The Outer Worlds is arguably one of the more standout games of 2019, I’m not even going to bother with the preamble on this one, it’s just that good. This is one of the harder reviews I can remember having to write, because it’s extremely hard to do this game justice, as there’s just so much to unpack and analyze that it’s almost impossible to talk about it all in an easy way. But just because it’s so darn good, I’m going to try and do just that.
Obsidian was likely the perfect choice for this project, as they clearly poured their heart and soul into the game. Their history of stellar RPGs, including Fallout: New Vegas and the Pillars of Eternity series, seeing the skilled hands take on the tough and highly politically-charged nature of the story with a fair amount of grace is welcome.
Creating the character you will take on the Halcyon colony with is very straightforward. Putting points and perks into your targeted areas of expertise allows you to gain general abilities up to about level 10, with the next 20 levels to cap being about specializing. The game breaks ability score into different groups, with the action of assigning points to that group applying to all three, until a skill hits 50. Past that mid-point players should focus one a suite of core abilities, while letting the combination of gear and companion abilities fill in the gaps.
The gameplay feels a lot more solid than some of Obsidian’s previous work as well. Gone are the days when simplistic AI would bumrush your position after you open up with the first shot. Sure, some of them still rush in or can be baited with clever companion positioning, but some enemies actually practice tactical awareness and make use of cover and flanking. It all work together to make combat more challenging and fun. You will quickly find yourself moving with a much more tactical approach through the combat areas, scouting out with a scoped weapon before you go trotting into an ambush.
Another interesting innovation here is that the developer have whittled down a lot of the gameplay fluff from other genre titles to create the purest form of open-world RPG I think I have ever seen. Think about this, when you play Fallout, think about all the junk strewn about the environments. All those random physics objects don’t really add much other than introducing bugs. So Obsidian stripped all of that out and made most of the scenes in the game static. Now, all you’re looting from the game world is healing items and ammo. This simple refinement does hurt immersion for some, but massively speeds up gameplay overall.
Combat in The Outer Worlds is fast and brutal, and you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed if you don’t make proper use of the companion abilities and dodge mechanics. Although on higher difficulties a companion death is permanent, so you have to be even more careful. But because this is an RPG, bashing someone’s brains in isn’t the only way to address a challenge. The Outer Worlds has been designed to be a damn-near-perfect distillation of the idea of player choice. You gain combat dialogue abilities as you level up, allowing players that pump points into speech-based abilities to talk their way out of most situations.
This story has a ton of layers to it, and it goes much further than just the surface-level anti-capitalism. There’s commentary on just about everything. Jokes are played against every layer of the games industry and the wider human condition, and pop culture references abound. You should spend hours just pouring over the brilliantly written and acted dialogue in this game. And this backdrop lends credence to what many would consider the crucial bit of helping the player be invested in the story, the characters.
Each of the characters, much like the players, also have their own flaws and differences. This is most obvious in the companion system in The Outer Worlds. Each character that acts as a companion for the player has their own stats, and part of those stats help buff the player character, giving an incentive to hyper-focusing gear and perk choices to strengthen those areas. The Outer Worlds does a wonderful job, in most cases, of fleshing out these characters and giving them believable storylines and motivations. The immersion of having a character that I can readily identify with helped make the game that much better too. The perfect example of this is Parvati.
Parvati Holcomb is an engineer working for the Spacer’s Choice company in the town of Edgewater on Terra 2, and a possible companion for the playable character. As you adventure with her, a ton of character elements are revealed and she quickly became my personal favorite early on. She exhibits a lot of social awkwardness and has quite the strange upbringing, not the most unusual for the bleak tone of this game unfortunately, but her story really shines when she develops a romantic interest in an NPC you meet along the way. The players learn that Parvati is asexual and a lesbian, and it’s written in a surprisingly realistic way. Given that sexuality in open-world RPGs hasn’t had the best track record (glares at Mass Effect “romance”), it’s refreshing to see Obsidian give an admirable attempt at representation.
