The Outer Worlds review: Cleverness and humour over fun

The Outer Worlds is a first-person, sci-fi adventure game that combines all of developer Obsidian’s storytelling strengths with its world-building and RPG chops to produce a game that’s lovely to look at, surprisingly funny, and unexpectedly deep.

That last bit – the depth – is due to the game’s unrelenting parody of today’s capitalist culture that permeates almost every situation, area, and quest in the game.

And sure, the situations are exaggerated for comedic effect, but anyone who’s worked in a modern corporation will appreciate the lampooning of corporate greed, worker misery, middle-management incompetence, and the general malfeasance perpetrated by corporations too self-interested to see (or care about) the environmental and human damage they’re doing. It’s brilliant.

I thawed I thaw a colonist

So, how does The Outer Worlds do all of this? It pegs you as a newcomer to the far-flung space colony of Halcyon, by putting you in the shoes of a recently-thawed colonist from the lost colony ship, Hope.

Your icy domicile for the last 60 years.

Rescued by a mad scientist who wants to someday defrost all of the cryo-frozen Hope colonists, you’re given the choice as to whether you will fix – or exacerbate – the colony’s problems, while helping (or not) your new pal.

Phineas is your new BFF. Or not.

The Outer Worlds makes no bones about who’s responsible: all of Halcyon’s problems stem from – you guessed it – some form of corporate malfeasance.

In the game proper, you’ll make or break Halcyon together with the handful of companions you pick up; you’ll complete quests, gather weapons and armour, and shoot stuff while levelling up and defining your character with skills that help you play the way you want to.

These come in the form of social skills that give you more options in dialogue (and even affect combat), leadership skills that enhance your companions’ combat effectiveness, weapon skills that make you into a killing machine, and general skills that let you carry more and run faster.

There’s even a neat “time-dilation” mechanic that’s sort-of-but-not-really like Fallout’s VATS mechanic that lets you slow time and take aim at your leisure, which I appreciated even if I didn’t particularly love it as it always ran out sooner than I’d like.

More time to aim is never a bad thing.

Ultimately, the Outer Worlds is a first-person sci-fi RPG shooter with a unique setting, some great characters and dialogue, excellent social commentary on the times we live in, and is overall worth delving into. If you’re hopelessly pro-capitalism some of the game’s pointed commentary will sting, but it’s supposed to.

The game has its share of issues, of course, but I’ll get into those a bit later. Right now, let me touch on what I liked most about it.

National Lampoon’s Outer Space Vacation

For me, the star of the game is undoubtedly the lampooning of corporate culture and capitalism that drives The Outer Worlds’ narrative.

Using everything from conversations to situations to even how some towns look (half-finished, badly-planned, somewhat abandoned), the game immerses the player in the singularly ridiculous nature of the modern corporation, showing everything from its relentless pursuit of profit to its incompetent execution of once-good ideas to its Kafka-esque bureaucracy to its complete inability to understand that its workers are real people and not robots.

Franz would be proud.

It’s gloriously on-the-nose, and I loved it. Even better, The Outer Worlds is a surprisingly funny game: not only is character dialogue regularly hilarious, but the situations it presents are often quite laughable due to the sheer stupidity of it all.

Work harder not smarter

For example, the first town you arrive in, Edgewater, was built by the Spacer’s Choice corporation (“It’s not the best choice, it’s Spacer’s Choice!”) around a cannery that manufactures tins of “saltuna”, a food derived from some sort of aquatic lifeform that lives on another planet entirely, due to a clerical error.

But the cannery is suffering: workers are getting sick, there’s not enough medication to go around, and only those deemed to be “worthy” (read: useful) by management get any treatment. Those who steal medication to treat themselves are locked up, and those who are sick-but-untreated are encouraged to treat their illness by… working harder. And should anyone die, the deceased will be buried in graves outside of town that must be rented from the corporation while their corpses are simultaneously fined for damaging company property.

“Management” in Edgewater is a yes man who can’t think for himself and who lives and breathes the corporation’s values and ideals whether they make sense or not, so naturally the town’s problems won’t solve themselves.

Worse, the “saltuna” being produced is no longer pure saltuna because of the costs involved in shipping the creatures it’s made of from that other planet, and so is instead a mixture of sawdust, sand, and a tiny bit of saltuna. Even worse than that (I know, right??), the tins now feature thicker bottoms to maintain the container’s size and weight while reducing how much “saltuna” is actually inside.

Yay for cost-savings, amirite? Some bloated executive probably got a raise for that.

Give nothing, take everything

So basically, Spacer’s Choice won’t spend more money on medication, won’t tolerate absenteeism, won’t deliver the required raw materials, doesn’t respond to requests for new parts for the cannery’s machinery, but still insists on productivity being maintained at its projected levels, because of course it does.

The situation is frankly ridiculous, but something every modern-day real-life corporate worker can surely relate to.

The other spanner in the works is that some of Edgewater’s workers have had enough of being treated badly and have left the town to start their own settlement just up the road. As the player, you’re tasked with deciding which group should be allowed to continue – the freedom-loving deserters or the well-meaning but oblivious corporate stooges – by choosing which of them gets all of the limited supply of electricity that’s currently running both locations.

This type of ridiculous, avoidable, and very much man-made situation is rife throughout Halcyon, and you’ll encounter something similar on every planet you visit as they have all been touched in some way by the corporations that operate in the system.

Fortunately, Obsidian’s writing and coding skills let you do more than just solve these situations in a black-and-white fashion.  I was able to resolve Edgewater’s challenges to my own personal satisfaction, for instance, by maximising the benefit to the people of the town while thumbing my nose at the corporation that once ran it. Many quests are like that, too, offering more than just a binary choice, which I really appreciated.

