I was absolutely ecstatic to be given the opportunity to review The Outer Worlds. The game left an impression on me since the announcement trailer at E3 2018. Irvine-based Obsidian Entertainment took lessons from its previous hit Fallout: New Vegas and applied them to a new wholly-original IP. Those familiar mechanics combined with brilliant writing to create a video game that succeeds at every level and demonstrates that Obsidian can triumphantly stand toe-to-toe alongside BioWare and Bethesda as a giant among AAA RPG developers.
Recently, Obsidian seems to be taking concepts from past projects and almost recreating them with new, original intellectual property. Best example being the Pillars of Eternity series, which is clearly inspired by old-school isometric RPGs like Neverwinter Nights 2 (which Obsidian developed in 2006) and the Baldur’s Gate series. Now, it seems that Obsidian has done it again by bringing last-generation’s Fallout: New Vegas from 2010 into the current-gen with The Outer Worlds.
“Welcome to the Future…Try Not to Break It!”
The Outer Worlds is set in the Halcyon system. Halcyon, or “Alcyone” (also known as “Eta Tauri”), is actually a real star in the Pleiades star cluster, approximately 440 light-years away from our Sun. Colonizing a star system about 100 times further away from our solar system than Alpha Centauri is not an easy prospect, so ten Earth corporations banded together to form the Halcyon Holdings Corporation and fund the colonization effort. As the game begins, we see numerous Halcyon colonization advertisements from the year 2285, as a cheery corporate voice ad plays in the background. The Halcyon ad for the Hope colony ship promises colonists a short ten-year trip and a new life of freedom in 2295 (after a “minor term of service” to Halcyon Holdings, of course). However, then we see the ship’s computer: the Board for Halcyon Holdings found the Hope drifting at the edge of the Halcyon system and ordered that the colony ship be abandoned. For 35 years, you and your fellow colonists have been kept in hibernation…slumbering unaware that the Board will never allow you to reach your destination.
It is your lucky day when your hibernation pod is recovered from the Hope by a fugitive scientist named Phineas Vernon Welles. You know he’s a fugitive because the subtitles say so. For “crimes against the colony”…including, but not limited to: sedition, forgery, conspiracy, conspiracy to commit conspiracy, unlicensed medical practice, and destruction of Board property. The game starts off with Phineas arriving on the Hope in his ship. The tone for the game is immediately set with Phineas’s introduction, as he attempts to lower his ship’s ramp in the Hope’s docking bay and has to button-mash the controls to get the ramp to fully extend. It is with Phineas in the cryo-bay that character creation takes place, as Phineas selects which pod to take back to his lab. The player can choose their Abilities, Skills, Aptitude, Appearance, and Name.
Humanity’s Best and Brightest…or Not
Abilities are broken down into Body, Mind, and Personality…which are further broken down into Strength (melee weapon damage and carrying amount), Dexterity (melee attack speed and ranged reload speed), Intelligence (Critical Hit bonus damage), Perception (Headshot and Weakspot bonus damage), Charm (Faction Reputation and Companion Ability cooldown), and Temperament (health regeneration). I made a colonist with “High” Strength and Intelligence, “Above Average” Dexterity and Perception, and “Average” Charm and Temperament. In most RPGs, I prefer to Persuade or Intimidate my way out of situations, but I had a feeling that the new frontier might be too hostile for a “talker” to survive. Taking points away and bringing abilities down to “Below Average” bestows penalties instead of bonuses.
Then you can allocate two skill points among your Skills: Melee, Ranged, Defense, Dialog, Stealth, Tech, and Leadership. Not exactly “S.P.E.C.I.A.L.”, but the same basic idea. I decided to put my points into Stealth and Leadership. Hacking and Lockpicking seemed like good ways to gain a tactical advantage in combat, and Leadership would boost my measly charisma with my future Companions.
Aptitudes act as character backstories. They don’t seem to have any direct impact on the story, and function more as a starting Perk for your character. These career Aptitudes can range from “Scientist Assistant, Level 0, Class A” (a fancy job title for “test subject”) to the soul-crushing “Tossball Team Mascot”. There’s also the option to choose “No Discernable Aptitude”, which provides a simple +1 Determination to your Leadership skill. For my character, I chose “Cashier, Sub-Grade, Non-Supervisory” (which boosted my Dialog skill a little with a +1 Persuade).
