Preview: Obsidian's The Outer Worlds sure feels a lot like New Vegas in space
The Outer Worlds is a first-person sci-fi RPG coming from the developers at Obsidian Entertainment. Obsidian has been a part of Xbox Game Studios since 2018, and their most recent hits have been the throwback fantasy Pillars of Eternity games, but Obisidan is still best known with many gamers for their connection with the Fallout series, with the team's Black Isle Studios pedigree and their polarizing, influential work on the New Vegas entry to the franchise.
Obsidian's new title might seem like a departure for the studio at first glance, since its sci-fi setting and No Man's Sky-style visuals are unlike anything we've seen from the studio before. But after checking out a hands-off gameplay demo at E3 2019, it's clear that The Outer Worlds is built on the bones of Fallout.
The Outer Worlds presents an evolution of first-person Fallout style gameplay, and looks like an FPS game on the surface. And if you want to play it that way, you can - but the RPG mechanics running throughout the game mean there are a lot more options available, if you choose to explore them. As is expected for these sorts of games, quests and obstacles will likely present you with multiple paths to victory depending on whether your character is strong, smart, or particularly charming. Guns and melee weapons look to play a major role in the game, of course, but you don't have to shoot your way through the world.
In the E3 2019 demo mission, the player is tasked with disrupting the operations of a powerful local businessman named Clive. Getting into his slaughterhouse to confront him can be accomplished a few different ways: either charging through the front door with weapons, picking a lock to access a nearby sewer, or by using a holographic disguise that allows you to enter restricted areas. The holographic disguise looked to be a recurring feature of the game. It has a limited charge the runs out as you move, and NPCs will still confront you and may require smooth talking even when you have the disguise active - so it's best used in concert with a character that has decent charm or intimidation skills.
Weapon customization looks to play a big role in the game if you invest points in the relevant science and technology skills. The demo showed a machine gun the player had modified to do shock damage (especially effective against robots) as well as a sword that looked like it was dripping poison. The game also features a "time dilation" ability that is The Outer Worlds' answer to Fallout's V.A.T.S. system - it allows players to dramatically slow down time while they examine their enemies and take aim. Players who don't play a lot of shooters can invest their skill points into ways to expand and extend the time dilation, giving them an easier shooting experience that's less reliant on twitch reflexes.
During our particular demo, we got a look at the game's dynamic "Flaw" system in action, after the player finished a fight with some aggressive robot guards. A menu pop-up let them know that their character might start suffering from "robophobia" after the encounter, which would make it more challenging for them to deal with mechanical enemies in the future. Officially accepting this faw would have earned the player a perk point in addition to the new, situational debuffs - but choosing to take a flaw is always optional. This is a really cool idea, and feels like a satisfying way to connect things like perks and flaws to the actual experiences the player's character has in the game.
Deep role-playing and rich story
The Outer Worlds features a silent protagonist and dialogue trees that will be familiar to any fan of story-driven RPGs. The creative team behind The Outer Worlds includes Tim Cain (one of the main designers of the original Fallout), Leonard Boyarsky (Fallout, Arcanum, and the original Vampire: The Masquerade game, among others), and Kathryn Megan Starks (Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny). All put together that's a serious crew of creative, thoughtful, funny people crafting this particular sci-fi story, and it shows.
The main quest in the E3 demo was something that could have been lifted from Red Dead Redemption and given a sci-fi overhaul. It's a dispute over local power in the town, centering around one man's control of wealth via a monopoly on "cystpigs," livestock engineered to produce "bacon flavored tumors." While exploring the slaughterhouse you have an opportunity to activate the "pink slip protocol" on the facility's mechanical workers, via a hacked terminal. Doing that causes them to take "termination" seriously, leading to gunfire and chaos that the player can take advantage of.
Beyond the usual assurances about player freedom and the ability to be "good, evil, or a psychopath" in your playthroughs, The Outer Worlds just looks like a fun place to explore. The basic setting feels like a Firefly-esque combination of alien worlds with old west frontierism, with dirty-faced local toughs carving out their claims at the edge of a galaxy dominated by massive corporations.
The Outer Worlds is visually rich and colorful. The environments will remind a lot of players of No Man's Sky, with deep saturated shades and oversized flora and fauna which are the result of terraforming gone wrong. In keeping with the combination of sci-fi and frontier themes, cities feel both futuristic and archaic, with holographic advertisements sporting fonts and logos that feel like they came straight from the early 1900s.
We also had a chance to see some visually impressive weather at work in the E3 demo, as the player left town and walked out into a windstorm before confronting some bandits. It didn't look like the weather had any particular impact on the gameplay, but it looked and felt very natural, and added to the alien, untamed feeling of the world.
What could use some work
The Outer Worlds is doing some interesting things with companions, allowing you to level up their powers to make them more useful, having them participate in dialogues with NPCs, and letting you take multiple companions with you at once. But none of these sorts of games, from the original Fallout up through Fallout 4, have ever managed to avoid moments of weirdness with the AI-controlled allies following you around - and The Outer Worlds runs into the same problems.
In our demo we witnessed companions crying out in surprise and letting out battle cries at strange moments, in response to things they were noticing that we weren't seeing. At best this could serve to alert the player to something interesting they should pay attention to, but more often it just feels like the player has somebody following them around who doesn't know how to shut up. We just walked into a room with an important NPC, buddy - keep your voice down for five minutes, will you? You're embarrassing me.
In games like Fallout: New Vegas, Skyrim, and The Outer Worlds, extended conversations and dialogue trees mean you spend a lot of time staring other characters in the face as they stand in place and talk to you. It's something we've accepted in games for a long time, and mechanically it works fine - but it's starting to feel a bit outdated in 2019.
Staring straight-on at these digital characters also invites players to watch them very closely - and that's where the seams in their designs start to show. Those these models and animations are better than what has come before, they are still notably artificial in a way that can feel a little unnerving. It also feels like this will be another one of these sorts of games with some uneven voice acting, if the conversations on display in the E3 demo were a fair indication of what is to come.
More Fallout than Fallout 76?
At least from what we've seen so far, The Outer Worlds doesn't offer the gleaming future of Destiny or the tongue-in-cheek chaos of Borderlands. It has a sense of humor, but also seems ready to tackle serious issues of power and wealth - just like Fallout: New Vegas did.
With the next Elder Scrolls game still years away and Fallout 76 turning that franchise into an MMO, a certain segment of gamers are hungry for single-player first-person action/RPG games with strong narrative cores. Fortunately, The Outer Worlds is coming to PC, PS4, and Xbox One on October 25.