I don't get along with "zaney" video games. Maybe I'm just a grumpy git with no sense of humor but I just can't get into them. Across the board from Team Fortress to Borderlands, I just can't get into them. So when I first saw a trailer for The Outer Worlds, my eyes rolled right back, I gave a good huff and booted up the buggy mess that is Star Citizen. I'm the kind of player who would rather have weight to a game. I want it to make me think about my actions, fret over them afterwords and dare I say it, develop as a person. Ok, so sure, sometimes I'm looking for some idle distraction to relax too and that's what PUBG and Euro Trucker 2 are for!
If I'm going to invest emotionally with a story it needs a narrative I can get my teeth into and truly feel. This for me, always means less bubblegum and more substance.
Deus Ex did this, Colony Wars did this, Skyrim did this and it's why they remain so treasured by the gaming community. They draw you into their world, make you invest and leave you rambling like a mad man over the proverbial watercooler and leave you thinking about your choices long afterwords. The Outer Worlds started making this kind of noise on the run up to it's release but I'd invested in bah humbuggery so carried on ignoring it until a couple of days after it comes out, half my social media to spilling over with praise for it's politics and, ah what the hell, I went and bought it for PC (Yep, Epic finally got me), I want to play me some space revolutionary!
Fair warning, there are plenty of spoilers after this point.
The Outer Worlds is set in the colony of Halcyon a couple hundred years into the future. A group of corporations – know as The Board - have cobbled together and bought the rights to the fledgling colony and have driven it into the ground. You come into the game a frozen popsicle in a colony ship called The Hope which after some mysterious malfunctions turned up late and get's mothbballed on the edge of the system. Thankfully for you the infamous Dr. Welles is at hand to rez you and send you packing off to do his bidding. There is a pretty good theory (which the creators effectively confirmed during a QnA) that it's set in an alternative timeline where the Anarchist Leon Czolgosz never assassinated William McKinley in 1901 and subsequently the governmental curbing of large scale buisness trust under Roosevelt never occured. Subsequently they've been left to run rampant and Halcyon is a prime example of this. Flooded with crass advertising, forced corporate compliance and all manner of woes for the workers and customers alike.
The game is lush, like amazingly beautiful. It's an orgy of visual delight. The score and foley are similarly fantastic and you'll find yourselves truly absorbed in no time. Straight up, I can't here the theme without getting shivers of adventure. The main combat is driven by gunplay and for this you're armed with a diverse array of weaponry and they all feel meaty enough. The various types of weapons (force, plasma, shock anmd a couple of rarer specials) all give differant effects when you murder someone and it's all very satisfying. Yeah, it's safe to say that graphically everything has a very high standard of polish on it. The colonies aestethic is a curious clash of frontier western, golden era pulp, art deco and Juche propoganda which... well it works, it really works.
Instead of a vast map to explore you'll bounce around five main maps areas with a similar amount of smaller, self contained, mission specific ones. There isn't any flying of space ships mind, you just jump from one to the other. This actually works and provides the game with several very dissimilar environments and keeps a fast paced space opera feeling. Aside from The Groundbreaker which is a self contain space ship come station, these spaces all have the feeling of being a small part of a wider world and you're simply at the bit we're focusing on for the story. However it is here that I find my first criticisms. Once you've been there, killed/fetched/hacked your way through the lab/ruin/base then you're done with that location. Even when the game drags you back to places you've been before there is absolutely zero incentive to check up on people you've affected, the NPCs are all limited in their little parochial encampments and once you've ticked them off you'll never see them again.
It's drive through heroism, and while not the worst sin a game could commit, it's was the first aspect to pull me out of the game, I started fast travelling and just speeding through towns with little care or need to stop by and say hello.
Now, you've played this game before.
Here you are random stranger, come to do the fetching and killing with your near super hero prowess. Enjoy sunny Halcyon, meet the dead eyed locals who can't do anything for themselves and save or ruin their day as you see fit. Get yourself a few companions and help them grow! We've been here before, but their ain't nothing wrong with retreading well loved ground. Encounters with the local wildlife and maruaders are limited to set areas rather than random occourances and you're given the usual variety of ways to go about things, hack the security system, smash them with your hammer, snipe snipe, or go in all guns blazing etc. This is made even more fun with additional of "science weapons" such as the shrink ray and mind control gun which I'm sure are going to bring us plenty of memes. Combat is a bit basic tho, with the AI being a weak and held into a rather rigid "threat assessment" system thats pretty easy to cheese and there is little in the way of tactical combat from the AI. This time around you also have the ability to slow down time and deal specific debuffs to your prey, this is called " Tactical Time Dilation " and it works quite well. It'sdefinitely worth making good use out of TTD, not it is vital in some of the harder fights, it also makes for some tidy Max Paine esk moments (my particular favourite is blasting some poor fella while diving off a a house). You have this ability due to the chemicals used to ressurect you, but the game spends literally about two lines of dialogue on this and moves you along. It's never a great sign when the game can't be assed explaining your super power to you but by this time you've landed on Edgewater and already hating these corporate bastards so let's move on!
