The Outer Worlds, or: "How I managed to disappoint myself for only a dollar"

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ArbitraryWater

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Edited By ArbitraryWater

(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

I am talking about this game
I am talking about this game

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.

I am NOT talking about this game. So yeah, there aren't many screenshots of the Outer Worlds on the wiki and I didn't take any of my own.
I am NOT talking about this game. So yeah, there aren't many screenshots of the Outer Worlds on the wiki and I didn't take any of my own.

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.

I have been trying this entire blog to avoid making any direct comparisons with Disco Elysium (in part because I have some problems with it) but at least it gets *weird* with its writing and political commentary
I have been trying this entire blog to avoid making any direct comparisons with Disco Elysium (in part because I have some problems with it) but at least it gets *weird* with its writing and political commentary

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!”

The Outer Worlds (2019)
The Outer Worlds (2019)

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.

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Skald

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I got the same vibe. The game promised too much at the beginning, and by the end, I could see a little bit too much of the man behind the curtain.

The game has an odd voice. The craziest part of my ending was that siding with the scientist in Edgewater lead to an exclusionary commune that turned most people from the town away, killing them. New Vegas did a good job making it's ideologies reflect the real world in some way. This one left me wondering what the analogy was supposed to be. By comparison, I sided with the anarchist group on Monarch after removing their leader and got a relatively good ending. As a metaphor for actual politics that one makes a lot more sense, even though it fell on the predictable side of things.

I suppose the other big problem is player agency. But rather than the usual problem of too little, you're given way too much. It's hard to tell a story about runaway corporate degeneracy when you can land on a planet and solve the problem to everyone's satisfaction when you have a speech skill of at least 100.

And you're right about the combat. It was competent, but very uninteresting. Maybe a more interesting game could put it to better use?

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ahoodedfigure

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Ah, that's disappointing... And I don't think I got anything close to that impression from any of the other reviews I'd happened to watch before, but this makes total sense. It sounds like part of it might just be a skill point economy problem? I guess it doesn't address the rest, though.

It's rough making a CRPG and trying to fine tune everything and hoping people will like it I guess, but there should be ways to add maybe optional ways to hike up challenge or force some decision gating? Some other games, including ones by Obs do that. I dunno.

I feel like Elysium might be a way around the max-skill-means-I'm-god thing I seem to see a lot in such systems. Go too far and it is a detriment in other areas sort of thing, or maybe using party members as how you modify dialog choices, which means you can switch people out and sort of customize your diplomatic abilities, rather than it being a linear scale.

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Junkerman

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I agree with you, I just found the game terribly boring despite trying to like it. My initial hour or two I LOVED IT, but you very soon see the parts moving behind the curtain and realize its just not a lot there. By the time I left Edgewater I was done.

With the right combination of companions and gear I was able to get my persuasion and lie above one hundred with no more then 50 investment in points. I had intended in being a "talker" character... but since I didn't need more then a hundred points in those skills I was able to invest in literally everything else except weapon skills (which I very clearly did not need, even on hard.)

Combine this with companions that feel a little thin, very little weapon variety, armor variety, upgrade variety and the perks are basically just small percentile increases here and there and you really have nothing to look forward to mechanically as the game progresses, which means fighting and exploring is less fun when you don't need to loot a chest because there is nothing in it to reward you.

I enjoyed the dialog, but once I got to monarch I found the gameplay between dialogs was too boring to make me want to continue.

Maybe Ill revisit it later after some time away and beat the game in small chunks.

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ArbitraryWater

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@ahoodedfigure: Not to overly generalize, but I'm very much chalking this game's sterling mainstream reception up to the average game reviewer (or indeed, game player) having far different experience with the genre and expectations for it than I do. Of course, given how many other people I've encountered who had a similar experience to me, I'm also guessing the game's weaknesses are still apparent to people who aren't weird about RPGs like I am.

@skald:Gonna hijack off Waypoint's review for a second, but a lot of this game really does have that "Solo RPG Protagonist" syndrome bad. Your character is the only one capable (and in this game's case, seemingly intelligent) enough to fix all of the world's problems. Some of the way the ending goes refutes this a little, but it's something that gels a little awkwardly with the game's various parallels to actual real-world issues.

