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The Outer Worlds review: Fall deeply into the best Fallout-like game in years


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The Outer Worlds review: Fall deeply into the best Fallout-like game in years

It's not perfect. It's not for everyone. But it's probably for you.

The Outer Worlds review: Fall deeply into the best Fallout-like game in years

 

Fallout Worlds is one of the best... ahem, sorry, I keep slipping with the name. This week's The Outer Worlds is a brand-new game, set in a brand-new universe, but in nearly every way that counts, it's a Fallout game.

 

For one, the team at Outer Worlds creators Obsidian Entertainment includes team members from the original Fallout's development. That team later stretched its "3D Fallout" wings in 2010 by making the revered Fallout: New Vegas. So much pedigree, plus a late-2018 trailer that looked Fallout as all get-out, set serious expectations for this week's game launch on Windows 10, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.

 

Even if you were to start playing Outer Worlds oblivious to those facts, you wouldn't need long to feel a sense of déjà vu. The Bethesda series' trappings, for one, are all over this offline, single-player Obsidian game. Create a character with a wide range of combat and non-combat ratings—and make tough decisions on which of those abilities to spend the most points on. Then dive into a first-person RPG where the game teases a ridiculous number of options and strategies to proceed.

 

Want to be a goodie two-shoes? Follow quests' orders and avoid combat. Want to raise hell? Ignore your stated objectives, kill anything that annoys you, and pick up useful weapons, items, and keys that still somehow get you to the end. In either case, expect a ton of characters in a ton of cities to offer a ton of dialogue.

 

On paper, that above description should've been 2015's Fallout 4. But opinions on that game were divided, and I counted among our staff's most disappointed players. Its plot dragged with boring characters and unclear momentum. Its world looked chunky, repetitive, and ugly—and not in an "it's the apocalypse" way, either. The world was redundant. Its "settlement" system required too much investment with too little payoff. For every blip of surprise, excitement, and power armor, so much of the package otherwise felt flat.

 

But what if someone went back to the Fallout 3 wheel, with a clear understanding of what made Fallout's questing, 3D exploration, and choice-filled quests so addictive, and doubled down on that formula, complaints of "too familiar" be damned?

 

You'd get The Outer Worlds.

 

The Outer Worlds is a dizzying, dense shot at reclaiming the indisputable glory of Fallout: New Vegas, and the results show a studio that knows its source material well enough to understand what's worth reinventing and what's worth leaving alone.

 

It's a stubborn game, made precisely for people who want the same sensations as FO3 and FO:NV, but it's also not a lazy retread. The writing is rich. Quality-of-life tweaks line every step of the way. Unnecessary clutter is gone.

 

Crucially—at the precise moments the new-game smell wears off, and certain rudimentary and grindy tasks threaten to slow the game's momentum down—is when The Outer Worlds' pieces come together. That's when enough plot threads have unraveled for players to grab onto and when enough superpowers emerge for players to find their own badass path to blasting off these godforsaken rocks. Say hello and hell-yes to this year's ultimate confluence of familiar, refreshing, rich, twitchy, and fun in gaming's 3D-RPG universe.

Pick your power source

The year is 2351-ish... in a 1950s "this is what the future will look like" way. The planets of Outer Worlds' universe are dominated by art deco, cigarettes, lasers, baseball (albeit a futuristic version), and colourful worlds seemingly ripped from Hollywood's Technicolour era. You land in this far-from-Earth solar system, dubbed Halcyon (named after its star), as one of thousands who went into cryo-sleep on a colonization vessel roughly one century earlier. You'd signed onto the promise that you'd wake on a new colony in a few years.

 

Instead, you remained asleep on a ship that was left for dead. Your existence was covered up by The Board, the corporate cabal that runs this game's human-populated universe. Your ship, The Hope, became the stuff of urban legend—but a renegade researcher and doctor by the name of Phineas Welles eventually found your ship parked near an isolated ice planet. You're the only frozen colonist he was able to save.

 

Welles launches you via an escape pod, then puts a hefty responsibility on your shoulders: wanna help expose the truth, bring down the Board, and possibly save the rest of your crewmates? Phineas suffers from some health issues, he says, so he can only help you by talking into your helmet's earpiece and making radio calls on your behalf.

