Oh, this is not going to be pretty.
The Outer Worlds is a very unfortunate game. For starters it’s continually getting mixed up in my brain with Outer Wilds, which is one of the best games I’ve played this year and not at all something that Outer Worlds particularly wants to be inviting comparisons to. Even worse, though, is that it has had the sheer bad luck to release just ten days after Disco Elysium, a game which has quite literally redefined what I want and expect from my RPGs in the future. If I’d played The Outer Worlds a month ago I probably would have treated it as what it was intended to be: an entirely unremarkable, unambitious attempt to do Fallout in space. Sadly for The Outer Worlds that’s no longer the case. Now I see it as an aggressively vacuous product that failed to impress me in every single respect, and whose obvious desire to be nothing more than an off-brand Fallout knockoff I found outright offensive in the wake of the genuinely groundbreaking work being done elsewhere.
The Outer Worlds is exactly the kind of by-the-numbers RPG I obliquely laid into at the end of my Disco Elysium review. There’s absolutely no vision or original ideas behind it; it’s been assembled pretty much entirely from a mish-mash of off-the-shelf parts that have been put together in the shape of something that superficially resembles a modern Fallout game. It is, quite literally, cargo cult game development: if we just make something with all of the Fallout bits — first-person perspective, a ripoff of the SPECIAL stats and perks system, a button you can push to stop time and headshot people and a conversation system with the odd skill check scattered into it — then surely we’ll experience the same kind of ludicrous success as Fallout 3 and 4, especially since Fallout 76 did actually do something different1 and blew up on the launch pad as a result. There is definitely a gap in the market for The Outer Worlds right now, for a thing that’s basically just a Fallout game with the branding filed off, and that’s going to be enough for a lot of people. Hell, it might have been enough for me if it had been executed with any kind of flair or panache or… anything that convinced me that it wasn’t just a cynical exercise in box-ticking. For the first couple of hours I was having as much fun as anyone will with The Outer Worlds, but the more I engaged with its systems, the more I peeled back its Fallout-esque facade to try and get at the actual game beneath, the more I became convinced that there was absolutely nothing there.
The Outer Worlds is set in an extraterrestrial solar system called Halcyon that’s been colonised by humanity, with its basic premise ripped off from the old Douglas Adams joke about sending off one colony ship full of humanity’s best and brightest and a second colony ship with its most useless examples2 — salesmen, ad executives and so on. The ship with all the supergeniuses on it experienced some issues during the flight from Earth and turned up several decades late, leaving the second ship to build Halcyon into exactly the kind of corporate hellworld we’ve seen in literally every single piece of cyberpunk media to date, except this time it’s full of 1950s-style advertising jingles. When the first ship does eventually arrive the corporations just leave all of the genius passengers in cryosleep because they don’t want anyone to ruin their fat profit margins. Except for you, of course; you’re the lucky colonist who gets revived by a mad scientist/freedom fighter as a test run for waking up the rest, but unfortunately he can’t actually do that until you’ve jumped through several plot hoops for him.
And those are the poorly-defined stakes of The Outer Worlds. You’re not shown anything of these other colonists you’re supposed to be spending the entire game trying to save and most of what you spend your time doing in The Outer Worlds is almost totally unrelated to it, making it an abstract goal at best that only really reappears at the end of the game when you get the “classic” pick-an-ending choice of helping the colonists or siding with the corporations. Instead the overplot is immediately discarded in favour of dropping you down onto the surface of a tutorial planet and giving you the objective of finding a power regulator to get a parked spaceship working again, after which you can use it to explore the rest of the solar system to do various odd jobs before encountering The End Of The Game. What struck me about all of this was how perfunctory The Outer Worlds was in getting you started. There’s zero time spent on world-building or scene-setting and you don’t even have to work to get your ship at all; five minutes after starting the game proper you’re redirected into getting this one macguffin component that’s missing (you plug it straight into the ship and it just instantly works) and — as with so much of The Outer Worlds — you have to do a bunch of totally unrelated crap before the game lets you walk away with it, making me feel less like I’m working towards a well-earned prize and more like I’m waiting in a queue for the game to stamp my passport before it will let me leave.