There are dozens of character appearance options, with over 30 different hair styles and hair colors. The character customization reminds me a lot of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, right down to the dirt color. I was also pleasantly surprised to find facial hair options for both male and female characters. I was tempted to give my character a nice “Kaiser Bill” mustache.
“And it’s gonna be f***ing LAMINATED!!!”
Upon being revived by Phineas, he claims that the Hope’s “skip drive” (FTL drive) was rendered inoperative, and a ten-year “skip jump” turned into a 25-year trip at sub-light speed. You have been in hibernation for about seventy years…decades longer than originally intended. Luckily, Phineas is here to make sure that the de-hibernation process goes smoothly, your body and mind are undamaged, and…I’m sorry, did he just say *explosive cell death*?! (Phineas insists it’s more a “liquefaction”.) Being in hibernation for so long means waking up the Hope’s colonists is riskier, and too dangerous to do without the proper chemicals. Phineas used up his chemicals to wake your character, so you must go out into the titular “outer worlds” to acquire the chemicals and wake up the rest of the Hope. Phineas would do it himself, but it’s too risky for him to leave his lab: Phineas has a very large bounty on his head. (Like, PREPOSTEROUSLY large…so large, *I* considered turning him into the Board at one point!) So your character is sent to the surface of the planet Terra-2 to rendezvous with a smuggler named Captain Alex Hawthorne, who will provide transport and resources for our mission. With a quick farewell (and another humorous button-mashing), you are literally thrust into the game!
Your pod crash-lands in the Emerald Vale region on Terra-2. Upon exiting your pod and looking around for Hawthorne, you realize that he’s underneath you…in a bloody smear. Apparently, Hawthorne forgot to get to a safe distance after planting the beacon. It’s up to us to get to Hawthorne’s ship, get it literally up-and-running, and continue the mission to revive the Hope! Along the way, you are introduced to gameplay mechanics like Stealth, combat, and the game’s Tactical Time Dilation (TTD). Taking obvious inspiration from Fallout’s “VATS” combat mechanic, TTD allows the player to temporarily slow down the game, allowing them to fire more accurately or even dodge incoming fire. The game’s lore explains this mechanic as an unexpected side-effect of Phineas’s chemicals. Since the TTD lasts shorter the more you move or attack, it gives combat a sort of SUPERHOT feel.
As I fight my way through marauders (rogue human bandits guilty of violence, psychopathy, cannibalism, and unemployment), I come across a few corporate guards. Their zeal for paperwork is only outmatched by their company loyalty…to such a degree that one needs to be persuaded to accept off-brand medical assistance. I need to go into Edgewater, the local “employment community” (aka “town”), to find a power regulator for Hawthorne’s ship: the Unreliable. Between the psychotic marauders and the zealous corporate mercs, I get a distinct Borderlands vibe from The Outer Worlds. But while Borderlands embraces the over-the-top violence and absurdity of its setting, The Outer Worlds doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of a corporate-ruled dystopian future. Edgewater is controlled by a Board subsidiary called “Spacer’s Choice”. This penny-pinching corporation boasts about its low-cost, low-price products. Its slogan should tell you everything you need to know about Spacer’s Choice: “You’ve tried the best…now, try the rest!” Once a booming coastal town, decreased profits and investments have resulted in a ruin with most of the original colony left abandoned. The heavily-walled Edgewater now consists of little more than a couple of stores, a church, and a cannery for an alien fish called “saltuna” (the cannery doubles as a sort of town hall).
It’s easy to instantly paint Spacer’s Choice as the bad guy. After all, they’re on the Board! They’re the Big Bad Evil Guys I’m supposed to eventually stop, right? The town’s corporate overseer, Reed Tobson, does little to dissuade my initial prejudices. Reed is voiced by the delightful and delightfully-talented voice acting treasure that is Darin De Paul (Overwatch, Spider-Man, and more). Darin De Paul does a fantastic job as Reed: portraying a well-meaning (but utterly incompetent) bureaucrat. When I first meet Reed, he is deep in conversation with a mechanic named Parvati Holcomb. I am not exaggerating when I say that Parvati, voiced by the ever-talented Ashly Burch (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Borderlands 2, and more), is one of my favorite parts of this game. I adore Parvati: she is sweet, naïve, nonconforming, and a whip-smart engineer. Seeing as how I am trying to repair a starship, I eagerly accept Reed’s offer to take Parvati with me to recover the power regulator from the nearby Botanical Lab.
