The Outer Worlds Review

Out of the ashes of Obsidian Entertainment's long and storied history of making great yet flawed games as licensed properties for a number of publishers, it seems like this California-based studio found its independent streak permanently with the Kickstarter and then retail success of Pillars of Eternity, their spiritual successor series to the Baldur's Gate (and larger D&D-based) franchise that since found itself sitting in video-game-licensing limbo for most of a decade. Simultaneously, in the last couple of years, Obsidian has been talking with suitors, and last year Microsoft announced they had acquired the studio, erasing any fleeting thought of "permanent" independence for this fan-favorite developer.

During all this time, Obsidian has been cooking up something special. They got Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, creators of the original Fallout, to team up for the first time in years and put together a team make the game we're looking at today: The Outer Worlds. Luckily, the Microsoft acquisition hasn't given us much to worry about at least for this game, a space-faring, single player, first-person RPG pulling the sense of adventure, frontier-based setting, and art styles inspired by pre-WWII sci-fi like the writings of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, along with little bits and pieces of the wastelands of Fallout and the fancy contraptions of steampunk. I'm happy to report that it all meshes together well, and despite a few rough edges, The Outer Worlds is an impressive effort with lots of interesting choices to make, some nicely crunchy RPG systems to play with, and violent, satisfying action throughout.

The Rundown

You play as one person out of tens of thousands that have been cryogenically frozen on The Hope, a colony ship that was set for the Halcyon system and its colony but has been been marooned and lost for seventy years. You and the rest of the ice cubes have been frozen for far too long for normal thaw procedures, but a vaguely mad-scientist type named Phineas Welles figures out a way to thaw you without instantly liquefying your body - his first success - and sets you on a path to explore, understand, and eventually ultimately try change the future of the Halcyon colony. The people of this fledgling colony are suffering from many systemic problems due in no small part to the bureaucracy created by The Board, a partnership of the ten corporations that sponsored the whole expedition.

Many western RPGs create some sort of amnesia-like state as a plot point for the protagonist, which is their excuse to spout exposition and teach the player about the universe they're dropped into. Here, the excuse is that you've been on ice for decades and are only setting foot onto the colony now, so everything you see, including its people and challenges, are all new to you. Obsidian have done a good job threading the needle of informing the player of the basics and just barely dodging the overplayed trope of the forgetful hero of prophecy, all without just dumping a book's worth of backstory text at them or creating really hackneyed and annoyingly-written story exposition.

RPG Systems

Character creation, as with any game made with the pedigree that The Outer Worlds has, has serious meaning for how you'll play your character at least in the early going. You'll choose which base stats range from below average to exceptional, all of which have effects on more than a dozen skills like Long Guns, Dodge, Melee, Persuade, or Engineering.  You'll be able to raise those skills from single-digits up to 100 (well, eventually - through level-ups), all of which will unlock various dialog options, give you more damage in combat, allow you to open new paths to an objective, and ultimately give the player more options to address any situation. Perks give both you and your crewmates big passive bonuses as well.

And it's here where the game's most interesting choices happen, making this a true RPG: the real difference to make is usually not in whether you should go in with the flamethrower or the plasma rifle, but instead how to deal with a settlement, how to coax two warring groups to cease fire, if playing it straight with a character will get what you want instead of lying, or simply whether to choose when to talk it out and when instead to pull a weapon and simply start shooting. And frankly, on that last point, very few big-budget games are giving you that choice anymore.

Unlike with most RPGs, you can complete The Outer Worlds while killing nearly every single NPC and enemy you meet. You can also do it the other way around, i.e. a pacifist run without using any weapons or killing anything, but you'll likely need to mix in stealth, subterfuge, alternate routes through secure areas, or make heavy use of the game's Holographic Disguise system when going through enemy territory. Your time out in the wilderness might be frustrating if doing a pure no-weapons run, too, as there are a lot of monsters between you and the places you'll be sent out to, so it's clear that this will be one of the most challenging ways to play. And unlike the Deus Ex series, here we don't get any non-lethal weapons or a way to incapacitate patrolling soldiers, so it has to be truly pacifist and not just "only non-lethal violence allowed". I commend Obsidian for forcing players who want to do this to have to truly be pacifist to complete a run like this, but the game doesn't reward you for it and in many ways passively punishes you, as you will receive less experience, loot, and often less money for playing this way.

