Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), PC, Xbox One, Switch (eventually)
From the time of its first E3 previews, the general take on The Outer Worlds has been "Fallout: New Vegas in space." And after spending dozens of hours in the game's world, crisscrossing a collection of planets, fighting alien monsters, running errands for NPCs, and getting to know my party companions, I'm ready to say that these initial impressions were correct.
The Outer Worlds feels very much like a pre-Fallout 4 first-person Fallout game. That's not surprising, considering the developers involved here (Obsidian, makers of New Vegas, and Fallout creators Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky). While the official Fallout series made its open world bigger, added base building, and eventually went online, The Outer Worlds instead sticks close to the "good old Fallout" formula. The game world is much smaller, but is dense with quests and characters and important decisions to make. And "base building" is limited to finding minor cosmetic touches to add to your spaceship.
Important note: As of the final pre-launch build we played to review the game, the on-screen text in The Outer Worlds is too small to be read easily when playing on a a PS4 displaying on a 42" 1080p television, with no in-game option to adjust text size. This is very similar to the problem God of War had at launch, which was later fixed by a patch, but The Outer Worlds is a much more text-heavy game than God of War. If you believe this issue may be a problem for you, you may want to wait for news of a patch before purchasing.
An open world of modest size
The Outer Worlds is a little different structurally than traditional Fallout games, in that its world is much more compact than the sprawling Bethesda-style maps you might be used to. There's still that open world experience to be found, but it's divided across a few different planets (and thus separated by fairly frequent loading screens). There's no area anywhere close to as expansive and exploration-ready as what you get in Fallout 4, and subsequently there's a lot less aimless wandering and stumbling across hidden locations and treasures.
Though the game world is smaller, The Outer Worlds is still wide open in the other senses of the term. After a short tutorial-style mission that takes a few hours to complete, you're equipped with a ship and a few different worlds to visit. A couple of missions after that the game opens up even wider when you can finally visit the planet Monarch, which sports the game's largest world map and many of its biggest challenges.
You'll need to stick close to the core story missions in order to reliably unlock new planets to visit, but other than that you're free to follow where your whims take you. Towards the end of the game I had more than a dozen active missions I could choose to pursue. While it was a little frustrating that these were spread across different planets, the way The Outer Worlds handles objectives is a big relief. There's rarely any guesswork in terms of where you need to go in order to progress with a mission, and generous objective markers usually point you right to the item you need or the person you need to talk to - whether or not your character has any in-game reason for having that information.
If you go looking for them, you'll feel the hard edges and seams of The Outer Worlds in a way you don't in Fallout 4. Loading screens, unclimbable walls, and buildings that can't be entered are common parts of your experience while playing. There's still plenty to do away from these edges, but the whole experience can feel a little confined and compact when compared to what players are used to in 2019. There's something to be said for smaller, denser, more carefully crafted worlds like we get in The Outer Worlds, but exploring was entertaining enough that I found myself wishing for a version of Monarch that felt as big and detailed as Fallout 4's Commonwealth.
Roleplaying in a world run by corporations
Your time in The Outer Worlds will be spent talking to NPCs and undertaking quests. You'll earn money, experience points, new equipment, access to new areas, and faction favor as you progress in the game, becoming a revered "star employee" to some of the corporate entities you encounter, while others may learn to hate you so much they attack you on sight. You can upgrade a variety of RPG-style skills in order to give yourself different ways to accomplish your goals, but most commonly you'll be fighting some aliens, robots, or bandits on your way to retrieving key items, attempting to sway people towards your way of thinking via persuasion or intimidation, or using lockpicks and computer hacking to reach your goals.
The setting is a compelling alternate future that feels refreshingly different from Fallout. Sci-fi weapons and ships combine with early 20th century design aesthetics (a distinct different from Fallout's "frozen in the 50s" look and feel). Megacorporations shilling dubious patent medicines rule planets with their own armed military forces, and while there are plenty of NPCs you encounter that bemoan the state of things, it's hard to find an alternative to the corporate order that doesn't feel risky at best and downright insane at worst.
This is where The Outer Worlds' consistently strong writing is at its very best: in its treatment of the role megacorps play in the lives of the residents of this planetary system, so far from the help, guidance, or control Earth might provide. It would have been easy for the game to devolve into a simple binary of "corporations bad, non-corporations good," but the way it actually plays out is a lot more complex than that. Many people appreciate the stability and safety that corporate bureaucracy provides, and the "rebels" all have agendas or philosophies of their own that come with their own compromises and dangers.
The Outer Worlds understands that, as in the real world, changing away from a miserable status quo is a challenge because choosing a path towards change involves taking on responsibility for the new world you make. Are you sure that you're going to be making things better when you decide to promote Faction A over Faction B? The game won't give you any certainty about it before you make your choice, and even siding with the "underdog" can leave you feeling uneasy about what that underdog will do with the power you handed them.
