‘Outer Worlds’ is 2019’s best-written game (so far)

It's already achieved a certain level of fervent hype among 'Fallout: New Vegas' devotees.

outer worlds key art
By Mo Mozuch
on
Filed Under Fallout, PS4 & Reviews

The Outer Worlds, the latest release from Obsidian and Private Division, is a superbly written, engaging RPG adventure. But don’t expect it to set the new high-water mark for the genre. Not yet. At its best, The Outer Worlds is a deep, living universe with long and winding narratives that make it a side-questing paradise. At worst, it slogs through the same problems that weigh down other titles (and even some that have since been solved.) Ultimately it is saved by some of the best writing and character development I’ve seen in an RPG in quite some time, though it falls back on worn-out mechanics and technical shortcuts that become increasingly obvious the longer you play. Which makes it ripe for a bigger, better sequel.

The Outer Worlds has already achieved a certain level of fervent hype among some RPG devotees. Those who consider Fallout: New Vegas to be THE Fallout game are breathlessly anticipating this latest release from Obsidian. Odds are you already know whether or not you’re going to enjoy The Outer Worlds.

The story is standard sci-fi fodder. A cabal of nefarious corporations, known as The Board, established a deep space colony ruled by the profit motive and unrelenting loyalty towards corporate identity. It’s capitalism turned up to 11. Your character was a colonist aboard The Hope, a wayward ship full of Earth’s best and brightest. The Board decided it made more sense for the bottom line to abandon your ship and its passengers (including you) in permanent cryogenic hibernation. Phineas Welles, a rogue scientist, pulled you from your slumber to enlist you in a plot to exact revenge against The Board. You’re turned loose on the Halcyon system, free to do as you please.

fallbrook outer worlds
A view of the main drag in Fallbrook in The Outer Worlds.

Yes, it’s a standard tabula rasa backstory that allows for the dynamic character building a good RPG requires, but it works because of how well The Outer Worlds puts everything around you in context. Choices really do matter, and the way you spend your skill points dramatically impacts the gameplay. Go heavy on combat and light on tech skills, and you may find yourself having to kill a warehouse full of raging Mantiqueens because you lack the engineering skill to turn off their oxygen. This is one example out of dozens I experienced in the many side quests that brim with personality and weighty consequences.

The stakes on the skill tree are heightened by a dialogue system long absent from the genre, one that actually uses dialogue skill checks (persuasion, lie, intimidate) to great effect. It even includes checks for non-dialogue skills like hacking and science. If you like talking your way out of trouble (or into it), stop reading now and go get The Outer Worlds. It’s got exactly what you’re looking for.

outer worlds dialogue choice
A tense conversation in The Outer Worlds.

Again, great writing saves what might have been boring, rigid tropes. The subject matter is compelling without being preachy. Not every corporate stooge you meet is a heartless suit. Not every anti-corporate rebel is pure and true. And you can keep six different companions on your crew that bring their own quests, quips and backstories to explore. (They’re also pretty useful in a fight.) You’re constantly confronted with defining your character and what they believe. Like a good tabletop campaign, The Outer Worlds is its most fun when you go along for the ride and try to play the narrative you’ve been building instead of looking to “win” at all costs. I spent almost as much time talking as I did exploring … and the latter is where The Outer Worlds starts to run into trouble.

For all the depth in the text, there’s little in the world itself. The Halcyon system is comprised of several planets and space stations, but many of them are quite small. It’s not one big map, but lots of little (even tiny) maps. This would be less of an issue without the brutal number of loading screens in the game. I played on PS4, so load times are likely much faster on PC, but once I got into the rhythm of the game it revealed itself to be critically reliant on fast-travel fetch quests.

Here’s a common scenario: Someone needs a thing, so you fast-travel to the interior of your ship (loading screen), then select the planet on your ship’s map (loading screen), then fast-travel to a particular destination (loading screen). In some cases, you’ll arrive just outside the destination so you’ll have to walk into — you guessed it! — another loading screen. Then you’ll have an interaction that takes about 20 seconds and have to do it all in reverse.

You cannot seamlessly walk into settlements or large interior spaces in The Outer Worlds, which feels unnecessarily cumbersome and outdated. And if you have wanderlust, you won’t find much wander to lust after here. There are small clumps of enemies scattered about here and there, but I didn’t encounter a whole lot of found narrative in the wilderness on these planets, which was disappointing considering how rich the story is elsewhere.

Conversely, there’s a ludicrously complex system of consumable health items. You heal using a health injector, which lets you make a cocktail of chemicals including the standard health boost and up to three additional buffs. On normal difficulty, I never encountered a combat situation where I needed to take advantage of this. There are dozens of these products, all with silly names and slogans. This system felt like more of a justification for writing gone wild than a jumping-off point for interesting strategy.

Despite those small shortcomings, The Outer Worlds is as good an RPG as you’re likely to find. It is the best-written game I’ve played in years and the fundamental mechanics, while not particularly innovative or inspiring, are also not so deeply flawed you won’t enjoy the shooty bits. If you lean more towards the adventure side of RPGs, turn the difficulty up a notch or two. But don’t expect to get lost in white-knuckle gunfight strategy. Instead, lose yourself in the companion conversations and NPC interactions that make The Outer Worlds a delight to explore.

The Outer Worlds comes to PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on October 25.