There is an interesting but woefully undervalued system of consuming drugs and food via a vape that's right out of Barbarella that is your health and skill buffer. I would have liked it more if combinations had interactions but alas it's just a way of bumping up the stats. Mind you I didn't use it much as you auto heal in two seconds and the game is pretty damn easy. This isn't a bad thing so much but given how much you stumble over weapons and consumables it seems bit of a loose extra. I'm sure on "Super Nova" difficulty it comes in much more use tho.
One of the first computers I had a gander on was a record of a man's suicide. The chief concern was that as an indentured servant he had actually damaged company property and they were not happy. It set a grim tone that I was pleasently suprised with. Over the next hour I was supporting striking workers at the cannery and meeting with deserters after being sent on a mission that would give me my first ethical hurdle. Do you keep the power going to Edgewater, forcing the deserters to abandon the Botanical gardens they had made their home, pushing them back into the corporate fold or do you reroute it to the deserters new home and shut down the company town?
This should have been a really hard hitting moment for me, but it wasn't.
You see I always play my first run through "straight", by which I mean I play myself in this fictional world. I'm playing on normal and I'm not looking up "best solutions" or any of that. In both in Edgewater and The Botanical there were curious statements made in passing and in the dialogue. The leader of the Edgewater is a seemingly reasonable man Tobson, a typical middle management pettifogger, asking you to do right by everyone. The leader of the deserters on the other hand is a women called Adelaide whose quite comfortable with the idea of letting the workers in the town die due to starvation, because hey, it's for the environment and liberty and what not.
A little looking around the place and it becomes evident that "it's aint Saltuna in the cans", meaning that there is some Soylent Green situation going on at the cannery, while back at The Botanical they are able to grow crops, simply because they are using corpses and fertilizer.
I go with the lesser of two evils and as I'm specifically intent on fucking over corporations I make the call to pull Edgewater's power because that's what I would have done.
What ruined it for me is two fold. First, it's immediatly apparently that the games revolutionary branding is actually going to be more about thje binary choice to support the evil corps or deserters with indigestibly muddy ethics. Second, I know games and understand the silent language we all accept. So I'm 90% certain that with enough back and forth, the finding of a specific document, the right dialogue path or some shit, I can reveal to both Tobson and Adelaide that they are cannabal pricks and they'll agree to share the power or something, you could almost taste it. I don't want to be "playing" the game to get all the ticks and the best ending. Solutions like this shouldn't be hidden behind the modern day version of "rubbing the right item with the right object to progress the story". It should come from our actions and intentions instead (similar to this is the super weapon on Monarch which turns out to be a form).
So bye bye Edgewater despite the concerns of my first companion Parvati, and I'm here feeling railroaded. Ok, so this is the just in intro so maybe I should just get on with it?... Still, I would have liked the option to push the workers into seizing the cannery and then working with Adelaide to establish a better food basket for the colony. If you CAN do this, feel free to shut me down, but I tried and failed and for a game that's trading on its counter corporate politics I thought this would have been the default go too? Instead we get a fairly standard by the numbers mission which some hidden solutions if you know the secret math.
This is the grounding of my third and primary point of concern.
The politics are shite.
I really don't understand where other people are coming from with their fawning affection over the games revolutionary patter. It's all surface, it's hideously shallow and pretty inept. I'm not asking for quotes from Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution or anything but the first time you see the word "Revolutionary" it's to define a npc class from a faction of religious zealots call ed the Iconoclasts and "anarchy" is only ever used to mean "chaos". Almost everyone, even the anti Board types are full of praise for the the corprate system. The standard line is "sure they are bad guys, but without them who would protect us? Who would keep order?" urgh. Wretch. This is repeated time and time again even from allies who hate The Board. They don't want to end the corporations, they just want a better type of corporation.
(This is woven into the game itself as it seems there isn't even a corporate free ending that could be considered good)
The Outer Worlds really dives into this in the third act when get to work for a corporation The Board have cut out of the colony proper with an embargo and propaganda campaign. They are a Democratic Socialist's wet dream. Monarch Stellar Industries (MSI) want a more ethical form of capitalism and eventually if you play I like I did (not simply murdering everyone corporate for no reason but trying to do "what's right") you end up leading them into an alliance with the afformentioned "revolutionaries" who are akin to right wing libertarians and christian survivialists.
