The Outer Worlds Review
Interplanetary role-playing excellence
Though veteran RPG developers Obsidian Entertainment can hardly be accused of being idle over the last decade, pumping out several high quality CRPGs and a South Park game, it is their memorable 2010 release Fallout New Vegas that many hold as their primary point of reference with the studio. Almost ten years later, Obsidian have returned to this style of first-person RPG with The Outer Worlds, a new IP that should feel familiar to anyone who played Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Though lacking in the sheer scope and scale of those games, The Outer Worlds offers up a finely crafted and impressively flexible experience that should more than satisfy fans who have been craving a first-person Fallout style RPG.
The Outer Worlds forgoes dreary post-apocalyptic Earth for an alternate timeline science fiction setting, with interstellar space travel dominated by corporations who have claimed entire solar systems for themselves, with planets colonized and terraformed in the service of resource extraction and profit. The game takes place in the Halcyon system, named for the corporation who owns and runs it, with a few settlements on planets breaking off from the control of the company, and sub-contractors who find ways to make money and survive in the system as well.
You enter the scene as human who was revived after being frozen in croystasis on a ship long thought lost, finally located by a slightly mad scientist named Phineas Welles who is wanted by the Halcyon board for assorted criminal activities. Phineas informs you that you were selected to help him find a way to unfreeze the thousands of others. With that, you are dropped onto a nearby planet and through an unlikely accident soon gain control of your own spacecraft. You will recruit your own crew through the first half of the game, and fly between set locations in the Halcyon system to progress the story and take on side missions.
This proves to be an excellent setup for a RPG that feels a lot like a blend of Fallout and Mass Effect. It doesn't take long before you get the chance to swap sides and help the Halcyon board instead, drastically altering how things play out. As with Fallout New Vegas, the biggest strength and most remarkable aspect of The Outer Worlds is the number of important and story-altering choices you must make through the course of the game. Rather than make choices that are easily broken down to good vs. evil, most decisions are rather nuanced with advantages and disadvantages for both. Though the elite Halcyon Board are generally painted as being callous and greedy to a satirical extent, you are given the opportunity to talk to employees who are good, honest people simply trying to get by in a hostile environment. Many choices involve siding with the corporation or subverting it, and characters from both sides will usually make compelling arguments as to why you should side with them.
A large portion of your time in The Outer Worlds will be spent talking to people, and this ends up being the biggest strength of the game due to the very well written and often humorous dialogue. The conversations are done in the style of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, taking place from a first person perspective with the camera facing the character you are talking to. Your character is silent, as you simply select from a list of full responses, while everyone else is fully voiced.
One of the most impressive aspects of the game is how varied and interesting the options are for responses. You can approach conversations in many different ways, and depending on your character's stats, different options will be available. These can range from specific answers stemming from your advanced knowledge of science or engineering, to persuasive responses, to intimidation, lies, and even hilarious 'dumb' responses that are an option if you have a low intelligence stat. My only complaint is that the conversations can feel slightly static with the fixed camera and stiff facial animations compared to other modern RPGs, though I still greatly enjoyed talking to the colourful citizens of Halcyon and frequently laughed out loud at the surprisingly twists and turns conversations take.
After talking to different people you will find your quest log starting to fill up with story, faction and companion quests. Many locations in the game are packed with side quests, and almost all of them are worth doing. Companion and faction quests in particular are quite fleshed out, with lengthy questlines involving plenty of interesting choices and scenarios. You can gain and lose reputation with each faction, and if you go against a faction enough times either by making choices that hurt them or attacking faction members, they will become hostile and attack you on sight.
Many quests require you to infiltrate restricted facilities and you are typically given several options. If you have put enough points into dialogue skills, you might be able to talk your way past guards and walk freely around these areas. Alternatively, you can try and sneak through them, picking off enemies with melee attacks or avoiding them entirely. Early in the game you gain access to a device that lets you disguise yourself with a hologram, though you will need to find ID cartridges for specific disguises. Hostiles will become suspicious of your disguise over time, and you will eventually be approached and interrogated, where you will again need to rely on dialogue skills to avoid trouble.
Of course, you can always take the direct approach and just kill everyone. The Outer Worlds lets you kill just about any NPC and the questlines will adapt, still allowing you to complete the game. Combat is fairly simplistic but quite satisfying. You can use melee weapons or ranged weapons, both of which can be quite effective and have a good sense of weight to them. The key ability in combat is time-dilation, essentially slow-motion you can trigger for a short period of time. With a few skill points put into combat, targeting enemies during slow-motion will show different status effects for hitting specific body parts with different weapons. For instance, shooting an enemy in the face will blind them, while a shotgun blast to the chest will knock them over. You can also dodge side to side and even dash forward with the right upgrades, which is especially useful in melee combat, as it lets you block and attack with one or two handed weapons.
