It might be hard to believe, but it’s already almost exactly nine years ago that Fallout: New Vegas was released on October 19, 2010. Despite its technical growing pains, it still holds the title of the best 3D-Fallout game in my book. However, the world of video games has moved on since then and to be honest, New Vegas was already kind of old school even back then. Therefore my anticipation for The Outer Worlds was mixed with certain worries how well the concept would translate to modern standards. Worries that were justified to some extent, since The Outer Worlds indeed has little to offer in terms of innovative ideas and mechanics. That doesn’t prevent it from being a colorful and eclectic ride through outer space though.
A feeling of déjà vu
Similarities to Fallout can be found plentifully. Even the backstory of our hero rings more than one bell. In an alternate timeline, Earth has founded colonies in outer space. These missions were basically funded by big influential corporations which also form the governments in these colonies. One such colony is the system Halcyon, were the corporations rule via “the board”. You awaken in a huge colony ship, only to realize that you have been in hibernation for 70 years along with the rest of the colonists because something went terribly wrong. Your savior, a wanted scientist named Dr. Phineas Wells, had only enough resources to awaken you. He tells you that the second colony ship made the journey without any problem and indeed colonized the system in the meantime. For some reasons though the board has no interest in trying to awaken the passengers of your ship. Reasons that you are about to find out.
Maybe it’s just me, but being locked away and then entering a world that has moved on in the meantime sounds awfully familiar. Vault, colony ship – what’s the difference. One difference to Fallout is for sure the technological level. After all, The Outer Worlds does not limit you to one single planet but a whole solar system. It’s fascinating how Obsidian nevertheless managed to carry over the shabby and clunky look of the retrofuturism from an alternate timeline. A basic theme that I love about both franchises is the huge gap between aspiration and reality, both in terms of the social welfare and structure as well as the technological reliability. This is often combined with a dark sense of humor. Things are hardly ever as they are advertised in Halcyon.
Untapped story potential
Obsidian draws an interesting, pragmatic take on the typical dystopia. It’s not a shadowy big brother that usurped power at some point in history that nobody can remember anymore. Instead, corporations are in control, because after all without them the whole venture would not have been possible to begin with. Therefore, there is no reason for most inhabitants to question the legitimacy of their power.
Unfortunately, the potential of the extensive world building remains mostly underused. The writers make it very clear from the very beginning that corporations are evil. Period. If you didn’t get that fact quick enough, they will make you understand it by letting almost every character recite some corporate slogans during the dialogues, because they are legally obliged to do so. While this is a funny idea by itself, it is exemplary for the unsubtle way of painting things black and white. Especially in the main story there is little space for moral gray areas. Without spoiling any details, since this becomes clear in the first few hours, you can either work alongside Dr. Wells in his attempt to awaken the rest of the colonists or you can work for the board. At least it is possible for you to keep both parties happy for some time, so you can delay your final decision.
With the board being so clearly evil however, in my view there is no intrinsic motivation for the main character to work for them. Realistically, choosing their side can only result from the player being curious or entertained by the idea of being the bad guy, but for me that would have killed any remaining immersion, even though I sometimes enjoy the play the baddie when there is a believable reason. Overall, the main story remains rather shallow – another parallel to the Fallout series.
The freedom of questing
The strong suit of the writing can be found in tons of side quests that leave little to be desired. Complex quest structures, multiple solutions and the interweaving of different quests and the information gained there gave me a feeling of freedom that is seldom matched. Even if I acted in a way that might not meet the expected order of quest steps, this was resolved without any problems. If my character already knew things in advance, there was always the logical corresponding dialog option. In the rare case that a quest failed because of my actions, the reasons were always comprehensible. This is a big improvement compared to Fallout: New Vegas, where quest lines could easily bug out for the same reasons.
As open as the quest structures may be, in their core I noticed quite early a certain “turncoat pattern”. It basically involves one faction or person telling you to act hostile towards another. When you then talk with the target, it tells you their side of the story and you then can decide which side to help or maybe you can even find a compromise. While this is certainly overused in many other games as well, once I saw it in The Outer Worlds, I couldn’t unsee it anymore. It was everywhere. On the positive side, many of these binary choices have lasting consequences. Even though they might be binary, they involve a lot of secondary factions that can’t be divided as easily in black and white and lead to really tough choices.
Freedom is in general a very important aspect of your journey through Halcyon. While there is no huge open world, there are several spacious areas across different planets. Quests and loot wait at every corner and exploration is a big part of what makes The Outer Worlds fun. Including all side quests that I could find, it took me close to 40 hours to complete it. There is no real order predefined by the developers in which you have to visit the different places. Only very few are story-locked. Still, in terms of difficulty and item levels at least implicitly there is apparently a certain idea of a logical order that is also supported by the story events.
Out of balance?