Choose Your Own Adventure
It’s upon traveling to the Botanical Lab that I truly notice how familiar, and yet utterly alien, this planet is. As I see a volcano rumble in the distance, I see the mushrooms bloom like flowers among the grass. Obsidian did an admirable job showcasing that while this world teems with life, it is definitely not Earth. Along the road, I encounter more marauders. Parvati is not as durable in combat as I had hoped. Her tendency to get in close results in her being quickly overwhelmed by melee attackers or concentrated enemy fire. However, I eventually figure out to use her as enough of a distraction to divert enough of the marauders away from me that I can pick off most of them before Parvati finally goes down. If you are so inclined, you can also adjust your Companion’s AI to determine whether they fight in Close-Combat, at a Ranged distance, or a mixture of the two. Stealth proves not to be as formidable an ally as I had intended: sneak attack damage isn’t really so much a K.O. However, with my Strength ability and Stealth skill, a sneak attack with a sabre can make enough of a difference that I can quickly dispatch a lone enemy. However, attacking one foe alerts all nearby enemies. I quickly found myself abandoning my original “stealthy melee ninja” approach in favor of sniping enemies from a distance.
As I approach the Botanical Lab, I see some deserters from Edgewater who have built a promising community. I take the opportunity to get some side quests done here. Marauders continue to be the primary enemies encountered, and the armored Hooligans in particular prove to be the most frustrating ones to defeat. However, once I eventually recover harder-hitting weapons like the Assault Rifle, these foes become less overwhelming of an obstacle.
As I build more and more positive reputation with the deserters, I likewise begin to warm up to them. A colony free of corporate ownership and nurturing new life? Maybe I could cut off Edgewater’s power and taking their power regulator instead? As you do side quests for various factions in The Outer Worlds, you may gain either positive or negative Faction Reputation. This reputation, depending on your choices, can range anywhere from Hostile to Neutral to Revered.
The Outer Worlds thrives on finding creative solutions to different problems. Some of these solutions can come as a result of accomplishing other quests. Some opportunities present themselves by avoiding direct confrontation and combat. The Outer Worlds takes a similar RPG approach to Fallout in that players are encouraged to craft their own narratives and decide their personal approach to fulfill that narrative. It’s reminiscent of the player mechanics of classic pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe you’re persuasive and you like to talk your way out of trouble with the guards? Maybe you’re stealthy and you like to avoid combat and traps altogether? Maybe you’re athletic and you like to smash your enemies into a smooth paste? In some cases, it won’t be as easy to convince the guard as it would be to simply go in guns-blazing, but at least you have the possibility. The Outer Worlds has ways to reward all types of players, with satisfying payoffs for all approaches to fulfilling quest objectives. And for me, nothing is more satisfying than the sounds of ricocheting gunfire as the robots you just hacked begin firing on each other.
Damned if You Do, and Damned if You Don’t
The character development in The Outer Worlds stands just as strong as its quest design. Parvati is a complex and well-written person. Just before a crucial quest decision, she interrupts asking to share her thoughts. Allow her to do so, and you get a thought-out and sympathetic viewpoint that I honestly did not expect to hear. But her argument is very persuasive, and it feels like the lesser of two evils. Or maybe I’m simply trying to convince myself that I did the right thing?
It works so well to make players debate what the right choice is precisely because (as in life) often there are no right choices. The Outer Worlds is less about role-playing a character, and more about forcing players to ask themselves who they are and what they believe in. Maybe you are a champion of the people who will see them freed from corporate tyranny at any cost? Maybe you are a corporate lackey who will eagerly increase your own power and wealth? Maybe you are a cynic who sees no way out of this web of self-destruction and greed? Or maybe you really are just a psychopath who does whatever it takes to survive? If nothing else, you might gain a new perspective you hadn’t otherwise considered.
