The Outer Worlds Review: Corporate Bailout, New Wages

The Outer Worlds seems like it has a lot to say, but not many new ways to say it.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction — or something like that. And it’s not hard to tell that The Outer Worlds is a reaction to the state of modern Fallout games. Bethesda bafflingly brought the series into the wild world of ongoing “live service games,” with Fallout 76, complete with multiplayer and, some might say, a lack of what made the series great. Player skill checks and NPC philosophizing were replaced with nukes and more bugs than usual. And nearly every review reflected that.

For better and for worse, The Outer Worlds is a rubber band snapping back in the other direction. If you’d like to raise your Dialogue skill to Level 55, to convince a security guard not to fight you, Obsidian Entertainment has your back. If you want colorful party members that complement your hard-won skills, The Outer Worlds has those, too. When was the last time you chose to side between an evil, retro-styled corporation, and a broadly painted rebel faction? Well, folks, that time has come again.

That hard yank back to the past is also my chief criticism of the game. The Outer Worlds was an opportunity for Obsidian — once best known for buggier, more ambitious sequels to classic RPGs — to do something daring. The studio last touched Fallout with the critically lauded New Vegas way back in 2010. Free from the shackles of that universe, but obviously trying to evoke a similar vibe, the company could have layered… Well, just about anything on top. There’s a lot of wiggle room within the walls of “exploration-focused RPG with satirical science fiction trappings.” But Obsidian only shimmied into something a bit more space-y.

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The Outer Worlds is set 70 years after Earth sent its best, brightest, and richest to colonize the stars. You play an unnamed stranger, rudely awoken from stasis, and set about the task of destabilizing the mega-corporations that run the Halcyon Colony. 

Or not. Bethesda games (and by extension, this one) are all about “freedom.” And freedom in games usually means picking between one of two (maybe three or four) competing ideologies. The Outer Worlds lets you side with the crushing oppression of capitalism almost immediately. No judgment! Judgment would be bad. Whereas being able to be bad is, of course, good. Gotta hear both sides.

This kind of moral equivocating is at its worst in the opening hours of The Outer Worlds. As such, the game makes a clumsy — if not outright poor — first impression. 

The game opens with your typical, introductory “pick a side to progress” story beat. In this case, it’s choosing between the deeply oppressed peoples of Edgewater. It’s a frontier fishing town slowly choking on sci-fi sardines and privatized healthcare. But much like our own crumbling healthcare system, at least you have a choice!

You can side with either the shitty middle manager running Edgewater into the grave, or the “deserters” that chose to make a go of it on their own in the wilderness. The Outer Worlds doesn’t really know how to make these two options look equally morally gray, so it kinda just makes it up after the fact. I sided with the deserters, of course, only for a couple NPCs to tell me how hateful they really were all along! There was no actual evidence of this, before or after the fact, but that didn’t stop the tsk tsk-ing. They were kinda hippy dippy, I guess?

Outer Worlds Review

Help From Your Friends

The one good thing to come out of Edgewater is Parvati. Parvati is, depending on your choices, the first NPC party member you hire on in The Outer Worlds. She’s also the best character in the game: a panromantic, asexual mechanic with social anxiety and a penchant for giving cute names to industrial equipment. Besides being the only explicitly ace character I’ve ever seen in a AAA game, she’s also the social conscience of the group. Parvati is only one of six recruitable characters in the game, but stands head and shoulders above the rest.

I’m a bit mixed about that. Parvati stands out purely because she’s a vivid, well-written, and very human character. (Nearly) everyone else in your party is also very human. That makes sense, since The Outer Worlds wants to tackle human issues — like the warring philosophies that spring up to counter the rot of late capitalism. If you’re going to take that sort of thing seriously, you better have people that feel like the real victims (and beneficiaries) of the system.

At the same time, The Outer Worlds seeks to recapture the spirit of bygone games. Fallout: New Vegas had a nine-foot, invisible ogre in a sunhat that called herself “grandma.” That’s just good writing. None of your companions in this latest game match that self-confident weirdness.

