, when they do happen, can approach 30 seconds even on a PS4 Pro.
Despite some nominal issues that might be easier for some to hand-wave than others, Obsidian has out-Fallouted recent Fallout efforts. The Outer Worlds is more limited from a size standpoint compared to a lot of other open world adventures, but it makes up for it in charm and a succinct vision without much bloat.
[This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.]