Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout: New Vegas (2010), published by Bethesda Softworks, was a Godsend for the company critically, if not financially. The relatively small studio, known for franchise tie-ins such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II (2004) and South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014), fell into dire straits this time last decade. New Vegas, somewhat infamously, failed to meet an agreed-upon Metacritic score by just one point, meaning Bethesda withheld a considerable monetary bonus. Layoffs, cutbacks, and cancellations followed. If not for fundraising platform Kickstarter, where New Vegas creative director Josh Sawyer placed their recently-cancelled Pillars of Eternity (2015), the studio would have gone bankrupt. Since then, Obsidian Entertainment have produced multiple original games including Tyranny (2016) and Grounded (2020), currently in early access. None, though, caught audiences’ attentions as much as The Outer Worlds (2019).
Announced in 2018, The Outer Worlds had a trailer boldly declaring it as from “the developers of FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS” and “the original creators of FALLOUT”. The directors were Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, both of whom helped create the original Fallout in 1997 for Interplay Entertainment, though the franchise has long since been Bethesda property. The game diverges from Obsidian’s recent releases, top-down isometrics with a smaller, cult following. The Outer Worlds is a first-person action-RPG similar in form to the much-loved New Vegas – and it was their attempt to regain ground in the RPG landscape, using their Fallout links to do so. How much did this pan out, though? How good is the game itself, intentionally standing in the shadow of its 2010 spiritual predecessor?
It takes place in the future, after humanity has discovered the means to migrate across the stars, in what’s been named the Halcyon Colony. Don’t expect teleports, warp drives, or aliens, though. It’s a distinctly human place, filled with distinctly human characters, plagued by distinctly human forces. Scarcity, poverty, and inequality dominate. Instead of intergalactic wars (think Mass Effect), there’s territorial and ideological squabbles mired in blood and bureaucracy (think, well – think New Vegas). The Board, a collection of Earth mega-corporations huddled together in the depths of space after purchasing rights to an entire solar system, run an Orwellian corporate hellhole. A place where the individual is only worth their profitability for the company that owns them.
The storytelling’s a conscious mix of “[Boyarsky’s] dark morbidity and [Cain’s] silliness”. The satire is nowhere near subtle, but back in the 21st century not even reality has to be lowkey – in early 2020 (before the game had been released on Switch, the console I played on) Elon Musk casually suggested a form of indentured servitude for workers on his proposed Mars base very similar to the way the Board runs Halcyon. The player, under the moniker of The Captain, travels through the colony, fixing conflicts, shooting, looting, and generally causing chaos. This can be on behalf of the Board, or their foil – the mad Dr Phineas Welles, with a slightly unhinged plan to unseat the corporations and save the colony from certain doom.
Players of the modern Fallout games, or any 3D RPG, will have no trouble grasping the mechanics. You begin building your character – skill points and traits have been retained, as have perks on alternating level-ups, but there’s a new addition with the Flaw system. After repeatedly taking damage, say from robot NPCs, you’re given the option to develop a phobia of robots, accepting in-game weaknesses against that enemy type in exchange for an extra perk. It’s a new development, adding a fresh dimension to character builds. While these dynamics are overall smoother than New Vegas, the wording can make them more complicated to understand (the frankly-overdesigned UI doesn’t help either).
From there, you’re given a dilemma – you need a sci-fi McGuffin to start your new ship, and you’ll have to take one from the dying corporate township Edgewater or a new worker commune across the map, and whichever town you take it from will be doomed. Whereas New Vegas offered a variable list of solutions for any given problem, as well as four plot directions as opposed to the two on offer here, almost all choices in the game boil down to this decision; support the Board or work against them, by proxy supporting Welles. You could argue it’s streamlined the format, but in reality, I feel this has limited the scope of storytelling and player choice – there’s also often a third avenue, one the game takes as the best of both worlds; by magically making two or more NPCs with opposing worldviews agree on a reformist solution, one that benefits both parties equally. This seems to be for players opposed to the Board’s organisation but uncomfortable with the revolutionary Welles, though the ultimate choice does come down to them.
