Game review: The Outer Worlds for PS4

Fair warning: this review is a lot longer than my usual write-ups, and there are a few spoilers. If you want to avoid those or just wanted a TL;DR version, here goes: I didn’t like it. For the rest of you, sorry I got so long-winded, but this one really rubbed me the wrong way, and I feel a need to overshare.

There’s a very vocal contingent of gamers who insist that among the first person iterations of the Fallout series, only Obsidian’s Fallout New Vegas is worth a damn. The story is more interesting, the system of skills and perks are superior, and overall, the gameplay just feels better.

With all due respect, I strongly disagree on all counts. Fallout New Vegas was ridiculous in depicting its factions, quite frequently forgot where it was going with the plot and thus didn’t offer dialogue options to explore tangents, and copy pasted a lot of the same butt ugly character models. It created the worst Vegas experience, an empty city cut off by loading screens every two hundred yards, and was still prone to crash after progressing too far into the story. When I say crash, I mean freeze the console and corrupt the save files so badly that one must restart from the beginning. “Just use mods,” some folks say, to which I point out, the game is on consoles, and there ain’t no mods to fix that broken, graphically hideous, fumbling mess. What you buy is what you get, and it’s what gets reviewed.

So here we are with The Outer Worlds, which fans have heralded as Fallout in space, jeering that after the disaster that was Fallout 76, Obsidian has effectively out-Fallout-ed Bethesda. Admittedly, I haven’t played Fallout 76 because it looked like a bad deal right from the start, but I do know that The Outer Worlds is no Fallout.

In every way, this adventure is inferior to any entry in the Fallout series. The levels are restrictive and littered with the same few enemies, the weapons are limited copies of each other that lack any sense of heft or impact, skills and perks have been overly simplified, enemy and companion AI is almost embarrassingly bad, and the story just starts to become interesting before it slips and falls flat on its face because the biggest question of “Why?” is answered in the dumbest way possible.

But what I think is most damning about The Outer Worlds is how much the developers want so desperately to cling to Fallout that they can’t abandon some of their dumbest ideas and try something more original.

Before I get to nitpicking every little thing and giving spoilers, I should at least praise that the game is stable. In the twenty-eight hours I played, there was never a single crash. Aside from some occasional lag that was annoying, but not so bad as to make the game unplayable, everything worked as intended. That much the fans can crow over, because Bethesda can’t release anything without crashes, bugged quests, visual glitches and lag so bad it freezes the screen for several seconds at a time.

The graphics are also quite good. Mesmerizing, even. Each planet, moon, and asteroid that I played on had me stopping to take in the views, and they all made me feel like an alien setting down on distant worlds unlike any place on Earth.

It’s a pity, then, that in every other aspect the figurative ball was fumbled, picked up, fumbled again, and then kicked off of a cliff, never to be recovered again.

But before we talk about the mess, here’s the rundown on the start of the story. Dr. Phineas V. Welles awakens your character from a long hibernation and informs them that they are the only hope of saving all the other passengers in cryogenic stasis aboard the Hope. Yes, you are the only hope for Hope. (Ba-dum pish!) Anyway, the good doctor wants you to go out into the colonies of the Halcyon Group to get some super rare chemicals, which are the only way to revive the others without causing Explosive Cell Death. (Which is really more of a liquification.)

So, your character is tossed into an escape pod and dropped unceremoniously onto Terra 2, and also directly onto the unfortunate captain who was supposed to be your pilot and guide in this new solar system. Why did he die? Because he was holding the drop signal beacon. Ah hahahahahaha…aahhh.

But here I pause to offer criticism on the shoddy writing. You see, Captain Alexander Hawthorne is shown through journal entries and dialogue with others to be a rather keen fellow. He was modifying the AI on his ship to make her uniquely more human-like as well as modifying a cleaning robot to act as a combat backup in the field. He was a shrewd businessman, cultivating favor with members of the board and with shadier freelance companies. But to get this story going, the ONLY thing the writers could come up with was, “Man, he’s so stupid that he didn’t know how a beacon works.” It directly contradicts everything you learn about the man throughout the rest of the game.

This could have been addressed by making the captain a temporary companion during the tutorial before killing him off in a more heroic way. Maybe pushing your character out of the way of a rock slide or a charging beast. Instead, the laziest possible option was taken to get him out of the way. Which, as it turns out, is par for the course.

Once you arrive in Edgewater, the town owned by Spacer’s Choice, you are instantly inundated with hints that things are real, real bad for the colonies. The local factory workers are being worked to death, either from fatigue or from plagues caused by malnutrition. The company is renting graves out, and if someone commits suicide, all the employees are held financially responsible. Perhaps more intriguing is that all the local robots have been secretly modified and no one in the colony knows why or even who did it.

