Release Date: October 25, 2019Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PCDeveloper: Obsidian EntertainmentPublisher: Private DivisionGenre: RPG
Nostalgia can be dangerous. It encourages us to immortalize what was when we actually should be trumpeting how those things made us feel and pushed us to discover new experiences. We end up spinning our wheels in the same mentality while the world changes around us.
If there’s something noble to be said for nostalgia (at least in entertainment), though, it’s that there’s almost always an element of truth in it. More often than not, the reason you’re nostalgic for something is that we live in an “out with the old, in with the new” culture that chases trends and squeezes the life out of ideas until they’re no longer profitable. As such, we often use nostalgia as a way to express the wish that creators and studios didn’t completely abandon old ideas in the pursuit of whatever may be hot at the moment.
That’s why Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds is more than a nostalgia trip. It’s a glorious declaration and return for that a style of game design that was abandoned for reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not it’s still capable of delivering incredible experiences.
The official description of The Outer Worlds will tell you that it follows the adventures of a player-created character as he is thrust somewhat unwillingly into a future where corporations have crudely colonized the furthest reaches of space. As you venture between company towns and rebel ships, you’ll soon uncover a grand story at the heart of it all that reveals your place in this universe and what, exactly, is going on.
That’s roughly the back of the box description of The Outer Worlds, and we’ll talk about the game’s back of the box merits in a bit. However, there’s arguably a more important description of The Outer Worlds to consider, and that is: “Fallout: New Vegas 2.”
Simply put, The Outer Worlds has been hyped as the Fallout sequel that Obsidian Entertainment never got the chance to make. Even the game’s directors and design team have not shied away from that comparison.
If you’re coming into The Outer Worlds looking for that New Vegas sequel, you’re likely not going to be disappointed. The list of design elements that The Outer Worlds shares with Fallout: New Vegas (and the best of the Fallout series, for that matter) is extensive, but it begins with character creation and character growth.
Be prepared to sink some time into The Outer Worlds character creator. It’s not necessarily the deepest I’ve ever seen in terms of the sheer options available, but much like Fallout, it features a complex series of choices that require you to consider more than which categories have the biggest numbers. For instance, you can actually take away points from “base” statistics in order to spend them elsewhere. However, doing so will force you to suffer a penalty in that area. While some of those penalties lead to amusing options like low intelligence dialogue choices, others may really force you to rely on a particular style of play (at least at first). You’ve also got to pick a profession that will add vital early points to your character as well as balance a series of appealing perks.
More important than the initial character creation process, though, is how you choose to build your character as you play. This is a vital carryover from the Fallout series, which often forced you to live with and adapt to the consequences of your actions. It’s more about becoming comfortable with the your choices and not just about adding more points to the character you “build” from the start.
For example, you’ll also have several opportunities during the game to acquire certain negative and positive attributes that are offered based on the way you play. Early on, I suffered a lot of damage from energy weapons and was given the option to gain an additional perk point if I was willing to make my character permanently more vulnerable to those kinds of weapons. Ideas like that help sell the feeling that you’re truly growing your character and forging their place in this world rather than just following a pre-determined path that will ultimately end up roughly where every other person who plays the game will go.
That concept truly shines in another carry-over from the Fallout franchise: your dialogue choices. The Outer Worlds offers you an array of dialogue options that not only allows you to be a hero, villain, or something in-between but often gives you the opportunity to utilize your skills in order to unlock unique possibilities. These possibilities are most prolific with players choose to level up their character’s charisma and personality levels, but even brutes, engineers, hackers, and simpletons will occasionally get the opportunity to flex their builds through dialogue.
All character types also need to deal with the occasional moral quandary. Some of those predicaments are presented in a fairly black and white way largely for entertainment purposes but others are genuinely complicated. An early example saw me tasked with acquiring a part for my ship that required me to either divert power to a company town or to a kind of rebel outpost trying to regrow the world. The choice may sound simple, but as my companion at the time pointed out, diverting the power from the company town meant that many people would lose their jobs and access to vital resources. Good people are going to be hurt regardless of what you decide to do, and both decisions will cause an immediate impact on the world that will drastically change its look and how certain other events play out. There are times when The Outer Worlds is the rare game that forces you to test your moral radar regardless of whether or not you go into it committed to playing a certain way.
As we know from Fallout, that approach to conversations and dynamic choices only works if a game’s writing is good enough to encourage you to speak to (and care about) as many people as possible. Thankfully, that’s where The Outer Worlds shines brightest. The game’s dark humor will certainly tickle the funny bone of anyone who appreciates that kind of thing, but what’s really impressive about the writing is how it balances humor, emotions, and creative character designs as it introduces a world that you’re going to often fall in love with even when it’s showing you its ugliest sides.
All of these qualities speak to The Outer Worlds’ role as the Fallout: New Vegas sequel we never got. What really surprised me, though, is the ways in which the game also doubles as the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic sequel that Obsidian also never got the chance to make.
KOTOR’s influence is most obvious in The Outer Worlds’ use of a ship as the game’s primary hub. You get your ship early on through a hilarious misunderstanding, and you’ll find yourself often returning to it in order to journey to new worlds or even just take advantage of its amenities. More importantly, your ship will eventually house a sizable crew of companions.