From there, you’ll find resource disputes between militants, businesses, and revolutionaries, plagued-workers toiling away in collapsing factories, landscapes and creatures mutated by Board terraforming attempts. There’s corporate espionage to undertake, blood to be spilled and always a profit to be made. It’s the style of open-world storytelling honed with New Vegas, establishing the factions, issues, and ideas underpinning a fictional world before letting the player make their own way – however you choose. Out in The Outer Worlds though, it’s no-where near as effective as the tone, stakes, and themes Obsidian established in New Vegas, which had a depth of storytelling many games today still struggle to surpass.
In Edgewater, you’ll find two of the six companions throughout the game – asexual mechanic Parvati (Ashly Burch, Life is Strange) and Vicar Max (Dave B. Mitchell), with a religious mission and a dark past. There’s also pirate/doctor Ellie (Victoria Sanchez), rebel-without-a-cause Felix (Jonathon Silver) and alcoholic monster-hunter Nyoka (Mara Junot). You can also repair and recruit the cheerful cleaning robot SAM (Bruce Dinsmore). Each companion is well-conceived, with dialogue and voice acting that sparkles throughout. It’s still uncommon to have good character writing and voice acting in games, and the companions are given more weight here than any Fallout game to date. The humans have personal quests and differing takes on what needs to be done in the Colony, though an overtly-Board-aligned companion is missing. Regardless of your choices every companion will follow you to the ends of the Earth, but they’re easily the highpoint of the game, and it would feel significantly emptier without them.
A base game playthrough takes around 30 hours, but I remember feeling underwhelmed as the credits rolled on my first time, theme tune playing triumphantly (the score by Justin E. Bell is incredible though, beautifully conveying the scope and tone). Enemy types quickly become repetitive and tiresome – creatures, robots, or marauders; humans who left Board society and became criminals, brains melted by drugs you can use in-game, though not to a similar effect. Weapons, either falling into Guns or Melee, also begin repeating themselves and there is few truly unique or exciting weaponry worth using. The feeling I was left with was wanting more. More solutions to quests, weapons to use, worlds to explore. I waited patiently for the DLC (each around 10 hours of gametime) in the hopes they would expand upon the game, giving me more of it – the New Vegas DLC similarly expanded upon the base game, giving new levels of depth to the world and story.
The first DLC, Peril on Gorgon, was released in 2020. After the murder of a freelancer, the player’s sent to an abandoned facility the Gorgon asteroid, owned by one of the corporations, in search of answers as to what happened there. It was developing the brain-melting drug, but research was plagued by poor planning and lack of funding – Gorgon fell to the marauders and the drug was released in a dangerous state, though still with the potential to increase productivity. This is my favourite DLC of the two, with a distinct tone and visual style, featuring the first video game plot for years I’ve felt invested in. It’s worth picking up if you wanted more of the game.
The second, Murder on Eridanos (2021), has an Agatha Christie-style set-up involving the killing of a celebrity while launching a new alcoholic drink. It devolves into a secret plot to infect Halcyon with alien brain-worms that could cure the colony of its unhappiness. If it sounds similar to Peril on Gorgon, that’s because it is. It’s strange that both expansions follow the same story and reveals. Eridanos is the most underwhelming piece of the Outer Worlds story so far – as a finale to the first game, nothing could sum it up better than when I was faced with its final boss. By standing still and shooting for a solid 45 seconds of engaging gameplay, the giant worm creature died unimpressively. I didn’t even have to reload my gun.
The Outer Worlds promised lots. It delivered on a fair amount and, while it was never going to be as good as Fallout: New Vegas is retrospectively viewed, it’s a refreshing and inviting action-RPG that I’ll happily replay from time to time, if only for the world and characters. As with any Obsidian ending though, there’s an unseen stinger; The Outer Worlds 2 was announced before Eridanos was released on Switch. With Microsoft’s acquirement of Obsidian and the establishment of a new franchise, there’s a possibility it could be an X-Box and PC exclusive – meaning Murder on Eridanos might well be the final bit of the Outer Worlds story many players get. Which would suck; both the game itself and Obsidian as a studio are better than that.