Characters in The Outer Worlds discuss complex philosophical, political, and social issues with a variety of interesting perspectives, in a way that feels authentic for this fictional time and place. Some advocate burning the whole system down, confident that a better world will spring up from the ashes. Others feel that unthawing frozen colonists from Earth is the right answer to the problems of the Halcyon system, relying on their expertise and "fresh ideas" to set things straight. Religious factions exist on both side of the corporate issue, and The Outer Worlds does a great job of avoiding clear judgments about right and wrong in most cases. It really does feel like it's up to you, the player, to chart your own course in the world and make the decisions you think are best, given the messy and troubled state of things. Just like real life!
The Outer Worlds also deserves tons of praise for the way it handles in-dialogue abilities like lying or intimidating. In this game, when you see the option to use one of these abilities in a dialogue tree, you need to think a little harder about whether that's what you want to do. In contrast to many games of this type, the appearance of a dialogue ability you can use because your skill level is high enough doesn't mean that's actually the best or the right option.
It takes a bit to get used to this, but The Outer Worlds actually rewards you for considering whether intimidating or persuading someone is the right thing to do for your character. Just because you can doesn't mean you should - and you can often get what you want without the need for skills, if you approach conversations thoughtfully.
Combat and Companions
Combat in The Outer Worlds feels as good as it has in any Fallout game, though the exchange of time-stopping V.A.T.S. for the time-slowing "dilation" ability of The Outer Worlds makes the game a bit less friendly for non-FPS players. The game is forgiving enough regardless - I had to step up the challenge from normal to hard midway through my playthrough in order to find a more satisfying challenge.
There's also a "Supernova" difficulty that can only be selected from the start of a new playthrough that sounds very frustrating, since it makes companion "deaths" permanent. My companions tended to go down from damage in just about every serious fight, even on normal difficulty, and the fact that they never permanently died, and were able to get back on their feet once all the enemies were dealt with, felt like one of the game's best design decisions. You have some modest control over companion behavior, but the AI isn't anywhere near good enough to justify dealing with reloading every time your allies die.
Companions each have distinct, powerful abilities you can trigger with a button press, and activating these results in a cinematic camera view of the action in combat as your allies shout one-liners and unleash damaging attacks. You can bring two companions with you at a time, out of the six total that you can recruit. Companions can be leveled up as you progress, unlocking new buffs and customization options. Companions give you small bonuses to skills and can be specialized to fight particular kinds of enemies, but most of the time I just brought along the people I needed narratively for particular quests, or who I thought were the most fun, and that worked just fine.
In one of The Outer Worlds' best minor tweaks to the Fallout formula, dialogue abilities like persuasion and intimidation actually have in-combat effects, resulting in automatically applied debuffs depending on the kind of enemies you are facing. It's also worth paying attention to the kind of ammo you are using against different foes, in order to get the most impact from each attack.
Melee combat is always iffy in games like this, but The Outer Worlds does some interesting things with it. Swinging weapons results in multi-hit combos, and progressing up the appropriate skill trees can unlock power attacks or the ability leap forward to quickly close distance with enemies. The dodge and block skills also give you ways to avoid damage in close-combat, all but essential when you're going toe-to-toe with hostile wildlife. So the tools are there for players who want to have some fun with melee in The Outer Worlds - but as is usual for games like this, it feels like a game designed with gunplay in mind first.
Visuals, audio, and stability
At its best, The Outer Worlds serves up incredible, colorful landscapes and planet-filled skies that feel like the covers of classic sci-fi novels. The game can be really beautiful at these times, so it's disappointing that the total visual experience often feels like a letdown by comparison. Playing on a standard PS4, visuals were frequently muddy and indistinct, and texture pop-in was noticeable. The game also struggles with faces and hair - while your companions are pretty strong in this regard, many of the characters you'll meet and stare in the face for conversations are less successful.
The design style of The Outer Worlds feels like Fallout combined with BioShock or Dishonored, but it doesn't feel as memorable or evocative as any of those franchises. Urban environments are often dull, whether you're somewhere on the frontier or in upscale Byzantium itself. Equipment is a mixed bag, with guns that feel good to fire and suitably nasty-looking melee weapons to swing clashing with armor that's bulky and often garishly colored.
You'll find yourself struggling with the classic tension of "looking cool vs. using the best gear," and this is especially a drag when it comes to your companions. You can choose not to display their worn helmets, which is good, but there's sadly no way to keep them in their cool and distinctive outfits without leaving them painfully underarmored for the late game. I want Vicar Max to stay in his religious garb, darn it! It looks better!
Companion voice acting is a high point for The Outer Worlds, and for the most part the game's audio design is solid. The music doesn't stand out, but it never detracts from the game either. Voice acting throughout the game is good more often than it is bad, and different types of guns, firing plasma, or bullets, or even shrink rays, make their own specific and satisfying sounds when fired.
Games like this infamously suffer from bugs at launch, but I didn't encounter any of note in my review playthrough on the PS4. Rough sequencing issues were common, however, with dialogue snippets referring to quests I hadn't started yet or characters opining about life on our party spaceship before they had even ever been on it. These bumps in the road are all minor, but anything that undercuts the generally strong writing in The Outer Worlds is undermining one of the best parts of the experience.