Even if it jumps into a genre that is home to some of the gaming industry’s most epic adventures, The Outer Worlds squeezes in to find its place, using action-packed gameplay and solid world-building to pull players into its complex and dynamic corporate future
The year is 2355. By then, left completely unchecked by the government, large business trusts have grown so much that their power has overshadowed the influence of the state itself, creating a society where corporate culture has leaked out of the office environment to invade the daily lives of citizens. As such, more than being defined by who they are and the relationships they have built, people are judged by their productivity and accumulated wealth, with those who rank towards the bottom of the ladder in both categories being denied essential social rights. And due to the value that is given to what one is able to produce to their business overlords, it is no wonder competition at the workplace has grown so extreme that concepts like eight-hour shifts as well as weekends sound like odd ideas to a good slice of the population.
In this future, which might not be apocalyptic but that certainly ranks as somewhat disturbing, humanity has begun to colonize other systems, and citizens are encouraged to sign up for the endeavor. Led by mega-corporations, efforts of the kind are usually undertaken by groups of companies that get together to purchase the rights to explore a slice of the universe, being then able to act as the region’s government, and – of course – push the local workers as hard as possible for the sake of profit.
One of the systems that was up for grabs was Halcyon, which was bought by a joint venture called The Board. To populate the six planets found in the area, they dispatched two ships from Earth, each carrying thousands of colonists who – to endure the journey – had to be put in cryosleep for ten years (the duration of the trip) with the promise of being unfrozen by the crew of the vessels once they got to their destination. The Groundbreaker was successful in its voyage, and by 2355 the original settlers of Halcyon that arrived aboard it have been deceased for a few years, as the system is filled with their descendants. The Hope, meanwhile, which carried highly-specialized individuals, suffered unknown problems on the way and the ship was never located, leading it to go down into the system’s lore as a sad tragedy.
As The Outer Worlds start, though, players will learn the location of The Hope is not a secret to one person: scientist Phineas Welles. Wanted by The Board for a series of crimes, the man locates the ship and – following an arduous research – manages to bring a frozen colonist back to life despite the fact the longer-than-anticipated hibernation poses a scientific challenge to the reawakening process. Welles goes on to give a brief and vague explanation of the situation to the resuscitated protagonist: he claims Halcyon is in danger and that the path to rescuing the system from doom involves unfreezing the rest of The Hope’s colonists. Nonetheless, since the procedure will require a large amount of a rare chemical, he will need some help acquiring it. Afterwards, quite suddenly, players are launched in a capsule to the surface of Terra 2, where their journey ought to begin.
Given the nicely intricate constitution of its social fabric, The Outer Worlds is far more than a game where a recently unfrozen human goes on a mission through space to recover some very important substance. The elevation of the title from a thrilling yet simple adventure to a complex dive into the political dynamics of Halcyon is achieved in two ways. The first is the most obvious one: storytelling. After all, when players are kicked out into the system, they are not only forced to confront the harsh realities of life ruled by mega-corporations, but they also come to learn quite a bit more about the place and some of its mysteries, including the nature of the danger Welles alludes to. It is, however, in the second component responsible for its transformation into something greater than a straightforward action quest that lies the best aspect of The Outer Worlds: the gift of choice.
Truth be told, there is not much that is new about that concept: giving players the chance to make choices that affect the course of their journey and the fate of the universe has been one of the staples of gaming during the first part of the 21st century. Consequently, rather than innovating, The Outer Worlds is simply jumping on a very successful bandwagon that was traveling down the road for almost a decade before its release. Yet, there is nothing inherently negative about following a trend. Moreover, when the implementation of such an established and popular feature is as well-done as it is in The Outer Worlds, it is safe to say most players will be satisfied if they decide to hop aboard and enjoy the ride.
With choices of replies ranging from compassionate and understanding to rude and hilarious, The Outer Worlds boasts pleasantly deep dialogue trees with nearly every single one of the characters with whom players can interact, from the big shot who runs a small town and is part of the mandatory path to get to the game’s ending to the local bartender. As such, when receiving a quest from someone, for instance, the protagonist can get down to business right away or ask a bunch of questions that will end up adding rich details to the task at hand. Of course, if they are not in the mood to do any of that, there is always the alternative for the hero to claim they are busy and that the troubled individuals asking for help should learn to solve their own problems.
Sometimes these attitudes will have no effect beyond being cursed by people who run shady businesses or leaving a poor hopeless soul without any aid; on many occasions, though, repercussions are greater. For example, while traveling through Halcyon, the protagonist will become the captain of a ship, and completely filling up the six-member crew will require the finding and clearing of optional quests. Similarly, when it comes to these companions, each one will have personal missions that they will want their boss to undertake with them, and depending on how players act during these, they might set up their partners for either a good or a bad ending. And considering how likable some of these companions are and how alive they feel, going as far as naturally giving their opinion in the conversations the player character has with others, it is safe to say most players will be aiming for the former rather than for the latter.
