A New Life Awaits You
HIGH Excellent writing, dialogue, and visuals.
LOW Superfluous combat, hard-to-read UI.
WTF Please give the man in the moon mascot head a hug.
Think of a word people might use to describe RPG worlds, and “immersive” often comes up. An odd term, it sometimes means that the game world being described feels “real” — like a place one might want to visit and live in.
Using that definition, Halcyon, the setting of The Outer Worlds, is decidedly not immersive. It might even be the opposite of immersive. For the life of me, I can’t see it as a real place, and have no desire to visit or live there for any length of time because the place, frankly speaking, is a hellhole.
Colonized by a corporate-owned expedition, Halcyon has spent so long under the heel of unfettered capitalistic greed that bootlicking is the only way of life its people know. Its workers toil under inhumane conditions while contractually obligated to spout company slogans in their everyday speech. An entire religion has sprung up around keeping people content with their HR-mandated place in “The Great Plan”, and when they die, their corpses go into debt paying rent on their own gravesites.
This situation is ripe for a talented outsider to disrupt, and as a newly-revived, newly-arrived member from a long-lost colony ship bound for Halcyon, the player is just the person to do it.
What’s actually involved in accomplishing that goal is the sort of experience one might expect from a team with credits for both Fallout and Fallout: New Vegas. Players will journey across the galaxy, visit its communities, take the measure of their dilemmas and solve them through a mix of stealth, combat, skill-checks and dialogue choices. Of course, being similar to two games that are among the greatest RPGs of all time is hardly an insult and The Outer Worlds shares many of their most interesting qualities, even if it doesn’t seek to surpass them.
What sets Halcyon apart from the nuclear wastelands of California and Nevada is tone and scope. Where Fallout and New Vegas skewered mid-century Americana via blacky comedic post-apocalyptic melancholy, The Outer Worlds is a sillier caricature of an unfettered corporate capitalism where not even idealistic, proto-socialist radicals are free from being satirized. At times this can come across as a pernicious sort of “both-sides-ism”, but the overall effect works to promote the theme that even the best choices in a compromised environment can only be imperfect.
Speaking vaguely to avoid spoilers, one early quest had me determining the fate of a settlement that had divided into two factions — one consisting of workers escaping the awful status quo, and the other struggling to make ends meet with only half of the available labor pool. I had to make a choice or else quit the game entirely, and one path seemed the clear winner in terms of ideals.
However, I also got relevant input from my party members who were from the community in crisis and they could see things more clearly than me, an outsider who had literally walked into town that day. They challenged what initially seemed to be the ‘right’ thing, and reminded me that my choice — whatever it might be — would have consequences for the people I didn’t favor as much as the ones I did. I can’t say more without spoiling a key decision, but it’s rare that a game can get me to second-guess a decision from more than a “what does this path get me?” perspective.
Smaller, more intimate scenarios are threaded through the spaces between The Outer Worlds‘ mainline morality plays, particularly involving the game’s six recruitable companions.
Though initially like off-brand stand-ins for the cast of Firefly, over time and through personal quests and conversations, they reveal their depth — a man of faith with a dark past reveals why he’s so hung up on helping people find their place in “The Great Plan”. An eager would-be revolutionary confronts the tension between the wise words of his mentor and the hypocrisy of his actions, and Obsidian’s writers have also once again realized that romantic subplots are better experienced from a distance. It’s much more interesting and endearing to help someone else hook up than to be the center of attention.
Mechanically, The Outer Worlds offers an innovative twist with its skill system — early-game skill points can be invested to raise entire groups of skills at once (for example, “stealth skills” includes lockpicking, hacking, and sneaking around), allowing players freedom to dabble and experiment with builds before committing to something more specialized later on.
However, while The Outer Worlds is a strong entry into Obsidian’s catalog, some things don’t quite land. For instance, the combat never rises above ‘serviceable’, and the balance of loot and power seems off — fighting becomes too easy, too soon, at least on Normal difficulty. Optional “survival” difficulty levels exist that add concerns like finding food and getting sleep, but they don’t add much to the experience since Worlds isn’t particularly strong as a world-sim.
Another issue is the difficult-to-read interface. Even after a patch that allows players to increase the overall size of in-game text, things are still hard to read. Not even playing up-close in PC-style conditions fully alleviated the issue, and I can only imagine it being harder for console players sitting feet (and not inches) away from their TV screens. Manually editing configuration files to force the UI to scale up presented a workaround, but these should be features considered at the point of development rather than things left for players to hack into the system.
That said, such issues are relatively minor blemishes on an excellent effort from Obsidian, and though The Outer Worlds doesn’t surpass its predecessors by offering a world worth visiting over and over, the adventure it presents is more than worth the time spent.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Obsidian and published by Private Division. It is currently available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. This copy of the game was obtained by paid download and reviewed on PC. Approximately 46 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode over multiple replays. There are no multiplayer modes. The game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M with descriptors for Strong Language, Intense Violence, and Blood and Gore. The official ESRB description is as follows: “This is an action role-playing game in which players assume the role of a colonist in a space colony. From a first-person perspective, players explore an open-world environment, interact with characters, complete mission objectives, and battle alien creatures. Players use blasters, machine guns, and shotguns to kill creatures and human enemies in frenetic combat; action is highlighted by slow-motion and blood-splatter effects. Players can also shoot and kill civilians, though this may negatively affect players’ progress. Some attacks result in decapitation and dismemberment of creatures; one area depicts a dismembered corpse amid a large bloodstained environment. Cutscenes depict additional acts of violence: a man shooting himself in the head; a character executed off-screen. The words “f**k,” “sh*t,” and “a*shole” are heard throughout the game.“
Colorblind Modes: According to Obsidian, the game was explicitly designed to be playable independent of color information. However, it has no colorblind modes selectable.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue, cinematics, and combat barks are reflected in text and visual interface elements, though subtitle text is small and difficult to read, even after a patch allowing larger sizes. Modification of configuration files on PC allow the user interface to be scaled up to manually increase text size. There are no audio cues needed for gameplay, though some enemies may attack players from behind.
Remappable Controls: This game’s button controls are fully remappable. Some UI functions available for mouse-and-keyboard controls do not appear to be available for players using gamepads.