Later this week, VICE Games’ Rob Zacny will give his comprehensive review of The Outer Worlds, but as a devotee of both developer Obsidian Entertainment and this particular style of RPGs, I couldn’t help myself from digging in and sounding off, too. My takeaway from my first 15 hours with it is simple: Even with its vaguely anti-capitalist sci-fi dressing, The Outer Worlds is more of a familiar comfort than a daring revelation. Maybe that’s okay.
Obsidian’s latest sees the studio return to a formula they excelled at in 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas, shifting setting and theme from hard-scrabble post-apocalyptica to intrepid space operatics.
The premise is solid: A scientist with a revolutionary streak has defrosted you from an aberrant and abandoned colony ship floating in the Halcyon star system. As you get your bearings, you learn that this is a system well under the thumb of the Corporate Board, a governing conglomerate composed of the rival (but fundamentally aligned, of course) corporations that colonized the system to begin with. What you do with that information is up to you (and the quest designers who delimit what you can actually do, of course).
Halcyon might be a new place, but it comes along with all the first-person shooting, skill checks, and branching narratives that define contemporary Fallout games. Which is why I can’t be mad that The Outer Worlds is so quickly boiled down on podcasts and in social media conversation as “Fallout, but with spaceships,” or “Fallout, but in outer space.”
These descriptions call to mind a similar phrase, one which was hurled as dismissive insult at Fallout 3 soon after Bethesda revealed that they were working on the game years ago: “They’re just going to make Oblivion, but with guns.” Though meant as a throwaway jab, revisiting this claim turned out to be key to how I feel about The Outer Worlds, so please indulge me as I revisit decade-old video game discourse.
The idea behind “ Oblivion with guns” was that you couldn’t simply bolt a worn hunting rifle onto the Bethesda formula, slather on a layer of grime and rust, and call it a Fallout game. These people turned out to be wrong, not because they lacked affection and knowledge of Fallout, but because they did not recognize that The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was already a post-apocalyptic game. All of the exploring, scavenging, tinkering, clutter, and heroic individualism of the Elder Scrolls series meant that the Bethesda framework was primed for an amoral wasteland wanderer to come strolling through.
That said, “you can’t just bolt on guns” was also deeply true, though in an unintended way: Adding guns to something always has unexpected, knock-on effects. Though the Elder Scrolls games had ranged combat in the form of magic and bows, guns exhibit a unique, gravity-like force that rearranges what is around them. You can’t just plop an AK-47 into that and expect it to remain the same exact thing.
You add guns to a formula like Oblivion’s, next thing you know, you’re asking the player to track types of ammo. You’re adding encounters and locations designed explicitly for the characteristics of ranged combat. You’re spending time and budget on making this assault rifle feel distinct from that assault rifle. By the time you hit New Vegas, the loot and crafting loops have changed to ensure you’ll get excited by finding and attaching a new scope to your rifle. By Fallout 4, the hope is that finding a literal piece of trash will make you excited because you can turn it into a scope.
The point is: “Adding guns” to an Oblivion-style RPG changes it into something new (and in the case of Fallout 3, into something that drew a bunch of new players into both the genre and the series). And that’s why calling The Outer Worlds “Fallout but with spaceships” feels wrong to me. The shift in setting—from desert wastes to a catalog of planets, moons, asteroids, and space stations—doesn’t feel like it adds much to the core of the experience. For all the sci-fi sheen, once you pull off the wrapper you’re left with something with very little novelty in either form or function.
Which isn’t a dealbreaker, necessarily. If you’ve been waiting with bated breath to once again hack into computers for lore, hoover up room-after-room of junk items, ponder skill trees, listen to your endearing companions bicker in an elevator, and ask yourself “what could be over that next hill?” then The Outer Worlds will scratch that aching itch.
And frankly, as someone who was disappointed by Fallout 76, Anthem, and Mass Effect: Andromeda, then there has been a certain style of game (and a certain mode of play) missing in my life lately, I’ve needed that itch scratched. In that way, The Outer Worlds has been like a warm blanket. It’s easy to lose myself for hours clearing out every side quest in each settlement I come across. I’m eager to wrap this piece up so I can duck back in and play further in.
Still, I can’t help but feel disappointed about the lack of larger evolution to the game’s core structure and identity. Worse, there are many ways in which the Fallout-ness of this thing butts up against its Space Hero fantasy. It turns out that you can’t simply put Fallout in space without unexpected results, too. But here, it isn’t a generative result, it’s an abrasive one.