Even your companions constantly berate you for being so naive if you cuss out the corporations. The only light in the political window is Felix, but he's played as a violent thug of low intelligence, lost in a somewhat arbitary loyalty and romanic vision of revolution. The only faction that seem legit are the crew of The Groundbreaker who hold onto their position as a bastion of liberty in the colony and even tho they hold offices for both the evil Board and the local mafioso Sublight Salvage & Shipping. Maybe I'm wrong here, maybe Max and Ellie turn out to be full on Black Bloc bad asses if you take them to get lit on Scylla together but I doubt it.
It's a bloody waste of a great premise that never delivers on the compliments it seems to be getting. I actively tried to be anti corp, but without randomly mowing down their guards this seems impossible. I was well respected by them right up until the end game.
Ok, the end game is a nice protracted fire fight where the outsiders come together and help you take down the big bad but this itself happens with zero build up. I feel like I missed a chapter where I went around rabble rousing and building up a plan of attack, they just randomly turn up. Given that franchaises like Farcry, Killzone, Half Life and Red Faction have all taken on social movements and political commentary in a much better manner, I was expecting the ground work to have already been put down. I went in looking for a work class revolution to join and I struggled to find even an anti-capitalist dialogue string let alone a revolutionary that wasn't played are corrupt in one way or another (ok, Zora comes close in the end).
Saying all this, it does do a grand job of visibility with a diverse range of characters and the very first asexual story thread I've ever encounted in anything other than a small indie game. So fair's fair top marks there.
So is it worth a play?
Yeah, go on, it's worth it. If you like fast paced narrative driven gameplay and can get behind the cheesy space opera stuff, you'll love it. It isn't half as zaney as I thought and I got pretty invested in some of the storylines (Parvati is pure and needs to be protected!).Jjust don't expect too much as it feels like half a game. I felt that it constantly drops the ball on going deeper and so many of the interesting possibilites hit a dead end. Why didn't we get to explore the mechanical love affair Ada and SAM seem to have? Why did we never get to usurp the social order in the capital Byzantium, even after we get to know it and realise it's falling from grace? What the hell is happening with Earth?
The game is refreshing in a world of microtransactions and is very well made. Heck, no day one patch tells us that they are quite happy with what they've put out. I only encountered one of two bugs such as the missing text on the computers and the odd visual glitch. There are a couple of game breakers but they seem quite difficult to find yourself in and in thirty hours of gameplay that is rather rare. The character creator is pretty cool with a good array of options. Politically it rises above some previous failings by including afro hair styles and while you have to select male or female as a template, males can have makeup and the females can fashion themselves with a beard. The vibe here is Adam Ant meets Peaky Blinders depending if you want a dirty face or some big ol' scars. Easy to miss there are also some blemishes and features hidden under "make up" and while it could do with allowing multiple layers it's plenty servicable given that you're almost certainly never going to see your face again.
On normal the game is mostly a cake walk (aside from one particular Mantiqueen and RAM, there was little threat). If you have a decent set of dialogue and science skills you'll avoid a bunch of fights and with the right companions, with the right perks, you'll walk through it. You're tripping over guns and food so you never really find yourself in a tight spot either, infact I never really had to use any of the venders for anything other than the bypass shunts and mag-picks or the odd obviously a quest item purchases. This isn't really a major problem with the game tho, it's flaws lie a little deeper. I want more politics, more social development and more reason to treat it as a epic adventure come walking simulator as I do Fallout and Skyrim. Tho The Outer Worlds makes the right kind of music it never really becomes as substantial as either of these other titles, and I'm not sure we can blame budget or anything like that. There is a wee game we reviewed called "A Bewitching Revolution" which managed to do all three of these in a much smaller and confined narrative space. As it is, after beating it, other than trying the challenge of Super Nova or replaying as a corporate stooge or violent insurgent terrorist there is little reason to go back to it right now, tho hopefully this changes with DLC.
At the end of the day tho, I think the game is well worth your time, get hold of a copy and give it a spin. Just don't go in expecting a proper space sim and certainly not something to sink your Anarchistic teeth into. It's a fast paced space opera full of thrills and spills but it's as shallow as a paddling pool. Accept that and you're going to have a blast, look for something deeper and you are going to find it lacking. The story is engaging, the dialogue pretty hilarious at times, I really liked filling my spaceship with enough bits of tat that it looked like an American dinner and for some reason I got quite serious about collective tossball cards.
You'll invest and you want to talk about it and that's what games are about. It'll make you want to ramble on like a mad man over the proverbial watercooler or leave you squirming about with a knowing smile when your mate says "no spoilers!". The Outer Worlds sure did that for me and for that reason it's thumbs up. Seriously tho, the politics of it were a let down and a few choice quotes don't change that. ■
Rhyddical is just another pseudo bohemian revolutionary Anarchist who expects better of us all but does his mains in Tesco anyway.
(mildly proofed and edited 03/11/19)