Few games can capture both the familiar and the uncommon the way that The Outer Worlds did. Obsidian Entertainment crafted an experience that feels both comfortable and new to RPG fans and new-comers alike. Does the game fit too well into other, similar experiences or does Obsidian carve out its own experience that, at least in the Triple-A scene, has been all but dominated in recent years by Bethesda with Elder Scrolls and Fallout? There is a strong sense of familiarity with The Outer Worlds, which is understandable, given that Fallout: New Vegas came from the same developers. This comparison’s not hard to make, but what looks very similar on the face of it shifts pretty drastically once players get into The Outer Worlds. There’s an undeniable style to both of these games that feeds from one and into the other. Despite this connection, The Outer Worlds doesn’t feel like a Fallout game. Despite the similar mechanics, the scope of The Outer Worlds is far broader in scope. There’s also more depth to the world and characters than we’ve seen from Bethesda.
The Outer Worlds is absolutely a First-Person RPG experience; Obsidian Entertainment made no effort to hide or limit that; in fact, it has become one of the strongest selling points for the game. The Outer Worlds excels at giving players choices. There are options for just about everything you want to do, and with few exceptions, Obsidian’s managed to make even the “weak” points of a character into strengths. You can play just about any role you want. The concept of flexibility The Outer Worlds establishes is apparent as early as the character creation screen, where you can place extra attribute points or even move some from one attribute to another. If you want to play an idiot? You can certainly do that, and the developers not only found a way to make this fun but rewarding. While this choice will affect your character, players may be surprised to find that it’s rarely a negative impact. Instead of locking a character out of specific roles, players who choose to limit attributes will can open up options for the player to explore. Continuing with the Intelligence example, if a player decides to make their character dim enough, they will be considered “Dumb.” This personality flaw will open up dialogue options for the player. Something that The Outer Worlds does differently, too, is that skills are managed quite independently from Attributes.
Playing the good-natured and robust idiot who also can fix a space ship’s engine is a perfectly reasonable option. To further push these inherent, yet only loosely connected design choice, players are rewarded for playing to their character’s weaknesses. Obsidian has managed to mitigate the feeling of being punished for not meticulously rounding out a character’s skills and attributes. Obsidian’s separated the skills in such a way that players can be an idiot savant who may not be able to add or subtract, but can fix that malfunctioning robot in two shakes of a Canid’s feathered tail. What sounds like a minor distinction in games like this ends up creating a wildly different experience in how players interact with the wold. There’s a feeling of being rewarded for trying different skill combinations that would typically be risky in games like The Outer Worlds. Rather than focus on optimum ways to complete a mission, the players are left to their own devices and given the leeway to experience each quest the way they think their characters would approach it. Obsidian chose to support player choice and creativity within skills and Dialogue options in a way that adds to the experience rather than limiting it. One player can sneak through one mission while their friend decides to turn the immediate area into a scorched hell hole with a plasma cannon that calls in every guard in the immediate area. In many cases, these options are interchangeable, the likelihood of a player being able to do one or the other at any given time is almost available to the player and whatever mood they happen to be in at the time.
Now, as progression continues and skill specializations grow, there is a path that they will have to choose. Each Skill option has a maximum of 100 points, but the first 50 points modify related skills as well. The Outer Worlds focuses on characters being more of a generalist rather than a specialist to start. If a player chooses to increase their character’s sneaking skill, they put a few points into the overarching skill set called “stealth.” Placing a point in “stealth” will not only increase the value of the sneak skill but will improve your character’s hack and lock-pick abilities as well. It’s not until these attributes hit rank 50, that players are required to put points into a specific skill. The added flexibility of skill-sets creates a feeling of specialization without giving players the impression that they’re missing out on other choices. If you choose to, of course, players can min-max their characters, but the balance makes this far more of a conscious decision on the player’s part, rather than an unintended consequence of wanting to be great at a particular skill.
There’s a unique kind of charm to The Outer Worlds experience. The world’s a dark one, where corporations run almost everything, and the things that they don’t are worse for the wear because of it. Corperations view people as assets to they own. This fact is a truth that most individuals willingly accept. Despite this depressing, dystopian corporate existence, there’s a lot of light-hearted moments and sarcasm around this reality. Some characters will always feed you the corporate line. They’ll deliever the tried and true corporate line even at the at risk of bleeding to death first. Then there are the types of characters who are only doing the bare minimum to squeak by, despite the consequences. You’re continually bounding from NPC-to-NPC that either take things far too seriously or are seemingly in on the joke that is the corporate structure. The result feels like an extended, tongue in cheek joke, which delivers a variety of different punchlines that flow to the same ends. Despite all the death, corporate branded fascism, and near-starvation, it’s tough to take seriously.
The NPCs of The Outer Worlds feel fleshed out and well-defined, with deep backstories that are mostly tragic, there’s a humor to them. They can’t be taken seriously, and the harder the NPC tries to be serious, the more ridiculous it all feels. This choice in tone by Obsidian helps to define the experience and set it apart from many of the grim dystopian futures we see from similar games. Even when terrible things may be happening to characters in the world, it tends to bring a smile to the player’s face and a chuckle along with it. The companions’ players pick up through the game are superb. Some quests you do for them are epic; others are mundane, but there is always a sense of reward and knowledge that comes with them. If you’re a player that chooses to skip the companion quests in The Outer Worlds, well, then all I can say to you is that’s a terribly misguided choice. You’ll help with everything from tracking down the bodies of fallen comrades to coaching someone through new feelings or romance and attraction. There’s a lot to experience, and all of it felt rewarding and worthwhile.
