Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Platforms: Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Windows
There is an almost instant familiarity to The Outer Worlds for any fan of these collective genres that presents themselves in this game. Obsidian Entertainment has past experience in developing games of this type, most notably with their work in the Bethesda universe with the acclaimed sequel to Fallout 3, New Vegas released on the last generation of consoles. It feels very much like a homage to the work of Bethesda and Bioware, taking the best elements of each studio to create a new franchise that whilst not pushing the bar creatively to far outside its comfort zone is still an accomplishment in itself. It’s hard to describe or not make mention of the seeming inspiration behind a great deal of the games setting from the short lived series Firefly sharing a great deal of the same spirit, ethos and environments with the frontier spirit evident from the opening moments.
As you awaken aboard the Hope in the opening moments you are quickly ushered off a seemingly abandoned colony ship by a recluse scientist and jettisoned onto the surface of a nearby colony finding yourself entangled almost immediately in the politics and drama of a colonised star system in conflict and subservient to unseen and overarching authoritative state. It’s a perspective and direction that is prevalent in a great deal of science fiction at present and one I have come to appreciate to some degree. I have long enjoyed the fantasy aspect of Star Trek flying between solar systems at will however given the vast distances between planets the notion and constraint of setting a fictionalised drama within a single system is a believable constraint. Firefly used a very similar limitation and construct in its narrative with the worlds and environments of that serialised show similar to the locations featured in The Outer Worlds. The is enough scope for exploration and discovery in the half dozen worlds and space stations featured to satiate the demands and whims of a knowledgeable audience.
The central premise of the narrative is to find a way to awaken your fellow colonists from aboard the Hope, a noble motivation although somewhat lacking in any connectivity to those in slumber beside you. Gradually the push to resolve this quandary does fade to some extent as you find yourself exploring the worlds around you though given the somewhat limited size of the colonies and planets, the constant reference and dialogue does keep your purpose ever present. One of the most disjointed aspects of the last Fallout title was an emotive opening sequence with the abduction of your child sidelined in short order with the games push for you to build fortifications and compounds and explore the unknown. Whilst not a direct criticism levelled towards this game in particular, it is a common issue I’ve found in playing these open world games and the lack of motivation to pursue the main narrative, especially in Bethesda games which often present themselves as glorified toy boxes, fun to play in for a while but lacking in purpose and drive. Thankfully, that was present here, but it certainly skirted and elicited the same issues and grievances I’ve felt for other titles in this particular genre and style.
It is a common issue I’ve found in playing these open world games and the lack of motivation to pursue the main narrative, especially in Bethesda games which often present themselves as glorified toy boxes
A Beautifully Stable World
In its entirety I didn’t experience any glaring bugs or issues of note, certainly there were moments of texture pop in that instantly brought back memories of experiencing Mass Effect and other Bioware games for the first time though that unintentionally was brought a nostalgic familiarity to proceedings. In contrast to other more complex and expansive titles open world games such as Breakpoint, it was refreshing to experience and play a game that felt solid in construct and design. The worlds and environments were relatively small, similar to the hub locations as featured in Inquisition with a central base of operations aboard your ship The Unreliable allowing transit to the various colonies and planets, some providing different landing pads and areas of explorations though not connected.
It’s a mechanic that allows various environments to be presented without the sensation of a dozen different climates in a short space and time. When I first played Skyrim, it felt disjointed to be walking amongst the snow capped mountains one moment and then the green forests the next within a short walk, I understand it simulates the open world but there is certainly a constraint on what you can show if you pursue an immersive narrative path. It felt like an attempt to showcase as much as possible within the confines of last generation technology and as such shattered the immersive experience to a degree. I enjoy the approach of games such as The Outer Worlds and the recent releases from BioWare which present individual hub worlds and areas to explore, sacrificing the expanse of the open world for a more varied and believable approach to exploration.
