The Outer Worlds Review – This Is My Space Jam
The Outer Worlds plays just like a Fallout game. That’s a pretty tepid description and an obvious comparison. It’s easy to take one look at the game, which strongly echoes the mechanical form of the Bethesda RPGs, and think you know what to expect. The developer, Obsidian Entertainment, was responsible for the cult-favorite Fallout: New Vegas after all. But The Outer Worlds doesn’t just play like a Fallout game. It is, surprisingly, the best possible version of a Fallout game–a potent distillation of what made that series so beloved in the first place.
The Outer Worlds adopts the most compelling innovations of modern Fallout games, emphasising immersive exploration and impactful, action-oriented combat in a game engine (Unreal Engine) that actually makes those things feel good by contemporary standards. It shares Fallout’s satirical but incredibly bleak look at the future, but is free of its tired tropes. Critically, The Outer Worlds exhibits the same depth of soul as the early Interplay and Black Isle Fallout games (as well as other games in the ’90s PC RPG genre) with a genuinely complex, interconnected narrative web of relationships and events that feel like they can change in a seemingly infinite number of ways based on the character you want to be, the variety of choices you can make, and the actions you take.
Given the studio and the key people responsible (original Fallout creators Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky), that last trait isn’t surprising. But it’s not the only element that makes The Outer Worlds an excellent space Western adventure–that’s just the incredibly sound foundation that elevates the game’s great world-building, wonderful characters, and multi-layered quest design, on top of punchy combat and consistently sharp writing.
In The Outer Worlds, you are just one of the thousands of people left in hibernation on an abandoned colony ship, when a scientist of possibly ill repute frees you and enlists your help in saving the rest of your frozen peers. After a rigorous character creation process–involving a slew of variable attributes, perks, and aesthetic customization–you crash-land on a planet, alone, and from there, how you make your mark on the Halcyon system is up to you.
The crux of this sci-fi setup is that, among other things, the Halcyon system is owned and run entirely by a board of corporations, and their presence is a big deal. Whole planets are owned by corps looking to use their ecosystems as part of a larger supply chain, and numerous vending machines from different companies populate towns, trying to attract you with their bright logos and jingles. In fact, The Outer Worlds is saturated with strikingly colourful locales; the planets you’ll visit are impressively varied and sometimes beautiful, flaunting an H.G. Wells-like retro-futuristic aesthetic, the antithesis of grimdark cyberpunk.
On the first impression, corporations appear as a mostly aesthetic layer folded into the world. A number of the companies mentioned seem to mostly just exist as manufacturers of weapons and consumables–a piece of flair to keep the tone light in the same way that the Circus of Values exists in BioShock, but it’s far more ingrained than that. Corporate capitalism so deeply affects everything in The Outer Worlds, and explorations into how it can affect society on a variety of levels is a surprisingly well-considered constant, despite the semblance of parody. You’ll meet sympathetic workers whose livelihoods are only made possible by offering themselves to exploitation and indentured servitude, white-collared outlaws who are more bureaucrats than pirates, and well-meaning middle-managers who are trying to change the corporate machine from the inside. You’ll find moderates, idealists, extremists, and most things in between and around the fringes, all of which have their own feasible ideas about how to best serve the colony or themselves. By the time the climax hits, it’s clear that The Outer Worlds has its own stance on this bleak future, but that doesn’t stop the world it creates, the sojourns you take, and characters you meet along the way from being any less fascinating.
There are plenty of characters in The Outer Worlds who I didn’t like. Reed Tobson, for example, is a snivelling factory chief in the early hours of the game who I didn’t have to think twice about undermining, and Felix, one of your potential companion characters, had such an annoyingly naive personality I avoided talking to him as much as possible. The Outer Worlds allows you to kill any character in the game (bar one), and the world will reshape and move on without them, but there’s something to be said for game’s depiction of its unappealing people, whose portrayal I admired despite my distaste. You’ll talk to a lot of people in The Outer Worlds. How much you do is up to you–you’re allowed to cut straight to get to the point or dive deeper–but chatting to the game’s entire supporting cast of non-player characters is something that never gets tiring, even if you don’t care for them, purely because of how strong the game’s writing and vocal performances are.
I never felt like I had to endure stretches of pointless or overly dramatic exchanges, both because of how focussed and subtle the script seemed to be, as well as the variety of response options for my player character which kept conversations flowing in largely natural ways. Numerous considerations for the world state let conversations take into account things you may or may not already have done throughout your campaign; brief and subtle injections of worldbuilding and lore stop conversation from being too matter of fact without losing the game’s identity, and some exceptional low-key wit works very well in sparking a periodic laugh without humour feeling like a sticking point. Solid, consistent voice direction helps keep the tone firmly measured, meaning the hours you spend absorbing the world through its people are always engaging.