Bootlicker or revolutionary?

The wider story has you going up against (or working for) “The Board”, the group of top-level executives responsible for Halcyon’s woes.

There is an over-arching “threat” that you’ll deal with, but it’s not what you think, and you’ll have to decide if you’re going to fight against the no-compassion money-hungry Board or work with it to address that threat for the good of the Board/colony.

The story here is good, if not amazing, but I can forgive that because of the variety of solutions to each quest, and the many possible endings the game offers. Because I was anti-corporation and pro-people, I was very happy with the ten-minute closing vignette that summed up what happened to who at the end of my game, and as a gamer with a fondness for New Vegas’ myriad branching paths, I appreciated the effort that went into making it possible.

The cockpit of the Unreliable, your ride around this corner of the universe.

Size-wise the game isn’t huge, but there are indeed a handful of planets to visit. It’s not like Mass Effect in terms of its size or scope, but there’s still a definite sci-fi space opera feel to The Outer Worlds, even if it’s not quite as “epic” or cinematic as EA’s once-good franchise.

It sure is beautiful, though. Just take a look at these screenshots I took:

Welcome to the Groundbreaker.
Byzantium is where the wealthiest Halcyon-ites live. It sure is pretty.
Scylla is being terraformed by huge constructs while playing host to various life forms. Which you’ll shoot.

Now for the not-so-good

While I enjoyed the time I spent playing Obsidian’s Not-Fallout, it’s not without flaws, and unfortunately for Obsidian those flaws have to do with the actual game itself. You know, the bits gamers engage with to have fun, independent of the story.

Firstly, if you don’t go looking for companions and you ignore their personal quests and the many side quests that come up, the game is pretty short. I’d hazard a guess from my own experience as well as some reports I’ve seen online that the main quest can be finished in less than ten hours if you ignore everything else.

That’s not to say this is a ten-hour game, far from it. I played for something between 30 and 40 hours by the time the credits rolled, because I did as much as I could in the time I had, but I can see how other less-thorough gamers could speed through it and reach the end in far less time.

Secondly, there isn’t much enemy variety. I fought human enemies, drones, and mutant creatures, and that was about it. While some of these were tough on occasion, combat stopped being thrilling fairly early on in my game, even with the Time Dilation mechanic. Fallout’s VATS mechanic, meanwhile, keeps me playing that game even now, years after release.

Lacklustre where sparkle was needed

Third, the weapon upgrade system isn’t great. It involves adding various mods to my weapons, affecting things like critical hit percentages, bullet capacity, recoil, and changing the weapon’s damage type (among others). All of these come off as fairly generic, and as such there was no joy in discovering new weapons or upgrading them, and I never found what felt like unique game-changing upgrades.

The same applies to the armour in the game. None of it felt unique or interesting, even though each armour piece typically did affect a skill. Problem is, the skill boosts on offer were stingy, something not even a late-game effect-doubling perk could fix, so I found myself not really caring.

The “science weapons” (which required finding) were the most interesting, as these had effects like mind control that turned enemies into friends, firing a zero-gravity field that caused enemies to float, and weakening enemies. These were all just “okay”, though, and not the game-changers I’d been hoping they’d be.

Lastly, I feel like there are too many useless items in the world. I came across too many of the exact same weapon, too many juices/wines/consumables that I didn’t need or want, and I amassed so much ammunition in the course of my playthrough that I had thousands of each type by the end.

Just *look* at this useless crap.

The actual game part of The Outer Worlds is lacking, in other words, because what’s there is just… okay.


So after all this, what is my final verdict?

The Outer Worlds is a solid (and impressively bug-free) effort from one of the industry’s veteran developers, and a game that’s worth playing if you enjoyed any of the recent Fallout games, or you like games that emphasise cleverness over outright fun.

Or you’re a closet communist who wants to see the worst of capitalism parodied mercilessly for 40 hours or so.

GOTY or not GOTY?

Is it GOTY material, though? Sadly not – in my opinion it has limited appeal for a niche audience made up of old-school RPGers and fans of Obsidian’s choice-and-consequence approach to storytelling. Looking at the big titles in the running for gaming’s top prize, Obsidian has GOTY competition that The Outer Worlds – probably – won’t overcome (don’t quote me on that).

For me, personally, I was hoping for a game that would scratch all of the itches that the never-happening Fallout New Vegas 2 might have, but sadly The Outer Worlds did not do that. The narrative is certainly strong, but it’s let down by fairly “meh” gameplay mechanics.

The game is competent and funny, and its social commentary is bitingly relevant and a joy to witness, but even so I found no gameplay hook that has me wanting to go back and play more now that I’ve finished it. The prospect of being a bad guy just to see the other endings just doesn’t fill me with excitement.

Happy I played

I am happy I played, though, and I am super pleased Obsidian is getting all of the praise and sales and recognition I see in the mainstream media. I am also happy that The Outer Worlds gives Bethesda a well-deserved black eye for that 2010 no-bonus fiasco over Fallout New Vegas missing its targeted Metacritic score by 1 point.

But in the end, for me the game Obsidian delivered fell just short of the greatness I expected from a studio with such a solid track record. The Outer Worlds is good, to be sure, it’s just not the masterpiece I’d been hoping for.

The Outer Worlds was reviewed on PC and a code was supplied by the local distributor. The game is available on the Epic Store for $59.99 (approx. R888), and on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 for an RRP of R899. It’s coming to Steam only next year, after the one-year exclusivity agreement with Epic is up.


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