The Outer Worlds, Obsidian’s new open-world RPG, has the ambition to be a Fallout killer. Unfortunately, much like the denizens of its corporate-owned dystopia, that ambition is stifled by an excess of bureaucracy and busywork.
Comparisons to Bethesda’s Fallout mega-franchise are immediate and abundant, and in its opening moments, Outer Worlds seems like it will capitalize on the parts of that formula that work while downplaying those that don’t.
A passenger ship called the Hope, carrying hundreds of thousands of colonists to the corporation-dominated colony of Halcyon, has been stopped just outside the system’s perimeter by members of the Board, who believe it will improve their bottom lines to leave the potential colonists frozen in hypersleep purgatory. A rogue scientist named Phineas Welles boards the Hope to free one of the frozen would-be colonists, and with that one highly skilled person on his side, Phineas plans to acquire the chemicals he needs to revive the rest of the ship’s passengers, whom he claims are some of the greatest minds Earth has ever sent out into the stars. It’s a compelling enough setup, and in terms of character and color (a palette that’s often Rick and Morty-esque), Outer Worlds has a leg up on its predecessor right out of the gate.
The character-building process is framed as Phineas’ search for the perfect colonist to revive. After determining appearance, the next step is to choose attributes to focus on. These attributes will have a direct effect on the skill values on the next page of stat generation. For example, the strength attribute will affect skills like melee combat, the perception attribute will improve proficiency in things like long guns, and the charm attribute will improve skills like persuasion and intimidation. After allocating points in attributes, players are then granted the opportunity to adjust the more granular skill scores.
It’s a little daunting to take in before actually seeing how the game plays, but Obsidian’s work here is much more intuitive than the typical Bethesda character creator, and choosing the wrong stat to invest in at this early stage isn’t crippling, since skill points are granted generously while leveling up and there’s a re-spec option available from fairly early in the adventure. For those in the market for an unapologetically complex RPG that allows for a satisfying level of specialization, but without the unforgiving finality and inscrutability of some other hardcore character builders, it’s a treat.
Items can also have their stats adjusted through a system called tinkering. If there’s a weapon that fits a player’s style but is getting too weak to compete with higher-level enemies, the player can spend Bits, Halcyon’s currency, to improve the weapon’s damage. Upgrading the science skill reduces the cost of tinkering to the point that players will almost never need to discard an item they like using. It’s a cool system for players who get frustrated by finding an interesting low-level weapon only to have to throw it away 20 minutes later, but it seems to have also discouraged Obsidian from including a wider total variety of items. There are only a few weapons in each category, as well as a few special “science weapons” scattered throughout the game. The science weapons are cleverly designed, but they require significant investment in stats and perks to be worth using.
Likewise, the game’s enemies are well designed, but there just aren’t enough of them. Thinking back after having completed the main story line, I can only recall a handful of different enemy types spanning the various worlds and space stations of Halcyon.
In terms of story, Phineas, with his disheveled mannerisms and anti-corporate-“bootlicker” attitude, is immediately likable, but his potential as a compelling character is largely squandered later in the game, as is the case with most of the game’s characters.
On top of the obvious Fallout influence, Outer Worlds attempts to take a page out of the Mass Effect playbook by allowing the player to recruit crew members who will live on their ship, offer side quests, and accompany them on missions. By the end of the game, its implied through dialogue that this crew (if the player has decided to keep them around) has become some kind of found family, but that status is not effectively earned. Relationships play out in weird fast-motion bursts, with characters who have never met before bantering like longtime friends seconds later, and characters who have met literally one time falling in love. Generally, the crew suffers from a tell-don’t-show approach that makes it nearly impossible to really get invested in the individual story lines.
This lack of character depth would be less bothersome if not for the fact that the mission design is often flat. Since the game takes place in a corporate hellscape, many of the missions and side missions involve going to a place, talking to that place’s leader, and convincing said leader to do something through a series of red-tape gofer quests. Just as in Fallout, there are usually options for how to sidestep the needs of one group in favor of another, but those options generally involve aligning with an equally needy faction with its own laundry list of busywork. The main mission feels slightly more linear than a typical Fallout game, which some people (myself included) will appreciate, but the pacing is disappointingly uneven, especially since when the game lets loose and actually allows the player to take part in some combat, it’s outstanding.
For a player looking for an RPG to get lost in, The Outer Worlds can be an excellent, rewarding experience, but for a player looking for a fully realized world to get lost in, it might not be the best place to look. Creating a character around a particular set of strengths and seeing how those strengths can be applied in gameplay is a blast, but engaging with the Halcyon colony on any level beyond that is less than ideal. B
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The Outer Worlds