The Outer Worlds, the second in the "Outer W(x)lds" franchise released this year, after Outer Wilds is... Okay, sorry, I had to get at least one last of those jokes in. But I do think it's funny that, handful of MK 11 matches here and there aside, I went directly from Outer Wilds to The Outer Worlds. Wouldn't have happened if Outer Wilds released on PS4 at the same time as PC and Xbox One, so clearly some sort of conspiracy is afoot.
Okay, all jokes aside for real this time. The Outer Worlds is the spiritual successor to Obsidian's Fallout New Vegas, and I think like New Vegas at the time, it's left me with a feeling of having enjoyed the game, but also thinking it could've been a lot better. Which, is interesting, because over the years, and it's been a long nine years since 2010, New Vegas has developed this sort of legendary aura around itself. It's the one people point to when they talk about the modern era of Fallout. Up until the announcement of The Outer Worlds, people were still hoping Obsidian would return one day to make New Vegas 2, but instead they went and made a new thing in that same mold.
The thing about New Vegas is, I certainly liked it at the time, but I don't remember revering it in the way that so many do now. (Sadly I don't seem to have written a blog about it back in the day, which is probably just as well, a lot of my blog writing then was bad for a myriad of reasons, but anyway the point is I don't have a written record of my thoughts.) But over all these years, the ways I talk about and think about New Vegas have changed, not because I went and replayed it, just because so many people talked about how great it was that I eventually started doing the same. That, and Fallout 4 happened, which was a bummer for so many reasons that it did a lot to retroactively make me appreciate New Vegas more.
Anyway, the point is that while I did enjoy Outer Worlds, and I think it's a pretty good game overall, I don't think it's the great, amazing game it's been made out to be in some of the reviews. That, and I feel like it's reminded me of how I actually felt about New Vegas at the time I played it, which is that it's a pretty good game overall, but not the great, amazing game it's been made out to be over the years.
So why is it that Outer Worlds is good but not great? It's kind of a lot of things, really. The biggest one being that the main story isn't really that compelling. I'm the sort of person who always ends up doing lots of side stuff between each main story mission, but that's because I like to explore, and run into these things. And when a game like this specifically has a "Botched Quests" section, it gives me the impression that it's possible to lose out on quests forever by progressing the story, so obviously I need to go and do all the side stuff first!
Beyond that, in Outer Worlds, there were multiple times where after spending an afternoon doing side quests, when I loaded the game up the next day, I honestly didn't remember what the main thrust of the story was. Luckily the quest log had sufficient info to remind me. And this isn't to say that the main story is bad, it's still better than Fallout 4's (by a lot), but at no point did I feel compelled to push it forward, or feel like I just had to see what was going to happen next. Instead it just felt like another quest I had to do, and one that wasn't really as interesting as some of the other stuff.
But even those other more interesting quests often don't have interesting conclusions. There was one moment where I got so, SO excited when I was walking down the street in Stellar Bay, and saw a man run out of a building, yelling about a murder! This was the moment when I knew the game was all coming together, when I was getting to the "solve this murder" side quest. This is the sort of quest I love these games for. I'd have to search around, talk to people, go investigate some stuff, and it'd be great.
Problem is the quest itself was short, didn't involve any real investigating, and none of it was even a tenth as interesting as what I imagined when I first saw that guy running out. This, I think, is perhaps the true biggest flaw in The Outer Worlds. It has a lot of potential that it squanders by not taking things as far as it should. Yes, it's a much smaller, more focused game than the modern era Fallouts, but it's not small or focused enough. It's neither grand enough in scale to make up for shortcomings through sheer quantity, nor good enough at most things to rise up to being truly great.
It's still pretty good, though, and there's stuff I really liked in there. Like Parvati, who is not only my favorite companion, but probably my favorite character out of any game I've played this year. She's just so wholesome and nice. And in a game that feels very much like it was made by "the straights," it was refreshing to have someone whose storyline/quests involved her budding queer relationship with another character. Not the main one, there's no player romancing to be had, for better or worse (I'd lean toward better). But definitely for better is that this quest didn't involve any sort of tragic ending.
Sadly, not all the companions or their quests are as good as that. There's six companions total, and of them I liked three. Parvati, Nyoka, and Ellie. Even Ellie tested my patience in a few spots, with her "you should only look out for yourself" attitude, but I think she came around in the end. Problem is that of the others, Felix felt like the most forgettable character in the (outer) world, which is a real bummer after his introduction was pretty funny. And Vicar Max, who professes to a space religion but is trying to find answers to questions about it through heretical texts, is an interesting idea for a character that I think isn't executed well, and ends with a flop. The last one is SAM, a cleaning robot that isn't even a character, just a single joke repeated every time he talks (that joke being that he says things about cleaning while spraying acid at enemies).