 

You take control after crash-landing on a puny planet whose denizens have been roiled by Halcyon's unfeeling corporate overlords in various ways. You're stuck on this planet, because your plan to blast off into space with a helpful accomplice went screwy. Now you need a power source to get a different spaceship beyond your landing site's atmosphere. A standard tutorial mission plays out in very Fallout 3 style: use melee, guns, stealth, dialogue, and general exploration to reach your next destination by any means necessary. Whatever you choose to do will likely rack up your "experience points" bar, even if you ignore kind citizens' pleas and become a murderous sociopath.

Canned goods

After this tutorial ends, your heartlessness is tested in the opening town of Edgewater. Edgewater is an industrial village that revolves around making canned food for many of Halcyon's colonies. You've gotten a tip that the town's leader can lead you to a useful power source. He says the best option is down the road in a village full of people who fled his factories. He wants them to come back to Edgewater and work the canning lines.

 

Take their power source, he says. Then they'll be forced to work for him again. Everyone wins.

 

It's at this point in The Outer Worlds that you might notice this leader's small office... and the two wimpy guards flanking his sides. You've learned by this point about the game's VATS-like "time dilation" power, which you can use to temporarily freeze time and deliver debilitating injuries to various parts of the guards' bodies ("blind" if they're shot in the face, "crippled" if it's the legs, etc.). Plus, this leader's spiel doesn't quite add up. His fascinating conversation makes him out to be quite the shades-of-gray character. He's neither pure evil nor pure kindness, and the same goes for the deserters' village you eventually visit down the road from Edgewater. Oh, there's also an intriguing, locked door on one edge of the leader's office, and you can only get into it with a key that he seems to have in his pockets.

 

Hmm. Hmmmmm. This seems like a good time to hit The Outer Worlds's "quick save" button and try something violent. Ya know, just to see what happens.

Playing on PC?

When The Outer Worlds goes on sale on Windows 10 this week, you'll have two options on PC: the Microsoft Store or Epic Games Store. It won't be on Steam until "2020." If you pay for Xbox Game Pass For Windows (or Xbox Game Pass Ultimate), you'll get access to the Microsoft Store version as soon as the game launches. We reviewed the EGS build on PC, and it scaled incredibly well to my review laptop (powered by a notebook version of the GTX 1060 graphics card).

I mean, if you’re saying I should [ATTACK], then...

Everywhere you go in The Outer Worlds, this kind of plot-forking possibility emerges. Whom do I help? Whom do I kill? Whom do I disobey for the sake of a competing quest? The game consistently encourages you to consider this "Nuketown" kind of question and usually in organic ways. Its smartest method is to put your hero between imperfect forces time and time again. That Edgewater example is a good one, as both the factory's leader and the rebel boss a half-mile down the road have their own mix of noble ideals, cognitive dissonance, and off-kilter ickiness. Helping either faction will hurt the other; helping either faction will move some sort of uncomfortable moral or political agenda forward in the game's fiction, even if only a smidge.

 

Since the ever-powerful Board is made up of multiple, warring entities, more "which crappy team do you support" opportunities emerge in bigger-picture ways. There's also the matter of smaller quests. Maybe an apparent helper has some lucrative-looking swag sitting on a desk, which will trigger a serious hail of bullets if you try to take it. Maybe your multiple-choice dialogue tree will include the outright suggestion to "[ATTACK]" as one of a few options, immediately launching a combat round. Or, heck, you might finish a quest, then shut the door behind your quest-giver, kill them quickly, and then open the door and saunter out while whistling.

 

Ultimately, the Fallout-like promise of "adventure however you see fit" is rewarded by experience points, items, and even new quests pretty much however you play. Sometimes, killing an entire room of civilians rewards as many experience points as completing their associated quest. You'll suffer a "reputation" penalty (which can either make items cost more or have civilians try to shoot you on sight), but hey. There are other planets to escape to.

