It’s tough to share one’s impressions of a game when its strongest elements are the story and character interactions. The Outer Worlds is a solid game all around, but it presents just such a dilemma. I’ll therefore address the game in general first to avoid any spoilers, then talk specifically about what makes the narrative and characters so darn appealing, leaving potential spoilers till the end. Hopefully, many will have already read about it or watched streams and gameplay video, which should cover at least the first major story mission that I’ll discuss.
Comparisons with the Fallout series are inevitable given that developer Obsidian had created the popular New Vegas entry in the franchise. Indeed, the kind of dystopian future and ragtag populace of that franchise are on display here, once again shown off with strong dialog and voice acting, and thoughtful, dynamic dialog options for the player. Likewise, similar robust role playing options include character creation, deep inventory management and varied skill trees.
In this regard it also reminds one of BioWare games whether Mass Effect or Dragon’s Age. The story, meanwhile, is reminiscent of BioShock games with its tale of a failed society, idealistic devotees and desperate individuals. All such comparisons speak to the success of this game, but The Outer Worlds also carves its own enviable niche. The excesses and limitations of both corporate greed and individual pursuits, and the explosive and tragic areas in which they intersect, are at the heart of this space-faring saga.
The epic tale features a stirring score that hits the right notes whether during combat or in quieter interludes; imaginative art design that perfectly realizes its sci-fi/fantasy setting with futuristic structures amid inspired alien flora, fauna and landscapes (including a beautiful color palette); and an immersive world further anchored by quality ambient sounds, detailed textures and particle effects, solid draw distance, smooth animations and fluid (if sometimes exacting) environmental interactions.
The characters I’ve encountered thus far feel like distinct individuals with unique personalities and motivations. Related side quests feel more organic than contrived, and can be relatively complex, sometimes involving varying objectives or character interactions for their resolution. Of course, it’s not terribly distinctive but does fit well within the context of this particular story and universe. Especially compelling for me was the companion(s). Besides having depth and feeling three-dimensional, Oblivion anchors them in the world around you by including them in scripted and random encounters.
These surprising interactions occur regularly. Speak to another character, and that character will not only greet or refer to your companion, but might actually turn to address them and carry on a side conversation (with the camera likewise focusing on them both, which could be awkward when the character you’ve addressed ends up turning their side or back to you). Your dialog options might even include comments addressed to your companion at which point you’ll be involved in a side discussion. Random NPCs on occasion will also greet and engage in brief discussions with your companion while out walking.
This also demonstrates how dynamic dialog and dialog options can be, helping further immerse players in this well-crafted world. Dialog trees offer a range of responses, including options to persuade, intimidate, lie, etc. (which are skills that can be upgraded) and even belittle, support, etc., with a healthy dose of humor sprinkled throughout. I usually upgrade strength, health and melee or range attacks, but with Spiders’ GreedFall (in which you play a diplomat-warrior) and now The Outer Worlds, I invest a lot more in charisma/persuasion, and it’s paying off. (More on that later.)
Thankfully, I haven’t had to invest too heavily in combat-related skills or attributes. Between player controls, the time-slowing targeting system (which can be upgraded to a kind of VATS like option found in Fallout 3 and 4), one’s arsenal and companion aid, fighting creatures or marauders is manageable and fun. Targeting and hit detection are fairly precise, weapons and related upgrades (and weapons selection) provide a range of options, and companions can be set to aggressive or defensive and related commands allow for added strategy.
AI is pretty good especially for human characters. Enemies will move or take cover on occasion when under fire, though creatures tend to just charge. Depending on what skills are upgraded, foes might also cower when shot (though not for long). Similarly, players can choose to make companions draw more or less fire. And selecting the right weapon helps, such as charged for armor or plasma for flesh. There are also consumables to provide boosts. All this promotes more strategic and tactical decisions during combat.
All in all, The Outer Worlds provides an impressive living, breathing setting where players will want to spend time exploring and enjoying the intricate detail and grand elements in equal amounts. Still, there are issues, such as load times when transitioning between some buildings/areas (though it’s limited), small typeface that can make reading a challenge, bodies that can be difficult to find in tall grass (making looting a chore at times), and exacting item interaction (that requires some patience).
But even taken together, these are minor irritations at worst. I’m not far enough to judge whether or not quests, characters or foes, for instance, become repetitive, or whether or not dialog and other choices have real consequence down the line. Still, the gameplay, presentation, story and characters are so strong in the early going that they certainly bode well for the game’s longer term playability. To that end, I’ll now turn to the strongest element of The Outer Worlds – the exceptional story, dialog and player choices reflected in the first story mission.
I’ll try to spoil only as much as is necessary to share why this left such a strong impression with me without getting into details when it can be avoided. The premise is this: Your character finds themselves effectively marooned, and to leave you must retrieve equipment that, in the process, will benefit one community at the expense of another. To Obsidian’s credit, siding with either community is not a simple choice. There are pros and cons to each option. So much so that I agonized over it. Nonetheless, I found myself more sympathetic to one side’s plight as they were just trying to live free of the restrictions and dictates of the other.
Still, the other side, despite having made awful decisions, was forced into choices that varied from bad to worse due to limited resources. Indeed, I found their spokesperson to be eloquent, reasoned and practical. However, I also chafed at their rules and beliefs that codified a kind of class system. So I had made my choice to side with the free folk but was interrupted by my companion, who was skeptical and made a convincing plea on behalf of the other side. It was so thoughtful and well worded that it convinced me into changing my mind!
I didn’t just take my companion’s word for it. Their argument prompted me to revisit other considerations raised by the one side I was initially against, as there were examples that in retrospect supported their position. I still had sympathy for those trying to live free, but felt the others were doing their best with a bad situation. To my gratification, there were still opportunities to help salvage things for the formerly free folk after I made my decision. And thanks to building my charisma/persuasion, I was able to get everyone on board with my choice.
It wasn’t easy and took some shuttle diplomacy but the end result was a hard fought peace. Nevermind that the outcome rested in part on a particularly distasteful turn of events, but at least there was an option to resolve the situation in a manner that could accommodate most if not all. That it all rested on the seemingly spontaneous intercession of my companion – especially given how well written the characters and their opinions are, and how the arguments of both sides were so well balanced – is testament to Obsidian’s skill in this regard.
In this way, the first several hours of story and gameplay suggest rich possibilities for a journey that not only spans the stars but looks to plumb the depths of human existence in ways both serious and satirical. I’m hopeful the rest of the game lives up to this auspicious start and continues to reward gamers with an experience that is fun, entertaining and enthralling all at the same time. After all, studios could do worse than to model the example of The Outer Worlds, but might be hard pressed to do better.
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