Review: Outer Worlds is a Competent Bethesda-like RPG

Screenshot: Outer Worlds I love the Fallout series, but I don’t love all of the decisions Bethesda has been making in regards to the Fallout series lately. There’s the controversy about Fallout 76, and before that, the much maligned Fallout 4. But I have a secret confession: I liked Fallout 4 and even enjoyed many hours of gameplay past what was required for my review for Fallout 76. I could play those games, despite their flaws, and enjoy the world that they occupy. Not just for the lore, and worldbuilding--but for the expansive openness of it, and the ability to go anywhere and see anything. That’s why, when I found out Pillars of Eternity, and more notably Fallout: New Vegas developer Obsidian was working on a new IP that would be sort of like a spiritual successor to Fallout, I was super excited--and early reviews did nothing but accelerate my hype train. And all of this history is important to establish just how disappointed I was with Outer Worlds. Screenshot: Outer Worlds First of all, creating a new IP is scary and difficult. Outer Worlds doesn’t benefit from the ~20 years of world building that Fallout benefited from, but it also isn't burdened by it, letting Obsidian eke out their own narrative and worlds to their liking. They’ve been building a new world with Pillars of Eternity and its sequel, but that was for a more niche CRPG audience. Making a first person role-playing game that appeals to a mass audience is difficult. Outer Worlds takes place in a star system that is often referred to as “the colony”--a group of planets loosely connected to one another, and dependent on their bureaucratic corporate overlords. To hop from planet to planet, very early on in the campaign you receive a ship--The Unreliable--that serves as your home base and mode of travel from planet to planet. Screenshot: Outer Worlds You play as a de-thawed colony ship occupant, from a colony ship that carried the brightest and best amongst them, so you’re expected to be exceptional. You can choose the path laid out from you at the start: assist a mad scientist to free the other colonists, or turn him into the proper corporate authorities--and everything in between. The amount of freedom you have for your character is something everyone who played Fallout 4 was hoping for--but even with that freedom, there doesn’t seem much to do with it. I mentioned how Obsidian eked out their own worlds, but they didn’t have a problem borrowing gameplay elements from the Fallout series. Being a sort of spiritual offshoot, it’s not unexpected that Obsidian would use elements from the Fallout games--but I figured it would be an evolution of Fallout: New Vegas, though most of the art style and the feeling of the gunplay make it feel like this game was developed as an answer to Fallout 4. In fact, it feels like an attempt to make a new Fallout game so much, that despite it being on the Unreal engine, it feels like Obsidian went out of their way to make it feel like the Creation Engine. And even if they didn’t, the result feels like it, and that’s just unfortunate. Screenshot: Outer Worlds Shooting in Outer Worlds is fun. It’s not quite as fun as Fallout 4 or Fallout 76, but it feels comparable. While it doesn’t feel as visceral, it doesn’t lack gore. While there isn’t an exact copy of the time-stopping V.A.T.S., there is the time-slowing time dilation your character has the ability to perform. It’s like a bullet-time where your weapons bestow an extra bit of oomph, or debuffs your target in some way. I actually like the time-dilation in Outer Worlds, and found myself using it more often than I ever used V.A.T.S. in Fallout. The items you can find are okay, with a few unique items. The guns are serviceable, but nothing horribly unique or exciting. Though they are all satisfying to shoot, there isn’t a large variety. In fact, the gun types repeat through the game, adding a “Mk II” (and similar) to signify they’re the better version. Screenshot: Outer Worlds Science items in Outer Worlds are unique items that have an extra effect added on to them, like knockdown or shrink—and while they had the potential to be the most fun weapons in the game, I never found myself using one once I was done playing around with it, instead using the more conventional weaponry. Of course, if you don’t want to shoot your way out of situations, you can use more diplomatic (or coercive) methods through speech to get your desired outcomes.  With enough sneak and speak it’s possible to avoid most combat easily. Each objective usually has multiple ways you can tackle them. Skills and perks in Outer World are what you expect, and are very utilitarian. You can put points into various weapon types, different speech abilities (like lie, intimidate, etc.), and many other options. While there are loads of ways to build your character, I feel like there isn’t really a wrong way—unless you build your character combat heavy, you can avoid combat. There are usually so many ways to tackle a problem; you can almost always find one that fits into the build you made. Screenshot: Outer Worlds In addition, if you suffer enough of an effect, like being shocked too many times, you can accept a permanent debuff to acquire a perk. It hardly seems worth it, but it's an option available for you nevertheless. Outer Worlds takes its position as a role-playing game very seriously. There are a number of different ways to build your character. You can make them suave and debonair, or a run-and-gun killer. You can go-it alone, or you can run with your crewmates (who affectionately, and generically, refer to you as Captain.) Screenshot: Outer Worlds The squad you can accumulate through Outer Worlds isn’t a big one, but they’re a diverse group that makes The Unreliable feel like its crew by a lovable rag-tag group of miscreants. The companions, their stories and quests are probably some of my favorite diversions in Outer Worlds. And while the rest of the side quests are okay, most everything you do in Outer Worlds—including the main quest—feel like one long fetch quest. Luckily, Outer Worlds has some pretty good writing to keep all of this afloat. The story is one about corporations that have gone beyond nihilistic greed to outright cruelty in the name of their bottom line. While it’s not very unique, it’s a great setting for an open world role-playing game. Outer Worlds has a nihilistic sense of humor—and combined with the corporate presence, I can’t help but compare it to Borderlands, though it's not quite as wacky. Screenshot: Outer Worlds And while you can blaze your own path, and eschew the main story—there doesn’t seem to be much do to do if you do that. There are a few factions you can play against each other, or attempt to assist them all—but it feels like the main storyline boils down to three major choices: help your fellow colonists, help the soulless corporations, or just burn it all to the ground. One of the things that made Outer Worlds a little less compelling to me is the lack of a “true” open world. Outer Worlds has a number of planets you can visit—each with its own locations—but it ends up being made up lots of smaller locations, instead of one large world all put together. (Again, coincidentally, like Borderlands 3). One of my favorite things to do in Fallout was see something on the horizon that I just HAD to see, and get lost exploring along the way. Outer Worlds, through the way it’s set up, made me feel like I was always following a set path forward. Not quite railroaded, but not quite free. Screenshot: Outer Worlds One of the most damning things, to me, about Outer Worlds is its length. I’m not saying I want a massive amount of filler content, but what’s there makes Outer Worlds feel a bit empty.  I beat the game in about 12 hours, and then went back to do all of the things I didn’t do--and still completed it in less than 20. According to various websites, my time was shorter than the average, but I wasn’t trying to rush through it--even for the sake of this review--and it still ended up feeling a bit empty. Would my opinion of Outer Worlds change if I wasn’t so immersed in the Fallout universe? I’m not sure, obviously. But I feel like most of what I enjoyed from Outer Worlds was because of Fallout, not despite it. Obsidian has done a great job creating a new IP, and making a decently fun role-playing game in it, but I can’t help but feel like it’s missing something overall. And I’m definitely missing the sense of wonder and exploration the truly open world gave me.   Outer Worlds is available now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows   If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more.  
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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.