I now have about 10 hours logged in The Outer Worlds, which for me in a single-player game is a lot. I played whenever I could this weekend, and even streamed most of it, and as I write this, I wish I were at home inflating that /played.
In brief, TOW is a buzzword salad RPG from Obsidian, who most people link with Fallout: New Vegas but I link with Tyranny and Pillars of Eternity because I’m not really a Fallout fan. While I like the mechanics of Fallout just fine, the setting is too mentally oppressive for me and I literally cannot play for longer than an hour before becoming depressed. That could be why I take to TOW: it’s got the same kind of gameplay, but it’s sci-fi, which is right up my bread and butter.
You play as a wannabe colonist whose ship (and several thousand other passengers) was left drifting outside of the destination system as a result of a FTL failure. You are pulled out of cryosleep by a Phineas Welles, a rogue scientist who sends you on a mission to obtain the chemicals needed to revive your shipmates. Naturally, that’s just how the game gets your foot in the door because as soon as you crash-land on your first planet (and regrettably also on top of your next NPC contact), you become embroiled in an alternative future where corporations have replaced governments. The Halcyon system where you were originally headed is owned and operated by The Board, an umbrella organization made up of several corporations. The majority of people in Halcyon are corporate employees, and the colonies therein are dedicated to corporate operations. Naturally, some residents aren’t content with this (such as Welles), so in between interacting with those who only speak in commercial jingles, you’ll encounter seditionists, anarchists, and independent contractors. Not everything going on with these corporate-owned colonies is on the up-and-up. BFSurprise.
Gameplay involves a lot of talking, but not as much talking I had imagined (which is refreshing since the game I played right before this was the interactive fiction-esque Disco Elysium). You get information from NPCs, they ask you to do stuff, and you get a few different types of responses you can offer, ranging from straight shooter to sarcastic asshole. Sometimes you have the option to lie, persuade, threaten, or otherwise use a skill when selecting a response, which might be the shortcut you need to get the right info.
Exploration is an important part of TOW because each area is a contained adventure zone. You’ll find yourself on a planet (or moon) which might have a colony center where most of the hubbub occurs, a few external homesteads, and maybe some points of interest outside of that, like marauder camps or secret labs. The wilds in between allow you to take any route you’d like to get to your destination, whether it’s to see the sights or to skirt the pack of raptidons that seem to be everywhere despite being native to mostly nowhere. In true open-world fashion, Obsidian has hidden loot in most of the places you’d expect. See that little alleyway? Lootbox. Up on top of the shelving? Lootbox. In the bathroom? Lootbox (ewww). Exploration is mandatory and is rewarded more often than not.
Combat is very much like what you’d get from a Fallout game [The Board would like to remind you that while Obsidian did create a Fallout game, it does not own the rights to the Fallout franchise]. Ranged weapons rule, and can include simple ballistic pistols to high-powered grenade and rocket launchers, plasma beam weapons, and probably a small nuclear device somewhere, if I didn’t know better. If you loved it in Fallout, you’ll love it here: TOW has its own version of V.A.T.S., which is called something like “tactical time dilation” and is written off as a side-effect of your long cryosleep. You can slow down time and take aim at your targets, aiming for critical locations that can impart debuffs like knockdowns, blindness, or crippling effects depending on where you hit them. Combat is mostly satisfying when at range, with melee somewhat less so as I’ve noticed the occasional lag or stutter involving both.
And now for what I think might be a selling point for some people: your crew. As you progress, you’ll run into NPCs who take a shine to you and your freedom and will want to join you. You can have up to (I believe) 6, maybe 8 different crew members, but you can only take 2 with you on away missions. The rest get to shack up in the Unreliable, the ship you commandeer from the smuggler you crushed with your escape pod in the prologue. Yes, this is almost exactly like the companion system in Star Wars: The Old Republic, except that everyone seems to be competent (sorry, Corso). You can turn to chat with your companions when out in the field, and you can seek them out on the ship. Sometimes they have personal missions that they ask for help on. A good chunk of the initial game has a mission that focuses on you helping a crew-member asking another NPC out on a date which is really sweet if you choose to play it that way. Although the Unreliable isn’t exactly a Sims-like house, you occasionally pick up doo-dads in the world that will auto-appear as decorations in the ship.
