2019 has been a good year for AA developers – studios that fall somewhere between small indie teams and big corporate juggernauts in terms of budget and labor power. In September, Spiders released Greedfall, a better BioWare game than BioWare itself has released lately. Now, Obsidian has done something similar with The Outer Worlds – a better Fallout game than Bethesda’s own Fallout 76 (and, for that matter, some might say, better than Fallout 4). Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed Obsidian’s output over the years. The studio is responsible for some of my favorite games of all time: Knights of the Old Republic II, Alpha Protocol, the Pillars of Eternity series, Neverwinter Nights 2, Tyranny. Most relevantly to The Outer Worlds, they made Fallout: New Vegas for Bethesda, a game that remains many fans’ favorite entry in the Fallout franchise.
Critics, however, were less kind to New Vegas. While there was a strong favorable consensus around the narrative (particularly the level of freedom and player choice), the gameplay was more hit or miss, and the experience was riddled with bugs on release. These technical issues stemmed mainly from the fact that New Vegas was made using Bethesda’s rickety Gamebryo engine, on a tight Bethesda-imposed deadline (the game was made in 18 months; for perspective, Fallout 3 took four years to develop). It seems a tad unfair, then, that Bethesda tied Obsidian’s bonus to the game’s Metacritic score – a benchmark they fell short of by a single point. In light of this history, it’s easy to view The Outer Worlds as Obsidian thumbing their nose at Bethesda. And as I said above, the game does fill the Fallout-shaped void present in gaming since 76 bombed. The Outer Worlds is its own beast, though, not just a reskinned Fallout game, and deserves to be judged on its own merits.
To begin with, let’s get the similarities out of the way. Like the modern Fallout games, The Outer Worlds is a first-person shooter/role-playing game hybrid with an emphasis on exploration and dialogue. As you reconnoiter the world and chat with its inhabitants you’ll quickly find your journal filling up with side quests. You can talk your way out of conflict, sneak around to avoid it, or confront it head-on with ranged or melee weapons. There are locks to pick and computers to hack in order to gain experience, loot, side quests, and lore. When you level up, you’ll be given skill points and perks to distribute as you see fit. You’ll be presented with morally ambiguous decisions to make that will affect the world and how the people in it treat you.
Some people point to the Tactical Time Dilation (TTD) as a similarity, even going so far as to call it knock-off VATS. In my experience, though, the similarities between the two are strictly superficial. VATS in Fallout stops time (halting you and your companions and opponents in your tracks) and allows you to flick between targets, and fire as many shots as you have action points for. TTD, on the other hand, doesn’t stop time, but simply slows it down significantly, allowing you to aim and move freely until the TTD meter depletes. TTD also allows you to analyze your enemies and target different locations to proc various status effects, like knockdown, stagger, blind, and so on. As someone who relies on VATS to get myself through Fallout, I actually prefer TTD – it feels much more fluid.
The most obvious difference is to be found in the setting. Both games take place in the distant future, but Fallout explores a post-nuclear apocalypse America, while The Outer Worlds takes us to a whole new solar system, the Halcyon Colony. Halcyon is under the complete control of the Board, a holding company comprised of executives from the colony’s various founding companies. While both franchises use their settings to critique the structural shortcomings and moral failures of late stage capitalism, the extraterrestrial setting of The Outer Worlds allows for a much greater variety in flora, fauna, terrain, technology, and – perhaps most importantly to those of you who are aesthetically inclined like I am – color palette (I adore the Fallout games but sometimes it’s nice to see colors other than dull browns and greys).
The fact that you traverse an entire solar system means that The Outer Worlds has you visiting, unlike Fallout’s expansive open world (on a single, interconnected map), a variety of separate, enclosed, discrete locations. It’s also a much shorter game than the typical Fallout experience, though of course the actual length varies greatly depending on how much side content you do, how thoroughly you explore, and so on. These changes might be negative for some people, but I actually appreciated them. Obsidian, lacking the overhead of Bethesda, knew they couldn’t match the scope of a Fallout game, so chose instead to opt for quality over quantity. The smaller maps sacrifice breadth for depth, and are filled to the brim with content and details, making them feel incredibly vibrant. The shorter storyline meant the writing was focused and well-paced, holding my interest throughout. Most importantly, it left me wanting more – I can’t wait to make a new character with different skills, experiment with new playstyles, and see how the game responds to different choices.