I knew I’d love The Outer Worlds as soon as I stumbled into a cave and met a bleeding, dying gentleman.
I offered to help, but he hesitated. Was I using Spacer’s Choice health care products? His contract clearly states that he can’t use a competing product. This was my first real introduction to the weird, corporate dystopia of the Halcyon system, where giant, sprawling conglomerates have the final word on just about everything, and everyone is simply trying to get by.
But maybe I can help with this whole mess, if I decide to try. The game begins with Phineas Welles — a guy who’s a little like a nicer Rick, sans Morty — waking me from cryosleep aboard the colonist vessel the Hope. The Hope was lost in space, I’ve been frozen for 70 years, and the entire system went straight to hell while I was on ice.
So I’m emerging into a space-capitalist nightmare, and Welles is asking me for help. I’ve just got to murder some robots and raiders, meet the locals down on some of the nearby planets, and try to figure out whether I’m down with Welles’ vision of eating the rich.
And I gotta admit, I’m a little hungry.
Boarding the Unreliable
Obsidian Entertainment is behind some of the best role-playing games ever, including Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol, and Knights of the Old Republic 2. The best moments from the studio’s games come from making imperfect choices in complicated worlds. I don’t remember much about individual areas or weapons from Obsidian titles; I think about characters.
That’s the attitude I have when I jump into The Outer Worlds. I grab a weapon, begin to explore the galaxy in the game’s first-person view, fight enemies when necessary, and spend a lot of time talking to people.
The game unfolds in an extremely “old lady who swallowed a fly” fashion. I need a ship to get where I’m going, so I should go over there to hire one. Oh no — the guy who owned the ship is dead, and the thing is broken anyways. Guess I need a power supply. Well, the person with the power supplies needs help with a little problem ... you get the idea.
Before I know it, I have a full quest log and I’m trekking out with some companions to murder raiders, find lost citizens, and check out a power plant. This is a society run by corporations, like the aforementioned Spacer’s Choice, and almost everyone I talk to is an employee or cog of some kind in that ecosystem.
It’s hard to kill, or even fight, a corporation; if you destroy a CEO, another will be appointed. All of this leads to a large-scale confrontation: Welles wants to tear down the Board that runs the colonized Halcyon system and unfreeze all my fellow Hope colonists so he can reform society.
The Hope held the best and the brightest minds before it became lost, but more importantly, we haven’t been conditioned to love these corporations in the same manner as those who were born and grew up in the Halcyon system. We believe we can find a better way, because we originally lived in a time where business didn’t always have its boot on our necks ... or at least, the boot wasn’t pressing down quite so firmly. It’s one of the more interesting subplots in the game: I’m willing to fight for the future because we know a better future is possible. Most of the other people around me don’t even know what they’ve given up, including most of my own companions.
As in many classic RPGs, each big idea or goal in The Outer Worlds rapidly devolves into a series of quests where I need to either collect or kill things, or find a clever way to avoid doing either.
And everything comes down to choices. Am I for the “greater good,” or sticking it to corporations at all costs? Am I a mercenary, a freedom fighter, a burnout, or a sociopath?
Happily, the game seems to be ready for whatever I decide I’d like to do. I’m able to betray Phineas right away if I so choose, for instance, by turning him in to the authorities. There are very few rails on this ride.
Against the odds
Those very important choices begin when I’m creating my character. I take great care to sculpt a face (that I ultimately don’t see very much), decide my origin (I chose to be a former Earth cashier, so I have some charisma up my sleeve), and then spend some skill points.
The Outer Worlds lets me allocate points to a variety of skills in combat, social situations, technology, and even leadership in battle. I’ve put a lot of points into the Sneak skill category in my latest build, for instance. Once the category has been leveled up enough, I can choose to prioritize subskills of Sneak, like Hacking or Lockpicking. I can also select perks that make my life a little easier, like adding extra health or the ability to carry more, or heavier, items. This isn’t about min-maxing as much as it’s about the options I would like to have when solving problems.
In one settlement, I’m able to use my medical checks to figure out an important piece of backstory. The plague that I’m trying to fight isn’t anything beyond mortal comprehension; it’s just the flu!
Then, I can use my knowledge of how the flu works to lean on the town’s boss for more info about why people aren’t healing from the plague. Turns out, he’s sending them to work even harder to cleanse their imperfections through capitalism! Needless to say, this new perspective changed how I dealt with this guy, and I wasn’t very nice about it. But my medical background took me to an interesting place before my other stats took over when I was ready to enact some of the ol’ ultraviolence.
Engineering, persuasion, intimidation, and even lying ... all of these strategies and character builds open up new options and give me opportunities to avoid fighting, if I want to be a more creative player who doesn’t solve everything with might.
This is all extremely great for role-playing. Every time I see a robot, my blood runs cold. Their plasma damage hurts, even though I’m now much stronger and tougher because of our bouts. The Outer Worlds nails the feeling of playing a game being run by a talented, but rather mischievous, dungeon master.
