In our modern world of rampant poverty and tax-dodging billionaires, it’s easy to feel like money holds a higher value than human lives. Because it definitely does. But can it always get worse? Oh, you betcha. THE OUTER WORLDS shows just how bad things could be, dropping players into a colony where a shadowy board of directors reigns supreme, and the concept of a work/life balance is nothing more than a myth. Combining a fascinating and original IP with all of the charm and character they perfected when developing Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian Entertainment just about manage to knock it out of the galaxy with this thrilling and hilarious outer-space adventure.
After a pretty standard RPG character creator – punctuated with some great one-liners about the attributes chosen – players are introduced to intersteller outlaw and mad scientist, Phinias Welles (Piotr Michael), as he wakes them up from a hibernation pod aboard the until-recently missing colonist ship, The Hope. Lacking in the necessary resources to defrost anybody more useful, Welles relies on the player, “the unknown variable”, to enact his plan, and liberate a suffering and oppressed colony from the grips of the sinister Halcyon Holdings Corporate Board. Along the way, the player is introduced to various factions, representing a slew of political, philosophical and spiritual ideals, and must make alliances and choices to help steer the colony into the future, and more importantly, decide what kind of future it will be.
From this simple call to adventure, a wild and rollicking narrative is spawned, weaving its way through the colony and branching off in varied and surprising ways, depending on player choice. The odyssey through Halcyon is one of gleeful discovery, as each new planet, asteroid or space station visited is stuffed to bursting with quirky characters, engaging side missions, and well-developed lore. Though most of these background details can be missed without sacrificing the quality of the story, hacking computers to read emails or hunting down journals can offer new perspectives, encouraging and rewarding exploration by further expanding the scope and detail of the game world.
Controlling everything from minor interactions to game-changing choices, the dialogue tree is the absolute crown jewel of THE OUTER WORLDS.
At the heart of the narrative, casting a shadow over the punchy one-liners and screwball comedy, is a scathing indictment of capitalism gone mad, and it’s here that THE OUTER WORLDS really sets itself apart from other spacefaring titles. From suicide being referred to as damage to company property, to the legal requirement that people choose a company jingle as their favourite song, the themes of hyper-capitalism and oppression are built into the DNA of every mission throughout the game. Though these elements are mostly played for farce – one interaction sees the player trying to convince a man wearing a giant advertising moon-head into admitting that he’s miserable – there is a grim realness to them that cuts deeper than the jokes, delivering some savage social commentary alongside the sillier space operatic moments.
What sort of path the player carves through this consumerist nightmare, and indeed, what sort of person their character turns out to be, is dictated by a deeply robust and endlessly satisfying dialogue system. Controlling everything from the most minor of interactions to the morally challenging, game-changing choices that affect the future of the colony, the dialogue tree is the absolute crown jewel of THE OUTER WORLDS. Easily one of the best examples of choice and consequence being built directly into the fabric of a game, most major story beats, as well as several, smaller character moments, revolve around agonising, impossible decisions that alter the course of the narrative. While the final missions don’t offer quite the same freedoms seen in New Vegas, the epilogue shows exactly how players have impacted the colony, giving a sense of endurance to the choices made throughout the story.
And then there is the way in which skills and attributes chosen in the character creator factor into which branches of dialogue are available, opening up a wide array of paths for getting through missions. A character who invests in speech skills, for example, will be able to use their silver tongue to avoid getting into some fights, while one with lowered intelligence will unlock “dumb” dialogue choices, leading to some hilarious interactions, and even a hidden secret ending. This dedication to variety allows players the freedom to create and role-play as all manner of character types, from a coarse but charming socialist pushing for the advancement of workers’ rights, to a cruel mercenary with a penchant for medical jargon, and all the unique configurations in between.
While THE OUTER WORLDS proves itself more than capable of walking the walk where talking the talk is concerned, it doesn’t manage to impress as much when communication breaks down and lasers begin to fly. Though the combat is by no means terrible, the weightless shooting and fairly uninspired range of weaponry on offer make most encounters feel too alike, with only the variety in enemy types offering any kind of distinction. The only thing that stands out as unique is the Tactical Time Dilation – a fun, if underdeveloped, slo-mo mode – but even that feels too much like a weak rip off of the Fallout series’ VATS mode to make any real impact.
THE OUTER WORLDS feels like the closest thing possible to playing a video game adaptation of Firefly.
Though the combat definitely errs on the too easy side most of the time, it’s still highly advised to not travel alone when exploring Halcyon. Enter THE OUTER WORLDS’ colourful cast of companion characters: an eclectic collection of freaks and oddballs that the player can enlist to their crew from all across the colony. As well as assisting during combat and chiming in on conversations, each companion also offers a personal mission – a frequently touching exploration into their personality that, when completed, brings a greater sense of depth and realism to their character. This method of organically bonding with a cast of unique crew-mates through madcap sci-fi adventures, not to mention the adorable and earnest mechanic, Parvati (Ashly Burch), makes THE OUTER WORLDS feel like the closest thing possible to playing a video game adaptation of Firefly.
As with any good sci-fi story, this ragtag group of misfits come from, and explore, a wide variety of distinctive and beautiful locales. Ranging from flooded green hills to barren, craggy asteroids, to bustling, shiny metropolises, everywhere that the player visits has its own strong sense of identity, giving the overall impression of a stunning and diverse galaxy, begging to be explored. The downside to all of this beauty is that, more often than not, there are excruciatingly long waits when touching down on a new planet, or walking in/out of a building. Along with some animations that look like they are directly pulled from New Vegas, these extensive loading times speak to an outdated engine, stopping THE OUTER WORLDS from truly feeling like a game of the current generation.
All told, it may be a little rough around the edges, but for the most part, THE OUTER WORLDS is a fantastic proof of concept, and one that opens the door to an exciting and imaginative new IP. While it isn’t as long or epic an adventure as Skyrim, Witcher 3, or even Fallout: New Vegas, it also rarely suffers from any of the story bloat or exploration fatigue that can plague games of that size, delivering instead a lean and tightly paced experience. The gun-play and animations may not be as strong as other recent shooters, but this is more than made up for by the incredibly detailed, hilarious dialogue system. Halcyon is a place that is meant to be talked through, rather than shot up, and in this regard, there are few, if any, games that manage to do it better.
Verdict: 4/5 Paddles