The Outer Worlds (2019)

We deserve better than The Outer Worlds. I know that sounds harsh, but as a fan of Western RPGs like Fallout and Mass Effect, I think The Outer Worlds is frankly dull. It received plenty of fanfare and hype upon release, but I genuinely believe that is due to the Fallout series fall from grace and people being hopeful for a new series to challenge Bethesda. Truthfully, I don’t think The Outer Worlds is a bad game, just that it is exceedingly mediocre and fails to take any interesting risks.

The Outer Worlds is a Western RPG that takes place in a far-off solar system that has been colonized by humanity. The colony has become a corporate dystopia as companies control every facet of human life. The player is a colonist who is awoken from being cryogenically frozen, tasked with assisting in reawakening the rest of the frozen colonists. You will travel across the system, encountering many communities and people along the way. Each individual area is somewhat small, at least compared to most other open world RPGs. I think this is fine considering that it lets each community feel more self-contained and focused.

At first glance, The Outer Worlds is a great Western RPG. It seemingly has well-written dialogue, tons of stat checks, an interesting world, an abundance of decisions to make, and consequences for your actions. I genuinely enjoyed this game during my time in the first major area of the game: Edgewater. The town and its citizens are owned by a corporation, who don’t care for human life unless it is productive. I enjoyed making decisions both on the micro and the macro levels during my first few hours with the game. It felt like there were numerous ways to handle situations. Minor things like how to acquire a key from somebody had plenty of methods to proceed: talk them into handing it over, pickpocket it, lockpick the door, find another way around, or kill them outright. At a macro level there were seemingly plenty of important moral decisions that would shape the story of the game.

The reality that I learned as the game progressed was that none of the decisions matter. At all. It was an illusion that was shattered after progressing past Edgewater. Let’s start with the stat aspect of the game. Like any RPG, you create a character and assign them stats. These stats will affect your character’s mastery of certain things like using melee weapons, guns, hacking, sneaking, lying, etc. They also unlock abilities at certain thresholds. The problem arises in how the stats are distributed upon level up. The stats are grouped into categories of two or three, and when you level up you can put points into the overarching categories. Meaning if you want to level up your hacking skills, you also are leveling up sneaking and lockpicking at the same time. Every stat functions this way up until a certain threshold.

This system is problematic because it is incredibly difficult to create a specialized character. You can’t just focus on a couple stats. You want to create a sneaky sniper? Well, your character will also be good with machine guns, pistols, hacking, and lockpicking. Any micro decision loses its weight because your character is going to be well-rounded by default. It doesn’t matter that the game gives you the option to lockpick, hack, or pickpocket your way to opening a door because you are going to be good at all three of those things. It doesn’t ever feel rewarding to use a stat to overcome an obstacle.

The problem is further exacerbated by the lack of important decisions in dialogue. In a more interesting RPG, every choice that you make during speech sends you down a different branch in the dialogue tree. In The Outer Worlds, the tree’s branches loop back on themselves. Many decisions lead to the same outcome, most of the time being a positive one. I don’t think I ever managed to seriously upset a character during dialogue. Aside from engaging in combat, dialogue is the main gameplay mechanic in most RPGs. But in The Outer Worlds there is no way to mess up during dialogue, you choose any option and get a good outcome. Once I realized this, dialogue became far less engaging as I knew that I didn’t need to determine what the best options were based on the character’s temperament and responses.

A major aspect of any Western RPG is decision making. The player’s choices usually shape the landscape of the world, and there are vastly differing outcomes depending on what factions you decide to support. Unfortunately, in The Outer Worlds, the major decisions either do no matter or there is a blatantly obvious correct answer. Most decisions in the game just don’t matter. There are a handful of factions, I was able to easily be friendly with every single one of them until the very end of the game. In one instance I was hired to collect information on one faction’s competitor. But instead of helping the original quest giver I betrayed them and helped their opposition. Instead of ruining my reputation with them, the original quest giver did not care one bit and actually increased my reputation. It is comically difficult to actually upset any faction unless you outright start killing them.