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Takoyaki

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#5  Edited By Takoyaki

@arbitrarywater: I'm not big into CRPGs (I think the only proper ones I've actually finished are Fallout 1 and 2) but I came away from Outer Worlds with largely the same take as you. Maybe I had the wrong expectations going into it, but I thought this game was going to lean a lot heavier on dialogue than it actually did. Like, I was kind of disappointed with how short and to the point a lot of it ended up being, and being able to "solve" a lot of it with just one or two clearly marked speech checks. Maybe it's not fair to expect from an open world FPS/RPG, but I was really hoping for something that cut a little closer to a Telltale game, with proper risks to what you choose to say or not say.

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nutter

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@arbitrarywater: I actually dug that I was locked out if the “safe” compromise you mention because of the actions I took up until that point. One party I needed to get on-board was not having it, so I was forced to choose a less “safe” option.

My dialog skills were super high, but no amount of 100s got me through it (maybe I’m forgetting an intimidation check somewhere - that was my lowest dialog skill).

I had the same problem (I don’t see it as that, really) at the end of the game, where I couldn’t talk my way through the end and had one last fight to deal with.

I actually agree that the game is too safe. I do dig that you seldom have “100% good” outcomes (someone usually has to win and someone else has to lose, which is actually a part of capitalism). But I think the RPG systems are FAR too generous, at least on normal. Maybe normal is “story” mode and hard is “proper RPG” mode...I dunno.

I think The Outer Worlds ends up in my top 10, in large part, because Bethesda and Bioware have abjectly failed at making a worthy one of these games all generation. Fallout New Vegas, Skyrim, and Mass Effect 3 (maybe ME2, depending on who you ask) were the last games that really nailed this sort of game. This is a safe one, but a short one. There’s not a ton of filler, nor difficulty, so streamlining is totally an option if you just want to get the story and get out.

It also gets some serious style points for being half a Firefly game. Holy shit does it wear some Firefly on its sleeve...

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Stephen_Von_Cloud

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#7  Edited By Stephen_Von_Cloud

I can't believe the praise this game got from critics. It's a solid RPG but that's it. Which is really fine but with the hype I expected something much more.

I continue to find I cannot trust games critics judgements on writing to any degree.

The world seems interesting and like a cool take on Golden Age sci fi at first but then it turns out its a more generic Firefly. The levels are cramped and your choices are all obvious and easy to track. It has poor choices throughout its RPG systems and progression (grouped stats that remove player build variety and an extremely boring perk system that should hardly even be called perk system at all for two examples).

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SilverSaint

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I am not sure exactly what praise everyone here is referring to, the game seemed to score around an 8/10 which is far from excessive praise. The game has a pretty strong start and thats where I heard most of the positives from as people played a little then gave their impressions on many podcasts (Ex. GB was saying they liked the game, but as they got further in their tune changed to a more negative outlook). The game is also pretty short, which means many critics and players can complete the game, so it gets talked about a bit more (ex. Fallen Order is also short so many people completed that game and it had a lot of talk).

I also found it a solid game, 8/10, though I really like these style of games. Going back and playing significant amounts of FO3, NV, and FO4 afterwards all of them felt significantly better then the Outer Worlds albeit much more janky. I did appreciate the lack of bugs and general polish in the Outer Worlds, but the game felt a Monarch sized planet too short and lacked significant loot (both armor and weapons).

For $60 sure I could easily see the disappointment, but for $1 I feel its hard to be disappointed.

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nutter

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@silversaint: I played via Gamepass, but I’d actually love to see folks make tight, 15-20 hour games in this style and be able to sell them for $40.

These 60 hour RPGs...it’s just such a large chunk of my life to dedicate to a game...

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Stephen_Von_Cloud

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@silversaint said:

I also found it a solid game, 8/10, though I really like these style of games.

8/10 is not solid, it's great. I think you're summing up the problem talking about. And yeah, many people did walk praise back but to me only 3 hours in or so I was saying this is a weak game. These critics were much farther in still singing its praises writing wise

The game is fine enough in each part but in the sum doesn't add up to much and there's basically no aspect that hits any level of greatness at all. It's certainly not 8/10. It's pretty dull, it lacks any risks taken, and it doesn't do anything you want an RPG to do in a compelling way. Over blandness I will take something extraordinary and a bit buggy (for example, say the scale of a Bethesda game that this game entirely gives up on lol).

