The Outer Worlds Preview – Extraterrestrial Capitalism

Few developers enjoy the kind of respect and devout cult following in modern gaming circles than Obsidian Entertainment. The studio has a massive catalogue of well-received titles under their belt, but it’s interesting to note that a lot of their most notable efforts are sequels or games in franchises outside of their own. Games like Neverwinter Nights 2, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2 and even South Park: The Stick of Truth are all great, Obsidian-developed games, but they weren’t wholly original. The same goes for one of the studio’s more recognisable titles, Fallout: New Vegas, a game that many Fallout fans consider to be a high point in the series. Imagine people’s excitement then, when it was announced that Obsidian’s newest project, The Outer Worlds, is not just a new first-person RPG/shooter in the vein of New Vegas, but also a completely original IP. These are the people that created Pillars of Eternity and Alpha Protocol, after all.

The Outer Worlds takes place in an ‘alternate timeline’ vision of the future, where humanity has travelled to and colonised planets beyond our own — but not in the way that you’d expect. See, in this version of Earth, it’s megacorporations, and not government, that hold the ultimate power (I guess it’s not that far-fetched). The conquest of space, then, is off the backs of these conglomerates, and it’s their hands that reach to the stars and settle on alien worlds. Your role in all this? Well, it’s kind of an accident. Thanks to an egregious error in faster-than-light travel, a ship carrying a fresh colony (including your character) to the Halcyon solar system arrives almost a century too late, at which point a full ten massive corporations have already taken root. Disoriented, displaced and very jet-lagged, you’ll have to learn to navigate this new society, find your place, and figure out where your allegiances lie.

For the purposes of this preview I was lucky enough to get my hands on the game for a few hours in Los Angeles, courtesy of Obsidian and publisher Private Division. My session had me playing with a pre-built character in an early-ish section of the game set on the planet Monarch, with free reign to explore and see what kinds of interstellar shenanigans I could get myself into. I’ll admit to not being the most self-initiating person, so the signpost next to me when I loaded in that signaled nearby points of interest was incredibly helpful. With its help, I headed out towards a small shanty town called Fallbrook with a couple of companions in tow.

In case there were any bones about it, The Outer Worlds is a Fallout-esque first-person RPG to a T. It feels a little wrong to keep drawing comparisons to the likes of New Vegas when the team at Obsidian are so clearly forging their own path with this project, but it’s also the most obvious point of reference and comparison. The Outer Worlds evokes that same sense of freedom, with player-driven narratives not just supplementing but practically overruling the critical path. If you like being the captain of your own destiny, you’ll love this game. So, although in this particular instance I was partnered up with the hardworking mechanic Parvati and Monarch native Nyoka, I could just as easily have had different companions. Or no companions, if I felt equal parts brave and socially awkward. At any rate the choice to go to Fallbrook, and what to do there, was mine and mine alone and given Obsidian’s earlier work I was very keen to see how my choices and actions from here on out would inform my journey.

Like any RPG worth its salt, each area in The Outer Worlds is full of people to talk to and things to see (and steal). With ten powerful megacorporations and multiple factions all vying for space, attention and money in Halcyon’s terraformed worlds, it’s no wonder that every man and his dog has something to say or a job that needs doing. Like other, similar games, there’s a robust system for player-driven dialogue at play that shapes how you interact with non-player characters and the outcomes of your conversations. Obsidian seem to be striking a pretty decent balance where the way the world reacts to your character is determined by so many different variables and yet feels natural and won’t overwhelm players not accustomed to the kinds of stats-and-dice-rolls encounters found in cRPGs like Pillars of Eternity. It’s not just the stuff that will eventually shape the outcome of the game’s story that’s interesting, either. There are a ton of smaller details that liven up both combat and dialogue encounters that call back to things you’ve seen, done and said. At one point in my playthrough I donned some marauder armour because it was better than what I currently had equipped, only to find everyone in town spoke to me with disdain, or even advised that I maybe get changed. My companions would often interject with their own take on a conversation as well, with the NPC sometimes even responding back appropriately. There’s a crazy amount of incidental dialogue here.