The tutorial planet is, I suppose, not too bad. It does the basic job of being a Fallout-style open world in miniature, providing you with a bunch of quests and locations that take a solid 2-3 hours to clean out and familiarising you with the basic gameplay systems. Said systems have been ripped out of Fallout wholesale and tweaked just enough so that Bethesda can’t sue – there’s no Luck skill, Charisma is now Charm and Constitution is now Temperament, but otherwise the basic character attribute stats work exactly the same way, with the exception that they’re no longer prerequisites for taking Perks. As far as Perks go, imagine the perks from Fallout, except without any of the wit or charm or possibilities for interesting character builds and there’s only a third as many and the most powerful ones by far are the ones which increase your carry capacity by 50kg because it means you don’t have to manage your inventory quite so often. The rest are all focused around either increasing companion ability damage — useless to me because I didn’t have my companion-focused skills at a high enough level to unlock companion abilities — or increasing the effectiveness of the VATS-replacement time-stop mode.
This at least felt like a decent upgrade from VATS itself; hitting Q stops time, and as long as you do not move or shoot (you can look around) you can remain frozen in time for as long as you want. Moving and/or shooting depletes the purple time-stop resource bar underneath your health bar, and when it’s all gone you snap back into real time. Weapons are 100% accurate at all times in The Outer Worlds — you don’t need to level any of your gun skills to shoot straight — so the location-based damage bonuses of VATS have been replaced by location-dependent status effects. Shooting a baddie in the head while in time-stop mode will blind them, shooting them in the legs will cripple them, shooting them in the torso will stagger them, and so on. Sadly none of these bonuses felt like it was really worth going for them in lieu of just shooting enemies in the head for the innate headshot damage bonus, but that’s particularly easy while everything’s frozen in time so it’s still worth opening up a combat encounter with it, especially if you take some of the perks which refill a portion of the time-stop resource bar with each enemy killed and which allow you to chain headshots indefinitely just so long as you have a weapon capable of killing an enemy with a single headshot (i.e. the sniper rifle).
The final component of The Outer Worlds’ character system are the skills, which feel like the biggest missed opportunity of the game. Again, the skill range is basically a copy-paste from Fallout — you’ve got the traditional Science/Medical/Engineering skills, Lockpick and Hacking and Sneak for the powergamers among us, Long Guns and Small Guns and Heavy Weapons for shooting things and so on — and just as with Fallout each skill has a value from 1 to 100. All of the non-combat skills get checked at some point in conversation, but a lot of the time all these checks do is give you a tiny experience bonus for checking them. For example, you’ll be talking to your engineer companion who’ll be trying to fix something, and you can use your Engineering skill to point out something they’ve missed — but this just leads to an alternate snippet of dialogue and an XP reward. If you don’t use the Engineering dialogue option she still fixes the ship and things play out exactly as they would have otherwise. It’s the barest of sops to reactivity, and even when the dialogue checks do do something it’s the standard, now utterly obsolete effect of obtaining a bigger quest reward, or avoiding a combat scenario. Disco Elysium has exposed just how shallow this mechanic really is, but The Outer Worlds implements it in a particularly joyless, ineffectual way.
That’s not my primary beef with the skills of The Outer Worlds, though. My primary beef is that, for the first time ever in one of these games, how your skill score translates into gameplay outside of the dialogue checks is surfaced to the player. In Fallout there’s a layer of obfuscation between increasing a skill and what that increase actually gets you in game; you have a vague idea that bigger = better, but it’s difficult to see what effect putting five additional points into Repair does besides “makes you slightly more efficient at repairing things”, and you’re mostly just trying to level your skills to the point where you can unlock more powerful Perks as those are the things that have the most obvious gameplay impact. The Outer Worlds rather refreshingly does away with that mysteriousness and concretely spells out what every single point invested in a given skill will get you. This is a good change, and it’s one of the few areas where I’ll actually applaud The Outer Worlds. The problem is that now that you’re able to see what each individual skill does, you’re also able to see that most of them are utter bollocks.
