Frontier capitalism - a surprisingly fun recipe.
I didn't bother writing a "Quarter 4 games I'm looking forward to" piece this year. I thought about one, then looked at the games that were coming out at the back end of this year and realised that there were depressingly few that I was even remotely interested in. After the massive disappointment of Anthem back in March, the tone for 2019 has been set - game after game failed to grab me in the way I expected, while lots of smaller things filled those spaces. Early footage of Borderlands 3 left me completely unengaged, convinced that I'd already played it back in 2012 when Borderlands 2 launched. I couldn't see a single thing about Death Stranding that looked appealing - even the star-power of Hideo Kojima failed to really draw my attention (I've long thought his stuff seriously over-rated). Modern Warfare, while pretty, just committed too many sins that I can't and won't support with my wallet. With no Assassin's Creed or Forza Horizon this year, Q4 was looking pretty empty.
There was one game though, sat there. A glimmering beacon of possibility shining in among the vacuum - and that was The Outer Worlds.
It had been on my radar since it was announced at the Game Awards back in December of 2018. An Obsidian developed first person role-playing game? Yes please. We haven't had one of those since Fallout: New Vegas - and it's the kind of game that the world feels like it needs. A game with a message, delivered with some cynical humour, a load of gameplay options, wrapped up in an art style that's going to age REALLY well? Sign me up.
Apart from finishing off my playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda and South Park: The Fractured But Whole, I haven't really touched an RPG in quite a while - and it's even longer since I touched one that was the first entry in a franchise. One that had to establish not only characters and motivations, but a whole universe for a story to breathe and exist in. I watched each trailer as it dropped, kept up with developer videos, and tried to keep in check the excitement that was building for it. Obsidian - for all their phenomenal writing and narrative weaving capabilities - are a studio with a dodgy technical reputation. A lot of their games are gloriously buggy, and I guess that was the main fear I had for The Outer Worlds. I was hoping it would function, and give me what I was craving going into winter; the opportunity dream up a character who behaves nothing like me, and run around creating havoc in a world I've never seen before. I was thinking that The Outer Worlds just might be the game that could make that possible for me. A game that would drive conversations at work like Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas did several years ago. A game full of shades of grey, with opportunities to be played in whatever way I saw fit in the moment.
It doesn't disappoint.
The Outer Worlds drips passion. Passion for its world, passion for its subject matter (basically: evil corporations are evil, mmmkay... but mostly because we let them be that way). Its characters feel real, grounded within the tale that's spinning out around them. The setting is heavily inspired by the Firefly TV show (not in any way a bad thing - and an influence it wears on its sleeve), and the gameplay itself is a cross between that of Fallout and Mass Effect; successfully lifting the best elements of both of those games and crushing them together into something that feels simultaneously familiar and new. To give a few more details; the quest structure and the writing is pure Fallout. The dialogue is wonderfully written and delivered - and the responses you can offer have made me laugh out loud more than once. The quests are open ended in that you can deal with them in a variety of ways - I've lied, cheated, stolen and betrayed my way through more than one - playing people off against one another, cheating both parties out of goodies they were after and leaving them each blaming the other for an apparent double cross. It's not the first game I've played that's allowed me to do it, but The Outer Worlds seems to positively revel in allowing you to solve quests in ways that don't involve "collect item at point A, deliver to point B, hold X, kill bad guys, rinse and repeat until the credits roll." I've completed confrontational missions without firing a shot; and I've also killed everyone when no violence was really required, but doing so felt like something my character would do.
The Mass Effect influence makes itself felt with the use of your cargo ship - "The (Un)Reliable" - acting as a travelling hub. You use it to navigate to the different worlds, and to develop your relationships with your crew. Like Mass Effect, each of your crew members has their own back story, and their own reasons and motivations for coming with you. Some of these are positive, life-affirming reasons... many of them are as jaded and cynical as you'd expect from the universe the game builds. What they all have in common though is that they're well thought out, well written, entertaining and, perhaps most importantly (and unusually!), interesting. It continues into allowing you to select two companions (out of six possible) to accompany you on each mission - you can select load outs and control (to a degree) how aggressively they commit themselves to combat. Their abilities are different enough that it's worth trying them all out.
Each world you visit has a distinct feeling - both in terms of its appearance, and in terms of the company colonies that you find there. Each company has its own new and innovative ways of reducing its employees to indentured servants. For a game that's "non-political" it's actually quite a political setup - and one that will challenge the player to question their own perception of what is and is not acceptable in the world. It manages to do this without ever really feeling as though it expects to you to reach a particular conclusion based on the evidence laid out before you - instead, it expects the player, as an adult, to decide which version of morality they choose to follow and then inflict upon the world. Let's put it this way - if you assume that everyone in this universe views 'slavery' in the same negative light that you do (I'll go ahead and assume you feel that way...), you might experience a few surprises. And they'll likely stop you in your tracks and give you pause for thought. I think the whole "non-political" nature of the game is part of what allows it to do this; that and the quality of its writing. At any rate, it's another interesting layer of the onion that this game is.
I'm really looking forward to seeing where it takes me - and to whatever comes next for Obsidian.