It’s in Edgewater that you pick up your freshly minted captain’s first two companions, Pavarti Holcomb and Vicar Maximilian DeSotto. Pavarti is a company engineer and mechanic who is desperate to get out of the job that’s slowly crushing the life from her, while Vicar Max asks to tag along with your crew to look for an apocryphal text that will supposedly help him find enlightenment. Upon recruiting both, you learn one of the few joys of the game, that you can have two companions at the same time, and they interact with each other much like the party in the Dragon Age games. And just like with Dragon Age, as you find more companions, you’ll want to mix and match your landing parties just to see what any two characters have to say to each other. Some of these combinations aren’t nearly as satisfying, but most provide some color commentary and exchanges that hint at growing friendships. It’s a nice touch.

But now I have to mention the downside to companions, as they are dumb as dirt and likely to get downed in combat very early on by running into the open to be perforated from several different angles. If you don’t set their behavior to ranged, they will take out melee weapons and run across open killing fields to try and wack some enemy in the head. This works about as well as you would expect. But even with their behavior set to use ranged attacks only, they will still fall quickly because they leave themselves exposed and insist on running into obvious traps.

Even if you opt to do all the work yourself, both ranged and melee weapons are highly ineffectual. You have the option to tinker on weapons at a workbench, which amounts to you sinking ridiculous sums of money into making incremental improvements in damage. None of this matters because the armor rating of all enemies negates most of the damage. The weapon description may say it does fifty damage, but with armor factored in, it’s more like four. So every fight through the first half of the game sees you burning through huge amounts of ammo to little effect. (Later fights use up similar amounts of ammo, but by then you’ll have a larger stockpile to work through.)

This brings me to my other big complaint about ranged weapons. Where is the pew-pew? Aside from some plasma guns and a late game N-Ray rifle, it’s all bullets. Where’s the lasers? Where’s the rail guns, or anything remotely futuristic? It’s almost all bang bang and no pew-pew. (There’s a shrink ray, but the effect is short lived, and not worth wasting ammo on.)

No matter what you use, the effect on enemies is negligible. You can use time dilation, this game’s version of VATS, to target specific body parts, and they will be highlighted with options like blind, maim, cripple, stagger and bleed. But none of these options lasts longer than two second at most. Now, I’m no medical expert, but if I shoot a dude in the dick, I’m pretty sure he isn’t going to pop back up after a second and keep running at me like he isn’t gravely wounded. This kind of shit was a MAJOR problem in New Vegas as well, where an enemy limb is technically crippled, with no health found in VATS, but they can still pick their rifle back up and continue firing like nothing is wrong. So while the move to Unreal Engine resulted in a prettier game and no noticeable bugs, no effort was put into the underlying systems for weapon damage and enemy reactions.

If you were a fan of the hacking and lock picking mini-games from Fallout entries, you’ll be disappointed to see how the skills work here. It’s strictly a numbers game. If your skill is high enough, you can unlock stuff without tools. If it’s not quite high enough, you use up mag-locks and bypass shunts to pass the skill check. To make it feel like you’re doing something, the more “keys” you need to open a device, the longer you have to press the activate button. It’s…not good.

Moving to another similar problem, ammo is overly simplified. It’s all heavy, light, and energy. So if you have a sniper rifle, an assault rifle, and a pistol, they’re all potentially drawing from the same pool of ammo. All ammo is fucking expensive, and it’s doled out in pathetically small amounts. I would have killed for a perk to find more ammo like in Fallout games, but no, that wasn’t one of the things Obsidian clung to. (To be clear, there is a perk for vending machines to stock more than fifty of each ammo type, but that’s not what I needed.)

What they did hold onto is their fetish for ancient forms of advertising and propaganda. I brought this is up with my hubby and he didn’t see what the problem was, so let me articulate a bit.

See, both this game and the Fallout world are based on the idea that for whatever reason, all culture stagnated around the 1930s, or 40s, or 50s. (Whichever one suits their current game.) In the Fallout world, this means that there’s no new music past the 40s and 50s, even though the games take place much, much later. Fallout 3 tried to suggest this was because ALL the artists and musicians everywhere went into the same vault and died, which is so laughably pathetic as an excuse that Bethesda went ahead and contradicted it in Fallout 4 with a lounge singer who was writing her own music and recording it on holotapes. This is why all the games should have the classic songs mixed in with some original content because there would be new artists and musicians born after the apocalypse. (But then again, there would also be new engineers and mechanics born, so literally everything about Fallout’s wasteland setting is bullshit, but let’s go back to the real game on review.)

