After a noticeable absence from the AAA space, developer Obsidian Entertainment returns to the mainstream with a brand new IP.
The Outer Worlds is a new game that harkens back to narrative-driven gameplay within a world that changes based on your decisions. It takes RPG elements seriously and feels like a giant middle finger to always-online live service games like Anthem and Fallout 76 while shouting "Look how far you have fallen, brother!" at BioWare then sensually rubbing its ass at Bethesda and proclaiming "You could have had all of this if you treated me right!"
It really cannot be overstressed just how refreshing The Outer Worlds feels. While most AAA games continue to over-monetize their products, The Outer Worlds is like something from nearly a decade ago yet in the best way possible. There aren't a ton of different editions of it, no season passes or microtransactions, and it makes no effort to sell us on future DLC.
The Outer Worlds feels like a big mashup of Fallout: New Vegas, BioShock, and Borderlands with a hint of Firefly and just a dash of Rick and Morty which results in something glorious. It's a game that is truly one-of-a-kind in this day and age and had it been allowed just a bit longer to cook in the oven, it could have easily been a contender for one of the best games of this entire console generation.
The Outer Worlds' story takes place in the distant future in a solar system known as Halcyon. You play as a colonist who was supposed to be one of the first to arrive in the system but became lost in transit and stuck in hyper sleep for decades. You're awoken by a rogue scientist named Doctor Phineas Wells and quickly discover that the colony is falling apart thanks to the mismanagement of a corporate entity conglomerate known as The Board. So, it's up to you and Phineas to find a way to revive the colonists and break the hold that The Board has on the colony as well as save it from its impending doom... or you could lead the entire colony off a cliff, screw over Phineas, or whatever else you so choose!
Anyone who has played Fallout: New Vegas or Pillars of Eternity already have a good idea as to what to expect here. The fate of Halcyon's communities as well as the various characters you encounter rest almost entirely on the decisions you make. If you want, you can guide these communities to total ruin, ensuring that the land will be blighted for all eternity with its buildings only serving as tombstones for the corpses that you left in your wake or you can be a community's savoir, ensuring that it will prosper for years to come.
Alternately, you can just go through the story missions and ignore the problems that the communities endure. The various decisions that you make ultimately affect the ending and encourage multiple playthroughs as they install a desire to explore every corner of this solar system while rewarding and punishing you for your efforts. It's something that few games seem to do these days which is a shame because it never stops being a fun and rewarding system that makes you want to come back for more. Unfortunately, you're going to wish that the writing and level design was just a little bit stronger at times.
You see, The Outer Worlds' big gimmick is that, on top of being something of a Firefly-like space western, it's a big corporate satire which is both hilarious and depressingly relevant. Most of the subplots revolve around a mega corporate conglomerate attempting to choke all life from all its competition and potential threats. At the same time, the actual ground level factions are run by well-meaning but utterly incompetent buffoons who are running their communities into the ground. Various aspects contribute to this including failures to meet quotas, circumstances outside of the managers' control which results in fewer resources, and an overworked staff which leads to further problems. It's something that anyone who has ever worked in a major retail store or corporate environment can relate to and the developers capture this element perfectly. The issue is that they rely on this gimmick a bit too much and it can be a bit hard to tell what's intentional satire and what was just lazy design.
For example, several of the communities that you visit all suffer from the same problem as they're run by likeable but incompetent middle management folks who are good at some things but disastrously inept at others which is clearly part of the satire. We've all had managers who were good with numbers but not people and vice versa which can lead to an extremely stressful and sometimes toxic work environment. However, each of these communities have fallen into ruin with only a few walled settlements holding back the raiders and monsters that populate the territory outside their walls.
The writing for these characters and the stories surrounding them are diverse and interesting but functionally, they're all the same. In other words, they may contain different people but the settlements all seem like they're telling the same overarching story. Namely, they all fell into ruin because of corporate mismanagement and now you have to either help fix it or destroy it. This is also where it becomes unclear if it was part of the joke or if the developers had to crank out another territory for you to explore on a tighter timeline. For my money, though, it often seemed like it was the latter. While fighting through monsters and bandits never stops being fun, you'll begin to wish that the developers had more time to put something distinct together in some of these places.
It also has to be said that The Outer Worlds' main storyline isn't the best. It's not bad by any means but it seems to lack the same stakes as some of Obsidian's other projects and the big reveals often pop up in some very odd places. Some of the plot's biggest twists are things that you can potentially stumble upon earlier in the story within completely unrelated faction missions. When you encounter them in the story proper, they're treated as big game-changing plot twists but end up losing their shock value as a result. It's not at all helped by the fact that the primary problem plaguing Halcyon is a bit underwhelming. Again, it's not exactly bad but the reason behind The Board's actions will probably end up making you say "Oh, I see..." as opposed to "Holy crap!"
The plot is held up almost by sheer force of will by the game's colourful cast of characters. The crew is a diverse and charismatic group who you immediately grow attached to and very quickly want to learn more about and help resolve their side-quests. The various communities that you go to might be a bit repetitive at times but they stand out via their various faction leaders. They're all well-meaning buffoons and you quickly become invested in the fate of these communities as you either want to see them become better and help them prosper or blow their heads off for their incompetence and watch the settlements fall apart as punishment for following these morons for so long. Even later on, you'll discover that the moustache-twirling bad guys and halo-wearing good guys aren't quite as black and white as they initially seem thus elevating otherwise stock characters and apparently simple morality choices.
Finally, the gameplay mechanics are all solid. The various missions that you undertake can be completed in any number of ways and the game gives you a variety of means to go about them. You can go in guns blazing and blast your way through, talk people into letting you by and taking everything that you want, sneak your way through, or unleash caged monsters upon your unsuspecting enemies while you take what you need. It all depends on how you build your character and just like the way you go about the story, there is no inherent wrong way to do so. The downside to this is that it all feels just a little out of date.
When you go about these missions, it often feels like everything's just a little too stiff and ridged. The environments in general would have benefited from a little more variety and a few more options when you're sneaking around an enemy base with only a few barrels for cover. It's a bit too linear at times and could have used more building designs to sneak in as opposed to merely reusing the same science labs and corporate buildings over and over again. Once again, it's hard to tell if this was part of the corporate satire or just bad level design but regardless, you will feel limited by the end result.
Likewise, the combat suffers from a similar problem as it's better than anything that the Fallout games implement but it's too similar to the BioShock games. That being said, it's still fun but as I played, I had a constant nagging feeling that the developers should have implemented more depth to their environments and a bit more fluidity to its combat system.
The Outer Worlds is a game that could have used another year or 2 in development to really flesh out its world, plot, and gameplay but its parts generally work so well together that these issues can be easily overlooked. Specifically, the corporate satire is on point, the actual decision making aspects are solid and meaningful, and the combat and ways to execute missions never stop being fun despite feeling a bit stiff at times. It may not be the best western RPG of this console generation but it's still the best one that we've had in a while.
In the end, The Outer Worlds has flaws that need to be addressed by its developers in potential sequels but I still had an absolute blast with it. In the current AAA market, it's simply a breath of fresh air so give it a shot when you have the chance.
- + Colourful cast of characters and fantastic corporate satire
- + Lots of ways to go about missions
- + Meaningful decision making
- - Generally stiff gameplay that feels slightly out of date
- - Underwhelming plot reveals