Of particular note are unique and wacky 'science' weapons that you will find hidden throughout the system. These have special effects that might send enemies flying into the air, or allow you to mind control an enemy to attack on your behalf, among some even wackier ones I won't spoil here. You can use workbenches to modify weapons and armor, changing their damage type to electricity, plasma or radiation so as to make them particularly effective against certain enemy types. You can also bring up to two companions into combat, and give them basic orders like where to move and who to attack, and they also have highly effective special abilities that can be used a couple of times per fight. My only real issues with the combat is that enemy variety is a bit lacking, and that it can be fairly easy once you figure out a playstyle; I beat the game on hard and only felt challenged in a handful of encounters. On hard I also found myself drowning in vast quantities of ammo and healing items, so some further balancing with the difficulty settings and resource availability would certainly have benefited the experience.
Another clever aspect of the combat is the healing system. You will pick up a huge variety of consumable items that have different status effects. Rather than equipping these and using them individually, you have an inhaler that will use a basic healing item, but also has slots for other consumables that will take effect at the same time whenever you use the inhaler. This lets you create a custom blend that might buff health regeneration, temporarily improve your stats, and generally tailor the one-button-press buff to your specific needs.
You will have further opportunities to specialize when you level up. In addition to the usual skill points to put into a large number of different attributes, every two levels you can select a perk that might improve your ability to carry items, various aspects of combat effectiveness, or give you bonuses when traveling without companions. You will also have opportunities to take on 'flaws' which will give you a negative hit to stats in exchange for an extra perk. You can further improve or round out your character by considering the strengths of your companions, as their stats will bolster your own and let you pass skill checks during dialogue, or pick locks/hack into computers even if your personal stats in these areas are low.
When you aren't talking to someone or dealing with enemies, you will spend the rest of your time exploring and looting. The Outer Worlds has a couple of reasonably large open areas, but in general the play area is fairly limited compared to many modern RPGs. However, it makes up for its lack of scale by filling each area with loads of nooks and crannies with useful items including weapons and armor, computers terminals with interesting logs and emails, and side-quest giving NPCs. Still, compared to other RPGs that share design philosophies with The Outer Worlds, exploration is de-emphasized. I suspect most players will finish the game in 20-30 hours, with a more completionist approach possibly taking 40+. However, due to the benefits of specializing skills, many story-altering choices and varied play styles on offer, replay value is excellent so the game comfortably justifies its asking price.
Visually, The Outer Worlds is a bit inconsistent, but ends up looking pretty good overall. The environments are vaguely alien looking with mainly industrial pre-fabricated structures making up most settlements and outposts. Though this does lead to some visual repetition in built-up locations, the mostly samey structures do fit in well with the corporate driven themes of the game. Outside of settlements, planets are given distinct colour palettes with high saturation creating some surreal looking landscapes that bring No Man's Sky to mind. I thought some locations looked great, while others didn't impress quite as much. The best looking areas are interiors accessed later in the game that are highly detailed with some great lighting and texture work.
Characters have detailed faces, but animate somewhat stiffly, and you can tell that many NPCs were created from a limited pool of assets as you will start to recognize facial structures and hair styles. However, the strength of the underlying engine mostly shines through with sharp visuals overall, and the game runs well to boot, apart from a couple of locations that resulted in frame rate dips. The game has almost no bugs to speak of as well, aside from some minor pathfinding issues with your AI companions, which will be welcome news to those recalling the rather unstable state of New Vegas at launch. You will need to endure quite a few loading screens when fast-traveling or entering towns/larger interiors, but load times are fairly brief. The audio side is good as well, with high quality voice acting, impactful sound effects in combat, and a great original score that fits the space-western vibe of the game perfectly.
Even though The Outer Worlds doesn't have a massive scale or super slick cinematic presentation, it is a tight and very well put together science fiction RPG that offers an impressive amount of choice in character building and narrative-altering decisions. Though some aspects of the experience such as combat difficulty and resource availability could use some fine tuning, those who are looking for a finely crafted and highly replayable RPG in the vein of Fallout New Vegas or Mass Effect should definitely pick up this promising new IP from Obsidian.