Review copy provided by Private Division. Reviewed on PC.
The Outer Worlds is an open-world RPG set in a distant future where mankind has found new habitats beyond Earth. In this future, technological progress has allowed the terraforming and subsequent colonization of planets in distant solar systems. The abundance of mineral wealth in the newly discovered planets has led to a space race between major corporations for the rights to exploit this glut of resources.
The Outer Worlds is a brilliant depiction of the evolution of a capitalist society, mirroring the dawn of the Industrial Age in America. It makes sense, considering the game is set in an alternate timeline where U.S. President William McKinley was never assassinated.
The Outer Worlds has been one of the most anticipated titles for this year for RPG fans. The game remains true to its genre roots, delivering a unique single-player experience, just as Obsidian had promised before release. Hopefully, the score bonuses are in the mail this time. Despite its seemingly open areas, there are restrictions placed on exploration. Though it’s a decision-driven RPG at its core, the game’s first-person shooter mechanics come to the fore in its more action-packed sections. Although the two playstyles have their differences, Obsidian does a good job of making the experience feel seamless.
The worlds of the Halcyon system players visit in The Outer Worlds effectively incorporate the game’s themes. Life on the planets is controlled by mega-corporations who exercise total control over their workers. Halcyon is home to a variety of planets, each with unique climates. The variety is quite stunning, ranging from rocky plateaus, to volcanic swamps, to dense forests. Despite rampant colonization and settler expansion, a majority of planet surfaces are untamed and home to a variety of dangerous creatures. Both towns and cities are designed with a retro-futurist aesthetic. But texture re-use is still noticeable, primarily for objects like windows, doors, and roads.
One of the most well-designed elements of The Outer Worlds is the people of Halcyon. People from many backgrounds work together in the various colonies of this system, each with their own thoughts and emotions. Most people are given interesting characteristics and dialogues, which have been built upon to suit the theme. The beauty of the design is seen in the fact that people react differently based on your appearance. Wearing marauder armor in a city is sure to attract some sharp words from the local populace during conversations. The lack of intelligent life in space is slightly concerning, but I guess the mega-corporations wouldn’t tolerate any other civilization having a claim over ‘their’ resources anyways.
While the game is said to be ‘open-world’, it doesn’t allow players to move from one place to another with no restrictions. You can travel within a world, but you can’t always freely travel from planet to planet. You need to progress to access the special landing pads on the surface. Areas open up gradually, unlocking more possibilities for the completion of side-quests. While unlocking places one by one is fine, since it prevents the player from having their to-do lists full, it can damage immersion. But despite the lack of freedom, the worlds are well-designed. And free-roaming to kill some enemies, or knocking out side quests to get extra XP and cash, feels good.
You seldom see games that mix and match genres that are radically different, and very few games pull it off. But first-person combat in The Outer Worlds mixes seamlessly with the dialogue-based RPG elements. You can wield your guns and weapons like a mad man in settlements, and, as long as you don’t hit anyone, people don’t react. This is a bit of a let-down, since the populace, who is otherwise designed to react to the player’s choices, attire, and even reputation, doesn’t react to an unruly guy holding a gun in a settlement and shooting it about. I even decided to take things a bit further and kill chickens in front of a guard NPC. Turns out that the guard doesn’t care for the lives of a few chickens. I wouldn’t be surprised if the price of the chickens was deducted from his wages at the end of the month on account of ‘damage to company property’ though.
Shooting resembles the style of other popular first-person shooters. Enemies can behave a bit bullet spongy at times, especially monsters. However, the animations for reloading as well as shooting are on point, suggesting that it’s more of an issue with damage numbers than the shooting mechanics. The game uses bullet bloom, which might not go down well with everyone, though most people would spam bullets when they see a mantiqueen (a creature resembling a praying mantis) in front of them without caring about how much damage they do with each shot. This does hurt immersion a bit, but when the game’s main focus is on role-playing, that hardly matters. Also, it means I can spam my way away to victory, something I still can’t do in Counter-Strike.