I know on the Beastcast they did talk about falling off of it but even then it was with a bit of a oh that just happend tone instead of looking at how the game isn't so good actually. But again, I find myself at odds with games critics as judges of writing quality very often. They said Witcher 3 was boring after Bloody Baron on Giant Bomb so yeah lol.

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Casepb

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I enjoyed it more than the past few Bethesda Fallout games, I will give it that. I didn't have a lot of hype going in, and I thought it was going to be a by the numbers, play it safe action RPG game. So I wasn't disappointed by it, nor was I blown away. I found it to be an average and enjoyable experience with fun characters. For some reason I kept expecting Phineas to have a twist to him though. He was kinda boring, but I think that's only because I was expecting more from him.

My hope for the sequel is that someone teaches Obsidian how to do FPS combat properly. Because I played a shoot first ask questions later type of character, and that wasn't nearly as fun as it sounds.

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development

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Damn I think I'm with you. Monarch was the ugliest and most boring place for me. That's where I stopped playing. Mountains of bullet-sponge enemies that all look the same, backdropped by hideous terrain that all looks the same, is not my idea of fun, and hearing from everyone that it's the bulk of the game makes me 100% done with Outer Worlds. Outer Wilds on the other hand...

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Spent a dollar too. Really thought I'd finish it in a month, easily. The game had a strong start but within 5-10 hours I realized this wasn't a game for me (still feels like 8-/10 game but has small and restricted game world, towns full of non-interatice NPCs, very similar hubs and the inventory management feels totally useless). Still I played it for a week and I think I got 1/3 though. Uninstalled after my PC Game Pass ended and I'm pretty confident I'm done with the game.

On the other hand I really love(d) Death Stranding and have spent 120h in the game ;D

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@stephen_von_cloud: The simple reality is 8/10 is a solid game. The gaming score scale suffers from similar problems too many review systems in that the lower end of the scale doesn't exist. So the gaming review scale basically goes from 6-10, where 6 and under is horrendous / technically unplayable, 7 is pretty average, 8 is solid, 9 is great, and 10 is a must play.

Do I enjoy this scale where an average game is a 7? Not at all, but thats just the reality. I also mentioned I enjoyed these style of games and I gave it an 8, most likely if you don't really like the style a 7 would make a lot of sense, which is probably more in line with what you would score it.

It reminds me of a few years back when I bought something on ebay for the first time, I got an email to rate my purchase and ended up giving it a 3/5 stars. I then got a SCATHING email from the vendor asking what he did wrong to deserve such a punishment as I didn't understand that an Average review for ebay is a basically a 5/5, anything else severely hurts vendors thanks to the model. Game reviews are pretty similar, though less extreme.

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ArbitraryWater

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#15  Edited By ArbitraryWater

@silversaint: Review scores are absolutely a mess, which is why I don't tend to give them unless I'm feeling particularly salty and want to give something a 2/5. Still, if you think the 7-9 scale for game reviews is bullshit, then... maybe don't feel the need to adhere to it?

Of course, given that I did play this game for the grand total of a dollar, any sort of "I am giving you buying advice" review goes straight out the window because the barrier to entry is so low. I'd like to pretend that I'm giving a more nuanced critical analysis than that, but the reader is obviously a better judge of what I accomplished than I am.

@stephen_von_cloud: I genuinely think the standard for writing in video games is low enough that something as consistently okay as The Outer Worlds is lauded. It has consistent but not overbearing world-building, has characters who are pleasant and inoffensive (and in the case of Parvati, positive representation) and constantly reminds you of other (better) things that you like. If they went harder in any of those directions, I don't think I would've felt as underwhelmed as I did.

I also remember a lot of mainstream reviews praising the writing of Torment: Tides of Numenera, and I'm going to chalk that up entirely to the fact that it has the most writing. With that much writing, how could it be bad?

@nutter said:
I think The Outer Worlds ends up in my top 10, in large part, because Bethesda and Bioware have abjectly failed at making a worthy one of these games all generation. Fallout New Vegas, Skyrim, and Mass Effect 3 (maybe ME2, depending on who you ask) were the last games that really nailed this sort of game. This is a safe one, but a short one. There’s not a ton of filler, nor difficulty, so streamlining is totally an option if you just want to get the story and get out.

