In pre-release coverage of The Outer Worlds, the development team highlighted a number of things about the game.
First, the game was going to be a throwback to last decade’s action RPG’s, namely Fallout 3. Second, people should temper expectations on just how big this game was and how much it would have to offer. In one way, this second point was a brilliant bit of marketing – if you enter expecting very little, The Outer Worlds will surprise you initally with how deep its lore is and how much there is to do. In another way, asking consumers to temper their expectations is an extremely apt suggestion as once you spend a few hours with the game, its cracks begin to show.
Let’s begin with combat, which looks identical to combat from Fallout 4, but in The Outer Worlds it is generally an improvement over the gunplay in Bethesda’s series. There is more weight behind the shots as well as improved elemental weapon effects. Assault rifles and plasma weapons pack a satisfying punch, but using shotguns and sniper rifles is flaccid and disappointing. Science weapons add some novel elements such as shrinking enemies, while melee combat includes dodging, combos, and power moves. The Outer Worlds offers its own version of Fallout’s VATS system, here called “Tactical Time Dilation”, that slows down time rather than stopping it altogether, but it fails to be as satisfying as VATS’ cinematic camera. I ended up barely using Tactical Time Dilation at all.
The combat is maybe best described as serviceable and certainly not even close to knocking on the doors of modern first-person shooters. Games like The Outer Worlds don’t necessarily need to match the first-person combat of games like Call of Duty or Battlefield. Instead, average combat can survive in an action RPG by serving as a platform for other elements such as strategy, levelling up skills, or unlockable combat moves. Of course, that isn’t to say that playing an RPG like The Outer Worlds or Fallout 4 with proper modern shooting gameplay wouldn’t be incredible. A man can dream…
And so the main issue with The Outer Worlds’ combat is not the gun gameplay itself. Rather, it’s that there just isn’t much else there to support the shooting or distract you from it. Stealth works poorly, with enemies often able to tell telepathically where you are after you dispatch one of their comrades. There aren’t any mines, grenades, or ways to distract enemies. There isn’t any tracking system to let you mark targets or powers to affect enemies or the environment. The player doesn’t have an alternative to the brute-force method. With so few strategies to choose from, the tediousness of combat becomes apparent sooner rather than later.
The decision to stay away from one enormous open world is one of the best design choices in The Outer Worlds. In the past decade and a half, open world games have grown from novel exploratory trips to mind-numbing chore lists across continental expanses. Games like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry give the player so much to do in such large spaces that exploration doesn’t mean exciting discoveries, it means more work to do. The Outer Worlds instead uses a half-dozen smaller area maps, akin to miniature open-worlds. Seeing everything in these areas is doable, as is completing all the quests, and collecting all items. This is a huge boon to players who want to beat the game in a shorter period of time, which is to say roughly 25 hours. Most of the areas include enough locations and enough content to satisfy while not inundating the quest log with fetch and collection quests.
The areas have varying art styles and despite a few rough-looking textures here and there, the game looks great. Skyboxes are saturated with moons, sun, light streaks, and stars to the point of ludicrousness, but they toe the line just enough to be quite enjoyable to look at. Dotted here and there across the game are other spectacular environmental elements such as a giant terraforming machine on a planet surrounded by floating asteroids. The game also has its fair share of recycled assets, but the art in the game is generally appealing.
So what about the RPG part of this action RPG? I played through the game focusing on dialogue choices and science skills. I was hoping to take advantage of the game’s pacifist options and to enjoy the dialogue in the game, a strength of many Obsidian Games. I wasn’t disappointed. There are more than enough chances to avoid combat through speech skills, as well as receive special rewards or unique interactions with NPCs. Dialogue in general is a big strength of The Outer Worlds.
