'The Outer Worlds' Won't Succeed By Bullets Alone

The Outer Worlds is heading toward its October release with a tremendous amount of hype and momentum. The latest project from Obsidian and Private Division has been lauded with E3 awards (including a best of show and best original game) and a foundational amount of loyalty from a fanbase that still talks often about Obsidian's most notable release, Fallout: New Vegas. That DNA is spread across The Outer Worlds like it's the dashboard of a white 1992 Ford Bronco. It's dystopian sci-fi at its finest, full of scathing criticism and parody aimed at runaway capitalism.

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Take Two // Obsidian

The Outer Worlds sits atop a precarious crest in its pre-release lifecycle. A promising game, sure, but one that also shepherds the hopes of RPG fans who see western-style single player offerings heading towards extinction. In an era of DLC and Battle Royales and in-game currency the single player RPG represents more risk, less reward, on the balance sheets for publishers. So as I settled in at Take Two's corporate HQ in New York for an extended demo of The Outer Worlds, I wanted to see a game that would show the world this beloved genre is still worth visiting.

I loved my first demo of The Outer Worlds at E3, which was also the first 45 minutes of my second demo. Unfortunately I can't divulge the details because it's literally the start of the game and Obsidian doesn't want the press to spoil what is a fantastic introduction into the sardonic, absurd tone prevalent throughout The Outer Worlds storytelling. I only saw glimpses of that tone in the bulk of my second demo, which was an extended foray on the planet Monarch. Monarch is a later-in-the-game area with lots of enemies, and the character build for the demo was fairly generic. I had loads of guns and ammo too. I needed them.

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Take Two // Obsidian

For me, the promise of The Outer Worlds lies in it's dialogue trees and character work. Anyone hankering for a New Vegas style experience likely feels the same way. Obsidian isn't known as an FPS developer, they're known for top notch RPG work. I can see it in the world-building. The Outer Worlds entire conceit, a forgotten castaway in a galaxy ruled by corporations, is utterly dripping with satirical intention.

It doesn't come across as preachy, either, because the humor works so well. You're laughing AT the pointed critiques of the broken bones of modernity, instead of living in anxiety because of them (think Twitter). It's a world ruled by branding, where every corporate identity serves as mandate for the details of daily lives. People define themselves by who they work for, and corporate charters are indistinguishable from constitutions.Try to imagine what our world would look like with more capitalism and marketing, and you'll start to understand the framework for The Outer Worlds.

But it was shot full of holes. Literally.

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Take Two // Obsidian

So much time in my demo was spent on combat. I encountered several Manta Queens, hulking insectoid matriarchs that spew toxic insect swarms and swipe with jagged claws. There were human foes too, mostly nondescript space bandits with no personality or humanity attached, a real bummer in a game so full of strong characters. The difficulty on normal was substantial; I had to employ some strategy to succeed. So The Outer Worlds isn't a simple-minded shooter, there are mechanics at play that add to the challenge which is a good thing. But the combat isn't as inventive or distinct as the writing and the story. And the more of it I did, the less of it I wanted.

Instead I wanted to return to settlements to talk to NPCs who drop great lines like calling someone "crust all the way through." Companion banter definitely helps when you're out in the wilds, and the NPCs I encountered were dynamic and exciting. Again, the combat isn't bad per se, but it's generic. And in a game dripping with personality and brand awareness, generic is worthless.

I still think The Outer Worlds is going to be a good, probably great (maybe even GOTY) game. The combat left me feeling flat, but my hope is that it's because I had zero investment in my character. It was all game, no role-playing, and that's an ingredient you simply cannot include in a demo. The Outer Worlds will be at it's best if players can feel real attachment to their character, and their companions, so combat becomes more personal. It is full of decisions, but the stakes aren't clear. They'll come into focus when The Outer Worlds releases on October 25. Until then all we can do is hope the RPG we saw turns into the RPG we want. Corporations be damned.