On the way back to Edgewater, I am consumed by guilt and bitterness about my decision. I am angry…angry at Spacer’s Choice. Angry at the situation they forced these people in. They didn’t force Reed to deny medicine to the plague-ridden workers, but they did restrict the colony’s medical supply. At Edgewater, I have been shown the consequences of corporate mismanagement and negligence at a localized level, and I am appalled by the results. Perhaps the greed and apathy of Spacer’s Choice resonates so strongly because so much of what I see echoes our world: long hours for insufficient wages, nearly non-existent healthcare, a decaying climate, etc. In this frame of mind, the humor in The Outer Worlds becomes a vital necessity. Laughter is the only vaccine to help inoculate the player against the harsh realities of this corporate-owned interstellar community. Without the game’s phenomenal writing and hilarious wit, The Outer Worlds would be the life of man as described in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan: “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
Having had enough of this colony, I finally take off with Parvati in the Unreliable! (Apparently, the priestly Maximilian “Max” DeSoto in Edgewater’s church was also a potential Companion, but I’m happy enough with just Parvati.) With my own starship, I can go anywhere I want to! Well, almost anywhere…not every world in The Outer Worlds is automatically available on the navigation terminal. ADA, the ship’s AI, relays a message from Phineas: the next step in getting the chemicals to revive the Hope colonists is at a colony called Stellar Bay, but for that, we need a Navkey. Phineas directs me to a black market fence named Gladys on the Groundbreaker. Once the sister ship of the Hope, it is now a space station at the L2 Langrange point (relative to Halcyon’s star and Terra-2).
At Groundbreaker, we also get the opportunity to see the Board’s side of the story. While definitely not unbiased, it does give us a new and troubling perspective on Phineas. According to the Board, he did more than “disagree” with the Board’s handling of the Halcyon system….Phineas is a full-blown terrorist, and an insane one at that. Again, much of the story here depends on the perspective of the player. Do I choose to believe that this is just Board propaganda? Or do I choose to believe this story as true?
I think my number-one takeaway from The Outer Worlds is how *FUN* it is. Good grief, I haven’t laughed this much at a video game since 2015’s Tales from the Borderlands by Telltale Games! And if you don’t believe me, read the name of this consumable item: “Dehydrated Water”. If you don’t get it, think about it. It will make your day…it certainly made mine!
I didn’t expect to mull over the story choices as much as I did. Corporations are big, greedy, and apathetic…surely they’re the bad guys? Why do I feel bad about hurting the bad guys?! Well, as Parvati reminded me, corporations aren’t just the parsimonious executives…there’s also the little people on the bottom. People who have no say in the issue at hand, and might get hurt no matter what you try to do. The Outer Worlds does a great job of separating itself from the traditional black-and-white of moral dilemmas (Light Side vs. Dark Side in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Paragon vs. Renegade in Mass Effect, etc.). This game is far grayer. Bad people can do good things, and good people can do *very* bad things. As might be the case with Phineas, one man’s quest to “save” the Halcyon system could actually be an interplanetary terrorist campaign.
If there’s anything I can criticize The Outer Worlds for (and trust me, I’m really trying hard here), it’s that so much of the game is borrowed from Fallout: New Vegas. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing: the Fallout games are very successful for good reason. But now that I’ve seen Pillars of Eternity and The Outer Worlds, I want to see Obsidian do more than what they’ve done best. I want to see what they’ll do next! The graphics for The Outer Worlds look great, but when the game switches to that Fallout-style conversation frame, it feels a little stilted and robotic. Not because there’s anything wrong with the facial animations or anything like that, but because that type of gameplay framing is too familiar. I’d like to see these characters emote a little more, and it’s hard to do that with them staring right into the “camera”, unable to move around and physically interact. Several other reviews have dubbed The Outer Worlds as “Fallout in Space”. Again, it’s labeled such as praise, not criticism. But it’s so hard to play the game without thinking, “Oh, this is just like VATS.” or “Oh, this is just like S.P.E.C.I.A.L.”
Again, I enjoyed the Fallout games, and Bethesda’s modding community is pretty legendary, but I don’t want to think of The Outer Worlds as just an extensive Fallout mod. It is a game and universe in its own right, and I am excited and hopeful to see Obsidian take their lessons from The Outer Worlds and take bolder choices for the sequel and even games beyond this. The Outer Worlds succeeds precisely because it is not Fallout and Obsidian is not Bethesda. If Obsidian had branched out and experimented with newer gameplay mechanics in addition to (or even replacing) those they acquired from previous titles, The Outer Worlds would have easily been a perfect 5 out of 5.
If you don’t believe us, please try out the game and see for yourself. It is fun, it is thought-provoking, and it is sure to keep gamers entertained for *months* to come. The Outer Worlds is undeniably the best video game Obsidian has made yet! Have you played the game yet? What are your thoughts about The Outer Worlds? What do you hope to see from Obsidian next? Let us know in the comments, and keep an eye on Geek Girl Authority for more news and insight into the latest video games and more! Do it…or else you’ll suffer explosive cell death, and no one wants that!
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