The Outer Worlds’ two glorious flaws (and why I love them)

I’m still enjoying every moment playing through Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds, although I haven’t been able to zip through this game as quickly as some due to time limitations and recent illnesses. Still, it’s been one of the best purchases I’ve made this year, and I’ve read not just a few articles discussing its world and design.

What is most interesting to me are two commonly cited “flaws” that seem to run counter to most big-budget CRPGs these days. The first is the lack of romance options with your companions, and the second is the relatively quickly playthrough time (something like 20 to 25 hours).

I, for one, am deeply glad for both of these flaws. I don’t even see them as flaws. Let me explain.

For starters, I think romancing companions was super novel and interesting back when BioWare was doing it in Baldur’s Gate 2, but these days it’s felt like this very forced system that players demand but are not satisfied with when they get it. Why? Because it’s really silly to gamify romantic relationships with computer characters. You stop interacting with those characters the way you’d actually want to and instead try to pick the one option that will push your “love meter” further. You bend your will to, let’s face it, seducing them so that you can get the satisfaction of… what, exactly? A tepid bedroom scene, a murmur of heartfelt love, and then exactly zero follow-up to that romance then after?

I’ve never seen an RPG, MMO or otherwise, really explore a romantic relationship in depth between a player and NPC. There are no spats, no marriages, no dates, nothing except this seduction mini-game. It’s unsatisfying, yet it’s become so expected that people have a snit fit when it’s not there.

So yeah, I’m glad The Outer World decided to chuck that away, because it is far more interesting to just interact with your companions the way you want to and develop friendships with them. My crew is great, each one with his, her, or its own wonky personality. I can help them with their own storylines or not, but if I do, I’m not doing it to get into the sack with them. That feels far more realistic.

The size of the game is absolutely fine with me too, because I’m far past the point in my life when a 100-hour CRPG feels manageable. You know how much people have been pushing The Witcher 3 on me? I keep nibbling at that game, but its combat system (which I’ve disliked in all the Witcher titles) and its sheer size keeps me at bay.

Let me put it this way: I don’t want to play a big game just because it’s big. I’d always, always prefer a smaller, more hand-crafted RPG world that had a density of detail and a good pace of storytelling from start to finish. Chrono Trigger is a great example of this, as it is only a 16 hour RPG (more or less) that is incredibly replayable and delightfully designed.

That’s what The Outer Worlds is. It’s not huge. Most of its areas aren’t massive. But they are well-designed and a lot of fun to explore, and I feel more relaxed without the pressure of a scandalously big world map pressuring me to visit All The Places. I have a reasonable shot at finishing this game before the end of the year, and I love that feeling in a CRPG when you do get to the end. Don’t get it that often, and never with MMOs.

So yeah, Obsidian, you make your own games and don’t let the way we’ve always done things determine the course of your design. It’s made this game better for it.

The Outer Worlds is the Firefly Futurama Fallout RPG I’ve always wanted

You know a game is good when, after about an hour into playing it, you want to slow down and savor it as much as possible so that you don’t get to the end too quickly. That’s exactly how I felt my first evening in The Outer Worlds and, a week later, that feeling hasn’t gone away. This is an amazingly fun and well-done RPG.

I should have expected as much, seeing as how this comes from Obsidian, which has made a focus on building CRPGs that people end up loving to death. Even its early delegated sequels — KOTOR II and Fallout New Vegas — were acclaimed despite being bug-festooned messes. Obsidian’s gotten better from there, and I had a great time going through Pillar of Eternity last year (although I haven’t touched the sequel yet).

So The Outer Worlds is this year’s entry, and it’s a doozy. It’s pretty much a game if the TV show Firefly, Fallout New Vegas, and maybe Futrama got together and made a very odd child. Right off the bat, I adored two key features: Its western motifs (mixed with early 1900s-style marketing) and its lack of, as someone on Twitter put it, “space magic.” Apart from a bullet time feature, everything your character does in combat is either shooting, slicing, or bashing, and I am glad for that.

For my first run-through — and I’ve already decided that I have to do more than one playthrough — I made a generally nice character who scored high on people skills and had a knack for lockpicking and hacking. The character creation process in Outer Worlds is pretty well-done, offering a lot of choice and possibilities before you get into the game proper. I wanted as many dialog options and open doors as possible, hence my priorities. You do get additional skill points per level and one perk every two levels, so growth happens at a good pace.

It also helps that this is a good-looking game. It’s colorful, exaggerated, and just slightly stylized enough to keep it from looking like other titles. Probably what drew me in so quick was Outer Worlds’ focus on dueling corporations on the frontier of space. There’s about 20 of them, although on the first planet you get to know just one — Spacer’s Choice — very well. There’s some not-so-sly commentary here about corporatization and capitalism run amok, but it’s interesting and thoughtful, and I liked having a lot of options to deal with the weirdness that has settled into the lives of the various characters.

And that art aesthetic! It’s just marvelous. There are hints of 1920s ads and art deco and old print and steampunk and what have you. Even the loading screens are great, often offering a glimpse into the game worlds’ creatures or businesses. Obsidian knocked it out of the park in building a fully realized game world with its own rules and logic that’s easy to grasp and appreciate.

That’s why I wanted to take my time and really poke into as much of this as possible. I’m sure some people blitzed though this game, but it took me over a week just to get off the starting planet because I explored everything and did all of the quests and tasks.

Sometimes I’d even double-back and talk to various characters again to see if I had unlocked any further dialogue with them. A bartender at the first town’s saloon particularly caught my interest, because she opens up enough to share that she originally had her sights set on a science-filled career of exploration before she fell into the company line and became a recluse in her own establishment.

Combat in The Outer Worlds is standard first-person shooter (or melee) stuff. I’m not the best at this without wasting a lot of ammo, but there are ways to compensate for that — the time dialation feature and weapon mods certainly help. I often would pause time to get a sense of where everyone was before making my first move. You also get companions to help out, and since they can’t permanently die (not on normal mode, at least), I have no compunction letting them be bullet sponges while I pick off the bad guys from the side.

So far, I really only have two complaints, and both are small. The first is that there is no option here to revert to a third-person perspective, as Obsidian didn’t have the budget for it. That’s really unfortunate considering how much time you can put into creating your character’s looks and finding cool-looking armor. The second complaint is that it’s far more awkward than it should be to compare stats on gear. I bet both of these will be fixed with time.

Here’s hoping that The Outer Worlds will be a smash hit and warrant some good DLC in the future, because this is definitely a world that I want to see expanded.