I was wrong. My decision left innocent people dead, and had foreclosed on a different, brighter future that I didn’t know existed until my second playthrough. It forced me to reconsider my perceptions. In The Outer Worlds, few choices are unambiguously good or bad.
Player choice is one of the best parts of Obsidian’s new RPG, The Outer Worlds. The game’s connections to Fallout: New Vegas are undeniable and can hold it back in some instances, but it still carves a pulpy, sci-fi identity of its own. With deep, witty capitalist satire and a timely look at what happens when mega corporations assume the role of governing bodies, this RPG reflects real-world issues in sharp and zany ways. Still, from its game mechanics to its retro-futurist aesthetic, sometimes this universe feels all too familiar.
You play as a colonist awoken from a decades-long cryo-sleep by a mad scientist. He needs your help to revive thousands of others who were on the vessel with you on their way to colonize a corner of space called Halcyon. Once awoken, you travel from one planet to the next, recruiting a band of misfits to aid you. Along the way, you can attempt to reform the colony’s corrupt board of leaders — or you can just save your own skin and journey solo. It’s up to you, and this flexibility in choice can introduce fascinating narrative twists and turns.
In your crew, which includes the likes of a vicar searching for spiritual answers and a hunter who uses booze to forget her past, each member has a meaty backstory and a well-established personality. Crucially, they don’t always agree with your outlook and decisions, which makes conversing with them and asking for their input interesting, especially at forks in the road. Similar to BioWare’s Mass Effect, you can choose two party members to accompany you when you leave your ship. I often chose party members strategically, based not just on who I thought would work best in battle, but whose personality or views would fit the next quest.
I was regularly in awe over how one choice could diverge into several other choices. Even with binary decisions (such as a quest where you choose one of two towns to save), moral ambiguity keeps them from feeling black-and-white. I agonized over decisions and regretted missed opportunities later on, making for an engrossing experience where right and wrong are not crystal clear. Sometimes it involved risk-taking: Should I put faith in one faction leader over another, or should I try to negotiate a peace between them?
Freedom and agency have been staples in Obsidian’s repertoire of games, but The Outer Worlds embraces this concept more openly by letting you focus on whatever your play style is. If you’re a weapon tinkerer, you can modify guns and melee items in detail. If you’re a stealth player, you can use holographic disguises, tunnels, and hiding spots to work your way through high security. These aren’t innovations, but the game makes it possible to focus on what you enjoy most and largely ignore the rest without penalty. For me, that meant avoiding combat and finding creative ways to convince NPCs that my words spoke louder than my actions.
That approach worked surprisingly well. I often made my way through heavily guarded areas without hurting a soul, and disguises gave me multiple opportunities to talk my way out of tense situations. On other occasions, I could convince characters to work together — or create conflict between them — to suit my needs, all through the power of words. One side quest, for example, began with a mother trying to find her lost son. Upon finding him, I could have convinced him to return to her, helped him fake his own death, told her the truth, and more.
Similar to the Fallout franchise, your success rate in diplomacy, combat, or just talking your way out of situations depends on your character’s underlying skill stats, which can be improved by completing quests, defeating enemies, or using special actions like hacking or bonus dialogue options. I took nonaggressive approaches most of the time, which led to some far-fetched interactions, such as entering a secure building by convincing a guard that I was an eyebrow stylist for the chairman. As ridiculous as it was, it fit well into The Outer Worlds’ absurdist humor.
Satire of capitalism can be found at every turn. Citizens, guards and robots regularly burst into jingles or spew slogans at you. One store vendor I encountered was forced to wear a moon-shaped mask while working; he was so terrified of losing his job that he talked around and evaded my concerns in absurd but hilarious ways when I questioned his well-being. These moments ground The Outer Worlds’ surreal comedy by asking how free a society is when shackled by corporate obligations. The answer to that question isn’t handed to you in The Outer Worlds, but is instead shaped upon how you interact with the world and is left to your interpretation.
The distrust many of Halcyon’s people have toward faceless corporations mirrors how some of us view Facebook, Google, Amazon and the many similar far-reaching megacorporations of our world. [Editor’s note: Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is the owner of The Washington Post.] These companies have, intentionally or otherwise, disrupted democracy and/or privacy. The Outer Worlds takes this idea to the extreme, offering pointed commentary and a frightening view of what happens when corporations put profits before people.
Each location you visit has a unique aesthetic and towns with their own ideologies. The moon Monarch, for example, has trees that look like giant mushrooms, and a region with a sci-fi Western style that could have been plucked directly from the television drama “Firefly.” Exploring these locales is a blast, especially when it comes to understanding the different cultures and subsections of Halcyon’s corrupt corporate lifestyle.
While there is a plethora of options for nonviolent routes, this doesn’t mean combat falls to the wayside. The Outer Worlds offers a wide array of weapons and fearsome monster encounters. I enjoyed customizing weapons and tinkering them to perfection. Some of these are more standard fare, like increasing a gun’s magazine capacity or changing the damage type. Others are weirder. The strangest of all are the Science Weapons. While they aren’t the most powerful, they’re wildly entertaining to use, such as a shrink ray, a baton that rearranges your foe’s bone structure, and so on.
Combat is fun, but it feels pretty standard. For example, you can slow down time with Tactical Time Dilation, a system that bears a strong resemblance to Fallout’s V.A.T.S. targeting system. The bigger difference is that while V.A.T.S. did the targeting for you, this time you have the freedom to land the perfect headshot or slice off a foe’s limb with more accurate aim. Your companions are pretty helpful, too, especially with special attacks. These offer a breather when fights get tough, letting you watch an entertaining cinematic animation as they beat down the enemy. It all works well, but much of it stays inside a recognizable bubble.
The Outer Worlds weaves a fascinating tale with numerous narrative paths, but it’s pretty much exactly what I expected from Obsidian, which tends to follow a familiar blueprint for both mechanics and story. The game doesn’t take risks, instead opting for the cookie-cutter RPG format that the studio knows best. But that’s not a knock. The Outer Worlds may not push a genre to new heights, but it does everything else extraordinary well — even if it’s not as revolutionary as reforming a colony corrupted by capitalism.