Putting points into a skill in The Outer Worlds has two effects. One is that each point invested will increase up to two secondary stats; so increasing Long Guns will increase your base critical chance and reduce weapon sway, while increasing Sneak will decrease enemy detection range and increase sneak attack damage. On the face of it this is fine, except these stat increases are parsimoniously small, like Obsidian were pathologically terrified of anyone having any fun with their character system. Usually investing a point into a skill increases the corresponding secondary stats by a single percentage point. Often it’s even less — I had a Sneak skill of 130 by the end of the game thanks to a bunch of bonuses from companions and items, but this translated to a measly +80% bonus sneak attack damage. This doesn’t feel good. Of course it doesn’t feel good, to invest skill points and watch things increase by a fraction of a percent each time. Worse is that many of the secondary stats are either completely useless (The Outer Worlds is yet another game that thinks a 10% decrease in weapon sway is interesting) or else non-existent — Engineering and Hack, for example, don’t do anything when you invest points into them until you hit one of the magic skill breakpoints. I noticed that these skills were the ones that were checked in dialogue the most often and so they do give you some benefit but, again, it’s really hard to quantify the benefit of putting skill points into Hack when you don’t know what the Hack difficulties are going to be in advance.
(Spoiler: the distribution of dialogue check difficulties is pretty steady up till around 70 or so, at which point it abruptly jumps all the way up to 100. I’m fairly sure I didn’t see a single check between 80 and 99. Given that you get 10 skill points per level, this is at least one wasted-level up just to be able to pass the high-end dialogue checks. And again, this does not feel good.)
Anyway, skill breakpoints. These are the second effect putting points into a skill has: for every 20 points you invest into each skill you’ll get some passive or (much more rarely) active ability to go with it. The best of these are probably to be found in the conversation skills (Persuade/Lie/Intimidate), which grant a chance to inflict disabling status effects on enemies with every shot that hits them3 — the proc chance is very low at around 5%, but if you have an automatic weapon that’s no problem at all and it’s definitely handy to have a couple of enemies doing nothing but running around screaming during every fight. It’s nice that putting points into your speech skills has an actual combat effect for once. This grudging praise aside, though, the rest of the breakpoint effects are — you guessed it — extremely underwhelming, either unlocking what should have been basic game functionality (companion abilities, being able to dismantle unwanted weapons for parts without having to go back to a workbench, just being able to upgrade weapons at a workbench) or sticking a big multiplier onto a small number (like increasing your 5% chance to scare people by 50%, which is still just a 2.5% boost). I had a heavy Sneak/Stealth/Persuade build, and I never felt like my progression down through the skill breakpoints was having any material effect on the way I played the game. In most other games, hearing the “Level up!” sound effect is cause for excitement as you know you’ll have access to new options and new abilities. In The Outer Worlds you’ll just grimace a bit as all it means is you have to do a bit of stat admin before getting back to the game. Sometimes I didn’t even bother levelling up for a good twenty minutes after the notification appeared because it just didn’t seem like a worthwhile use of my time to do so. That is not the ideal outcome of a well-crafted character system.