For The Outer Worlds, Obsidian didn’t even bother trying to put together a similar kind of soundtrack. Instead, they were content to crib some old-timey advertising art styles and hired one group to sing all the jingles for all the corporations in the Halcyon Group. Here’s some examples:
At C and P, we know our C’s and P’s!
Whoa-oh-oh! It’s Rizzo’s!
T and L! Simply the best!

All the ads in the game are all delivered by the same drone voice and ended with the same quartet of voice actors singing the jingle. They couldn’t even put in the effort to make the companies feel different from one another. The same goes for the propaganda posters. They all feel designed by the same small ad team, not by a group made up of multiple corporations. Aside from slightly different logos, the whole conglomerate might as well be one entity since they all offer similar products with only slightly different coats of paint.

Let me segue to some false advertising of the real sort. Once you get off the planet and onto a space station, The Groundbreaker, you meet another companion, Ellie. She featured very prominently in the ads for the game, and was one of the reasons I had even a little hype. She seemed to be the voice of concern, informing you that the situation in the colonies needed a new leader willing to make the tough choices between corporations and the little people.

But the character Ellie in the game isn’t at all like that. She’s shallow and superficial, questioning your every morally good decision with long speeches about how everyone is in it for themselves, and you’re either stupid or naive if you think otherwise. There’s never a turning point for her. She’s revealed to be a rich child, literally born into wealth, and she eschews that world not for some high-minded principles but because, “Meh, there’s too much paperwork and rules in high society. I’d rather go for anarchy and illegal work to piss off mummy and daddy.” Hell, even the narrator at the end of the game admits she has zero character growth despite the efforts of an entire crew trying to show her a better way of living. The cleaning robot on your crew has a more satisfying development arc.

So…I know, you’re already at the “Zoe, we get it” point, but there’s something else that needs to be picked at by way of an example. In Borderlands 3, you get in a fancy space ship to hop between planets, and each planet has their own ecosystems. People on one world have their own meat and plant food sources because that’s what’s available locally. Yeah, the bandits are all similar, but they’ve been shuttled around by the big bads, providing a somewhat realistic reason for their persistence. Everything else on every planet is unique and distinct. For as much as I hated slogging through the huge vastness of Borderlands 3, I cannot say it was a copy pasta effort.

The same cannot be said of The Outer Worlds, where several creatures show up on multiple planets and moons. If one were desperate to find a cause, they might say the corporations were importing the critters. But given how much property damage the animals do, it’s unlikely that companies desperate for profits would sabotage themselves in this way. The direct rebuttal to this idea is on Scylla, an asteroid where energy shields are erected to provide an atmosphere. There’s no vegetation, no air, no water, nothing to support life at all, and yet one of the enemies on Scylla are the primals, ape-like monsters found on Terra II, and on Monarch as well. It’s almost like Obsidian couldn’t be bothered to make more than a handful of enemies and copy paste them wherever.

Oh, and remember how I mentioned the robots being wired to kill? Yeah, the game claims that was just an insurance scam for the first planet, but those robots are haywire everywhere. It’s almost like Obsidian couldn’t be bothered to make more than a handful of enemies and copy paste them wherever.

Then there’s the marauders, the typical crazy psycho fare found in Fallout. They’re barely coherent or capable of sustaining themselves, but can somehow pilot ships to move between worlds. These ships are super rare due to scarce resources, but are somehow a dime a dozen for the mentally ill killers with little money to their names. It’s almost like Obsidian couldn’t be bothered to make more than a handful of enemies and copy paste them wherever.

Before I finish, let me get back to the spoiler about the story I mentioned near the start. It’s eventually revealed that these corporations are shitting all over their people because they’re trying to hide a problem from the masses. The transplanted crops aren’t drawing enough nutrients from the soil, so everyone is starving to death. And…they’ve been starving to death for all these years? This doesn’t make a fucking lick of sense, and after seeing all the examples of company abuse, this is the best reason Obsidian could come up with for why the companies are acting the way they do. (Well that and they lost contact with Earth, which make even less sense for them to try so damned hard to destroy themselves and their dwindling resources.) I mean, given their past writing efforts, I didn’t expect much, but even by their standards, this is pretty bad.

I could go on, but I’d just be whipping a dead horse. Fans of Obsidian will insist I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I’m obviously a Bethesda fangirl. Except, I don’t like Bethesda either. This isn’t a bias for one flavor of first person adventure over the other. I went into this a little excited based on all the positive reviews, but having played all the way through and exhausted all the side missions, I’m decidedly under the lowest whelm limit possible.

I’m giving The Outer Worlds 2 stars. I’m glad I got it on sale to limit my rage (Note the more limited use of fuck in this review if you doubt my claim) and if I ever get the forthcoming sequel, I will also be waiting for a steep discount before wading in. If you’re an Obsidian fan, this is probably something worth your time, but I felt like it just wasted mine.