For some time now, there’s been a growing sense that Bethesda has lost the thread of what made The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series’ so great. If you’ve been feeling the same way, it’s likely that The Outer Worlds will be game you’ve been hoping they would make.
Bethesda didn’t make it, but it sure feels like they did.
The Outer Worlds is a brand new IP from developer Obsidian Software, a company with a reputation for being one of the greatest RPG cover bands the industry has ever known. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2. Neverwinter Nights 2. Pillars of Eternity. Fallout: New Vegas. Obsidian are well-versed in taking tools, tones and worlds created by others and using them to create something new and unique.
The Outer Worlds gets an awful lot right — it cuts much of the bloat that pervaded Fallout 4, and there’s not a hint Fallout 76‘s disastrous pivot to persistent online play. The reason for this is that much of the team behind The Outer Worlds was responsible for Fallout: New Vegas. Indeed, core members of the team worked on the original Fallout and Fallout 2, long before Bethesda entered the picture.
I’m saying they know what they’re doing.
Your character awakens on a derelict starship, face-to-face with a mad scientist named Phineas Vernon Welles. Welles has pulled you from cyrogenic freezing to discover the voyage you were a part of never made it to its destination. You are now in the far-flung Halcyon system, a region of space controlled by numerous, powerful corporations. Welles needs your help with his own mad projects, and deposits you on a backwater planet near a factory town called Edgewater, and charged with securing a ship you can use to get off-world.
Edgewater is a tidy microcosm of the rest of The Outer Worlds’ broader world. A town under the thumb of the Spacer’s Choice corporation, a company known for its broad portfolio of poorly constructed goods, Edgewater is similarly ramshackle and run-down. Spacer’s Choice manufacture everything from food to weaponry and Edgewater is home to its Saltuna cannery. The cannery’s employees are getting sick, but are pretending they aren’t to avoid the wrath of their corporate overlords. Management is aware of the illnesses but won’t request medicine from corporate for similar reasons. Surrounded by banks of gravestones on the walk into town, it’s clear that Edgewater has been in trouble for a while.
But everywhere you look, everyone you try to help has a reason for you not to do it. Not to rock the boat, fearful of the corporation that sustains the town bringing the hammer down. The worst thing that could happen to them is not being worked to death, but being put out of a job. Nearly everyone in town is in lockstep with the corp, dutifully reciting the company catchphrase in conversation with each other: “You’ve tried the best, now try the rest — Spacer’s Choice!”
The Outer Worlds has a significant chip on its shoulder where late capitalism is concerned. Like the original Fallout titles, The Outer Worlds finds ways to make its greater point that are subtle and overt — that the lines between the corporate fealty of late capitalism and blink-twice-if-you-need-help zeal of brutal communism look eerily similar. As you move through the campaign and the effects of each corporation’s distinctive greed are investigated in detail, a picture emerges of a sinister galactic cabal, unsympathetic to the lives they’ve ruined and corrupt to the core. In the real world, where the income divide grows and job security shrinks by the day, its a timely and righteously angry experience.
The Outer Worlds doesn’t operate on the same sprawling, operatic stage that Bethesda likes to inhabit. It’s much smaller than any of its contemporaries in almost every respect. The biomes are smaller and less intricate, the enemies are less varied. It’s absolutely possible to feel the game straining against its own budget and the limitations of its team at times, but for the most part it feels as though it accomplishes exactly the goals it sets out to achieve. Where it can operate on a more classic RPG level is in its character sheet. Sinking points into certain skills not only makes you more likely to succeed at using them, it also opens up new moves or perks upon reaching a certain level. This is great news for players who love to experiment with different builds on each playthrough.
My first character was my standard RPG go-to, a rogue with high sneak and charisma. In most Bethesda RPG’s these skills always proved to be incredibly useful throughout the entire game. In The Outer Worlds, they are thoroughly overpowered. NPC’s are not terribly aware of their surroundings. Thus, if your CHA is high enough, you can rifle through someone’s drawers in front of them and, when they object, assure them that you did no such thing. On my second run I went as far in the other direction as I could — an aggressive, dirt-stupid melee main named Reef Tornado: Space Bastard. The difference in playstyle between the two characters was night-and-day, and a real mark of how far you can push the character-building systems on offer here. The dialogue options for especially dull-witted characters are hysterically well-written and I can’t wait to blunder my way across the universe with Reef some more.
There’s so much to a game like The Outer Worlds. It’s the kind of experience you’ll be playing for months to come, and running multiple times to see how different scenarios play out according to your choices and stats. It’s a remarkable achievement, one I’m sure Obsidian will get to iterate on in their new home at Xbox. The future of the single player RPG is alive and well.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: A strong, smart RPG from a talented studio; Great character; Great setting
Lowlights: May seem small to anyone expecting A Bethesda RPG
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Private Division
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Review conducted on Xbox One X with a retail code provided by the publisher.