Here, with games like The Outer Worlds, Inquisition and even perhaps Andromeda which used a similar dynamic to an extent, you can have multiple alien planets with different terrains and topography without the repetition and endless horizons of a similar environment. Perhaps the levels themselves could have been a little bigger or substantive, you never really feel you have missed somewhere to explore on each planet, as such, removing any motivation or reason to return there with the exception of pursuing a companions loyalty quest at a later date. Even then, with the inclusion of the fast travel mechanic once you have persevered and survived the hostile elements on the planet surface, opening up the jump points allows you to quickly move from point to point and as such the spirit of exploration quickly diminishes.
The variety of levels present rings a similarity with Joss Whedon’s frontier series and even the BioWare games to an extent, the colony worlds embodying the spirit of the drive into the American frontier in contrast to the safe and recognisable capital planet with its allusion to class based society and division. Whether this is the direction colonisation would take with the establishment of these type of frontier worlds and a central base of governance is another topic for another day, here it was just fun to be able to have a taste of the different types of worlds and design on offer.
I really enjoyed the art design of the loading screens and indeed the game in general, a random statement to make but these are definitely prints I would pick up given the chance in the future especially the location shots such as the Hope and various colonies and planets. I talked about it previously when looking into the creation of the environments of Dead Space and the various advertisements that created a more immersive, memorable experience. I know it’s entirely a subjective viewpoint but living in a society surrounded by adverts and posters, there is a certain resonance and connectivity to the digital world as much as the real one around us when you see a poster such as the one featured advertising the merits of Spectrum Vodka then coming across a bottle or two on your journeys.
It turns what would otherwise be a dismissable crafting item into something more memorable and distinctive. Credit where it’s due, I do commend the developers for crafting these distinct and memorable locations, not perhaps the largest or most expansive of terrains to explore but full of small nuanced touches and details you do come away with a refreshed appreciation for games of this genre. Conversely, perhaps as a result you do lose focus on the central narrative at times when you are exploring a particular location, on Monarch for instance I did spend a great deal of time resolving the faction mission presented before me but certainly not to the extent it put me off the title.
The colony worlds embodying the spirit of the drive into the American frontier in contrast to the safe and recognisable capital planet with its allusion to class based society and division.
Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
The game is designed and played from the first person perspective, in keeping with the Bethesda studio titles such as Fallout, though missing the option to shift into the third person view which I did struggle with to some extent at points. Similar to the VATs system in Fallout which allowed you to pause combat to target specific points on opponents, here you have the option to slow down the action around you though constrained for only a limited time which meant it didn’t feel you were breaking the game to make up for your own limitations. I did find it a little immersion breaking with the use of numbers and statistics rising up from the enemies you were shooting, even in games such as Division which included this, I understand this mechanic is built into this genre it’s just a baffling and disruptive idea that shatters whatever believability and immersion you have in the world around you.
Reward me yes with my ability to gain that perfect headshot but please, stop pumping out floating numbers into the air, it doesn’t give me any satisfaction to know I’ve obtained a 50! One aspect I did enjoy for its ruthless implementation was your continued exposure to certain attacks or failures resulting in character penalty which in turn granted you an additional perk. Probably more complicated than it was, for instance continually falling from height as an example may weaken your ability going forward but it was just a nice touch. I am proud to say I achieved a number of these penalty perks for my brazen approach to gameplay and personally it was nice to have my shortcomings as a gamer accepted and built into the narrative experience.
A staple of any Bethesda, Obsidian or BioWare RPG is the ability to pick locks, thankfully a merciful mechanic removed to streamline proceedings. I will give special mention to Kim at the Later Levels team who lamented the removal of this particular puzzle from the game, for all my declarations of wanting a deeper immersive experience, I do recognise its a fun puzzle to solve and overcome, for me personally I was grateful for the approach of the developers. It seems a conscious effort to present a more accessible world for those new to the genre, removing many of the frustrations born from artificial contrivances, in a way they are still present to some extent, locks can only be access by acquiring bypass shunts although thankfully these are readily available through exploration.
In a broader context there is an in-depth skills tree to explore and upgrade your character although, it does feel besides the ability to carry additional weapons and gear, it does only have a minor impact on your experience. I didn’t necessarily feel any of the character upgrades or bonuses had any real tangible benefit, perhaps it made combat a little easier in the latter stages with your companions also enjoying the ability to upgrade health and attack statistics. In contrast, whilst purely a gaming mechanic I’ve lamented on, I did enjoy the fact you could level up certain statistics and characteristics which in turn gave you the option to experience and enjoy the game through following different paths of progression. I enjoy, to an extent shooters but prefer the option to talk and negotiate out of a predicament, the inner Captain Picard in me perhaps. Here, thankfully you can do either, or both.