One thing which the game still uses is the bonus from undetected attacks. If you’re crouched and aren’t detected, your first attack will deal bonus damage. I don’t know why, but when I was in certain so-called ‘restricted areas’ of the game and was crouched, I tried to find a button to ‘takedown’ or ‘assassinate’ an enemy instantly. Turns out that one plasma shot to their face is enough to do the job, though it isn’t necessarily programmed as a ‘takedown’ in the game’s key bindings. While crouching does allow players to get through areas without fights, enemies are often too weak to fend off attacks – especially when you have two immortal, invincible companions traveling with you. The game doesn’t incentivize you to use stealth – I used my expert stealth skills exactly once to complete an additional objective for a main quest.
The game has several special abilities which help improve the shooting a lot. Apparently staying in space for long hours causes some sort of time dilation in no one but the player itself, which they can use to their advantage in gunfights. It’s a feature which is pretty good in combat but sadly is made in a way where it is referenced very less and is often forgotten – not to mention that enemies are too easy to dispose of even without the ability to slow time. The game also gives a special gadget to the player called a Holographic Shroud which allows access to restricted areas.
The game allows players to recruit up to six companions on their adventure. Each companion comes from a different background, and provide a different buff to the player’s abilities. Each companion is fully customizable and shares inventory space with the player. The game gives players full command over their companions – you can choose what armor they wear, what weapons they use and also explicitly specify where to move or what to interact with. These features take a little time to get used to but become pretty useful in the long run. In fact, it is possible to get through without combat entirely by forcing companions to do the dirty work – since companions are revived shortly after their health bars hit zero, following which they continue fighting against any nearby enemies. I did test this out a few times but stopped doing this after a while since the XP received from companion kills is lesser than what you get by killing enemies yourself.
Companions do make it easier to make your way through certain sections of the game, though they can reduce the difficulty to the point where it becomes inconsequential. Add some decent armor and guns to your helpers and they start to feel like Saint Seiya characters. Each companion has their own set of side quests to make you feel like you’re doing a great job learning their stories, even when you’re only in it to get XP and currency.
The game uses an inventory system reminiscent of other RPGs like The Witcher 3. You have separate tabs for consumables, armor, weapons, and junk. Each screen allows you to equip any item or remove an equipped item. This might not seem like a pretty relevant point for many, but there isn’t an ‘unequip’ button as such – you’re just going to have to ‘replace’ your equipped items on the go. For a game that is otherwise designed to be ‘the perfect RPG’, this oversight seems slightly amateurish.
Armor comes in two components – the helmet and the body. The game categorizes limb armor as part of the body armor instead of allocating separate slots for it. It’s understandable, since collecting separate parts for making a full set does take a long time. And the game, even with all of its side quests, is quite short – definitely not enough to cherish the set of cherry armor whose parts you collected from merchants from all over Halcyon (my favorite set).
Guns in the game may deal regular or elemental damage. Certain enemies have particular weaknesses to particular elements – for instance, automechanicals (the game’s name for robots) are weak to shock damage and organics are weak to plasma damage. I don’t understand why they had all armors change the stats of the player in some way or another while neglecting to let guns modify stats. And why do all pieces of armor positively affect the player’s skills? I already have a hoarding syndrome in games with stat boosts, and I don’t want it to get any worse.
The Outer Worlds generated excitement among gamers primarily because of the anticipation for a decent story. The main quest line doesn’t disappoint. In fact, I found myself thinking about galactic economic conspiracies involving megacorporations after a few sessions in the game. The game portrays all corporations and everyone involved in managerial decisions in these corporations in a highly negative light and builds the theme around these portrayals.
This alternate timeline has resulted in the creation of a society that approves the creation of class-based divides. Working positions are often passed down from one generation to another, meaning that it is often very hard to get out of a social class. While the game does a good job at visual descriptions of the difference between the workers and the bourgeoisie, it does paint a stark picture of the theme – nominating all owners of “Das Kapital” as the “Worker of the Year.”