Obviously that freedom complicates balancing. My experience was that with my character and my companions progressing, it became increasingly easier. At some point I didn’t even have to participate in combat anymore, because my companions were strong and competent enough on their own to handle the job. Similar to Fallout the character system involves skills that you can increase with each level up as well as certain perks that unlock every few levels. Your companions, of which you can have two in your party at the same time, have a similar but simplified system. They only have three key skills which give you a bonus on skill checks (like lockpicking or persuading).
Each of them offers a special ability that you can trigger during combat. You can also tell them which enemies to attack or to hold a certain position. Besides that, they act completely autonomous, depending on their behavior setting. The Outer Worlds offers melee and ranged combat and is gameplay-wise a first-person shooter at heart. Therefore the roleplaying elements feel attached at times. For example, with good aim it was no problem for me to eliminate opponents with ranged weapons even though I had almost no skill points in that area. They only reduce the sway and increase the chance for critical hits.
Another issue regarding balancing is the item system as a whole. For me it was very hard to see a clear logic on how I could determine whether one weapon was better than another. There are DPS indicators according to which certain weapon types are way worse than others from the very beginning, which would render them useless. Meanwhile, there are item levels and sale values completely contradicting that indication. Either way it doesn’t matter too much because with enough money you can tinker weapons (upgrading their level) into absurd damage spheres. Put them in the hands of your companions and – at least on “normal” difficulty – all problems are solved.
If you still have difficulties, there is always the so-called Tactical Time Dilation (TTD), a slow motion feature that you can activate briefly during combat. Turns out, being frozen for 70 years damaged your brain in a positive way and now you perceive time in a different way. Next to all the serious shooting and murdering going on, it wouldn’t be a spiritual successor to Fallout: New Vegas if there wasn’t room for some craziness. Therefore the TTD is not the only weird tool that you get access too. There is also a holographic shroud that allows you to take on certain IDs after you collect ID cards. Still, the most extravagant tools are probably the scientific weapons. These unique weapons are hard to get by and each of them has a special function. My personal favorites are definitely the shrink ray and the mind control ray.
There is no "I" in Team
There obviously has been put a lot of effort into making your companions feel alive in the tradition of Mass Effect. The commonalities are hard to miss. After all, in The Outer Worlds you too get to own a spaceship and collect a crew of up to six members. Unfortunately, for me it simply didn’t work. There was never any sense of bonding that came even close to what I experienced in other similar experiences. Of the six characters I only really liked Ellie, the pirate doctor. In my view, this has several reasons. To begin with, the discussions are just not written with enough depth. That is, by the way, also true for other dialogs. There is a lot of text from a lot of chatty characters, but they rarely have to say something particularly interesting.
To give you an example for unrealistic behavior, basically all of the companions join your team in a heartbeat, even though you are a total stranger to them in that moment. Afterwards, the only bonding that takes place happens during the quest line that each of them brings along. Still, even after completing them, there is no real reward for doing so, besides a ton of experience points. While it’s perfectly fine for me that there is no possibility of romance, I would at least expect some further dialogues or some change of behavior towards my main character. That’s not possible though, because when there is nothing to begin with, then there is nothing to change.
In general, and again this is not only true for the companions, it hardly felt like other characters were treating my character like a genuine person. It seemed to me that there were more believable relationships between the other characters than with my hero. For most of the time I rather felt like an extra, only there to observe and to solve the problems of the others. This might also be for reasons of missing directing. In dialogues there is no sort of dynamic camera tracking that could make The Outer Worlds so much more cinematic. This is one of the aspects where The Outer Worlds feels truly dated. On top of that, there is hardly any cutscenes at all. You never see your own character except in the inventory window and your hero remains voiceless, while the rest of the cast is fully voiced.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
From a technical point of view, The Outer Worlds is definitely not a looker, at least not on the PS4, which is the platform that I have tested it on. The level of detail, the textures and the animations are all in the range of okay-ish, but nothing more. It makes up for these shortcomings with a colorful and lovingly art style and a lot of creativity and variety in the design of the different worlds. Also, even on a regular PS4 (not Pro) I experienced no frame drops, but I encountered some slow loading textures after teleporting. Speaking of teleporting: The loading times after changing the location – for example when you leave your ship – take up to 50 seconds on said regular PS4. Since this is something that you do quite regularly, these loading times hamper the flow noticeable.
In terms of controls, Obsidian found a good solution for consoles, although this perception is favored by the rather simplistic combat system. Some of the menus are still a little bit complicated to work through. Personally, my biggest problem with the controls was looting some of the smaller items like ammunition. Targeting them to pick them up became quite the tedious task after some time. At least on the PS4 I encountered only one major bug. My game crashed once and apparently as a result one of the companions always was reset when I returned to the ship. While this is nothing game breaking, it still made that character de facto useless.
In the end, I enjoyed the 40 hour ride through the The Outer Worlds, even though it was sometimes a bumpy one. Still, with the interesting world that was built here, it feels like there was left a lot of untapped potential on the road. Flaws similar to the Fallout series – namely a main story that is little more than a frame holding together the sandbox that the rest of the game is and correspondingly flat characters – prevent it from earning a place in the hall of fame of roleplaying-shooters next to Mass Effect.