So that’s the game overview. Now, what is it about TOW that excites me so much? In my old age, I’ve kind of moved away from the whole “let’s dole out a War and Peace-length narrative in small paragraph format over the course of several dozen hours” schtick. I’m also not a run-and-gun action fan either unless I want to turn my brain off completely. The Outer Worlds falls comfortably in between those two extremes. Conversations with NPCs don’t go on forever, and like Bethesda and old school Bioware (both of whom Obsidian has worked with in the past as a kind of understudy), the dialog options here are tight. Characters have personality, although the personalities aren’t exactly stellar, they are enjoyable enough to make me not hate talking to them. I put a lot of points to my dialog skills, so I like being able to pretty much drive any conversation to my advantage, which also helps.
I think the big seller is that it’s a sci-fi Fallout-like. Again, I like the small-bite zones which remind me a lot of Borderlands in concept (not execution, as the worlds of Halcyon are a lot nicer than Pandora). The whole “western-esque” vibe doesn’t resonate as much with me as it does others (I am not a Firefly fan, folks), but the totally absurd corporate shilling that’s going on has yet to segue into irritation, and I find it painfully comical that people are obligated to sprinkle every conversation with sales pitches. I have also run into my “I’ll remember this one” moment last night when I was sent outside of the settlement of Stellar Bay to find a scientist. What I thought would be a routine catch-up turned out to be an “oh shit…” moment that dawned on me before the game dropped the official bomb. I also really like the companion management system. Sure, helping an NPC with their love life might make some people roll their eyes and groan, but I look at it as a balance. Creating a rapport (even a coded rapport) with your crew is a welcome diversion from the ongoing narrative. Sometimes NPCs can be annoying, and sometimes they can be nice, and it’s up to you as to what kind of a relationship (even a coded relationship) you want to have with these people.
Combat is actually the weak part of TOW, in my opinion. Companions can be kind of dumb and you don’t have a lot of control over them. You can tell them to move to a location and stay, or to return to you. You can tell them to attack a target, but they both will attack that same target AFAIK. Each companion brings one special skill that you can trigger, but I always forget that they have that feature. I’ve had companions switch between melee and ranged and then back again for no good reason. The good news is that if companions fall, they get right back up when combat is done. When you heal yourself, you heal them as well. I have learned to mete out my shots when firing at range, and I use the TTD feature a lot to slow things down and apply debuffs. On occasion, swinging with melee weapons failed to respond to my mouse-click, which was panic-inducing and annoying.
The one issue I have with the game is that the UI and feedback need work. Serious work. For example, the inventory screen is just a grid of items. You can’t compare inventory items to equipped items. When you’re upgrading items, you can’t tell which of the 12 different instances of that item is the one that your character has equipped. Making matters worse is that if I am wrong and that these features do exist, the fact that I don’t know about them means the UI does a terrible job of surfacing that info. Map pointers to mission objectives exist, but hovering over them doesn’t tell you which mission they are for, and you’ll get a point on the map for any mission you have in that map area, not just the active one, which further confuses the situation. I usually end up jumping from mission to mission while in the zone just because I’m never sure which direction I’m headed in.
Still, The Outer Worlds is right up my alley in a lot of ways and I can totally overlook what annoys me. I feel that I can do all of my NPC chatting in bulk, then put it aside and do some exploration, and then put it aside and do some combat. Everything presents itself in an orderly fashion in a way that I can process and enjoy. Thankfully, although it’s Fallout-like, it doesn’t depress me, and I am happy that there’s finally a sci-fi game in this mold, as sci-fi usually ends up being the sole domain of beefy space marines catering to gunplay fans, or large space fleets catering to strategy fans.