This lens allows the player to become a lot more invested in the human element of the suffering this hyper-capitalist society has inflected. But here’s the thing, just like the real world, the system will take advantage of your good nature. I found myself agonizing over which side to pick in the Edgewater conflict, before ultimately deciding that the lesser of two evils was better than complete destruction. My choice allowed the colony of Edgewater to live on, but hopefully not for the sake of pure corporate profit. There were obvious flaws in my reasoning which showed some of the stilted dichotomy of the writing during this section, but for the sake of spoilers, I won’t go into it too deeply.
But there is one major issue that signs the whole experience, and it’s that same backrop. When you choose to make a crucial decision in the opening town of the game, the lack of depth starts to show really obviously. The background characters don’t really react to this life-altering decision you’ve made, and it’s really going to push some people away.
Let’s talk about that decision to explain what I mean. You just completed the first major quest in the game, and you would expect chaos as a result, but there’s just nothing of substance.
I got a loading screen revealing that The Board had begun issuing propaganda painting me as a hero for reunifying the colony, completely depriving the situation of nuance for their own benefit. And I suppose that’s the ultimate point here, that the system is going to abuse you, what matters is how you deal with that. Do you minimize the negative impact as best you can, or do you burn it all down and hope for something better? This question helped make the game more interesting to me, as these kinds of deeply introspective questions have always been intriguing. But really, that lack of impact can be pretty damning if you really want to immerse yourself in the game.
The developer also made attempts to make the game more accessible in other ways too. The developer wrote the game to include LGBTQ+ representation, characters of color, and a storyline revolving around disabled individuals, giving plenty of reasons for people who typically avoid these kinds of games because they can’t identify with the conquering male hero stereotype a try.
In terms of bugs, there’s always going to be something in games this large and with this many moving parts. In my time with The Outer Worlds I encountered some, but surprisingly a lot less than one would expect from a Bethesda title. In terms of gameplay-affecting issues though, there’s not much. I played on a bog-standard Xbox One, and most of the issues I saw were textures not loading quickly enough, with this delay causing a very noticeable drop in the quality of characters and environments. It was most apparent in dialogue scenes or when first loading a new area. And of course there are other game-breaking bugs, like the dupe glitch, but nothing similar to save corruption or falling through levels has been encountered either.
Accessibility is one of the main areas that I felt was a major missed opportunity for the game. The game is lacking a wide array of options to adjust for gamers with disabilities, or even those who want to customize their experience. According to studio design director Josh Sawyer, was designed “to be playable without color information. I.e., color information is redundant with other indicators.” This means that it does not need a color blind mode.
Despite the good, the game lacks a ton of UI options that should be the norm for console and PC releases nowadays. Lack of UI scaling or “safe zone” adjustment means that without aspect ratio adjustment, bits of the UI will bleed off of the screen. More serious misses include the inability to adjust subtitle size, placement or color and background. This means those gamers with issues interpreting information presented in the default manner of small white text on a black background could be out of luck. Maybe Obsidian will issue new features in a patch, but for now it seems like a huge miss, especially on consoles.
Would I say this game should be on the top of your gift list for the holidays? If you’re a genre fan looking for something that isn’t a bug-ridden Bethesda game, then yes, ABSOLUTELY. If you’re interested in political theory and the turmoil of the human condition, soul-crushing as it is, then this game could make you ask some hard questions about how you view the world, the writing is just that good. If you’re not a fan of the genre, this may even convince you to give it a try.
All in all, it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close to me despite its glaring flaws.
I can see myself getting a lot more time in with this game when I get the chance. I genuinely found myself not wanting to put it down and explore more. I can’t stop myself from wanting to find something new to do. Just wandering around the beautifully designed levels is a treat, and that’s without even talking about the layers upon layers of excellent writing. A few missteps with character ideals that are a bit too shallow hamper that though. And sometimes if you think too deeply about the dichotomy of Evil Choice A versus Evil Choice B, your immersion is going to shatter.