Hiking across the stars with The Outer Worlds

There is an argument to be made that Fallout: New Vegas is “The Real Fallout 3”. Indeed, I believe I made that argument when I originally reviewed New Vegas back in 2010. In the nine years since then, players have waited patiently for a game that captured the same atmosphere, story and sense of wonder that New Vegas so marvellously created. Bethesda clearly weren’t able to do it themselves; Fallout 4 is a good game on its own merits, but it was barely a Fallout game. Indeed, it seems we may never get a game in the Fallout franchise that manages to hit those heights again. Luckily, developer Obsidian Entertainment has branched out and created an entirely original New Vegas-esque first-person RPG, set in a capitalist nightmare future filled with strange monsters and futuristic ray guns. Welcome to The Outer Worlds.

The Outer Worlds sticks exceedingly close to the New Vegas formula, while also innovating in a couple of areas. The game is set in the distant future, in a solar system far from Earth. Humanity has expanded to colonize other systems, and the Halcyon system was colonized by a group of mega-corporations who gained power over absolutely everything, down to the bodies of the colonists under their command. Two large colony ships were sent to the system, but only one eventually made it. The other, the Hope, was lost in space for decades, before suddenly appearing about 90 years later. The game begins with your character being revived aboard the Hope by a slightly crazed scientist called Phineas Welles. Welles wants to try and revive the remainder of the thousands of colonists on the Hope, in order to free Halcyon from the tyrannical control of the Halcyon Holdings Board; the conglomeration of mega-corps running the system. From here, you’re sent on a planet-hopping adventure around the system, helping colonists, liberating cities and solving crimes.

Onboard the colony ship Groundbreaker.

The game presents a more streamlined and tighter experience than that of Fallout: New Vegas. There is not one large game world but instead several smaller worlds which can be flown to via spaceship. You can’t go into every building and you can’t talk to every character, there being a fair number of generic background NPCs in most towns. The people you can talk to however are basically all uniquely voice-acted, and all have their own flavour text that will allow you to learn a bit more of their backstory. Similarly, unlike Bethesda’s Skyrim or Fallout 4, you can’t pick up and interact with absolutely everything in the world; only useful items can be manipulated. But on the other hand very much like Fallout 4, you can zoom in and examine everything you pick up in the inventory menu, and every item has some in-universe explanatory text snippet.

The core gameplay comprises a combination of wondering across the planets of Halcyon, shooting or bludgeoning enemies, and conversing with characters. The shooting is strong, feeling more responsive than almost any of the Fallout games, certainly on par with Fallout 4. Instead of VATS, your character has the ability to slow time to a crawl, Max Payne style, allowing you to more easily perform powerful shots. There is also a wide range of melee weapons on offer, including some futuristic lacrosse sticks. Once you’ve levelled up a bit and looted enough corpses of their valuables and ammo, combat does become a bit of a cakewalk on the standard difficulty, but you can amend your difficulty at any point. Enemy variety is pretty decent, with a good range of alien critters to deal with alongside human soldiers and mercenaries.

There is a huge variety of colourful character to converse with.

One of the game’s main strengths though is the characters and writing. You can gather six companions, in a style that feels more reminiscent of Mass Effect than Fallout, who will then reside on your ship for the duration of the game. You can take two companions out exploring at any time, and each one has at least one associated quest to explore their personality and backstory. Parvati, a shy engineer, and Vicar Max, a seemingly devote priest with a troubled past, were my personal favourites. Learning about the religions of The Outer Worlds from Vicar Max was fascinating, especially the schism between the Scientism (the official religion supported by the corporations) and Philosophism (backed by groups of colonist rebels). Politically the game is somewhat confused, and while it gives some searing critiques of capitalism it seems unsure what the best option to address the underlying issues is. Both the characters and the world building help to invest you in the overarching story, and give proper context and motivation for your actions.

Graphically the game is reasonably pretty, but it doesn’t blow you away with fidelity. The turn of the 19th Century aesthetic merged with retro-futurism is an interesting choice and it kinds of works once you get used to it. Each of the planets you visit feels very different, and there are even marked differences between zones on the planets themselves. I did experience some minor glitches including several people clipping through walls, but nothing major or anywhere near as bad as the issues that have plagued recent Bethesda titles. Musically the game’s soundtrack is in parts so similar to the older Fallout games I actually thought several times it was re-using themes from Fallout 2. It invokes the same kind of sense of intrepid exploration, and for that I appreciated it.

The variety of different locations to visit is impressive.

The Outer Worlds didn’t need to re-invent the wheel, and it doesn’t. What it does do though is prove that it’s possible to create compelling, detailed and interesting worlds and populate them with unique and talkative characters, without sacrificing the underlying gameplay. Bethesda Game Studios have been travelling down a path of marginalizing authored story content in their games at the expense of everything else, to the extent that the semi-MMO Fallout 76 was heavily criticized for the lack of such content on launch. If more companies are able to follow The Outer Worlds lead and create more experiences like this, gaming will be all the better for it.

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