(And Other Good Uses of Time and Money)
Hi, hello. With the year winding up to a close, my life winding up to a mess, and video games continuing to exist, I figured I should write something. But, since my inevitable overdone Game of the Year and “Real” Game of the Year blogs are only a month away, why not instead spend my time dumping on a popular, relevant game that a lot of people like?
The Outer Worlds
In a lot of ways, The Outer Worlds feels like Obsidian’s audition to make big-budget mainstream RPGs again after spending most of this decade trying to make it in the crowdfunded, CRPG throwback space. After all, it’s been five years since South Park: The Stick of Truth was salvaged from the THQ graveyard, and a whopping nine years since Matt Rorie’s Alpha Protocol and Fallout: New Vegas. (also, Dungeon Siege III came out in 2011) Given how timelines and production cycles work, it’s probably a coincidence this was the game which came out after Tyranny and Pillars of Eternity II underperformed and after the studio was acquired by Microsoft, but the word that kept echoing in my head during my 18-ish hour run was “Safe.” The Outer Worlds is a profoundly safe game on pretty much every level of its execution, which is a little disappointing given that it’s also the reunion of Fallout 1 leads Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky. It’s comforting, competent, and just a little... boring? Yeah, it’s boring.
On paper, the idea of a more focused, contained take on a game like New Vegas sounds incredibly appealing to me. I thought Tyranny (rushed third act aside) was a genuinely solid case for the 20-30 hour RPG in a genre full of 60+ hour juggernauts, my attention span is kind of a mess these days, and I found Fallout 4 to be a lukewarm, broken, jank-fest. I should, in theory, be the audience for this game. In execution, my enthusiasm started high, only to continue down a consistent downward slope. Maybe I’ve reached a weird critical point, where I’ve become difficult to please with this sort of genre. Between this and being less enamored with Disco Elysium than some other folks (you can expect my thoughts on that game in approximately a month) it’s been a weird year for me and RPGs that I should ostensibly love. Maybe finally getting around to finishing Divinity Original Sin II set an unapproachable standard, or maybe I just judge these sorts of games more harshly because they don’t come out all that often.
So, where do I actually think The Outer Worlds goes wrong? First and foremost, mechanics. I care slightly too much about RPG mechanics, as a fan of “dice rolls and shit” and as a result I’m going to get granular and slightly grognard-y for a bit. Now, you might roll your eyes and point out that I’m the lunatic who spent multiple years of his life blogging about Computer Role-Playing Games, and still won’t shut up about some of them. That’s entirely fair. The only perspective I can offer is my own. In my eyes, the hallmark of a good RPG progression system is forcing the player to make interesting choices and trade-offs, especially in a classless system with a solo player character like this one. The Outer Worlds is philosophically torn between paying homage to that sentiment (because it’s something expected from the genre, and from Obsidian especially) and offering a mainstream-friendly, streamlined experience that offers no wrong choices. It errs on the side of the latter to its own detriment. I understand the fear of “missing out” on content or the paralysis of choice when presented with too many options (see: me spending multiple hours staring at the character creation screen for Pathfinder Kingmaker because I might as well start over if I’m ever going to finish that game) but I find the more generous alternative toothless and boring most of the time.
One of my biggest problems with the later Bethesda games, especially Fallout 3 and 4, was that it felt like it was incredibly easy for my RPG brain (I’m no munchkin, but I understand how numbers work, sometimes.) to make a character who was a “Jack of all trades, master of most.” You get an absolute shitload of skill points in The Outer Worlds, and while you can’t do everything, you sure can do *almost* everything with just a modicum of optimization. Thanks to skills increasing per-category until they reach 50, it is trivially easy to be able to pass most speech checks, pick most locks, and hack most computers while still being able to kill almost everything that moves as long as you aren’t trying to beeline through the main quest. Sure, you’ll have to specialize a little bit if you want to pick every lock and pass every speech check, but most of the other skills offer diminishing returns. The weapon and companion damage/health skills aren’t super necessary, since combat is both dull and trivial on the default normal difficulty. While bumping it up makes it less trivial, it doesn’t make it any less boring, since you’re still dumping endless bullets into (or ineffectually whacking) enemies who either charge you in melee or stand and shoot. Between companion and armor bonuses, it was not hard for me to have lockpick and all three dialogue skills maxed out by the end of the game, and if I had given up (the game’s rudimentary, perfunctory) stealth I probably could’ve gotten more out of the science skills as well. This is where perks and equipment would step in, to allow for more customization and personalization… but the perks are practical, but boring and the equipment is even more boring. There’s a (rudimentary, perfunctory) crafting system that seemingly exists out of obligation, but you don’t really ever need to touch it.