And yet… The rubber band snaps back again. The more you peel away at The Outer Worlds, the more layers you find — the more reactions there are to the game’s own statements.

Outer Worlds Review

More Horizons

Things really hit their stride on Monarch. The supposedly abandoned moon is home to multiple leftist enclaves. It’s where you first get to see not just different ideals at work, competing against the Halcyon corporations, but multiple factions within those factions. There is the reformist Monarch Stellar Industries: a corporation with better pay, better hours, and more support for organized laborers. Then there are the Iconoclasts: social anarchists who believe compromising with capitalism will only compromise themselves.

And within the Iconoclasts? You’ve got Graham, a patronizing idealogue more concerned with philosophical pondering than staying alive, and Zora, a doctor willing to put food and bandages ahead of printing pamphlets. The former reminds me of a lot of grad students I know. The latter seems like somebody I can get behind.

That’s where choice really feels like it matters in The Outer Worlds. When the game treats gray areas as different ways of achieving noble goals, rather than soap operatic skeletons jumping out of everyone’s closets, the drama gets juicy. The decisions get harder. And everyone involved feels more meaningfully alive.

The quiet war on Monarch doesn’t just seem plausible, though. There’s an eerie verisimilitude to how it fits into the rest of the Halcyon colony. The labor unions looking for a seat at the table and the Iconoclasts looking to cut the rot out completely understandably debate over the cost of their actions. Meanwhile, the super-capitalists — normally at each others’ throats — happily work together to keep the left-leaning moon blockaded with gunships. Sound familiar? The right will always unite for mutual profit.

Outer Worlds Review

A Classic Talk ‘Em Up

The Outer Worlds doesn’t always have something explicit to say about any of this. Your avatar gets to make the choices. As a result, the consequences always feel muted. But it’s nice to see the spectrum of political positions. At least the game also doesn’t say “both sides are bad,” so much as “all sides are compromised.” That’s a step in the right direction.

Whereas the gameplay (and more specifically the combat) isn’t really a step in any direction at all. It’s where The Outer Worlds’ lack of daring is most obvious. You walk around, pick stuff up, maybe hack some terminals, and shoot the occasional monster. The same several enemies (alien dogs, alien lizards, alien bugs, and marauders) get in your way. And your bullets find ways through them

The first-person shooting (or slashing and pounding, if you prefer) is sluggish, but serviceable. If it doesn’t feel particularly inspired, it doesn’t get in your way, either. And you can usually talk, sneak, or lockpick your way through major story beats. There is some variety here and there.

The Outer Worlds does have an interesting way of leveling the playing field among all your typical RPG skills, too. Becoming eloquent helps you in combat by passively terrifying foes, or causing them to turn on each other. Although that means there isn’t much reason to dump points in martial prowess. Personally, though, I always play Fallout games with max charisma anyway. So it’s nice not worrying about getting flattened the second I step outside a settlement.

Outer Worlds Review

Traveling In-System

If there is a reason to worry about leaving specific zones, it’s because of the load times. The Outer Worlds is not an open-world game in the sense of Fallout and The Elder Scrolls. You can’t walk from one end of the whole playable space to the other. Instead, it’s split into discrete (but still sizeable) regions. Even on an Xbox One X, though, load times between these spaces are brutal. Not to mention you need to sit through two of them every time you change companions — in order to switch from one loyalty quest to the next. It’s not a huge hassle, but it is a noticeable one.

Even so, The Outer Worlds is a fine approximation of Fallout’s  adventurous spirit. The separate regions are plenty big. The settlements are full of random junk to steal. The computer terminals are chock full of text logs to read. If Fallout 76 broke your heart, The Outer Worlds is a more than serviceable rebound relationship.

And if you’re looking for something more… It’s here. It just depends on what “more” means to you. The Outer Worlds rushes in to fill a certain gap — to react to a vacuum left by a plot-less, meandering multiplayer game. The shape it took in the process is a bit more nuanced than what you know. But it’s not light years beyond it, either.