Why I Don't Love The Outer Worlds
I've been putting this off for a while because I don't want to be that guy who whines about things. Let me start by saying that I like The Outer Worlds. However, I've played and reviewed tons of games over the years, and as a game designer I often look at a measure of a good game as being whether or not it does anything I find interesting and novel.
The Outer Worlds is not one of these games. It's competent, and perfectly serviceable, but I'm just finding it hard to see anything that is revolutionary and novel within it. Now, this isn't to say that it's bad.
It reminds me a lot, actually, of 2017's Prey in terms of gameplay, and I thought pretty well of Prey even though I didn't finish it (not really my genre). However, as far as gameplay standards go, that's nothing spectacularly interesting, and Prey wasn't necessarily marketed for its gameplay.
Now, there are a couple gripes I have with the gameplay. I've noticed Obsidian generally move away from gameplay principles I enjoy starting after Fallout: New Vegas, which is probably one of my favorite games. There's an item level and repair system that is, I believe, intended as a resource sink, but which makes managing the inventory drudgery and boring work. Modifying weapons doesn't produce meaningfully satisfying alternatives; in New Vegas there was a primitive weapon modification system and The Outer Worlds is a step up from that, but it's competing with other more robust systems now. It feels like there's a lot of information opacity and not a lot of ability to meaningfully customize in the system.
It's also a game that feels very shallow in play. The stealth mechanics in particular feel like a step down, and I find the UI to be somewhere between annoying and unhelpful most of the time. Important information is put in the corner, but there's such an abundance of stuff that it's almost impossible to track things down. Ammunition is so heavily abstracted and (at least on lower difficulties when one uses certain weapons) so plentiful that it may as well just have been ignored. Whereas in Fallout: New Vegas it sometimes felt like Obsidian didn't give enough options, there are a thousand choices for what to wear and wield by the time you factor in the customization options. The customization itself feels relatively shallow, as do the RPG mechanics, but at least they're accessible even if they don't always have giant impacts on play.
That's not always a bad thing, and the gameplay in The Outer Worlds generally feels like an evolution over Fallout (it's going to come up a lot, because it's nearly impossible to look at The Outer Worlds without looking at Fallout).
However, there's something empty to it, and it's taken me a while to come to a full understanding of what that means.
Open world games have been taking something of a hit in prestige recently. Some of this is well-deserved, because there are better ways to focus resources and a lot of recent open world titles would have been better as tightly-woven narrative experiences rather than amalgamations of sandbox elements. The problem is that The Outer Worlds feels like a sandbox game within the contexts of a structured RPG; it's not quite as slick and sleek of a shooter as, say, Borderlands 3, which stands out to me as a game with a similar scope in terms of content.
It's a capable game, though. I'm not going to say that the gameplay is what lets The Outer Worlds down, because it's functional despite its flaws, and I'm somewhat convinced that many of my complaints are precisely my own complaints as a game designer and not necessarily representative of others (especially of others who don't play as many games as I do across as many genres as I do). I think that of all things it is the writing in The Outer Worlds that comes back to serve as its weakest point.
I had a hard time explaining this, but then I realized that the trailers explain it just about as well as I could.
What's the unifying theme here?
If I had to distill it to one thing, I think it would be choice.
Now, as storytellers working in games, we want to give choice. If players don't have the ability to make decisions that are meaningful, we're not really letting them into the game. On the other hand, there are plenty of linear narratives in games, and often quite good ones.
So, why do I find The Outer Worlds less than stellar?
Because I don't think it does a good job of choice. Choice is only a meaningful goal when there's something to be gained from it, and I feel like it has a problem establishing stake then holding on to it. The idea that we could revive the other survivors of the Hope is great, but it quickly gets buried under seemingly mundane errands. And, because it's a game about choice, 90% of the game will be mundane errands, compared to the big stakes.
Admittedly, I haven't finished the game yet, so this is something of a critique in progress. It could be that the last act takes the plot back and turns it into something really phenomenal, but the truth is that I'm about fifteen hours into the game and the only way I keep playing is by putting on an audiobook. The weakness I've been seeing in the story could be partly my fault for doing a total completionist approach, forcing myself down every sidepath and dragging out the story as long as I can.
However, it's worth asking a question here: If the content in the game is actively at cross purposes with the game itself, is it worth playing?
The Outer Worlds has main story quests, side quests, faction quests, and character quests. I've done some of each, and I have to say that I think that the latter two are where the weak points show.
A central conceit of the plot is that Halcyon is sort of a corporate dystopian hellscape, and I think there's some room for that. It borders on lawful stupid, but it's satirical enough and doesn't take itself too seriously that the dysfunction doesn't always pass through the suspension of disbelief. It's Kafkaesque, and I think that it generally does that fairly well. But Kafka has the sense to keep "The Metamorphosis" short, its central point not belabored to the point of repetition.
Everything in The Outer Worlds revolves around that single point; it takes a bunch of different perspectives, but there's a little difficulty in seeing some of them as legitimately developed instead of "Oh hey, this is a cool idea, let's put it in."
And that's where the problem comes in. Most of the game, as I've played it, feels like the chapters of Les Miserables that focus on Napoleonic wars or the parts of Moby Dick that explain whale taxonomy. When your central setting conceit is that you're in a place that is set up as a corporate dystopia, you don't need fifteen interludes explaining the corporate dystopia. It's not clear whether the point is to give more of what players presumably like, or if they're not sure if their audience could get the point without belabored repetition.
And that's really where the problem lies. It's not that The Outer Worlds is bad. The Outer Worlds evokes a lot of great games without really seeming to put itself in their place. I think of games like Deus Ex, or Fallout, or Dishonored, or The Elder Scrolls. All of these great games, but I'm just never sure that The Outer World hits their level. It's not that there's any problem with the competence and skill on display, and I think that the world and characters are great.
The problem is that they're not meaningful. There's no attachment between our character and the world around them. The Outer Worlds are outside our scope of concern. In Fallout 4, there was this really strong plot connecting the player to the role of a parent searching for their child. In The Outer Worlds, we just know that we're a colonist whose ship went astray and a bureaucracy made a decision that it wasn't worth recovering. That's a premise for an antihero, not a hero, and the pursuit of choice over a strong plot means that we don't get pushed into a conflict that would serve to elevate our protagonist. Of course, we are free to choose that plot, but the writing and storytelling isn't focused on it. There are a lot of great fifteen second sound bites that respond to our actions, but no greater point.