Sometimes a game does nothing wrong and you still don’t like it. Show me a Gears game and my eyes involuntarily roll into the back of my head. I know it’s a great franchise enjoyed by millions of people, and I’m happy for them, but also want nothing to do with it. Of course I’m fine with that, it’s not my kinda game and there’s plenty of fish in the sea. It’s more disappointing when a game on paper is right up your ally, but in practice does nothing for you. This is the case with The Outer Worlds, Obsidian’s love letter to choice based, open world RPGs. Fallout 3 and more specifically Fallout: New Vegas were era defining games to me as an impressionable teenager, so the idea of Obsidian making a throwback with the good part of Mass Effect added in (the companions) sounds like a dream.
After playing close to half of it I can say with certainty it completely succeeds at what it sets out to do, and yet I feel nothing towards it. It’s a world full of off-beat characters and decent RPG mechanics, but it does nothing to hook me in and keep me wanting to see more. I hate feeling this way, because in the light of Bethesda shitting the bed with Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 to varying extents, I should be celebrating someone making a good ones of those, but have some thoughts about why The Outer Worlds doesn’t hit me the way I expected it to.
The core issue is the world just isn’t working for me. There’s two factors to this; the actual playspaces you’re given to explore, and the larger tone of the universe.
The areas you’re given to explore are just too small. Rather than a recreation of some American state, Outerworlds opts for a Mass Effect style solution of different ‘planets’ which are small, siloed off maps you explore individually. The issue is there’s no mystery to the world. Each map has a collection of landmarks and points of interest to explore, but it’s crammed together and you’re never more than a minute of sprinting from one of these landmarks. It’s not exciting to explore these places because the maps are small enough that it’s expected you’ll see most of what each one has to offer.
There was something exciting about getting off the beaten path in Fallout games. Some of my fondest memories with the games were simply picking a corner of the map and heading straight for it, seeing how far I can push past the edges of the minimap to find any secrets that there may be. Most of the time I’d find an easter egg or bit of lore that wasn’t important, sure, but it was cool finding something so out of the way that most people wouldn’t ever see it.
That just isn’t the case with The Outer Worlds. Because the areas are small, just by following the main story and doing a few side quests you’ll probably run into most, if not all points of interest in any area, leaving little reason to explore on your own volition. I understand a lot of people will enjoy this process being streamlined, as Fallout certainly could feel laborious in the sheer amount of distance you had to cover at times, but when everything is crammed together you lose that sense of adventure and mystery.
The tone of the world also undermines some of my enjoyment of the game. From what I’ve experienced it’s incredibly one dimensional; you have characters that have bought into the hyper-capitalist dystopia, and those who haven’t. This split completely defines every character you meet beside your companions and it’s hard to care about how your choices affect people in the world when they feel like nothing more than caricatures. It’s cute the first time you meet someone who quotes company slogans as they talk to you, but by the tenth time it’s tiresome and I found myself skipping through dialogue more often just to avoid it.
The upbeat retro 50’s aesthetic works in Fallout because it’s a disguise for the horror that really took place in the world (both before the bombs and after) and digging deeper into questlines and general exploration often revealed that in a satisfying way. I can’t say the same for The Outer Worlds because so far I’ve seen no evidence of it being more than the comically evil world it presents itself as. This all leads me to feel completely disengaged with the world and undermines my desire to experience more of it.
I know a lot of this seems critical, but I do think The Outer Worlds is a good (but not great) game. I’m surprised at my own reaction to it, because like I said at the start, it doesn’t do anything badly, it just doesn’t work for me. I’m going to go back to it soon and hopefully some of the things I don’t like start to warm on me, because on paper a compact 20ish hour Fallout style experience should be exactly what I’m looking for, and I hope some of my initial criticism of the world proves to be wrong.