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is the “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” of RPGs. Obsidian, a developer that’s made sequels to both BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Bethesda’s Fallout 3, has merged those two distinctive flavors, and they taste great together. I wouldn’t quite call this space-frontier themed adventure the best of both, but it’s a creative and well-made take that’s both familiar and new all at once.The Outer Worlds takes place in a solar system-wide colony ruled by corporate feudalism and filled with dark humor. Everywhere you look there’s a satirical slogan or crazy-eyed mascot, a worker being treated as hilariously disposable, and oppressive propaganda and policies keeping everybody in line. And, as a big fan of the short-lived sci-fi western show Firefly, I spotted its influences everywhere. From the on-the-nose “Firefly” branding on the energy weapon ammo to the fact that your junky transport’s young naive engineer lady talks pretty much exactly like Kaylee, it’s layered on thick in a way I appreciated. It isn’t hard to picture Captain Malcolm Reynolds reading off some of the more sarcastic dialogue options, either.
In some ways it’s nice that the story doesn’t put a face on the evil corporate Board that rules over this isolated colony until around two thirds of the way through the roughly 30-hour campaign – and even when they do they’re not all that menacing. On one hand, The Outer Worlds feels aimless for a long time, but on the other, that means the quest to help a mad-ish scientist revive your fellow colonists from hibernation sort of fades into the background as you casually wander into the middle of morally gray local conflicts and pick winners and losers. Sometimes by throwing a switch to declare your preference for the winners, and sometimes by simply shooting said losers. The first big quest has major parallels to Fallout 3’s signature Megaton choice, though while I did enjoy hearing about the philosophical differences between various factions, there aren’t many big surprises or Megaton-like “wow” moments in how quests play out. The Outer Worlds feels smaller in scale than that, though, so that works well enough.
It’s a very familiar format to anybody who’s played a Fallout game, in that there are almost always multiple ways to fight, talk, or sneak your way through – and notably there are different speech skills to lie, persuade, or intimidate your way past adversaries. Those all result in the same outcome if your skill is high enough to enable the dialogue options (which are labeled to indicate which one is being used, as in Fallout: New Vegas) but it lets you have a say in whether your character plays the role of scoundrel, diplomat, or thug.
Accordingly, there’s a faction reputation system in play that keeps track of who you’ve helped or wronged, but it never really felt important because for the most part its only rewards are discounts of up to 25% at vendors, and using vendors is rarely necessary. But it’s nice to know someone cares. The nice thing about it is that losing some reputation is a somewhat meaningful consequence for getting caught stealing people’s trinkets other than a potentially game-ending fight with security or everything grinding to a halt while you break out of jail for the eighth time.
One surprise is how bug-free it all is. Especially since the rushed development of Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian has carried around a reputation for games being buggy at launch, but if my experience playing through The Outer Worlds on PC is any indication it might be the game to change that perception. I’ve only had one temporarily broken side quest (where I couldn’t turn it in to the questgiver for a while) in more than 30 hours – other than that it’s been extremely smooth. (Your results may vary – bugs, almost by definition, don’t affect everybody equally.)
Along the same lines, anybody who’s played a BioWare RPG will recognize The Outer Worlds’ extensive quests for its six companion characters. I wouldn’t say there’s a break-out star among the crew (though admittedly I never did unlock the sixth one – I only noticed him as I was about to embark on the final mission. Next playthrough!) but they all have engrossing backstories and there isn’t a bad actor in the bunch. Even the meat-headed Felix has his moments. And because you can have two companions with you at all times, every pairing has lines of banter between them that adds extra personality.
Not every idea is a remix of Bethesda and BioWare, though. Obsidian has its own clever things to add to The Outer Worlds, like the way its skill and perks systems incorporate companions into your character build by adding their stats to your own. So if you’re concentrating your skills on guns and dialogue, you can balance yourself out by bringing along Max to boost your hacking and Pavarti to boost your engineering. Since you can’t control your companions directly, this solution makes a lot of sense.