Much like in KOTOR and Mass Effect, each of your companions boasts a unique personality and their own backstories. Not only do most of those backstories manifest themselves in side quests (which are, much like the rest of the game, often brilliantly written), but your companion’s personality will affect how certain scenarios play out. For instance, taking a particular combination of companions with you (you can venture into the world with two by your side) may result in unique banter between them, with you or with other characters in the world, depending on their relationship with you, each other, and everyone else. Again, this system naturally inspires you to experiment with different possibilities just to see what will happen.
Your choice of companios affects more than just dialogue, though. Each character has their own combat abilities, inventory, and perk options, which means that you’ll need to often consider which companions will tactically benefit you the most in certain situations. You can also invest character points in “Leadership,” which will make your companions more effective and open up new gameplay possibilities. Put it all together, and you’ve got a companion system that feels far more substantial than it ever felt in the Fallout series and again invokes sweet memories of playing some of the great BioWare RPGs of old.
Yet, KOTOR’s most surprisingly welcome influence on The Outer Worlds is found in the game’s approach to world design. Rather than offer you a massive “open-world,” The Outer Worlds breaks down its universe into smaller sectional chunks. Not only does this approach help lend each area its own personality and flavor, but it also allows you to more easily manage the shocking amount of things there are to do in this game. You may bounce between worlds on occasion, but those who prefer a more focused path through their RPGs will be offered the chance to more easily experience a dedicated narrative throughline that takes you through the game’s universe.
By now, you’ve certainly noticed that I’ve talked a lot about how The Outer Worlds invokes great games of the past. What about what the game offers on its own merits? Well, that’s where things get a little more complicated.
First off, The Outer Worlds’ main story is good, but I don’t think it quite reaches the peak established by some of its spiritual predecessors. You’ll feel compelled to see the main story through due largely to the experiences you encounter along the way, but if you were to relay the main plot in a more traditional, linear style, I’m not sure that you’d walk away convinced that it’s anything all that special. Thankfully, the incredible side stories, character stories, and moment-to-moment occurrences carry a lot of weight in that department.
I’m also still somewhat undecided regarding the game’s approach to combat. The Outer Worlds abandons the VATS system seen in recent Fallout games (as well as the turn-based/real-time hybrid in KOTOR titles) for a slightly more traditional FPS approach. That is to say that you point your weapon at something, fire it, and watch as a damage number pops up above the enemy’s head. The idea behind that alteration seems to be in service of making the combat feel more “real-time” and engaging, while still rewarding those who decide to invest character points in combat traits by allowing them to more effectively utilize a greater variety of gear and techniques.
It’s a good idea on paper, but it proves to be something of a mixed bag once you start to play around with it. The basic problem is that combat rarely feels punishing enough to encourage you to build a combat-focused character outside of a few notable skirmishes with high-level enemies. There are times when it feels like you get more out of the game by playing as a charisma-focused character who can access most of the additional dialogue. You even eventually unlock charisma-based combat options at some point, and engineer characters can more easily mod weapons to help mitigate damage lost via stat point arrangements. Plus, it feels like some of the game’s most “clever” moments involve the ways in which you use other skills to avoid traditional combat scenarios.
I did respec my character into more of a combat build at one point just to see how it played out, and while it certainly made combat easier, I didn’t experience much that led me to believe that it was a more rewarding path of play. That said, your mileage is going to vary based on your personal preferences, and it’s possible that an entire playthrough as a combat character reveals fascinating options I didn’t get to experience during that fairly brief window. With a game of this size, it’s hard to account for every possibility.
This also feels like a good time to note that The Outer Worlds does suffer from some technical problems. While most of the issues came down to annoying visual bugs, I did find that The Outer Worlds’ in-game text was incredibly small. Given how much information regarding new mechanics is relayed via text, this became more than a minor annoyance. I’ll be curious to see if this problem is fixed by the game’s day one patch or if it’s better playing the game in 4K on the Xbox One (or upscaled on the PS4 Pro).
That’s not to say that everything unique that The Outer Worlds brings to the table fails to live up to its inspirations. Again, the characters are incredible, the music is downright stunning, and environments are teeming with personality that, and this all speaks to the incredible artistic ambition of the team that worked on this project.
And that’s what makes The Outer Worlds one of the best games of 2019. It may owe some of its brilliance to what came before, but unlike a Ubisoft open-world title which often relies on a strict mechanical formula, you can’t just manufacture what The Outer Worlds does best. This game’s writing, visual design, character customization, unique and dynamic moments, and humor are only made possible because they stem from the voices and visions of the designers, writers, directors, and artists who brought them to life.
At its best, nostalgia is the recognition of a hole in the world. The fact of the matter is that there aren’t a lot of studios that are willing and able to make a game like The Outer Worlds anymore, and even the Bethesdas and BioWares of the world have arguably seen their glory days come ang go. Those who are going into The Outer Worlds with a longing for that style of RPG design will almost certainly fall to their knees in appreciation of the fact that the game they’ve waited for has, in fact, arrived.
Yet, I believe (and perhaps hope) that another generation of gamers will fall in love with The Outer Worlds. It’s arguably the best single-player RPG since The Witcher 3, and it suggests that the future of the genre may lie in realizing that there were ideas of the past that deserve to be preserved even if they’re presented in a slightly altered form.