So the one good change The Outer Worlds makes from Fallout — actually telling you what your stats do — simply exposes how shallow its character system is. For all that it now surfaces the cause and effect, it turns out the effect of levelling up is now “my sneak attack damage has increased by 4%” and it’s really difficult to see the impact of that in game. I’ve always thought that in a single-player RPG balance should take a definite back seat to the player feeling like their character choices have a quantifiable, observable effect every time they level up — by all means try to achieve both, but if there’s any doubt whatsoever it’s time to break out the really big numbers. This is something that Fallout 4, for all of its many, many flaws, grasped very well, and it’s why I quite liked that game in spite of most of the rest of it being a hot mess: building a character was interesting. My choices felt like they mattered; picking a perk that increases rifle damage by a whopping 20% feels good. Of course it does, and that’s a big enough number that it was immediately observable in gameplay. It wasn’t that it was particularly difficult to come up with an absolutely broken build, but Fallout 4 offered a wide range of broken builds for me to choose from that all felt like they were quite different and which each had quite a lot of scope for experimentation in terms of upgrading weapons and armour.
This brings me onto The Outer Worlds’ equipment system, which, like so much of the game, has all of the mechanical depth of a child’s paddling pool. Each weapon type has, at most, four variants of weapon available. For Long Guns there’s the Assault Rifle, Sniper Rifle, Plasma Carbine and Plasma Rifle. For Melee Weapons there’s the Sword, Mace, Hammer and Scythe. For Small Guns there’s the Light Pistol, Heavy Pistol and Blaster. Given that you’re not going to be putting your skill points into more than one of these at a time this means that if, for example, you want to specialise in Long Guns you’re effectively restricting yourself to using the same four guns throughout the game. Eventually you outlevel the Assault Rifle you picked up at level 7, which is when The Outer Worlds starts throwing “Assault Rifle Mk2” at you, which is exactly the same gun with some bigger numbers attached. It pulls the same trick with armour, which is effectively just a big sack of damage reduction: the heavy armour I picked up on the tutorial planet has an armour value of 17, but the heavy armour I picked up towards the end of the game has an armour value of 56! Otherwise they are identical in every respect, including appearance. Upgrade options are limited to slotting two or three mods into your gun or armour, or else paying a ridiculous amount of money to level up your guns at an upgrade bench — this is how you make up the shortfall between your level 7 Assault Rifle and the level 20-odd Assault Rifle Mk2, because putting the onus on the player to scale their own loot instead of having the game do it automatically is what counts for innovation at Obsidian these days.The reason the upgrades are so expensive is because there’s literally nothing else to spend your money on in The Outer Worlds; god knows the equipment system is nowhere near interesting enough for Obsidian to be able to actually create interesting items you’d want to buy from a vendor.
The constant recycling and reuse of content is a huge, huge problem for The Outer Worlds. It’s not an uncommon one in videogames, either; I recall The Division had much the same problem, where it showed you every single piece of content it had in the first three hours and then the next twenty were just using the same guns to shoot the same baddies in the same environments, but with bigger numbers attached. The Outer Worlds strikes me as a mid-budget title at best, so it’s a little more understandable that Obsidian wouldn’t have had access to the bloated art resources that characterise your typical Ubisoft game — still, it’s striking how enthusiastically it blows its load on the tutorial planet and saves almost nothing to surprise the player later on. It’s a leafy, somewhat alien-yet-not environment filled with prefab buildings and populated with bandits, dogs and killer robots. Later you go to Roseway, a leafy, somewhat alien-yet-not environment with a much more aggressive colour scheme, filled with prefab buildings and populated with dogs and bandits. After that you go to Monarch, a dusty, somewhat alien-yet-not environment with a slightly more muted colour scheme, filled with prefab buildings and populated with mantis things, dogs and bandits. The only environments that deviate from this template are the space stations that you visit, which are basically just the interior of a really big prefab building populated by killer robots, and the asteroid Scylla, which at least has a genuinely striking skybox but is also roughly the size of a postage stamp. Oh, and New Byzantium, which is a big city environment that only really serves to demonstrate how Obsidian are treating the notoriously-awful Gamebryo engine used in Fallout as a visual and technical target4 instead of a cautionary tale; it reminded me of the “town meeting” in Fallout 4 that was attended by all of 7 NPCs because that was all the engine could handle at once.
