Sunday 17 November 2019

The Outer Worlds

The future. Vast mega-corporations control Earth and its colony worlds. One such colony is in the Halcyon system, where the colony ship Hope is taking thousands of colonists to help start a new life. One colonist - yourself - is awoken early by a scientist named Phineas Welles, who has dire news. The Hope came out of its skip drive far too early, and has spent decades in sublight flight to Halcyon. The colonists have been frozen so long it's too dangerous to wake them up without an exacting and difficult procedure. He calls on you to help save your fellow colonists and save Halcyon from its current troubles.

The Outer Worlds has some serious pedigree behind it. It's a collaboration between veteran CRPG designers Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, the creative geniuses behind the original Fallout, Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura and Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, among many others (Boyarsky also worked on Diablo III and Cain on Pillars of Eternity). It's also the first 3D RPG game from Obsidian aimed at a commercial audience since Fallout: New Vegas in 2010. Their intervening games have mostly been crowdfunded, 2D retro-RPGs such as the Pillars of Eternity duology and the excellent Tyranny: great games, but not likely to win over vast audiences.

The Outer Worlds resembles - very closely in places - the Bethesda-published Fallout games. You create a character whom you can customise to your heart's content, through skills, perks, weapons and armour choices, and can also choose your character's name, gender and appearance. There's a main storyline you can follow but also a vast number of side-quests you can complete for extra rewards, and you are also joined on your adventure by several companion characters, who also have their own loyalty missions for you to complete. Everything unfolds in 3D with an emphasis on first-person combat, although you can also use stealth, engineering skills or negotiations to overcome obstacles. Expect to do an enormous amount of exploring, shooting and talking.

A key difference is that The Outer Worlds not exactly an open-world game. The game's universe is split between several planets and each planet has several large wilderness/outdoor areas, some of them very generously sized but not on a par with the open worlds of say New Vegas, the province of Skyrim or the Boston Commonwealth. There are usually one or two large towns in these areas, surrounded by more hostile areas plagued by bandits and dangerous wildlife. A plethora of different storylines and missions take you through these areas.

As an Obsidian RPG, The Outer Worlds hits the right notes of being a morally murky, twisty game where the "right decision" is not always immediately obvious, and where each problem has multiple solutions. A stressed boss has fired one of her pit gangs for asking for a pay raise: you can use persuasion and logic to get her to give in to their demands, or you can hack her terminal to find out she's been skimming off the back end and blackmail her into agreeing to their demands. Or you can break into the pit gang boss's house and find his stash of stolen goods, and then blackmail him into giving up without a fight. Or just say sod it and shoot both of them. The Outer Worlds gives you a tremendous amount of freedom in how you play it, leading to several wildly different endings.

Mechanically, the game is very solid. The Unreal 4 engine is a vast improvement over Bethesda's Creation Engine and makes the game look great (helped by a slightly retro art style) and feel much more modern. You can customise weapons through mods and different ammo types, and also modify armour to give you strong bonuses (further improved by your skills and perks). Your choice of companions - you can bring two with you at any time - also gives you bonuses to different skills and perks. Shooting is chunky and solid. There is a weapon and armour degradation mechanic which I found a little bit tedious, especially because the risk of your weapon actually breaking is pretty much non-existent due to the vast amount of repair parts available. Ammo and cash are also extremely readily available, and apart from the very start of the game hoarding ammo and supplies is not really necessary.

The writing is pretty good, as you'd expect from this team, and the central story about the saving of Halcyon is reasonably engaging, especially the clever way it ties together many of the quests and companion missions as you go along. Open-world CRPGs can feel a bit diffuse at times, their main storylines lacking urgency because they have to be able to explain you wandering off to do completely unrelated activities for 200 hours instead. The Outer Worlds' tighter focus is to its benefit in that area. This is still not a short game - I finished it off in a bit under 30 hours - but it's more in the vein of Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect than say The Witcher 3 (which takes more like 80-90 hours to complete).

The companion characters are also brilliant fun, witty and engaging (well, maybe not so much Felix), providing valuable support in combat and engaging in banter with one another, sometimes in ways that opens up new storylines and quests. Earning the respect of each team member is a lot of fun and gives the game greater depth.

On the negative side of things, The Outer Worlds is perhaps a little too easy. On the second-highest difficulty level, the game is still very forgiving and does not pose too much of a challenge. The game is also not that great at supporting a jack-of-all trades kind of player. It really encourages you to play as a soldier (with a strong focus in weapons), engineer (with a focusing in hacking and lockpicking) or stealth operative. If you try to spread your points out over a variety of skills, you may find yourself unable to deal with several late-game challenges. Fortunately you can re-spec at any time using a console on your ship, the Unreliable, but this did feel a little bit like cheating. Some areas of the game also feel like they had more time spent on them than others: Monarch and the areas on Terra 2 all feel huge and packed with quests, whilst it took less than half an hour to do everything I could find to do on Scylla.

The Outer Worlds (****) is an excellent CRPG with a strong focus on writing, character and player choice. It can't quite compete with the likes of say Fallout 4 for budget (The Outer Worlds' budget seems to have been around one-sixth that of a Bethesda title), but it certainly outstrips it hugely in terms of dialogue, a genuinely reactive storyline and moral murkiness. The game is available now on PC, X-Box One (UK, USA) and PlayStation 4 (UK, USA).

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