 

Instead of delivering a single, super-sized open world for the sake of adventuring, Obsidian splits its adventure into a number of smaller planets—and it's easily The Outer Worlds' most clever tweak to the Fallout formula. Your first landing site has a mix of "towns," open-air valleys, and underground lairs. The result is both big enough for the sake of picking at every nook and cranny, yet concentrated enough so that you're not wandering through endless, boring terrain.

 

Other landing sites revolve almost entirely around bustling metropolises, so they're dominated by conversations instead of battles. Yet they too tend to have networks of underground tunnels and tucked-away battles, and their most intriguing secrets are reachable by using your hero's various skills—hacking, lockpicking, lying, intimidating, or skills like "medical" and "engineering." There's often the brute-force option of killing everything in sight and hoping to find a keycard, or the very Halcyon-appropriate method of bribing the heck out of unsavory locals.

 

By spreading its adventures across separate planets, Obsidian lets its art team logically place some polar-opposite environments. For example, palatial estates for the bourgeoisie, full of neon-soaked cocktail lounges and robo-gardeners, can be found a few hyperdrive warps away from filthy hospital zones full of lepers. Yet each design extreme comes with its own beauty and charm.

Great companions, great stories, but one catch

Talk about a chatty game. The Outer Worlds' hours upon hours of dialogue are all fully voiced by real actors. I can count on my fingers the number of voice actors whose delivery or dialogue made me cringe. Considering what a sliver of a percent that adds up to, that is an incredible feat.

 

I struggled to keep up with the plot in the game's first hours, which is partially because the opening landing site of Edgewater is careful to focus its plot on that zone's limited cast of characters, instead of spelling out the complete plot or selling a clear "this is what the game's about" message that early on. Each character you meet in the early goings has something to say about various corporate masters or tributaries of the colonies' histories, and the result, honestly, feels like you've awakened 100 years later in a world that doesn't make much sense. Fitting for the game's plot, sure, but it can feel difficult to understand and empathize with characters who do more to prattle about world-building than they do to bond with you. Again, there's a lot of potentially disposable people in this game.

 

Eventually, you meet enough characters who repeat stories about the game's corporate and rebel factions to put two-and-two together, and this sense of belonging and place is boosted hugely by The Outer Worlds' companion system. You can have up to two NPCs walk alongside you in both dialogue and battle at any given time, and you'll eventually meet six possible companions in all. (They're pre-selected; you can't just grab any NPC in the game and have them join your party.)

 

Let's get the bad news out of the way: dogs aren't an option here. But I feel strongly that Obsidian's chatty, quest-filled alternatives are, if not a true Dogmeat replacement, great in their own right.

 

My playthrough was spent with the first two companions that players can enlist: a small-town factory grunt named Parvati, and a vicar with a checkered past named Max. Both of these companions came packed with a ton of default responses to various quests, and they're a great starting duo; Max's skepticism and firm philosophical stances bounce in clever ways off of Parvati's wide-eyed enthusiasm and empathy. What's more, each has his own slew of questlines that emerges during the course of average gameplay, and the results include everything from surprise romance (with other characters, not with your hero) to hallucinogenic, existential-crisis ruminations.

Say “wink” instead of winking

By the time you get enough of the companions' stories as an anchor, Obsidian's knack for funny, sarcastic, and cutting dialogue goes into seriously high gear. By the game's 10-hour mark, I had started scribbling down some of my favorites: there was the man who kept saying "wink" instead of winking, and he rewarded your hero if you punched him in the eye as a response to his ridiculous non-winks. There was the order of religious zealots who, over the course of a few quests, revealed their nuances in ways that overrode their potential cliches.

 

And there was the guy at the bar who, upon completing his quest, became a fountain of some of the game's deepest lore. I simply unlocked him by buying one cheap alcoholic drink at a time. (I also found myself on a silly film-production set in one quest, where I could beat the quest by using my character's highly scored dialogue skills. Doing this gave me quite the fourth-wall-breaking response from the moviemaker in the quest: "What do those anemic fuckwits know about dialogue, anyway?")