But hey, at least the quest and companion writing will be good, right? This is an Obsidian game, after all, and Obsidian are the company that somehow managed to give Dungeon Siege 3 a halfway decent story. Well, I’m trying to be scrupulously fair to The Outer Worlds here, and so I’ll acknowledge that the companions are… okay. They have some character, they have plenty of banter when they’re following you around (The Outer Worlds opts for the Mass Effect approach of having two of them tethered to you at all times), and they’ll occasionally interject with comments on whatever you happen to be doing at the time. The thing is, though, this is basically the minimum I expect of any RPG companion writing these days; Obsidian themselves are the ones who have been largely responsible for raising the bar here, and other developers such as inXile and Harebrained have eventually stepped up to meet it. That The Outer Worlds is simply matching what the competition is offering isn’t something I particularly feel like commending Obsidian for — and anyway, the fact that the extremely average companion writing comes across as one of The Outer Worlds’s strongest features is a stark indictment of just how uninspired the rest of the game is.
The quests, though, are possibly the most disappointing thing of all about The Outer Worlds — and I’m not just saying that because Disco Elysium just exposed everything else in the genre for the superficial wish fulfilment horseshit that it really is. Even when judged by the standards that Obsidian would like me to judge it on — those of a Bethesda-era Fallout title — they’re incredibly underwhelming. A good example is one the game throws at you just after you enter New Byzantium: you’re pigeonholed by somebody on the street who says he’s a movie producer and invited to audition for his newest film. “Main character stars in a play” has been done before, most notably by Witcher 3, but it’s usually quite an enjoyable quest archetype where the writers take the opportunity to poke some good-natured fun at theatre (or Hollywood), their own game universe, and themselves. Presumably the writers behind The Outer Worlds have encountered this type of quest themselves — in fact since The Outer Worlds doesn’t have an original bone in its body the only way this quest could possibly exist is if the writers saw it somewhere else — but their take on it is, how can I put this, just a little less ambitious:
- You enter the movie studio, which is approximately ten feet away from where the movie producer originally talked to you. It’s an empty reception area with an open door on one side and a locked door on the other side. You go through the open door and into a lift, which deposits you in front of another door with an intercom.
- The movie producer talks to you and says hey, everyones already on set and in costume and all you have to do is go in and improvise.
- You duly go in, only to find that the “movie studio” is a small room filled with crates and three generic NPC actors. The only concessions to the fact that this is supposed to be a movie studio are the generic camera prop on one side and a cardboard cutout backdrop on the other side.
- You go up and talk to the only interactable NPC in the room, and exchange three or four lines of stilted, unfunny dialogue where he throws in a couple of stale acting jokes about your “raw energy”.
- That being done, the movie producer comes in and tells you you did a great job, and an XP reward pops up on screen. This is the end of the quest.
That’s it. This “quest” takes less than three minutes to complete. It consists of a single room and one extremely brief conversation. It strikes me as the sort of thing a quest designer might sketch out on paper as a way of logically structuring how a quest or dungeon would progress — it’s got an entry point, a route to a node where the main quest activity happens, and then a route back to the entry point so that the player can get back out into the world. It’s just that where a designer would usually then bulk this extremely simple diagram out with a bit of detail, some side areas/NPCs and set dressing to disguise this very simple quest structure, The Outer Worlds treats it as the finished product and just slams that shit into the game. There’s absolutely nothing worthwhile about it — it’s not funny, it doesn’t say anything about either the game world or the real world, and you don’t get anything out of it apart from a small amount of XP.