Speaking of challenge, in addition to the game's main three difficulty levels, there's also a survival mode-style Supernova difficulty that increases the difficulty factor a couple times over, and then on top adds requirements for sleep, food, and drink while also preventing fast travel between points on the map (only back to your ship) and only allowing saving your game while on your ship. Additionally, companions die permanently when they are downed in this mode, weapons that have been heavily used to the point of breaking are basically useless until repaired, and limb damage can only be healed with bed rest. There are times when it feels like an entirely different game at this point, and it's definitely the ultimate for those looking for a challenge.

No matter what difficulty you're on, you've got options, however. You can tinker and mod your weapons and armor, add new damage types, improve resistances for your own armor, and more, but you won't find this to be the most meticulously detailed system out there.  That kind of goes for the rest of the underlying systems as well - the damage types are fairly basic for different types of enemies while the crafting and modifications you can do are meant to take on the order of seconds (minutes at most) to complete rather than asking min-maxers to agonize over every point and bit spent on perfectly tweaking your damage potential. It's basically all there, but the developers have made the conscious decision to try not to weigh the game down with too much depth put into any one system - instead, it seems that they've put depth in their plot, decisions, and dialogue trees.

Speaking of dialogue, you'll find some pretty extensive conversation trees in this game, with casual banter often going on for a while, and some of the game's most interesting solutions buried layers deep beyond not only your own ability to investigate and find information in the world, but also in digging the truth out of the game's characters - nearly all of whom distrust you at first. The voice acting is generally superb, which is helpful considering that even action-seeking gamers will probably find themselves stuck in some dialogue-heavy sequences for longer than they'd probably like.


Obsidian Entertainment aren't known as the most capable developers when it comes to delivering intense and satisfying FPS combat, although I suspect the janky game engines they've had to use for their previous licensed games are at least half the problem, and the effort put in here is certainly raising the bar for them.  The Fallout V.A.T.S-inspired, always-recharging Tactical Time Dilation system allows you to toggle a rather extreme slow motion, making things more RPG like and not so twitchy or aim-dependent (although you'll still need at least some of that - it can be tough to take out a whole group of enemies on just one TTD bar). Once you've activated it, firing shots or swinging with melee attacks will deplete the meter fast, but moving in slow motion and lining up shots uses your charge much more slowly. Not only will you be able to line up shots with ease, but you also can optionally get interesting weak point special effects (blind with a headshot, cripple by hitting someone in the legs, and more) along with seeing extra info on enemy weaknesses via tooltips - all without turning every fight into some extended bout of bullet-time Max Payne silliness.  And while that does admittedly sound fun, it isn't the focus here.

Even if you just set aside the Time Dilation entirely, The Outer Worlds is probably Obsidian's best effort yet in the action department, with critical attacks, crewmates' special abilities, dodges in any direction to close or create distance, weak point hits (which work differently from crits in this game), and mixed combat that can move from sniping to mid-range to in-your-face action all within a short time, with all of it feeling fun and heavy-hitting.

Visuals and Style

The Outer Worlds uses Unreal Engine 4 to pretty impressive effect, with nice special effects and solid texture quality along with a smooth and generally stable frame rate, but it's their artists and designers that deserve the majority of the credit here. They've fused some elements of Steampunk styles combined with the oppressive steel and concrete cities of Half-Life 2 or the more recent Wolfenstein games, then haphazardly dropped them (as part of the plot, showing the corporations' lack of proper planning) into idyllic environments with some pretty beautiful vistas and then accelerated the clock a few decades to set up for your arrival in order to create a kind of "pretty wasteland". Your adventures take you across the Halcyon system on its planets, moons, stations, and more while you unravel some interesting mysteries and ultimately affect the future of the people of the colony.