 

But the zig-zagging, so-many-characters plot isn't perfect. A lot of the game's story hinges on the admittedly stale sci-fi trope of what happens when private, profit-focused corporations become responsible for every facet of waking life. Sadly, The Outer Worlds' refrain of libertarianism going awry can feel a little one-note. Workers are mistreated. Quality control goes to pot. Selfishness and greed are bad. Ya don't say.

 

This message is echoed time and time again in a way that feels toothless and somehow entirely apolitical. These callouts often come in the form of emails, memos, and text on computer terminals, and in this text-only form, they're spouted by unnamed or unfamiliar characters simply demanding more work efficiency or offering vague "take this job and shove it" declarations. What about visible mob uprisings that we as players must contend with, to make the message that much more visceral? What about bold metaphors that make clear comparisons to real human history? It's the one shallow part of an otherwise memorable cast of characters and their connected tales.

Weapons and loot, but not Borderlands

Getting from town to town, and from quest to quest, involves a decent amount of traversal and combat. It's here that the game is at its most stubborn and Fallout-like—not a complaint, just a clarification of what you're getting yourself into for dozens of hours.

 

Combat boils down to familiar first-person mechanics. If you like melee weapons, Outer Worlds has a bit more pizzazz than you might expect from a Fallout-like game, but not much. A "block" button will let you parry some foes' attacks, while a mix of three-strike combos and hold-the-button "power" strikes is a little meatier than a basic arm-swing of an axe or sword. But the game's difficult enemies have too many powerful gun, laser, or acid attacks to make the parrying system worth investing in. Meanwhile, Outer Worlds' new time-dilation system (a descendant of Fallout 3's VATS time-freeze option) is better suited to guns than melee.

 

You can bolt a variety of attachments and upgrades onto your weapons, but don't expect anything Borderlands-like in terms of wild, one-off weapons. Instead, the game's selection of weird "science weapons" is quite narrow, and these guns and melee weapons are tucked away in a limited number of quests or hidden sites. By the time I accumulated interesting science weapons, I had already built a functional arsenal of heavily upgraded, incredibly powerful guns. The game's enemies aren't varied enough to encourage swapping from weapon to weapon, and battles rarely involve more than 6-8 foes storming your position at once.

 

Outer Worlds' range of shotguns, scoped rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and more are serviceable enough. All those guns pack satisfying power and feel good to aim, and they're combined with your companions' special attacks, which you can trigger with a button press if they're recharged. These are a hoot: they warp the camera to a cinematic shot of your companion shouting a war cry and rattling off a melee or ranged strike, adding some humor to the proceedings while wrapping up quickly enough.

 

Once you clear out any combat zone—or whenever you enter an empty room in a town or compound—you'll find a ridiculous number of items to pick up. So many, in fact, that I found the game's "normal" difficulty to be altogether too easy. I never ran out of health or ammo. I rarely used any of the temporary power buffs. I almost always had a powerful-enough weapon to tear through the next challenge, not to mention enough in-game currency to buy or upgrade whatever I lacked. If you're the obsessive-compulsive type who feels the need to pick up every item scattered around an RPG's zones, you may want to crank up Outer Worlds' difficulty just to feel like there's any point in picking up so many tonics, buffs, tools, and items.

Specializations and flaws

As you level up in the game, you dump points into a variety of skills, which you can reclaim and reinvest at any time if you feel like you've gone too far into a single stat category. (This always costs in-game currency, and it's cheap at first, or pricier if you keep doing it.) Instead of elaborate skill trees, you get two places to spend these level-up points: skills and perks. The former has six main categories, and leveling up each of the categories gets you bonuses in two to three sub-categories at first. Once a main category is up to 50 points, you'll have to spend level-up points on its individual sub-categories to bring them up to super-high counts.

 

This makes later-game requirements—like a high rating in medical, engineering, or intimidation—a little more specialized. Meaning, you can be a dialogue jack-of-all-trades in the game's opening dozen hours, but eventually, you'll have to focus on specific traits in the endgame portion. And there's a richness to how skill points reward players with some particularly interesting bonuses, both to dialogue and to various battling and crafting abilities. (Well, with the exception of melee; I ignored that stat altogether once I realized how effective a focus on guns and seemingly endless ammo turned out to be.)