On an even bigger scale, even though Halcyon is mostly dominated by the companies that form The Board, their lack of interest in some areas of the system as well as certain political arrangements have led to the rising of other factions; and as they follow through with the main quest, the protagonist will be put right in the middle of the conflicts that exist between the different parties. Although it is not exclusive to this particular setting, it is in it that one of the biggest qualities of The Outer Worlds comes more visibly to the forefront: the game’s ability to come up with scenarios where there is no alternative that is clearly good or bad. And in these morally gray situations, players will be forced to make a choice while either hoping their attitude will not harm characters they have come to care about or – in case they are going for a darker route – rooting it will lead to chaos.
Sure, there are times when one of the sides of the coin will be a mustache-twirling evil entity. For instance, the region’s corporate overlords, The Board, offer reasoning to the damage they do, but they are still villains. However, most of the time, The Outer Worlds is very effective in causing moral distress, be it when helping one well-meaning party will ruin the other or when players realize that sticking it to the ruling system might cause the humble people who suffer under it to be put in an even more precarious situation. Still, choices must be made, and as they act players will change not only their reputation in the eyes of each faction (which can cause soldiers of the groups to become hostile and merchants to alter their prices), but also how Halcyon will stand when the curtain closes.
The largest of all ramifications comes in the core plot-line itself, which at one point splits into two branches (each with its own missions) depending on who the protagonist opts to side with when it comes to what Phineas Welles is trying to achieve. Therefore, although The Outer Worlds is far from being a lengthy game, with its main quest lasting around twelve hours if one focuses solely on it, those looking to squeeze more out of the game can either tackle its dozens of extra missions, which will more than double the play time, or restart the adventure looking to access a batch of new missions that will pave the way to a radically different outcome for the Halcyon system. Finally, The Outer Worlds also has its replay value pleasantly boosted thanks to how numerous are the missions that can be tackled in multiple ways, from going in with guns blazing to using a more strategic approach or even talking one’s way out conflict provided the character’s dialogue-related stats are high enough; needless to say, this flexible nature also plays into the hands of the game’s focus on choice.
That package amounts to a solid bounty of content, especially when it is underlined by such entertaining writing and intriguing choices, but since it lands as an action role-playing adventure, the fact is that The Outer Worlds finds itself in the midst of very daunting competition. The genre is, after all, the realm where some of the industry’s largest creations roam, and comparisons to them are inevitable, especially given blatant similarities. The game is connected to the mighty Skyrim, for example, due to how it allows players to carve their own path through a fictional universe. For the same reason, The Outer Worlds brings the epic Mass Effect trilogy to mind, with their sci-fi setting forging yet another link between the pair. At last, thoughts of Fallout are inevitable. Firstly, because of how that franchise’s creators are also responsible for The Outer Worlds. And secondly, due to touches of dark humor and a visual presentation that matches advanced technology with old-school assets: for example, the game’s mega-corporations organize interstellar colonization, but employ slogans and an advertising style that come straight out of the 1950s.
In sheer scope, The Outer Worlds falls below the thresholds set by those peers, and that may lead some players to perceive it as being shorter and smaller than expected. However, since size is not the most important factor in determining the greatness of a game, The Outer Worlds holds its ground perfectly fine by switching an overwhelming scale for a tighter, denser, and more focused world that drips quality out of every corner; and in an industry that is getting progressively more dedicated to boasting about building the largest overworld and featuring more than one hundred hours of content, the change of pace in the action role-playing realm executed by The Outer Worlds might even be a pleasant breath of fresh air.
Throughout the game, players will use the protagonist’s ship – thankfully inaccurately named The Unreliable – to travel between areas in the Halcyon system. Both their physical separation and the fact most of them are not accessible until the hero acquires a sort of landing permit for each place lead The Outer Worlds to stay away from the prominent open-world configuration, behaving instead like a somewhat linear adventure where new regions are unlocked as the quest advances. Yet, that approach does not mean freedom to explore is not existent; contrarily, it is rather palpable and frequent. What that setup supports is the creation of a title with pleasant variety when it comes to structure, because while facilities like space stations act like the enclosed spaces of a pure action game, the planets let the protagonists go where they see fit, whether it is to the nearest town to meet people and pick up quests; deep into the unknown to kill some beasts and marauders; or to abandoned buildings lost in the wilderness.
It is true that none of these open areas are too big and that they contain loading screens when players transition between them and other large scenarios, like towns or the interior of large buildings. Plus, there are only four of these wider spaces. Nevertheless, The Outer Worlds populates them quite well with both content and gameplay. When they are not engaging in dialogues or exploring, players will likely be tackling some combat, which follows the general pattern expected out of first-person action games. With a nice variety of melee and ranged weapons available to be bought, picked up, or stolen, four of them can be equipped at any time. The X button switches between them, the ZR shoulder trigger is used for shooting or swinging (in the case of a melee weapon), the L button activates (if it is available) a healing concoction that can be made by players themselves via mixing different items, and either the right stick or motion controls can be employed for aiming (with the latter option being configurable from the menu and working very well).