I didn’t play through a second time as a combat-focused character, but it’s hard for me to believe that there would have been that much difference combat-wise. The difficulty of the game is low, aside from the very final level where the enemies’ armor levels are amped up considerably. You’ll get small benefits each time you level up a skill to 20, 40, 60, 80, or 100 points, and these benefits can be useful in certain scenarios. In general though, the game allows the player to make two types of characters: 1) combat skilled (melee vs ranged) and 2) dialogue skilled. With such simple combat, the skills don’t affect that part of the gameplay much at all.
Perks are another way to increase your character’s skills, carry weight, or companion’s usefulness. You’ll get one every time you level or so, but by the time I reached level 20 out of 30, I had already chosen all the perks I found useful. The rest just didn’t seem that beneficial. This lack of worthy perks is especially disappointing given that the game will at times allow you to trade some negative, such as increased damage, for an extra perk. But with so few perks, there isn’t much reason to accept the offer. As for armor and items, they too can raise your skills, which allows you to use them to make up for lack of skill points. If you need 10 more points in your lockpick skill to open a door, you can slip on a certain outfit and crack the lock without any problems.
As for how the inventory is handled and presented – my goodness. The game suffers from a bloat of consumables, gun modifications, armor modifications, and weapons. The user interface is less than helpful when it comes to organizing or viewing items, or letting you get rid of them en masse. It’s a seemingly inescapable (and somewhat satisfying) element of RPG’s that your character’s wallet is extremely fat by the last third or quarter of a game. With The Outer Worlds, you’ll become wealthy and rich in the first few hours as long as you pick up everything on your way. And, except for increasing the damage on your gun or the armor rating of your outfit ad infinitum, there isn’t all that much to spend your cash on.
The writing in The Outer Worlds is one of its strongest parts. The dialogue is especially varied, funny, and well-voiced. Even though conversations are presented Fallout 3 style with NPC’s staring immobile at the camera, the voice acting and writing quality make up for such a stale presentation. The game mostly aims to be funny and for the most part, it hits the mark. The story centres on corporation ownership of planets and the effects of capitalism that is integrated completely into people’s lives. The Outer Worlds tries its best to tell every joke about overwork and corporate servitude as possible.
You can adventure with two companions at your side, and each companion of the six have a quest-line for you to complete. The rewards for these are the same as any other quest, and it’s a missed opportunity for the game not to reward your companion with a special move or perk when you complete their questline. Half of the companion quests are enjoyable mini-arcs that tell you more about that person and the world’s lore. The other half are shallow quest lines that make me wonder if they should have just cut those characters from the game altogether.
It is a pretty common phenomenon in open world games for the main quest’s importance and urgency to dissolve slowly into the background. With so many other quests, it’s easy to completely forget about the main story of the game. The Outer Worlds suffers from this trend, which is a bit surprising given that the game’s structure is a series of much smaller and more concentrated areas than an open world. Despite the opportunities this grants, the game doesn’t connect its side-quests to the main quest in a significant way, and so when the big final mission comes along, there isn’t really much weight behind it.
And that note carries to the disappointing ending of The Outer Worlds, which feels much less polished and interesting than the rest of the game. The last planet has the two worst fetch quests in the game that have you revisiting all previous locations and are complete wastes of time. The final mission is a shooting gallery with powerful enemies, although the game does reward all play styles with the various ways you can defeat the final boss. The very ending presents a series of screenshots explaining what happened to characters in the world. This PowerPoint style of ending a game has never been good and should have been taken out behind the barn decades ago.
There is a lot to like about The Outer Worlds. There is a lot to dislike about the game, too. The writing is strong, the combat is better than its grand-daddy Fallout 4, and the world’s lore is well crafted. But the combat also lacks any depth or challenge, and the game’s final quarter makes it feel like the developers ran out of time. The decision to create smaller areas instead of one giant open-world has numerous benefits that make the game progress snappier, but the developers didn’t take full advantage of this concentrated approach.
The Outer Worlds is an unabashed homage to the modern Fallout series. It duplicates and improves on many elements from the past, but it doesn’t feel modern or fully polished. If you enter with tepid expectations and deep nostalgia for Fallout 3, you’ll enjoy your time with The Outer Worlds.