I think this is a fair point, and it's definitely where my thought processes were at when I started with this game. I've managed to get my RPG fix from the Divinity Original Sins of the world, but it's been a really long time since I've enjoyed a big-budget western-style RPG not named "The Witcher 3."

Where The Outer Worlds broke for me is that, to be frank, it's not as good as most of those games from last generation, even with its more streamlined approach. Or rather, this is probably where my personal existential crisis in regards to the genre comes in. Would I like those games now if I went back to them? I'm seriously considering a replay of Dragon Age Origins in the near future, and I'm genuinely a little afraid I might not like it nearly as much as I did a decade ago. But I'll save my "Maybe Bioware was never good, we just didn't know any better" hypothesis for another time.

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MightyDuck

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Dang, after reading some of these posts, I'm kind of glad that I held off on Outer Worlds for the time being. I don't have an Xbox/PC so I'd be paying more for the game.

I loved Oblivion, Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Fallout 4. However, I bounced off of New Vegas HARD! I still can't put my finger on why, but I just couldn't get into a good groove with that game.

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AtheistPreacher

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#17  Edited By AtheistPreacher

Good to hear this perspective on Outer Worlds. It's reinforcing that this game probably isn't for me at all.

I loved ES3 back in the day on my PC, and bought a 360 in order to play ES4. Also loved and played the hell out of Fallout 3. But after putting hundreds of hours into all those games, I just... got bored of that particular experience. ES5 and Fallout 4 rolled around and I had no more craps to give. They had made little changes, but it was basically just the same formula warmed over yet again. I realize I'm very much in the minority in finding Skyrim extremely tiresome, but... yeah. What can I say, it was too much like Oblivion, and I had played my fill of that.

So when everyone seemed so relentlessly positive about Outer Worlds, I wondered if a Bethesda-like RPG not made by Bethesda would maybe rekindle some of my interest in the genre, especially since it's been a while since I tried one (like, at least half a decade)? It would had to have been a bargain bin price for me to take a shot, but I'd still been keeping an eye out for sales etc. After reading this, I probably... shouldn't.

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terminallychill

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I liked your take and how you compared it to a bunch of other CRPGs. I did the same thing as you ($1 gamepass) and played a bit the other night. It's a pretty game but I can see how your complaints would be valid. My speech skills just from character creation and one level up are like 4 times higher the checks in the dialogue. I have passed every one so far and the combat seems real stiff too. I'll play around in it some more though because the environments alone are striking and the writing has made me chuckle.

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nutter

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@arbitrarywater: Agreed, Outer Worlds isn’t on par with something like a Dragon Age: Origins, but Dragon Age 2 might be a good analog for it.

I actually really dug the smaller story of a family in a town in Dragon Age 2. The game could have eliminated some of the shitty-feeling caves and just been tight.

I think Outer Worlds is similarly a smaller scope game that could have benefitted from more pruning.

People aren’t going to look back at this game as an event or a classic. I probably won’t be able to tell you much about it a year ago outside of “preacher and mechanic from Firefly, also Ellie.” But I enjoyed it.

And it would break my heart to go back into Origins and be disappointed. The story, the characters, the AI-tweaking...it was so damned good. Now I’m a little fearful too...maybe I’ll give it another go in the new year...

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Veektarius

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#20  Edited By Veektarius

Agree with most of your main points. I paid nothing for the game (as a standing member of Gamepass) and still ended up feeling a bit ripped off, if not for my money then for my expectations. The dialogue of the writing is clever but the story isn't, and anyone trying to draw parallels between the industrial age capitalism that thrives in these Outer Worlds and the modern day is stretching too much. Worst of all is the combat, and while some might say that good combat is only a "nice-to-have" for an RPG, any game with this much of it needs more variety and more engaging challenges than this one provides.

The only criticism I'd voice that I didn't see here is the thinness of its main plot. Like, I literally think that Fallout 3 had a better main story than Outer Worlds. The missions that Phineas (is that the right name?) sends you on have only the most indirect relationship to your ostensible quest to wake the colonists on the Hope, and your other quests don't feed into that main quest in any discernible way. Despite playing the game pretty intensively for a weekend, I would literally forget what the story of the game was between visits to him.