On top of that, you get a good amount of old-school control over companions’ gear and perks, as their weapons, armor, and helmets must be managed and updated along with your own. You can even tweak their behavior settings, such as whether they should prefer ranged or melee weapons or behave aggressively or defensively, without getting bogged down in the overcomplicated weeds. Maybe most importantly, each one has a special combat skill you can activate at will that effectively pauses the action so that they can deliver a cinematic smack-down to your target. Those come in especially handy when you’re overwhelmed – the cutscene attacks can give you a breather in a big fight, and a lot of them have stun effects (on top of big damage) and that can be a lifesaver when a huge beast is bearing down on you.
The first-person-only combat is definitely more on the Fallout side of the spectrum, but it distinguishes itself with a faster pace and more emphasis on precision aim. Where Fallout’s VATS does the work of targeting an enemy’s weak point for you, The Outer Worlds’ tightly limited time-slowing ability rewards your good aim. Score a headshot and you’ll blind an enemy; target their legs to slow them; hit them in the arms to reduce their attacks; target them dead-center with a sniper rifle to go for an execution. It’s certainly a lot less robotic than VATS, and especially once I turned the difficulty up to hard (normal can be a bit of a breeze) I began to rely on it to cripple tough enemies before they could smash me.
Your ship, the Unreliable, serves as a hub that lets you jump between the handful of worlds and space stations and lets you mingle with your crew. It’s similar to the Normandy in Mass Effect, to the point where it even has a sassy AI lady to chat with, but otherwise it too is drenched in the homey vibes of Firefly’s Serenity. There’s not a ton to do there but pretty much every time you return you’re directed to see what antics your companions are getting up to while you’ve been away doing good or crime.
The locations the Unreliable shuttles you to are varied: Most are different varieties of untamed frontier wilderness full of alien beasts and marauders, but there’s also a run-down, Citadel-like space station and a future-urban capital city. Jumping between them as you chase various quest chains keeps things feeling fresh, and the colorful art style never feels drab or one-note.
Because The Outer Worlds is split into smaller open-world maps, there’s definitely not as much discoverable stuff out there to unexpectedly stumble upon between quest markers, but there’s still a fair amount to hunt down. That includes a set of powerful and unique “Science weapons,” such as an honest-to-goodness shrink ray. Yes, we have fun in The Outer Worlds.
That’s another cool thing about this skill system: it makes traditionally non-combat skills like science, persuasion, and hacking actually somewhat valuable in a fight by passively causing enemies to flee or cower. So even if you build toward non-combat skills you’re still at least somewhat viable against wildlife or marauders who can’t be reasoned with. It’s kind of a shame that this isn’t represented by in-game shouts about the enemy’s mammas driving them into shame, but since your character is mute I understand why it isn’t so.
Another very original feature of The Outer Worlds is faults, where you occasionally have the opportunity to opt into a weakness in exchange for a point that can unlock a powerful bonus in your perk tree (these range from carry weight bonuses to converting a percentage of damage taken to health, with a lot in between). I got a few in my run that gave me vulnerabilities to certain types of attacks, which are meaningful weaknesses but rarely affected how I fought because when I was charging into a fight I generally wasn’t taking stock of whether they were shooting at me with plasma or corrosion. The one I had to consider more often gave me a debuff whenever I took fall damage – I like when a game thinks outside the box and influences my behavior without resorting to percentages. I don’t know how many of those possibilities exist, but I’m glad that they do. They’re not a huge difference, but they’re an unpredictable random element that makes each playthrough unique, and that makes me even more interested to play through again.
Meanwhile, the loot and weapon modding system lets you spend cash to level up a favorite gun and keep pace with your progress, and change the damage type to specialize when going up against different enemies. There weren’t as many of these as I expected – I got a lot of the same low-value sites and barrels as I expected and few that proved worthwhile beyond that – but it at least gave me hope I’d run across something more potent. As for loot overall, there’s certainly a lot of it – but inventory management was never too much of a hassle and you can always break stuff down instead of dropping it so it doesn’t feel like it’s wasted.