The characters including the NPCs and your crewmates are also the best-looking ones Obsidian has put together, with photorealistic textures that almost seem to be retouched with just a little bit of hand-drawn art that can probably be most closely compared to what we saw in the Dishonored games. It's a nice balance, giving the world a fantastical aesthetic that at first glance looks realistic without being entirely grounded in reality, and I can't think of anything I'd like more in its place.

With that said, and this is a pet peeve of mine, but the lip sync animations in this game are only decent at best. To get it just right, you really need to do a full performance capture, where instead of separating out animation from voice acting, special equipment is used and full acting is done to grab facial expressions, mouth movements, body movements, and voice acting all at once.  Bigger-budget games like Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Last of Us do this, but it unfortunately was not used here, probably because this game has thousands of lines of dialogue and a tighter budget than other games.  While the lip sync animations we do get aren't completely awful, any deficiency gets more obvious as the characters have looked more and more detailed over the years. For now, I totally understand why Obsidian, even with the budget I presume their own finances along with whatever publisher 2K/Private Division forwarded them, didn't set aside the large expense for this. I just hope we can start seeing this in more big-budget games (including RPGs!) sooner rather than later.

Reigning in Ambition

One thing I appreciate about The Outer Worlds is that as a project created by what largely was an independent (yet decidedly AAA-driven) studio, Obsidian did not overextend their reach. This is not a 100-plus-hour RPG with massive open-world areas to get lost in, nor are you given vast expanses to explore or huge dungeons to delve into with no quests leading you there. We also don't see dozens of boring, rote collection tasks (i.e. "Fedex quests") to fill time with. While in the right context I can be coaxed to enjoy all of that to at least some extent, having a studio build all of that can also mean for a much less focused and longer-running story. Obsidian seemed instead to not to try and participate in the RPG-size arms race, and instead made a more tight and focused single player campaign that is still longer than you'll get out of most non-RPG games out there.

For the record, I played on PC on Hard difficulty, completing every quest I could find, and finished the game in right around 30 hours. If that seems short, consider that it's not much behind what my mostly-completionist runs of the Fallout: New Vegas base game (no DLC). I'm sure new Outer Worlds DLC will come that adds to the length - I am thinking of the 4 story DLCs for New Vegas that, all told, nearly doubled the length of the base game. I don't know what new story they will want to add, as the base game serves up a pretty tight story, but I'm sure we'll see something fun and intelligent considering that Obsidian has been pretty good with their DLC over the years.

Wrapping Up

The Outer Worlds is very clearly inspired by its' lead duo's favorite game designs over the last few decades, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that considering they pretty much built the most famous archetype for western RPGs made yet. What helps is the Obsidian team backing them and their commitment to creating satisfying (if not the most entirely stellar) action and an appropriate right-sizing of the dream they had, all of which allowed them to nearly perfectly play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

Sure, a bigger budget and a longer development time could have allowed the team to build more planets, design more quests, and flesh out the game with even more plot and NPCs - and maybe give those characters proper performance capture - but that's just a "nice-to-have" and frankly, considering that the big-budget games coming out today seem to always be missing so much (and not necessarily something a patch or extra content would fix), I don't think it's reasonable to call their final product anything but a big win.

Sure, I'm concerned that our standards have been lowered to the point that a single player RPG that comes out, works right, isn't huge but still sizable, and delivers a fun but not world-changing story should be hailed as some kind of triumph for gamers everywhere, but that's a discussion best left for another time. For now, The Outer Worlds scratches an itch that many gamers have been feeling for years at this point.If you have basically any interest in this game or western action-RPGs in general, do yourself a favor and just pick this one up.