In this regard, the main twist of The Outer Worlds is players’ ability to slow down time, which is explained as being a side effect of the protagonist’s thawing process. Called Tactical Time Dilation, the skill is activated with the R button, causing foes to – for a few seconds – basically freeze in place while gamers are able to move around in reduced speed. Besides being simply a whole lot of fun to use, the trick also leads to visually spectacular and nigh cinematic reactions from enemies who are hit, including exploding body parts that are a consequence of the extra damage provided by accurate hits delivered while the effect is active. Furthermore, Tactical Time Dilation can also be helpful because it displays technical information (including level and health) on the bad guys who are put under the weapon’s reticle. Naturally, though, the game is smart enough to stop players from overusing it by making the bar that measures the energy necessary for executing the ability regenerate slowly overtime, with at least twenty seconds having to pass before the move can be used again.
The second notable quirk in combats is in the usage of crew members. Two of them can be taken out of the ship at any time and, by using the D-pad, players can give them general orders during battles, including the triggering of a special move that is exclusive to each one, which is done via the left and right directions. Sadly, as a minor annoyance, special moves are executed in the form of animations that cannot be skipped. Therefore, as brief as they may be, these five-second displays slightly disrupt the pace of battles, to a point some players might opt to avoid using them.
The other problem that affects the game’s otherwise respectable combat segments is related to enemy variety. In the design of its locations, The Outer Worlds does one fantastic job setting up scenarios that are ideal for shooting, with plenty of options for taking cover or making use of the always alluring possibility to take a stealth approach to dealing with the bad guys. However, the truth is that whether they are humans belonging to one of the title’s factions or feral space monsters, foes come in very limited formats, especially when one considers that the humorous tone present throughout the quest could have allowed for some slightly ridiculous and fun enemy designs. Likewise, it is partially disappointing that (with one exception) actual boss battles are nowhere to be seen, since The Outer Worlds simply replaces these either with the giant version of a beast or a room containing a whole lot of grunts, which are not exactly creative solutions.
In a game that thrives so much in letting gamers choose, it is not surprising to learn that after enemies are killed and missions are completed, there is plenty of customization to be done in relation to the characters. For the captain, leveling up produces ten points that can be freely spent on a myriad of stats, from standard combat-focused traits like defense and ranged weapons to dialogue skills (such as intimidate and persuade) that can be employed to get out of tight spots or even clear missions without engaging in combat as well as technical abilities (such as medical, hacking and engineering) that come into play in various ways. Meanwhile, be it for the captain or for his companions, every two levels that are gained yield perk points, which are employed in activating bonus characteristics that permanently boost parameters like carrying capacity, walking speed, health, the length of the Tactical Time Dilation, and more.
To top it all off, even weapons and armor are not immune to this customization effort. By taking them to working benches, players can use spare parts (usually extracted from dismantled weapons and armor) to restore them to their full efficiency or spend some cash to level them up. More importantly, in these designated locations it is also possible to install modifications on the equipment, unlocking a multitude of different effects like altering an armor piece so it improves one’s skills with ranged weapons or installing a muzzle on a gun so its firing noise is reduced, thereby diminishing the range within which an enemy has to be from the shot so it is alerted to the protagonist’s presence and improving the effectiveness of some good-old stealth action.
Since it was originally made for platforms that are far more powerful than the Switch, it is only natural that the version of The Outer Worlds found on Nintendo’s console is considerably less impressive from a technical standpoint. In fact, the port was – at first – so affected by hardware that it presented unbearable problems with frame rate and bugs.
Fortunately, though, various patches have since then turned the quest into a nigh completely stable affair that is smooth to play through. Sure, when visually compared to other versions, the Switch game features a blatant drop in the quality of textures and in the level of details seen in the scenarios; furthermore, some assets, like patches of grass that can be used for stealth, only load when players are close to them. Yet, despite the notable gap, the universe of The Outer Worlds is still visually appealing, with the bright colors of its alien worlds and the design of its man-made buildings standing on a nice plateau between reality and sci-fi fantasy.
Overall, The Outer Worlds could have been better. Given the size of its action role-playing peers, its quest and world could be a little bigger. Moreover, wishing for improvements in enemy variety and punctual technical details would not be too much. Nevertheless, with it, Obsidian successfully birthed an alluring universe for some thrilling sci-fi adventures. It is a realm that has room for moral ambiguity, dark humor, social commentary, enticing drama, colorful alien worlds, as well as various factions fighting for power. And in it, gamers will not only engage in some fun shootouts, but also be forced to make choices that can be surprisingly hard.
For those reasons, The Outer Worlds is a must-play for anyone who has a love for grand adventures that take place in a rich world full of dialogues, stories, and missions. After all, even if it jumps on the bandwagon of a genre that is home to some of the most epic adventures the gaming industry has ever produced, the title successfully squeezes in to find a place for itself, using its mixture of action-packed gameplay and solid world-building to pull players into the grip of its complex and dynamic corporate future.