If I'm being fair, not every game with companions is going to have them all be hits, and not misses. Look at Mass Effect (Outer Worlds clearly did, with its companion selection screen). It's easy to just think about Mass Effect as a whole franchise (all three of the three and only three Mass Effect games), but there was really only one truly great companion in Mass Effect 1, and that was Wrex. Garrus, Tali, and Liara were all good, and interesting enough, but came into their own in 2 and 3. Never mind that Kaidan was a snooze-fest and Ashley a space-racist.
Bear in mind, Mass Effect 1 is still my favorite game ever, even if a lot of that is nostalgia. It's just that when the expressed goal is a tighter focus than previous games in the genre, to have two of the companions be basically nothing (Felix has a quest but it ain't great), and one be a disappointing execution of a good idea is, well, indicative of the game as a whole, again.
Without getting into direct spoilers, it's difficult to give examples of why some of the quests feel so disappointing. Part of it is that it feels like there's little consequence for anything the player does, part is that any time there's some sort of twist, I saw it coming a mile away, but I think it's that a lot of this game just ends limply. One planet had quests that feel like they should end in something big, a fight between two factions, but there's a way to find a peaceful resolution, which I went for because I like finding ways to solve problems without fighting, but then it just ends.
Not the end of the game, but the end of that quest line. You broker a settlement between the factions (easily), and then everything returns to normal. Even if you go talk to the faction leaders, all you get are a couple sentences from one (as opposed to the LONG dialog I had when I first met him), and the other I couldn't even find! I'm sure she was in the world somewhere, but I dunno where!
This game doesn't do follow ups well. It was very heartwarming to help Parvati along, but after her quests end, that's it for that subplot, aside from a bit during the game's Fallout style ending where a man who isn't Ron Perlman (or even trying to be) narrates what happened to everyone and all the factions. I keep saying this game was supposed to be "smaller" and "more focused" than something like Bethesda Fallout, but that's like saying something is smaller than Canada. Sure, it can be smaller, but still pretty big, and it's a lot to ask that a game have as many quests as this does, and then have stuff that keeps going after the fact. But this game really doesn't do that, and I wish it had.
A thing I keep thinking about, entirely because other people keep mentioning it around The Outer Worlds, is Disco Elysium. A game I haven't played, but sounds like, on paper, is doing the thing I wish Outer Worlds did. Which is to say doing these much deeper dives into everything, and making every choice actually matter. At least that's what the people say when they mention it in relation to Outer Worlds. Personally, everything I've seen about Disco Elysium seems absolutely insufferable, especially the writing. Which, you know, would be a problem in a game that looks to be about 90% written text. Sorry for that aside, but I wanted to head that off before someone recommended I try that game.
That's just the story/quest stuff (of Outer Worlds, this segue worked better before I added the Disco aside), without even getting into the game itself. Or, the design of the game. Here is where it makes even more mistakes, and I think these are almost all in service of the game aping something it shouldn't in the first place. In almost every way it can (aside from technical issues, of which I had none), The Outer Worlds tries to replicate the act of playing Bethesda era Fallout, and this is one hundred percent to a fault.
This didn't need to be a game with so much inventory management. This didn't need to be a game with weapon and armor durability that serves as nothing more than a resource sink. This didn't need to be a game with three different dialog specific skills that almost all of the time, can be used interchangeably and all achieve the same goal. This didn't need to be a game with mediocre combat that while better than Fallout 3/New Vegas, I still think wasn't as good as 4's, and lacks the thing that actually made combat fun and goofy in all those games.
For everything The Outer Worlds copies from Fallout, the thing it neglected, despite presenting itself as a somewhat goofy game, is the tone. Where's the jaunty music that plays over the radios of Fallout? Outer Worlds copies the stoic, downbeat original soundtracks of the Fallout games, which I never listened to in those, because so much of what I think about Fallout is the juxtaposition of that goofy, ridiculous tone with the dark post apocalypse.
