When Leonard Boyarsky, creative director at Obsidian, told VGC the company didn’t want to “lecture” its players about politics, I took a mental note I carried with me into my closed door demo with The Outer Worlds in mid-July. How could a game about corporate greed on a galactic scale be apolitical? How could it not lecture? While it might have been expedient for the team behind The Outer Worlds to distance itself from a clear political agenda, the attitude of this game is clear: the horrors of capitalism will follow us into the cold depths of space if we let them.
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In my two hours with the game, I played the opening 45 minutes (which we’ve been asked not to discuss) and the sequence from Obsidian’s E3 2019 showcase on the planet Monarch. Obsidian dearly wants players to be able to experience the world-building introduction fresh, which makes sense. I’ll play along and not say much about the game’s introduction, but I will start my preview with one observation that should make some folks happy.
New Vegas Calling
Obsidian might be best known for developing Fallout New Vegas, the followup to Bethesda’s Fallout 3 that many (including yours truly) believe to be the strongest first-person Fallout game by a wide margin. If you hold this opinion, I’m pleased to report that you’ll find yourself at home with The Outer Worlds. One of my longest-held complaints with Bethesda’s approach to introducing players to their intricate worlds (Fallout and The Elder Scrolls alike) is they often attempt to make you interact with all of the game’s systems in an overlong tutorial sequence.
When Fallout New Vegas begins, the player builds their character with attributes, skills, and traits, and is then let loose in the world to experience these systems at the player’s pace. Without going into any detail, I’ll say that The Outer Worlds maintains Obsidian’s specific approach to first impressions.
After I played through the introduction and a bit into the main plot, we skipped ahead to later in the game on the planet Monarch. My character had two companions at this point, Nyoka and Parvati, two women I was profoundly happy to have as backup on this hostile terrain. In the nearby Fallbrook settlement, I met colorful locals shacked up with the SubLight corporation. For every location, item, and person in The Outer Worlds, there’s a faceless multi-planetary corporation not far behind.
One of my first conversations in Fallbrook was with an insurance salesperson who explained some of the legal ramifications of doing business on Monarch. Immediately, I recalled the way player conversations played out in New Vegas. Obsidian’s writers have always excelled in giving your character more flavor and agency in tighter conversational quarters. There might be three responses to a question, but each represents a genuine reaction to the world around you.
Passing Savings to the Customer
My dialogue with the Fallbrook insurance broker lead to a branch where I could accept the obviously filthy business of private insurance on Monarch and see what SubLight could do for me, or I could tell her that she was full of shit (in so many words). I found plenty of these moments in a short burst. Even when some attempts at humor fell flat, I was surprised with how many didn’t. This game is funny. It has comedic timing, both physical and verbal, another reminder of Obsidian’s strengths from Fallout New Vegas.
My chat with the insurance representative was written by someone who knows the cliches from your typical MBA program are total crap. The game knows how silly it is to slap a brand on everything, but knows you’re going to gobble it up anyway. You have to. The way one quest line unfolded with a lieutenant in Fallbrook was pure workplace comedy. A superior gives you a very important task, you slowly find out the task is covering up a huge mistake, the huge mistake would get your superior fired (or worse), and the clean-up job involves putting your entire ass on the line.
This time it was finding the critters my boss was using to smuggle drugs, only to find the critters were being rescued by someone in town tired of the casual cruelty shown toward the local wildlife. My high medical skill allowed me to tell him that the creatures are probably metabolizing the drugs in a healthy way, which was a fun use of skill checks though it sold its own narrative weight a little short in doing so.
Navigating relationships between faction leaders and between factions themselves feels infinitely more familiar when the corporate context enters the fray. Every pro-corporate choice I could have made was the unethical one. Factions are deeply woven into the fabric of the overarching narrative, but there are gameplay consequences, too. These weren’t clear in my short time with The Outer Worlds, but in the menus it’s clear this aspect will be tracked and gamified.
Investments and Dividends
Speaking of menus and skill checks, I gained some insight into player progression and got a sense that non-combat skills might prove to me more obviously useful in The Outer Worlds than in Bethesda’s Fallout games. Conversation options can differ based on three unique skills: intimidation, persuasion, and lying. This seems to vastly expand the ways in which your character can interact with the world instead of relying on a single speech check and charm modifier.
Skills can be built upon leveling up. Attribute points resemble Fallout‘s SPECIAL system, which Obsidian didn’t stray far from. Skills, however, are grouped and must be leveled as a group until sub skills hit 50, at which point you can individually invest points into those sub skills.
As far as combat goes, I engaged in several battles with humans and creatures alike. Though snappier and faster than Fallout‘s tired, totally-not-built-for-shooting engine, The Outer Worlds‘ combat felt fairly one note. My companions were very powerful and I never felt like I was in danger, though this could obviously be a result of high powered gear supplied to us during the demo. Enemies felt like bullet sponges, though location-specific damage kept most battles feeling fresh. The game’s version of the turn-based VATS system in Fallout is the time dilation mechanic, which allows you to slow down time in order to execute moves in real time.
It’s very similar to Fallout 76‘s interpretation of VATS, though the player always has free aim in The Outer Worlds. When in time dilation, the player will do increased damage. Building certain skills will also change the way time dilation works to your advantage. I used it often, but players who don’t like it probably won’t be missing anything.
Some other quick observations from my time with the game:
- You can own property (or can at least be given property by a company)
- You have a ship you take to other worlds
- You can modify and repair your weapons
- You can read and hack terminals like in Fallout and there’s a ton of great writing in the terminal entries
- Your companions will give you major quests
- Currency is on cards, so no more picking up individual bottle caps
In Space, No One Can Hear You Touch Base
The Outer Worlds is shaping up to be the single-player Fallout game many wanted when Fallout 76 was first announced. In trading post-nuclear annihilation for corporate colonization, Obsidian puts players in a world that begs them to feed it or fight it with countless ways to do both. The solar system might not look like it’s been destroyed, but the inhabitants of The Outer Worlds all know it’s coming. This apocalypse will be sponsored.