Moreover, most major decisions have a “correct” answer. Most of the time its obvious. This is because the corporate dystopia setting is overplayed. The system and its inhabitants are suffering under the rule of a collection of corporations called the Board. The problem is that the Board not only disregards human freedom, but also is laughably stupid. They are an antagonist with absolutely no redeeming qualities.

I think there could’ve been more interesting decisions to make if the Board was portrayed as being ruthlessly pragmatic. The solar system is a hostile and difficult place to live, and if the Board were actually successful at running the colony at the expense of human freedom then there could actually be some interesting moral questions. Do you sacrifice lives and stability to bring freedom to the colonists? But instead, the theme that corporations are bad is shoved down the player’s throat, making every single decision have a correct answer. It’s just not all that interesting.

 Outside of dialogue and decision making, the core gameplay of The Outer Worlds is combat and exploration. You traverse between major areas, fighting enemies along the way. Combat itself is… functional. It’s to be expected considering that this is an RPG and not a dedicated FPS like DOOM. You shoot guns (or use melee weapons) at enemies until their health is depleted. You have companions who can use special abilities every once in a while, and enemies have weak spots that can debilitate them if hit. All in all, combat is fine, there is nothing painful about it but it certainly isn’t a highlight of the game.

I think the most frustrating thing about the combat is the lack of variety. I think this falls more into the RPG aspects of the game as there is very little you can do to make encounters more interesting. There is a pitiful collection of weaponry, and many guns are just upgrades to what you were already using. Acquiring “Assault Rifle v2” isn’t that exciting when you are already using “Assault Rifle”. There are only two armor slots and none of the equipment I found gave an interesting advantage outside of passively giving a few skill points.

Despite all of that, combat could have been more fun if the context for the combat was more exciting. Instead, most of the time you fight nameless marauders or the same few monster types. It’s hard to really get engaged in the combat when none of the enemies you fight have any connection to the world or story other than just wanting to kill you. Moreover, resources are plentiful so it’s not like much strategy has to go into combat either. I never came close to running out of bullets or health packs, and I acquired an abundance junk that I sold off and made tons of money to upgrade my equipment.

Lastly, the setting of The Outer Worlds is poorly utilized. This is partially due to the fact that every narrative thread eventually cycles back to the theme that “corporations are bad”. I love exploring the wasteland of the Fallout series. Discovering areas and learning about what had happened there was genuinely appealing. But in The Outer Worlds, most backstory and lore boils down to “corporations are bad”. It’s rarely more interesting than that. Realistically, outside of the few major hubs most of the map is barren. The setting pales in comparison to the Fallout series.

Despite my review being mostly negative, I don’t genuinely hate The Outer Worlds. It is a perfectly functional Western RPG. It runs well, looks good, has RPG elements, has dialogue decisions, and it has not-terrible combat. The reason I am coming off as mostly negative is that the general consensus on this game on release was overwhelmingly positive. I think this is due to two primary reasons.

First and foremost, people are looking for a new Western RPG series. Since Bethesda and BioWare have absolutely annihilated any trust that they once had with their recent releases, people are looking for a new developer to compete with those behemoths. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, The Outer Worlds seems fantastic during the first few hours with the game. But as you continue playing you realize its flaws. Reviewers nowadays are focused on getting out their thoughts before anyone else so they can generate more clicks and subsequently more ad revenue. This leads to a lot of reviews being little more than a “first impressions” style, which would play well into The Outer Worlds strengths.

Overall, The Outer Worlds is adequate. There is very little that is special about the game. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, but it doesn’t do anything particularly poorly either. It feels like the designers were incredibly risk averse when creating this game. It ultimately culminates in a bland and forgettable RPG. It is for these reasons that I am giving The Outer Worlds a 5.5/10. I hope The Outer Worlds serves as a solid base for a more ambitious sequel, because by itself it is the definition of mediocrity.

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