The game builds up the main story with various sub-sections, each of which allows the player to deal with a number of problems before they can proceed to the next section. The game’s pace has some issues, as they switch too rapidly from one point to another without properly explaining the three Ws—what, why and when. While I definitely enjoyed the story, the main quest line was a bit short and leaves some questions unanswered. Some side quests also feel irrelevant for much other than a bit of lore and a touch of XP. The game’s last mission recalls Mass Effect 2, and the ending is satisfying, provided you made sensible choices throughout the story.
Obsidian games are always well written, but The Outer Worlds’ writing is really praiseworthy. The game’s dialogue is what makes it unique and stand out among the other RPGs in the market. Just like the Protoss would say, “Every piece has been put with precision.” A great deal of time and effort went into writing actually interesting dialogues that players can digest and enjoy. Combine the brilliant design of every NPC in the game and the dialogues with a Polymerization card, and you get to craft the perfect experience for players.
In a universe where an entire solar system is run by corporations, there’s bound to be strife – especially when people are sorted into social classes and made to obey the will of corporations as the final word. The words spoken by NPCs truly bring out the attitude of the character they are supposed to portray. When I met a woman from a well-off family on one of the more habitable colonies on Halcyon, she compared me with a vagrant and said the corporations should not allow people like me in her gardens. Interrogation revealed that she was born into richness because her grandfather served a corporation in R&D, and now every one of her family members lives in luxury mansions looking down on the workers as “vagrants.” So much for humility. On the other hand, the workers who were on a so-called retirement scheme on the same colony were extremely pleasant, welcoming me and openly praising the scheme as “something the corporates did right for once.”
In a hyper-capitalist system like Halcyon, megacorporations getaway by offering poor quality products for a premium because there isn’t an alternative product that customers can depend on – this is seen even in the adverts shown on the loading screens and solidifies the player’s belief in liberation for the workers. Some of these adverts are very clever. Even a piece of flavor text, reading “Your loading screen tip can be here” during a loading screen, was clever and self-aware.
Perhaps the best of all was the fact that the names of all main quests are easter-eggs. They are references to movies or series in space which resembled the mission very closely. Obsidian games without pop-culture references definitely feel mundane, and the studio knows that very well.
The game has got some pretty decent voice acting. Some voices are pretty inspiring, while others are annoying and get on your nerves – you get a wide variety of voices to go along with the personality of the NPCs in question. The game falls flat when it comes to the soundtrack, though. The game’s main menu theme is the memorable piece. The game was built with the story and more importantly the writing in mind and not the music, so I’m willing to let it slide.
The Outer Worlds comes with stunning visuals out of the box. While the shaders certainly can’t be called realistic, the game does a good job of pleasing the people who want some eye-candy. All worlds are gorgeous, carefully designed from inside out. The game does re-use some models here and there, particularly in the more urban areas of the colony- like doors, windows, gates, roadways and even some buildings. The models for monsters like raptidons and mantisaurs and automechanicals including robots and drones are particularly good. NPC animations are also decent, and their expressions actually match their words. The game doesn’t have a third-person camera, which is pretty sad since I always like to play dress-up and take screenshots of my character in different matching sets of armor.
The game’s optimization is pretty good. The game performs pretty decently on a wide range of PCs, and manages to run decently even on older Maxwell cards. The game runs smoothly throughout except for a few areas where the framerate tanks a bit and it becomes noticeable when one doesn’t use the game’s frame limiter. The PC version has a wide range of customizable options to tweak until a balance between good visuals and a stable frame rate is achieved.
The Outer Worlds is an addictive game with an engrossing storyline, top-of-the-world environment design, “nutty” companions and on-the-top graphics. And the game’s excellent writing is instrumental in building this world. Despite having quite a few flaws RPG veterans might notice, The Outer Worlds still stands out. It’s one of the year’s best games.