The combat itself is perfectly adequate, if you decide you’d rather just fight your way toward your goals. There’s even a VATS-like system called Tactical Time Dilation that’s a side effect of my cryosleep. I can slow time at any moment to aim shots, dodge enemies, and reposition myself to have a stronger advantage in combat. The Outer Worlds was never going to be an action game, but the shooting and fighting is above average for a game that’s trying to offer a little bit of everything.
As I go about the game and things go wrong, I might get the opportunity to accept a flaw as part of my build. For instance, my character isn’t having a great time fighting robots. The game gives me the option to take on the flaw of Robophobia, and offers me a perk point as compensation. I lean into this, turning the perk into extra carrying weight. I’m stronger overall, but robots remain my bane, and I have a grudge against them.
It’s not like relying on brutality means you won’t get to role-play! During another run, I meet an important character during a mission and shoot him in the face, which takes much less time than talking to him about his problems. This triggers an encounter with his guards (they’re pretty upset for some reason, so I have to murder them too), and then I’m able to loot his office and walk away much richer. But one of my companions is now very upset about all the killing and almost leaves the party, until I convince her I did it all for her honor. That doesn’t cheer her up, but she seems worried about “letting me loose” on the world unattended, so she sticks around.
See? All the killing was, in fact, very wise.
The Outer Worlds is functional and stable for an Obsidian release — the studio’s games have historically been a little shaky at launch — but it’s the writing that elevates the experience. Every NPC has a distinct personality, and it’s easy to remember them all after I’ve moved on from their zones, even the one-dimensional joke characters. I feel bad when a companion or important character gets mad at me, because they’re written so well that they feel like, well, people.
I collect six companions throughout the game, and they’re seeded throughout the main story. They each have unique perks, skills, and abilities: Parvati’s an engineer, Ellie’s a doctor, and so on. I can bring two of them at a time on missions to give me more options to solve problems or just to give me a hand during combat, and the whole party will often banter among themselves, learning more about each other and sharing their own points of view with me.
They’re a bunch of hot messes, honestly, and they have their own lives going on, ranging from being attracted to different NPCs we meet to wanting to hunt down the hidden truth of their religion. I’m heartbroken that I can’t romance them, because Vicar Max is one of the best RPG companions I’ve ever met, and he’s an absolute daddy of a priest.
Each zone I explore helps to build up the overall world as well. Edgewater is a town where workers have to rent their own grave sites, newborn babies are corporate assets, and everyone’s ready to report each other to the ruling Board for crimes like “being sick” or “not loving the Board.”
At one point, I spent a good 10 minutes exploring the graveyard. The best workers — their grave sites are marked with their lifetime earnings — have sealed steel coffins. Those in the next tier have metal grates over their graves, ensuring that animals can’t dig up their remains. The third tier just gets headstones. Anyone who can’t pay is thrown into a ditch.
Obsidian does not pull any punches with The Outer Worlds: Capitalism is an ever-present, inescapable force that is rotting the Halcyon system. The injustice of it all makes my blood boil, but my companions are there to anchor me, or at least provide more context and nuance.
Parvati, a timid engineer, was raised in this society, and she reminds me that the individual workers don’t know any alternatives to how they currently live their lives. At one point, I ignore her and do something drastic to “free” a settlement from a corporation’s control.
My reward? A man spits in my face. He never asked to be liberated, and from his point of view, I’ve ruined the only life he has ever known.
Obsidian has pulled off the delicate task of creating an RPG that feels big while still keeping control of the overall scope of the game itself. There is a galaxy map, but this isn’t No Man’s Sky, with the freedom to completely explore every sprawling world if I choose to. Each planet consists of relatively small zones, so I’m able to focus on my current quest without becoming overwhelmed.
These areas are always small enough that I never lose track of the story or my immediate goals, but complex enough that new seeds are constantly being planted for the next area and quest. The Outer Worlds is expansive when it needs to be, but never falls into the trap of believing that bigger is always better.
Each area is like a dense little croissant. The environments are bustling with people who feel like they’re a part of a cohesive society. For a capitalist dystopia where people work themselves into their rent-controlled graves, it’s not too bad to explore. And it’s frequently hilarious, if you don’t mind some incredibly dark humor.
At one point, I found a gentleman wearing a giant, terrifying moon mask. No matter what I asked him, he just cheerfully redirected the conversation to the amazing wares of Spacer’s Choice. Can he eat in there? Isn’t it hot? Is that a rat I saw in the mask? He kept a poker face until I asked him if I could try it on.
Then, his facade broke, and he pleaded with me to move on and never darken his door with such a suggestion again. It’s touches like this that make hanging out in a dystopia fun, and I can’t wait to go back.
The Outer Worlds will be released Oct. 25 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PC using a final “retail” Epic Games Store download code provided by Private Division. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.