I did enjoy the freedom to arm and cloth my companions and myself in attire befitting our stature. As with the first Mass Effect and other titles in this genre, whatever armour and weapons you come across in your travels are yours to adorn and grant the usual bonuses and traits as they apply. The inclusion of work benches allows you to repair and add buffs to the weapons and armour if you see fit, again, it never really felt like a necessity or something that had a big impact on your experience, as such as soon as I acquired a high enough gun, helmet and suit to allow me to survive a majority of the conflicts that was enough for me, especially in first person view you couldn’t see your protagonist for a majority of the game anyway removing any real compulsion to appear your best.
I did find it a little immersion breaking dressing my companions in fallen armour which didn’t fit their appearance or personality however enjoyed the fact in dialogue scenes they removed their helmets which always felt a little off in Mass Effect having deep emotional conversations through space helmets in a safe environment. It you enjoy customisation, you’re in for a treat with the option to mix and match your armour as you see fit, you can even wear a space suit or fancy attire if you so wish though of course this does make combat a little more challenging. Weapons can be modified, tinkered with and repaired, it’s a nice mechanic that builds depth into the title but also does come across as somewhat superficial to an extent as it never really feels its having much of an impact on your experience.
In a broader context there is an in-depth skills tree to explore and upgrade your character although, it does feel besides the ability to carry additional weapons and gear, it does only have a minor impact on your experience
There is a great deal of familiarity and a sense of deja vu that permeates the entirety of your experience. Clearly, there is a great deal of inspiration drawn from other series and franchises though at no time does it feel it is simply aping or mimicking particular scenes or scenarios in the absence of originality. I would imagine and could probably safely say, many fans of Firefly for instance will enjoy immensely the connotations to that show and the ability to explore a spiritual successor to such a large extent. And if you can’t see and hear the similarity between your first companion and Kaylee then you should renounce your brown coat immediately. Equally, with the inclusion of companions and how integral they come to your progression, whilst it can be enjoyed as a campaign on your own, having the dialogue and conversations between them as you work your way through a particular area was a nice touch that eluded to the Mass Effect games. It’s taught me if I ever were to explore the frontier, I would probably want a couple of friends at my side to make it a less, solitary experience.
It both uses mechanics that are instantly familiar to fans of this particular genre but never in a lazy or short sighted way, with a few unique aspects of its own it’s an evolution of these particular types of games and in the absence of any new releases from Bethesda and BioWare for the foreseeable future it’s a market space it can flourish and thrive in. Not a perfect game, there were aspects I would gladly see improved or removed entirely, statistics in gunplay is a really bizarre mechanic introduced in recent gun based RPG games such as the Division that has since been removed in subsequent titles, perhaps its inclusion here was a legacy issue but I would gladly see it removed in a later patch or update. Equally, I would love to be able to see and hear my character, fully spoken dialogue is welcome, but the mute protagonist is inexcusable in this day and age. Equally if I can’t see my character, I have no particular drive to invest my time in dressing them up and finding a particular suit of armour to look the part of the galactic space hero.
I did enjoy my time in The Outer Worlds, towards the end I will admit I did perhaps lose focus and track of my primary objective but for the most part it did an admirable job of keeping my moving forward towards my end destination. Perhaps the cynical part of me expected a twist or revelation in keeping with the type of game to extend it beyond its natural conclusion, it was with a welcome relief when it came to an end and the realisation it was a completed journey and quest. A game then shaped by a great many influences, many of which I am a fan already so in truth it had a waiting and appreciative audience but it never really felt like a developer taking these inbuilt fan bases for granted in the design and construct of the game. Room to improve, not a perfect experience but certainly a memorable and enjoyable one, a period of escapism from the divisive and caustic world we live in today, one I will look optimistically to the future of any subsequent sequel should it emerge.
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