And where's the interesting perks like Mysterious Stranger, or Bloody Mess? This game has perks (only gotten every other level like in New Vegas, which I didn't like then either), but none of them are the slightest bit interesting. They're all stuff like extra carrying weight, or better prices at vendors. Some of the ones in the third/final tier get almost interesting, with abilities that need to be activated by doing stuff. Like, get a kill and the next hit on an enemy will be a guaranteed critical hit. But things like that are still boring compared to guaranteeing that enemies explode into blood and limbs, or getting a bonus to dialog skills when talking to someone of the gender of your choosing (if I recall in the Bethesda ones it was very hetero/for the 'opposite sex,' but New Vegas had ones for 'same sex' bonuses).
Perhaps even more disappointing than the perks are the Flaws that tie into them. The idea is that over the course of the game, certain things you do, or happen to you will cause the game to offer a Flaw in exchange for a perk point. For example, jump off a lot of things, and your character's legs will be permanently injured, and they'll move slower. They're optional, and bad. Not bad in the sense that the trade offs aren't worth it (though that is exactly the case with a lot of them), bad in that it's another wasted opportunity. Most of them are things like, "you've become afraid of this type of enemy from fighting them so often, so take a bunch of debuffs when around them." The problem being that the combat is so not difficult that every fight ends in victory, so it makes absolutely no sense at all that you'd become afraid of them!
That, and all you get for these debuffs are points to spend on the boring perks. What would have been more interesting was if each Flaw/perk was something specific. Like with the fall damage one, maybe the trade off could have been that you move slower, but no longer take fall damage. That would be interesting, make sense, and could allow for a level of role playing that "I move slower but in exchange I got the perk that improves vendor prices" doesn't. I mean, if I really tried, I could tell myself that the reason I got the better prices was because the vendors took pity on me for limping in. But I'd be really stretching it there, and doing a lot of the work the game should have done in the first place. That's just an example, the only Flaw I took was to receive extra plasma damage, and I don't remember which perk I picked because they're all so generic.
The closest thing to personality in the combat are the science weapons, but in my experience they didn't seem all that useful. A shrink ray should just shrink an enemy, and then I can run over them or something silly like that. If the majority of the combat on the default setting is going to be a cakewalk anyway (even with me putting literally ZERO points into any attack related skills through the entire game, and I hit the level cap), then make the weird weapons comically overpowered. I would have had more fun if I could be doing wacky nonsense the entire game.
But really the thing I wish this game had was more ways to circumvent combat in the first place. High enough speech skills will cause enemies to cower during fights, but they don't run away. They just stand there cowering, waiting for you to shoot them while they're defenseless. You know, despite having those skills maxed out, I didn't see that very often, and frankly I'm glad, because it felt BAD.
What I wish this game had far fewer nameless enemies (or maybe even none at all), and instead had options to talk through any potential combat. Again, I'm sure not within the scope of what Obsidian was going for, but when a game is sold on player choice, etc, I wish I could choose to play the game without killing anyone. Or at least not having to go around killing marauders who exist for no reason other than to make NPCs scared, and provide XP and quest objectives.
There's other stuff that I just don't understand why it's in the game. Why is this a game where the default state is gun drawn, even in towns, or my own ship? Why does it automatically draw after climbing a ladder, or activating an elevator? I don't ask for much, but if I'm in a peaceful area, I at least want to walk around NOT POINTING A GUN AT PEOPLE.
Why is there a character creator when the only time you see them is in the (BAD!) inventory screen? The character doesn't speak either, which I get, but also one thing I think Fallout 4 did right was give a voice to the player. From what I've heard the male voice was kinda junky, but I played with a lady, and I thought her performance was good, and frankly one of the highlights of that game. Giving her a voice added a lot more character to a game that was in need of a lot of things, and I think it would've also helped The Outer Worlds.
The more I think about it, the more I wish this game had been aping Mass Effect instead of Fallout. I mean, it is also doing that, in some ways, but the clear inspiration is Fallout. But also really what I think this is getting at...is that I just want a new Mass Effect game.
Thinking about what I've written here, it sounds pretty negative. But not so negative that I felt the need to go and re-write it, and give this a different tone. On the whole I still think I enjoyed the game, because most of the time I was into it. I was for a long stretch there, really into this game, and I still think it's good. I'd still recommend it to anyone who has been waiting for a good Fallout style game.
I'd just warn them that this isn't the great Fallout style game we've been waiting for.
Thank you, as always, for reading. I do enjoy writing these, and while it's taken time away from my other writing, I'm happy I've had so much to write about these last few weeks. And, well, with a certain game coming out soon, you bet your britches I'll be writing again...