Now, to be fair, I think The Outer Worlds is generally well-written and often quite clever. If it nailed that aspect all the way through, I wouldn’t have spent nearly as much time complaining about how boring the stats and shooting are. Fallout: New Vegas isn’t exactly a cult classic because of its scintillatingly wooden combat, after all. I like most of the NPC companions alright. Parvati is everyone’s favorite (for good reason) but they’re all likeable goofballs, even if I wouldn’t call any of them particularly deep in the same way I’d point to the better characters of KotOR II or Mask of the Betrayer. Where does it break then? In an answer you probably saw coming, it’s that the writing is very ”safe.” It’s not a particularly strong or daring statement in 2019 to say “Hey guys, maybe capitalism has some problems,” but the actual problem is that… it doesn’t really say anything beyond that, at least until some vague gesturing near the end of the main story. There can only be so much mealy mouthed “Corporations are bad but also maybe complexity(?)” in your quest writing before it starts to feel repetitive and mildly insulting, especially when most of the game’s conflicts (explicitly political or otherwise) can often be resolved in a slightly-too-clean manner. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting individual quests or characters (as mentioned, I think most of the companions are pretty good, and the game does a solid job of having them react to your circumstances and to each other) but it falls into a rhythm I’ll liken to the IFC comedy show Portlandia. I think Portlandia is pretty funny and often quite clever, but there’s a certain formulaic quality to it in which the punchline for every single skit is “Look at how conscientious and weird all of these people are!” In the same way, a lot of writing and worldbuilding in The Outer Worlds can be boiled down to “Hey, look at this comically awful corporate dystopia!”
Monarch represents a pretty good microcosm of the game’s problems in general, since it’s a single (fairly large) landmass with three separate settlements and the largest number of quests. The major faction conflict between Monarch Stellar Industries and the Iconoclasts feels like a variation of Edgewater, except this time the corporation is reform-minded and the outcasts are religious extremists whose leader might not have the interests of his flock at heart. However, any complexity and serious conflict between these two factions can be discounted once you realize (as I did) that you can just eke out a boring, “safe” compromise if you’ve done everything up for both of them up to that point. This is also where I stopped doing every side quest I came across. Part of that had to do with my aforementioned issues with the writing and combat (I turned the difficulty from Hard to Normal at this point, because dumping infinite bullets into infinite Mantiqueens wasn’t my idea of a good time) but also because the rewards are often not great. The gear isn’t interesting, money isn’t a huge problem most of the time, and the only benefits I was getting from leveling up were more ways to increase my carrying capacity (to sell more vendor trash to continue to ensure money was never a problem) and more skill points to ensure I could pass all the inevitable end-game speech checks.
So, where does that lead me? For all my griping about how safe and dull it eventually becomes, I think The Outer Worlds is at the very least a competently made video game that people less exacting than I will probably enjoy. I had only one major crash my entire time with it, I didn’t have to endure it all that long once I started to lose steam, and at the end of the day I only had to pay a single dollar to play it at all thanks to GamePass. That alone makes it a… difficult prospect to condemn (or regret) in its entirety. Clearly, it’s done well for Obsidian, but I can’t help but think it’s one of their worst RPGs. It’s probably better than Dungeon Siege III and the Storm of Zehir campaign for Neverwinter Nights 2, but beyond that I think I might take every single other one they’ve made. If that’s not condemnation, I don’t know what is. I'll see you next month. I hope you're ready.