Nowhere does the strength of the game’s characters shine more strongly than in your companions, however (except for Felix; that guy is a weenie). You have the option to recruit six predetermined characters to accompany and assist you in your adventures, though the game does have tools to bolster a lone wolf character too. But having companions along for the ride is a delight, and that’s, again, because of the strength of the character writing. Companions instantly feel like fleshed-out characters of their own accord, not like they simply exist to revolve around you. They’ll converse privately with each other and chime in on conversations you have with other characters in the world, acting as sounding boards during key moments. They can, in extreme situations, leave you of their own accord if they strongly disagree with a course of action. It’s all mechanically conditional, of course, but the illusion the game builds is so endearing–spending time with these folks feels just as valuable as your pursuing the overarching goal.
Companions have their own customisable skill trees, equipment loadouts, combat tactics, and special abilities you can command them to use, which, with their cinematic camera angles, inspired battle cries, and useful status effects, never become unsatisfying to initiate. The other major tool at your disposal in combat, provided your character’s weapon skills are high enough to use it, is Tactical Time Dilation (TTD)–a time-bending mechanic that slows the action to a crawl, allowing you to give yourself some breathing room in order to analyse enemies and take the time to execute precision attacks. Hitting certain locations on enemies will let you do things like cripple or maim them, or inflict weapon-specific effects like bleed damage or knocking them unconscious. Using TTD tactically to take out key targets and attempt to control the flow of battle makes it an entertaining and useful tool, but its availability is limited and not something you can rely on entirely until you get to meaningfully upgrade it much later in the game.
Despite having strong RPG foundations, the combat in The Outer Worlds is very much focussed on first-person action, incorporating things like parries, blocks, and dodges on top of an array of melee weapons and firearms. There’s a hectic and fast-paced fluidity to combat that feels very good, however. That’s aided by some enthusiastic sound design, which does most of the heavy lifting in giving all weapons some satisfying feedback. A range of “Science weapons” bring some creative diversity in your arsenal, and features guns that have unique, entertaining properties like shrinking enemies or turning them against each other.
The only problem with combat is that on the game’s recommended Regular difficulty, it eventually turns into a cakewalk. This is satisfying in a way, of course–all the points I pumped into maxing out my handgun skills, thus becoming best gunslinger in the galaxy, did actually make me feel utterly invincible. But, it also meant I didn’t feel pushed to explore the game’s slew of combat-adjacent mechanics nearly as deeply as I would have hoped. Things like elemental damage, equipment modding, companion synergies, and the special effects allowed by consumables (which, by the way, are incredibly difficult to parse in the game’s icon-heavy menu), could all be safely ignored. The Outer Worlds has a “flaws” system that lets you purposefully shoulder restrictive debuffs in certain situations in exchange for an extra perk point, but it’s completely optional and rarely worth the tradeoff. Jumping into the “Supernova” difficulty level in a subsequent playthrough changes all that, however–combat danger increases, your ability to save your game becomes restricted, and survival mechanics like hunger and thirst are introduced, making all of the game’s mechanical considerations feel far more vital. The game is more challenging and interesting because of it, but its demanding nature definitely makes it more of a second-run option.
Toe-to-toe combat is not the only solution to your problems. The Outer Worlds allows for a variety of avenues for alternative and passive solutions–stealth, hacking, and speech-related options are available throughout the game, provided you pass the skill checks. It’s nigh impossible to complete the game without getting into at least some combat, unfortunately, but to the game’s credit, virtually every quest in the game, big or small, features branching options in terms of their paths to success and how you deal with the big, final choices you have to make to resolve disputes, which are often deliciously grey. It’s at the level where you’ll always be considering the additional ways you could have achieved something, whether that be taking a different route, finding more information out in the world, or killing the quest giver and everyone else in the town.
When you hit the end, the game runs through a whole slew of epilogues that describe how you resolved the game’s numerous major variables and what became of them, and being shown all your exploits after some 30 hours makes the whole journey and your unique path through it really feel quite meaningful. It’s difficult to know the full extent of just how many directions something can go, and the end result of many quests can likely only ever differ in a small handful of ways, but this perception of freedom and possibilities on your first run is inspiring.
I finished The Outer Worlds wanting more, eager to jump back into the world to see extra things. It’s not a short game, but it’s one packed with such a steady stream of wonderful characters to meet, interesting places to explore, and meaningful, multi-layered quests to solve, that it didn’t feel like there was any room to get tired of it. I wanted to rewind the clock and do everything in a completely different way. The Outer Worlds is consistently compelling throughout, and it’s a superb example of how to promote traditional RPG sensibilities in a sharp, modern experience.
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