 

Perks, meanwhile, are specialized bonuses that cover a range of abilities. Maybe you want a damage bonus to headshots. Maybe you want a way for your companions' abilities to recharge faster. Maybe you want to carry more inventory by default. That's where the perk points go. The Outer Worlds includes a trippy "flaw" option that pops up when you do a certain action repeatedly, like use the "adreno" health pack or kill using a certain weapon. Do something often enough, and a menu screen will appear calling out your addiction and offering you a trade: one extra perk point, in exchange for a penalty to some particular skill-point statistic.

 

The problem, honestly, is that the game severely lacks attractive perks, at least in "normal" difficulty. Every stat penalty I was offered seemed too severe to trade for the less attractive perks that I'd already skipped. Nice try, Obsidian—but not quite. I'd love to see an update that offered an inverse version of these flaws: to let players sacrifice perks in favor of more skill points. Because, again, those skill specializations get very interesting as players are forced to specialize further and further in the endgame portion.

I still have hours to go

Truth be told, I have not beaten The Outer Worlds, at least not to the degree of how much gameplay is offered in this package. I have followed one primary plot thread, one balance of violent sociopathy and helpful quest completion, one fork of factions to ally with, and one possible selection of companion characters and their associated quests. That's a 40-hour quest right there.

 

I'm confident at this point to say there is another 20-hour pile of unique-enough content on top of that, in terms of going back and picking option #2 whenever one was apparent, enlisting other companions, and choosing to be more (or less) murderous next time around. My second go-through will have some repeat steps and quests, but it will also include at least one huge, difference-making choice to shape the entire narrative at a pretty early point in the story.

 

And, yeah, I'll ratchet the difficulty up for the next go-round. "Normal" is a cakewalk for anybody who knows Obsidian's work, but you may as well start with normal difficulty if you too see a double playthrough in your Outer Worlds future.

 

I relished my time engaging in tried-and-true combat, digging through dense dialogue trees, focusing my character's stats on interesting categories, and allying with interesting companions. That was all enough for me to forgive The Outer Worlds' obsessive-compulsive scouring of items, limited cast of enemies, lack of diverse weapons, and complete lack of gadgets (no timed mines, grenades, or other cool weaponry outside of guns).

 

I can't say the same for anyone who was left unmoved by the likes of Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas. The Outer Worlds includes clear quality-of-life tweaks for how spread-out the game's worlds are, how a nifty fast-travel option simplifies traversal, and how quests include a mix of "follow the map waypoint" obviousness and "figure it out" sleuthing of clues and secrets. It's better at being a Fallout 3 sequel than Fallout 4 was, undoubtedly. But this is still the same gameplay skeleton as Bethesda's classic, not an utter reworking or a wholly different 3D-RPG perspective a la The Witcher 3.

 

That's fine. In fact, that's more than fine. It's the best open-world adventure of the year.

The Good:

  • The hours of dialogue, and the way you can lead that dialogue into interesting directions by way of your choices, is the best we've seen since Fallout: New Vegas, if not Mass Effect 2.
  • Play this game however you want. No, really. No 3D RPG has ever felt this wide open, beyond restricting players by way of how you customize your hero's stats.
  • A supercharged companion system is the game's beating heart.
  • The flying-around-a-solar-system gimmick lets the art team flex some diverse world-building muscles.
  • Quality-of-life tweaks all over the place make this an easier dozens-of-hours journey to slog through than Fallout 4 ever was.

The Bad:

  • Combat is merely serviceable, a fact that's not helped by ho-hum enemy variety.
  • I'd hoped that the "flaw" system would create cool specialization opportunities, but it falls flat in execution.
  • "Normal" difficulty is a bit too easy to game; I steamrolled through its combat thanks to overpowered weapons and abundant items.

The Ugly:

  • While I dig The Outer Worlds' fleshed-out companions, I have bad news for anybody who wants to play this game with a dog at their side. No pups here.

Verdict: Buy. (Or, gosh, enjoy it as a part of the paid Xbox Game Pass service on either Windows 10 PCs or Xbox One consoles.)

 

 

Source: The Outer Worlds review: Fall deeply into the best Fallout-like game in years (Ars Technica)

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