The Quest system is designed to stay out of the player’s way as much as possible. Obsidian’s goal was not to push players through the experience and seemed to heavily focus on allowing players to move at whatever pace makes them the most comfortable. Once players complete the opening missions to become a ship captain, the world opens up, and even within the first location, a player has plenty of flexibility to explore. Players can certainly avoid the main quest almost entirely until they’re ready to complete the game, and The Outer Worlds does very little to force players onto that track. Secondary quests have a layer of complexity that is refreshing to play through. Most of them have multiple sub-tasks that add to the story and the lore of the area as players progress through them. You’re not going to find too many quests that send you out to deliver some commonly found item to an NPC simply to be turned around and head back to town. The characters in the game also have enough personality to affect how players may handle the missions they’ve chosen to complete. One particular side quest that comes to mind is one where a woman is upset that her workers went on strike. She’s a prickly sort of jerk that would be easy to walk away from if you worked for her. You can either choose to investigate further or take her at her word and get the people on strike working again. It’s totally up to the player in how they would like to approach this mission. Obsidian’s done a great job at using characters to try to affect the outcome of a task. The temptation to screw her over is there, but the reward she offers also is decent. It doesn’t feel like you’re just checking a box to complete a mission, and this is due in no small part in how Obsidian has chosen to present quests in the world. The carefully crafted dialogue options and multi-step requirements to complete a quest has a focus on personal investment for each mission and decision. There always seems to be more to the story with each journey you choose to go on.
Visually, The Outer Worlds looks alright. It’s not the most striking thing you’ve played this year. I wouldn’t expect The Outer Worlds to win any awards for visual presentation, but it’s also not a hideous textural CHUD either. Most of the textures look flat. While there is plenty of details in them, they lack definition in a lot of places. The same can be said weapons, monsters, and character models. Admittedly, this is a bit disappointing, considering Obsidian used the Unreal Engine, and we know how beautiful textures and models can look. Despite the limits of the presentation, the world is still fascinating. Sky-boxes are intricate, with plenty of detail, especially when looking out at other planets from whatever bit of space rock you’re floating around on. From bubbling sulfur pits to hefty corn cob-looking plants that sway in the breeze, there is quite a lot of small details to enjoy that help bring each location to life. Each planet has its own feel and even the barren moons that you’ll visit seem to have plenty to offer in unexpected nooks and crannies. There, however, were some issues with frame rates that dropped below 60 FPS, for reasons that I couldn’t quite put my finger on either. It may be due to background processes, weather effects, or an abundance of NPCs in the area. It could also have been just plain old poor optimization in certain spots. Whatever the cause, the frame drops were very noticeable when they occurred. Luckily, these FPS drops weren’t too drastic, a majority of these drops landed somewhere in mid-to-high ’50s. It’s not enough to ruin the experience, but when the game is cruising along at 80/90 plus FPS, sudden sink in the frames is quite apparent and distracting. Thankfully, the rest of the experience makes up for any visual shortcomings that players find within The Outer Worlds.
Character animation and movements seemed perfectly acceptable. I’ve not come across any animation bugs or issues with how the characters move and interact within the world, but a lot of it is bland. Humans seemed to be the best examples to look at for character animation, with some excellent motions and facial expressions, while some of the wildlife seemed to be pretty stiff in their movements, which generally appears to be the weakest examples of what the game has to offer in this respect. The Mantiqueen, which is pretty much a big-ass space Matis, doesn’t seem to articulate it’s movement well at all. They look incredibly cool, but the monster’s animation doesn’t telegraph their actions well and they look plain rigid while moving. Another creature that didn’t come together well at all was the Primal. The Primal looks like a troll and gorilla had a forbidden love child that was exhiled to the furthest reaches of space in hopes that it would reproduce to be the biggest asshole in the solar system. For the most part, they were serviceable, however, and this is a big “however,” they have one special attack where they burrow underground and emerge much closer to their target. The animation for this attack looks like complete and utter shit, and that’s the most polite way to put it. The visual queue for this attack is just a bunch of dirt and rock being stirred up from the ground and flung into the air. The Primal then disappears into the planet’s crust, only to emerge right in front of you with the exact same animation. The thing is, players, don’t see the monster crawl into the ground and burrow around. Instead, this gigantic creature’s model disappears! These animations were particularly frustrating early in the game when the monster’s behavior is unknown. It was incredibly easy to be sneak attacked by multiple Primals disappearing at once, only for them to re-appear a few feet away from you.
The audio queues in the game are wonderful. The music’s good, the voice acting holds up, and the banter that’s thrown around the settlements really helps to bring each location to life. The player will interrupt conversions, hear jokes between patrons in bars, and even the occasional argument between two NPC characters about everything from money owed to heated debates about competing sports teams. The same can kind of quiality is found in combat audio; your enemies will yell out hellish screeches at you when you’ve damaged them. The Outlaws and Marauders will insult and threaten you when it comes to their untimely demise, and companions chime in to recommend swapping weapons if you’re not doing much damage.
If you enjoy games like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, you’ll find yourself right at home. The Outer Worlds also seems to carve out its own little niche in the game genre and offers up some creative styles that you won’t necessarily find in abundance in similar experiences. The extra flexibility of character development, dialogue, and just general personality that The Outer Worlds has to offer is something that the genre of First Person Role Playing Games has been missing.