While it’s hard to get a true idea of the game’s more complex systems in a two-hour session, it’s clear that The Outer Worlds has some great, deep character progression systems in place. As you explore, chat and fight you’ll of course be accruing XP, levelling up and earning both skill and perk points to assign to your character. Skill points dictate both your combat abilities and how successfully you interact with the world and its denizens, such as employing those all-important dialogue options. Perks represent permanent upgrades that more significantly augment your gameplay experience, like increasing your walk speed or carrying capacity. Perhaps the coolest wrinkle (and already one of my favourite modern gameplay mechanics) is the ‘Flaws’ system, which grants a character bonus perk points in exchange for accepting a personal flaw. These flaws come from the way your character interacts with the world, be it fighting a lot of a particular type of enemy, using certain medicines or compounds constantly or even just falling off of a lot of high places. When presented, it’s up to the player to choose to accept a flaw, which will then plague their character by making them even more susceptible to whatever prompted it. The upside is that for doing so, you’re granted a bonus perk point, so it pays to accept your own personal flaws when it means you’re able to further your established talents. The game’s lead designer, Charles Staples, sums it up in our interview when he talks about how flaws make a character more interesting.

One area that I feel these kinds of RPG/shooter hybrids have traditionally struggled is in the actual shooting (with a few notable exceptions). The line between alienating traditional RPG fans with overly skill-based shooting mechanics and alienating shooter fans with less-than-satisfying gunplay is a very fine one. Having only played this small portion of The Outer Worlds it’s hard to say definitively if Obsidian are toeing that line successfully, but signs so far are good. In the few combat encounters I had against both humans and aggressive alien species, everything felt appropriately weighty and visceral. The four guns I’d been provided with, representing the classic spread of handgun, sniper, shotgun and heavy rifle all felt distinct and satisfying to wield. My admittedly poor FPS skills were definitely called into question, but thankfully the ‘Time Dilation’ system was there to come to my rescue. In a smart bid to give an edge to players who might not be as shooter-savvy, Time Dilation allows them to slow the action down to a crawl to line up winning shots on enemies. It also gives those traditional RPG heads a way to augment and improve upon the mechanic by integrating it into the progression systems, meaning they can build their character’s abilities around Time Dilation to turn each combat encounter into a more tactical situation.

Halcyon itself is a fascinating place, the vision of its capitalist dystopia feeling equal parts Fallout, Bioshock and Oddworld. The otherworldly, alien landscape of Monarch is embellished with company colours and in busy towns, advertisements and propaganda pepper every conceivable corner. It’s bleak, but it’s also a satire, and an exceedingly entertaining one. I laughed out loud several times during my hands-on, usually at the razor-sharp dialogue but often just at some of the absurd situations I’d find myself in. Situations like my breaking into a slaughterhouse where the livestock are ‘cystypigs’, animals bred to purposefully grow massive tumors as a constant source of meat without needing to kill the pig. The same slaughterhouse where I accidentally lost my disguise in a room full of murderous robot guards, then almost sold out one of my friends to the owner, Clive, before having a change of heart that ended in me killing him. Y’know, normal run-of-the-mill escapades. The Outer Worlds is one of those games that I can see myself becoming very lost in, digging through its crevices and exposing its dark underbelly while also taking the time to go on personal and bond-forming journeys with my companions.

The Outer Worlds is shaping up to be something pretty special for not only hardcore RPG fans, but fans of open world action games and unique, story-driven adventures. It seems to balance every piece of the equation effortlessly, and boasts a completely original world to boot. If the full game can keep pace with the couple of hours that I had the opportunity to play, this might wind up being one of my favourite games of the year. This is Obsidian doing what Obsidian do best, so I have every faith, too. The Outer Worlds could be a serious GOTY contender.