Take your inventory. I have been a vocal, ardent defender of encumbrance mechanics for years. In Fallout, I get genuine, real joy from scrolling through my inventory trying to decide which junk to hold onto and which to drop at my feet. As I reach my weight limit, I love to pause and weigh out monetary value, weight, utility, and (once home-making was added to the formula) aesthetic style. Cigarette cartons are light weight and worth a ton of cash. Keep. That bazooka is powerful, but I barely have any ammo for it and it’s half broken anyway. Drop.
But in The Outer Worlds, I’m not a struggling scavenger trying to make my way through the wastes anyway I can. I’m a dashing, daring ship captain. Why the hell am I digging through this corporation’s desk drawer for my 20th bottle of soda? Why am I slowly going through a pile of energy swords, breaking them down into generic Weapon Parts one by one?
The Outer Worlds is almost too eager to be “one of these games.” Its crafting system feels undercooked and included only because, after all, these games need crafting, right? Its itemization, which sees you replacing your early weapons with simple, “Mk. 2” variations about a dozen hours in, hardly brings to mind high-flying space adventure. (And the special “science weapons” which have fantastical effects have felt more gimmicky than useful). Despite the corporate dystopia, it retains Fallout’s “gotta hear both sides” emphasis on player freedom and choice: Sure, you can “yeet the rich,” but the game is just as willing to let you shut down an environmentalist commune and shuffle the folks therein back under the corporate yoke if that’s the sort of asshole you wanna be.
(In fact, one of The Outer World’s most jarring attributes is the way the political frame in dialog options shifts from quest to quest and world to world. A variety of choices are always available (as is outright violence), but the range of dialog options offered is inconsistent. Sometimes, as in the opening quest which lets you de-power an entire corporate settlement, your character can inhabit a burn the corps down, let’s dance in the flames radical mode. Other times, its as if a different writer has picked up the pen, offering your character only resignation (or even naivety) as their most anti-capitalist tone. On the planet of Monarch, where one corp is trying to enact incremental reforms, I found myself rolling my eyes as my character seemed suddenly befuddled that the Corporate Board might break its own rules.)
All of this is a shame, because the ways in which it does separates itself from Fallout and the Elder Scrolls are commendable and smart.
Instead of one big map, for instance, The Outer Worlds is comprised of a bunch of smaller, more focused ones, with each being a different location in the solar system. This is, maybe, the biggest way in which “...but in space” did have a positive effect on the design, encouraging both focus and variation. From bleak asteroids to picturesque garden moons to dense neon spacemalls, The Outer Worlds jets you between areas that are easy to conceptualize and complete in a handful of hours. In this way, The Outer Worlds feels akin to BioWare’s best output (or Obsidian’s own recent CRPGs) which similarly feature locations as set pieces instead of as a large, interconnected world.
The game’s companions are another way in which the old BioWare itch has been scratched. Despite being cut from broad archetypes (the optimistic engineer, the cynical doctor, and the more-knowledgeable-than-he-lets-on priest all feel lifted, though meaningfully tweaked from Firefly), I’ve found myself rooting for and surprised by my ships’ crew in a way I expect from Dragon Age or Mass Effect more than Fallout or Elder Scrolls. But as enjoyable as this synthesis is, it’s certainly more of a foreseeable evolution in the genre than a revelation.
All of which is to say, again: The strength of the The Outer Worlds is its familiarity. It’s a warm game. In 2019, when I haven’t had “one of these” in a while, it’s maybe even comforting. But it’s not groundbreaking, and it’s certainly not surprising: I’ve always known Obsidian has had this in them. (In fact, 15 hours in, I still think the most surprising thing is how many good black hair styles the character creator has. Which, props.)
And yet, because it is one of these games, I’m still wondering where I’ll be in 15 more hours. Will I hit the equivalent of Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood quest, which lifted that game from “pretty damn good” to “must play”? When I wrap up my crew’s personal quests, will they go become silent stat sheets, like so many party members of RPGs past, or continue to feel vibrant and fresh? Will I get to burn Halcyon’s Corporate Board to the ground, and if I do, will I get a finger wagged at me by a design that, so eager to emphasize options, seemingly necessities a degree of centrism? Or will Obsidian manage to walk that line, allowing choice, showing consequences, but still having a heart and ethos of its own?
Rob Zacny’s full review will hit later this week, but I’m too curious to wait that long. So I’m going to hop back into my ship of typical misfits and pull The Outer Worlds over me like a blanket. I’d prefer to be enamored, and I’d love to be emboldened (especially by something that plays so eagerly with the symbols of revolutionary politics). But if all The Outer Worlds manages to do is soothe, then in a year like this one, I’ll take it.