The movie star quest is one of the worst examples of how lightweight the quest design and writing is in The Outer Worlds, but it’s also not an exceptional one. Most of the side quests present in the game are like this, which is astonishing when you consider that I don’t think I saw a single new one in the entire thing. The Outer Worlds has a quest where you’re sent after a missing factory worker who was delivering medicine to a family in the ruins outside town. When you get there, the family is acting weird and say they’ve never heard of him but also invite you to dinner — I’ll give you exactly one guess as to what the shocking twist is here. It’s also got a quest where you look into what’s happening to the working class proles who have won a lottery for “early retirement” in New Byzantium. Again, no prizes for guessing what the answer is. It’s absolutely baffling as to how these quests are so basic and insubstantial when they’ve been copied verbatim from various Fallout titles. The blueprint for how to do these quests properly already exists, and there’s absolutely no excuse for Obsidian to have stuffed it up quite so badly as they have here. None of the quests have any weight or substance to them; probably the best one is arranging a date for your engineer, but even this seems like a pale shadow of the one in Dragon Age 2. And when your game is being outdone by Dragon Age 2 of all bloody things you know you’ve got a serious problem.
With the rest of the game being so repetitive and shallow Obsidian really, really needed to knock it out of the park with their quest writing. Instead what we’ve got in The Outer Worlds is the single weakest game they’ve ever released, with a main plot that vanishes for 90% of the game’s length and which engages you with a series of totally unrelated side activities that all end with the now-cliched Obsidian-brand pick-a-side resolution, presumably because they need to bulk out the Fallout-style ending slideshow somehow. The thing is, it really didn’t have to be this way. The Outer Worlds rips off a lot of stuff, but one of its primary influences is Firefly. I don’t think Firefly has aged particularly well, but I didn’t know how much I wanted a proper Firefly CRPG until I found myself getting just a little bit excited when The Outer Worlds looked, very briefly, like that was what it might be. Your ship is, well, the Firefly from Firefly. The first two companions you pick up are basically Kaylee and Shepherd Book. The settlements you visit have a very deliberate Old West styling. There’s a very short window at the start of the game where it looks like you’re going to be a proper free agent jetting around the solar system on your own ship and having the option to do some genuinely space-roguish stuff, and I was very, very up for that in spite of The Outer Worlds’ obvious flaws.
Sadly that’s a dream that evaporates the moment you leave the tutorial planet, and instead you find yourself having to chew through the reheated leftovers of somebody else’s quest design, again and again. I genuinely don’t understand how Obsidian have made a Fallout knockoff quite this bad when they themselves set the gold standard for Bethesda-era Fallout games with New Vegas. In fact I was so surprised that I actually went back and booted up New Vegas for a couple of hours to make sure that I hadn’t just dreamed they’d once made a fantastic Fallout game, and it does still hold up quite well. Certainly it has a hell of a lot more going on in terms of world-building, quests, character stats and equipment than The Outer Worlds does, even accounting for the decade-old Gamebryo engine. Despite my comments above regarding Disco Elysium it’s fine to not always shoot for the moon and fall back to making something that’s the gaming equivalent of comfort food, but The Outer Worlds is dreadfully stale popcorn entertainment that doesn’t even… pop. It’s been put together with a stunning lack of imagination and a chronic want of ambition, and the fact that it’s only the sixth worst game5 I’ve played this year is more a reflection of how 2019 has been a year of extremes than it is any dregs of quality to be found at the bottom of The Outer Worlds.
- I’m not saying Fallout 76 was a good idea, or well-executed in any way, or intended to bring any actual benefit beyond ensuring a steady stream of microtransaction money for Bethesda. But it was different. ↩
- I always thought including hairdressers on the list was slightly unfair. It’s a useful skill. I can’t cut my own hair worth a damn. ↩
- I guess the rationale is that you’re using your speech skills to inflict devastating damage to their egos, although why this is more concerning to them than the actual, real bullets tearing into their flesh is not really explained. ↩
- I’m actually baffled as to how they made the Unreal Engine look this bad. ↩
- Beaten out by Rage 2, Gears 5, Pathway, Anthem, and Warhammer Chaosbane. ↩