Review: The Outer Worlds

There are some who will (if they haven’t already) tire of seeing the exact same game name-dropped again and again when it comes to drawing comparisons. But it’s hard not to see plenty of Fallout: New Vegas‘ ideas and tone on show with Obsidian’s latest venture, The Outer Worlds. It’s coming up to nearly a decade since we ventured through the Mojave Wasteland as The Courier, but to this day New Vegas is still beloved as a title, buggy and technically-inconsistent it may have been on release, that excelled where it mattered. A less-than-appealing visual effort sure, but the type of RPG that could outlive its more surface-level efforts — investing instead in the elements people care most about: gameplay, story, world-building and characters. Those same caveats are in plentiful supply here, sadly, but if you’re willing to look past them — as obvious and a little off-putting they may likely be — The Outer Worlds, like the game it draws from, is further proof of how well Obsidian can marry style with substance.

Many of those same elements shine because, as it soon becomes the case, the planet-hopping (and at times station-hopping) journey across the Halcyon system in the mid-24th century is as varied as it is engaging. For those having played New Vegas, many of these unfolding systems and multiple steps during quests will seem not only familiar, but easy in deducing just how they eventually reveal themselves. Further playing back into the wider RPG mechanics on show and of Obsidian’s staple philosophy on bridging the gap between old-school, dialog-orientated exposition and contemporary, real-time, frantic action. That may sound like the game has already shown its hand, and admittedly the game can at points run the risk of coming across too much a retread of what’s come before. Yet despite the occasional odd decision by an AI mid-combat, or the blank, dead-eye expression many of the game’s NPC’s will be confined to you during their conversation “mode,” Obsidian still manage to sprinkle in a few contemporary ideas into the fold to prevent The Outer Worlds from simply feeling like some nostalgic appeasement.

It all starts of course with the area players will invest in and pay close attention to the most: namely, the stat-based progression that assigns the proficiency of varying abilities a numeric value. Perhaps one of the more immediate alterations is the fact that skills are no longer separate; separate in the sense that players are required to thin down the skill point they acquire as a result of leveling-up. Thus running the risk of committing to a particular build — whether that’s one that specializes in gunplay, dialogue, stealth etc. Instead, The Outer Worlds takes a slightly different approach in that certain skills are sorted into categories; up until rank 50, whereupon players can invest into that individual trait, should you spend vital points in the Dialog category (encompassing Persuade, Lie and Intimidate alike), all the associated skills in that category will increase. The developer’s argument in this case, and one that arguably better eases players into figuring out their preferred play-style, being that it avoids immediately closing off possible avenues — allowing still a moment of opportunity should you find yourself in a precarious situation where a successful Speech-based choice is needed or hacking a terminal will prevent you from tackling a quest in that undesirably lethal way.

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There’s plenty of flexibility and room for fine-tweaking in The Outer Worlds. Add to this the passive buffs and abilities you unlock upon meeting certain skill point thresholds, not to mention clothing mods that can add a much-needed boost to one or two traits, and it’s clear that for those who are patient and truly seek out every nook and cranny the game world (both with its interior buildings and sectioned-off worlds alike), achieving the impossible isn’t so without reach. It’s why the quest design in The Outer Worlds is as captivating and as satisfying to partake in — objectives that may pose something as insignificant as fetch-quest styled “go here, get thing” but eventually unwind into a cascading of critical choices and subtle advice that simply following what’s been instructed may not always be the whole picture. As a result, for those who are willing enough to venture off the beaten path — figuratively and literally in some regards — or simply take to the “optional” objectives as, in actuality, a tale hiding far more information than you’ve been initially told, The Outer Worlds offers more than enough reason to get invested with not just the simple premise of dealing with the shady, shadowy, implied antagonists referred to as The Board, but in the grander lore the game drip-feed through conversations and terminal logs alike.

Fortunately, The Outer Worlds does find a way for that flexibility to extend beyond its assortment of quests and one of these areas is in how players can modify the weapons they gather over the course of the story. While the game’s customization side isn’t exactly the most diverse, mechanically or cosmetically — instead allotting increased DPS values and at points assigning some weapons with particular elemental effects — there’s still a sufficient amount here for players to consider in properly arming themselves. The slow trickle of new weapons and abundance of mods one comes across doesn’t always find the right balance, but just like its quests, for those players willing to invest a bit more time, the pay-off of a more beneficial firearm is never too far away. Another neat and possibly tentative feature comes in the form of the many restricted areas you come across and how using the Shroud item — a kind of cloaking item that disguises you as, say, a faction soldier or doctor — in tandem with keeping a low profile can help you slip in and out of areas undetected. Providing you keep a low-profile and don’t attempt to go anywhere your disguise doesn’t allow; doing so resulting in a tense moment whereupon only a successful dialog choice will prevent things from devolving into violence.

