Saying Bethesda are struggling a bit of late (at least quality-wise – financially they’re still lolling about nude in filthy great piles of cash) is an understatement on par with saying questionable perspiration-phobe and unlikely Italian chain restaurant fan Prince Andrew has had ‘a recent dip in popularity’.
Their last few games have been, frankly, dire (Bethesda, that is; A. Windsor might be knocking out homebrew indie bangers on Steam on a weekly basis for all I know), and – as shown by the awful ploy to add an outrageously chonky monthly subscription to the already struggling Fallout 76 – even when they do have a userbase, they’re happy to cram them into the contempt-o-tron and set it to ‘rinse the suckers’.
Essentially, Bethesda are real big poltroons. And The Outer Worlds, made by former collaborators Obsidian (who helmed the splendid Fallout: New Vegas) just underlines quite how far they’ve slid face-first into the slops bin. Mainly by it being ruddy fab, and reminding you what it is you liked about the pre-crap act Bethesda of old in the first place.
Set in a future where everything is largely terrible, massively expensive and run by vast, unfeeling companies (“it’s just like today!” etc.), The Outer Worlds sees you as a space colonist waking from an unexpectedly extended cryosleep and shoved into the role of potential revolutionary.
Or: not. Because, as this is a Fallout-style RPG, you can choose the way your character plays and have them be a schmoozing corporate git or Che Guevara in space. Or indeed somewhere in between. You know: like an intergalactic Liberal Democrat.
Your choices affect how the story plays out as you’d expect, and also whether the folk you meet along the way greet you like a long-lost and much-loved family pet unexpectedly returned, or an unwanted extended visit from their accordion-playing Uncle Drunky (who, along with his rampant alcoholism, also happens to be a lewd, incontinent racist, and terrible at the accordion).
Regardless of which route you choose conscience-wise, what then transpires are 1950’s Flash Gordon retro-style space shenanigans across a handful of planets that sees you doing missions, quests, and shooting loads of alien wildlife and enemies with pew-pew ray guns.
Which, let’s be honest, makes The Outer Worlds sound as boilerplate and generic a spacey open-world sci-fi experience as a game can be, and I admit I did have a few worries pre-launch that it’d just be going through the motions. Or, worse still, despite appearances just be a sterile ‘thing’ like the aimless wander/collect gameplay loop of No Man’s Sky at launch.
But thankfully, while there’s not much new ground being broken here it’s no game design by autopilot either, and this is all down to the execution.
The game looks absolutely lovely and runs really well – and by that I mean not only that the shooting and movement are unusually fluid for a more RPG-like experience (it’s still no CoD, but a cut above normal for sure), but also the usual Bethesda/Obsidian bugs that litter the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games are almost entirely absent here.
In fact, because it’s been par for the course for so long it’s almost disappointing to not have your character’s leg suddenly telescope off Inspector Gadget-like into the distance, or to inexplicably find yourself glitched half into a crate to form some sort of monstrous tupperware centaur. But joking aside it does show the extra polish that’s gone on: Obsidian clearly wanted to nail this, and nail it they have.
The biggest strength though is the writing; the dialogue, plotlines and characters are all well written, witty, engaging and memorable. This is essential to the experience, as games like these are always about busywork – take A to B and do C, clear out a weevil infestation from the town farm and so on. What makes the difference is whether it feels like a chore to just get a meaningless exp. point, or whether you’re happy to do menial tasks as you want to help a character and advance their story because you actually care about it/them.
It also helps that the choices you make are rarely ‘Hitler vs. Gandhi’ scenarios where one is blatantly villainous and the other achingly virtuous: you’ll really have to think about who you want to assist or hinder, why, and what any repercussions might be.
This real-world aping moral uncertainty helps ground things despite the alien setting, as does the fact you can ‘be yourself’, and approach most in-game challenges and your character development in whatever way tickles your sweetbreads.
As you might expect, it’s simple enough to spec for a tough all-rounder who can go in all guns blazing, but like a 1980s action hero’s script your innate stupidity will limit your dialogue options as a consequence. Similarly, you can set yourself up as a slick-tongued stealthist quite quickly, but may struggle with getting shot up the face when caught in gunfights.
At least, this is the case early on – later, you’ll have exp. points to spare and can easily fill out weaker stats, and it’s this factor that’s probably my main gripe (if you can even call “you get too many abilities” a gripe).
As you stumble towards the endgame (in fact, probably midgame) you’ll find that you’ve levelled up enough to not really be limited much by your earlier choices, and while it’s nice to have a game that doesn’t think a Dark Souls-type grind is ‘the shizz’, I’d recommend at least trying to play it one notch up on difficulty than you normally would. Coasting through is nice in that you know you’ll finish it, but by being a bit too soft and yielding you lose some of the appeal of working to get your character and loadout the way you want them.
Or to put it another way, if you can kill everything with a spoon, unlock doors with a finger, and negotiate your way out of complex scenarios all while only wearing your pants, there’s not really much incentive to root around for guns and armour and invest in specific skills. Or, indeed, even new pants.
I think the choice in The Outer Worlds to go in for plot, character and companion depth, and allow for so much variation based on your interactions with the other occupants of the world(s), is absolutely the right one. Rather than some wobbling behemoth like Witcher 3, the value here doesn’t come from sheer size but from replayability – a new run with a differently specced-out character behaving in a different way will feel genuinely fresh.
The Outer Worlds is the strangest thing – it feels like a game we’ve been waiting on for aaaaages, with multiple pretenders to the throne cropping up along the way. And yet it also feels incredibly familiar at the same time, like it has been around as a series for yonks. It just goes to show that doing it right is far more important than doing it online, or bigger, or with more different twiddly bits for the sake of having different twiddly bits.
(Why yes, I do hate tedious, fiddly base building and maintenance – how did you guess?)
Mainly though, it’s great that someone else has taken up the baton that Bethesda has repeatedly dropped down the toilet while drunk, then liberally beaten them about the head with it while shouting “THIS IS HOW YOU DO SINGLE-PLAYER RPGs! DO YOU SEE?”. After all, why still settle for an irradiated wasteland where you can’t even rely on your legs to remain the same length, when now you can reach for the stars instead?
SCORE: Vault 101 out of Vault 111