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That very trust in its players’ intuition — and encouraging them more so to explore beyond the parameters of what’s required, even test what they can in fact get away with in parts — pays off superbly in The Outer Worlds. Even if it’s something as meager as spotting an ammo cache tucked behind a stack of crates or potentially vital as checking all rooms in a building to subsequently find a terminal where security can be disabled. While these moments aren’t particularly new by any stretch (and in the case of scavenging, it’s a shame that a lot of these items seldom find much use aside from being sold at one of the many vending machines for mere currency), the game never flat-out spells out how progression can, let alone should, be made. It’s up to players whether they want to rush through or instead take the time to really uncover the truth of the matter — even press certain characters as to why, in some cases, they were privy to certain details — resulting in quest lines that can be resolved in numerous ways, violent or purely pacifist alike. Which in turn may open up potential avenues for skills/traits/perks to be applied, an additional amount of XP rewarded should a certain dialog option become available.

The Outer Worlds owes much of the appeal of its quests to how intriguing the backdrop and overall lore of the Halcyon system is. Be it the main storyline, additional side quests, faction quests pertaining to particular groups you encounter along the way, or even companion quests that spring up from time to time for those you’ve recruited along the way, The Outer Worlds rarely loses sight on providing an RPG that is chock full of many a moral dilemma or character whose intentions and methods aren’t necessarily aligned with either moral extreme or may open up with a little persuasion further on. Again the presence of that many a shade of grey isn’t new, but Obsidian do a terrific job at keeping you invested enough with the situation unfolding, and having you second-guess every pivotal decision that comes along the way. To the point where a last-minute interruption from one of your companions — and their offering their own two cents on the matter — can have so much sway, it actually results in you changing your mind. Something which happened on more than one occasion.

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Much like the recently-released GreedFall, The Outer Worlds recognizes the importance and relevance in making your companions feel present in your travels — acting like more than just mere meat-shields in combat. Even if it is something as simple as a passing remark during dialog with another character. Minor an aspect this may be, it’s these brief excursions into small-talk and banter that prevent the characters in The Outer Worlds from simply being friendly AI whom are competent enough with a gun. There are times when you can stop for minutes at a time as a companion asks for your opinion on some helpful advice. Even when these moments risk pulling you out of the agency of exploring alien/colonized worlds — and aren’t by contrast, though equally-welcome, moments that help pad out the lull of silence during one’s travels — Obsidian’s on-point writing and effective delivery of tone and exposition are what keep you interested enough as to the origins and backgrounds of the people you meet and those you make part of your rag-tag group of travelers. There’s even a nice little moment upon returning to your ship where two companions may even enter into small conversations about meaningless things or bicker among themselves. Again, it’s these small touches that add so much into making The Outer Worlds brim with heart and personality.

A personality that, in reality, helps to deter from the frequent technical shortcomings that the game sadly fails to keep to the backdrop. Locked at 30FPS on the base PS4 it may be (and sometimes dipping below that), The Outer Worlds struggles on occasion to keep one’s journey from feeling entirely smooth. Move too quickly through a given region and a circular loading icon will put a halt to proceedings for a brief second. Transition to any one of the settlements, and even if similarly for a split second, you’ll see the game immediately jump from out a lengthy loading screen, having not even rendered all assets or textures on show. It’s visible enough to spot and perhaps the only real major downside to The Outer Worlds from a technical and presentation standpoint. That’s not to say there aren’t a couple of other minor nitpicks from a design side that may be seen, at the very least, as an oversight. From the size of text in some menus, to the idiotic nature of some enemy AI — a notable example being an enemy hostile completely sprinting past me while still in an attack form — let’s just say it’s sadly not only the good/welcome aspects where Fallout: New Vegas‘ spirit and “aesthetic” is felt.

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Closing Comments:

Even with these unfortunate and evident shortcomings on the technical side, The Outer Worlds is a rewarding and ultimately intriguing adventure to partake in. Delivering on that same kind of old-and-new synergy of RPG staples that have allowed this niche of AA-tier RPGs — limitations notwithstanding — to flourish in recent years. For those who’ve already experienced Obsidian’s beloved 3D envisioning of Fallout — from quest progression to the way dialog can flow in a number of potential routes, to the very tone and on-point character writing — while instantly recognizable, it remains incredibly worthwhile in picking apart so as to uncover the finer detail lying beyond the surface. Not all areas are as deep as the morally-ambiguous narrative or its slew of worthwhile characters, but for those who are patient enough and can appreciate the attention put into giving its world (its many worlds) some nuance beyond simply its artistic efforts, like New Vegas before it, The Outer Worlds‘ light-hearted trek through shallow, corporate shenanigans, is one RPG that so easily pulls you in and keeps you there many a dozen-hours later.