This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews The Outer Worlds.
Prologue: Will Save the Galaxy for Cash
My latest book in the Jacques McKeown saga, Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash, is available now from audible.com! As an audiobook. Obviously. That's kind of their whole thing.
Obsidian (the developer, not the igneous rock) have a weird relationship with the other veteran Western RPG developers. Bethesda (the developer, not the pool of water in Jerusalem; thanks Wikipedia) put out Fallout 3, and everyone complains it just doesn't have the depth of the classic Fallouts, so Obsidian tootles by and goes, "Hey, here's Fallout: New Vegas! Ain't no biggie; just basically what you did but with the depth put back in. Got any bottoms you'd like daddy to wipe while we're here?!" And then BioWare (the developer, not the... ware) makes Mass Effect Andromeda, a sci-fi RPG about a struggling human colony in distant space, which is generally received like two pints of cold sick in a leaky bag, and Obsidian's like, "What was that? We were just making a sci-fi RPG about a struggling human colony in distant space that's got depth and a sense of humor and a retro-futurist theme and shit." They're like the one smarmy asshole on The Price Is Right who bids one dollar below the last guy and goes home with the big prize.
"Retro-futurism again, is it, Yahtz?" Yes it is, Yahtz, but you know, I can't fault it for being nostalgic for basically any time period other than the current one, in which half of us will die in climate disasters and the other half will get bombed by foreign despots because they called up the president and asked him nicely if they could. "Fallout's pretty retro-futurist, isn't it, Yahtz?" How correct and handsome of you to bring that up, Yahtz. Yes, if the air raid warning has just sounded and you can't watch the rest of this video, The Outer Worlds is, in brief, a Fallout game IN SPAAAACE!
We emerge from our Vault, I mean colony ship, and have to go out into a big, unfamiliar wasteland broken up with settlements, I mean star system consisting of several wastelands broken up with settlements, dealing with warring factions and killing radioactive mutants, I mean alien wildlife, ultimately in order to save all the other people in your Vault, I mean colony ship, I mean-- oh, just admit it, Vault with thrusters. Also, all the technology looks like it was built by a jukebox designer trapped in a warehouse full of plumbing supplies; the only real difference is the color scheme, which puts me in mind of No Man's Sky vomiting on Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Anyway, the colony is being monopolized by bureaucratic corporations who are gradually bleeding it dry for the sake of maintaining the ultra-capitalist status quo, in a rather on-the-nose metaphor for the current state of the media. What sort of character will you be role-playing as you take on the system: a ruthless warrior who shoots people with a gun, a stealthy thief who shoots people with a gun, or a silver-tongued, manipulative social engineer who shoots people with a gun? Yeah, let's be realistic; you can put points in leadership and persuasion all you want, but there's no pacifying a giant alien scorpion with promises and gift bouquets.
Fallout's characteristic V.A.T.S. aim assist is replaced, rather middleman cutting-outingly, with a basic slow-motion power that the plot can barely summon the effort to explain. "It's a side effect of, I dunno, being cryonically frozen next to the rocket ship ice lollies." And while you can specialize in melee rather than ranged combat, the slow motion ability is a hell of a lot more useful for a gun user; you're almost always fighting multiple targets, so I could just hit slow-mo, pop them all once in the eyeballs, and then dive back into cover while they're readjusting their contact lenses.
Aside from that, the Obsidian-brand depth of player choice is here; you can even side with the corporations if you want, but they are both evil and failing horribly, so it's like betting on the Nazis to win World War II even as Magda Goebbels is biting down on her suicide pill. These kinds of RPGs only ever have two gears: calm, boggling, fixed-eye contact conversations and overblown combat where no one has any concept of self-preservation. It's always a slightly bizarre clash of tones when one flips to the other: one minute, we're all standing straight and defiant, mouthing stiff bravados at each other; the next, everyone's shuffling around the room, holding their guns out and screaming. The NPC AI can never seem to think of anything to do except run right up to their target, firing their gun like a child anxious for their parent to look at the incredibly dangerous object they just found.
And the same is true of your NPC assistants; I was trying to sneak through one mission with all those stealth points I insisted on getting, and was about halfway through when I felt the need to try to take down a guard with a stealth attack, but the moment I did so, my AI assistant screamed, "IT'S A FIGHT!" and ran back into the room I just snuck through to pick a fight with all the dudes in it. Now, I did notice after this point that I could change their AI from aggressive to defensive mode, but then I forgot to change it back and would be in the middle of a of a pitched gun battle later, only to turn around and see the pair of them standing there, tanking bullets, staring at me like a pair of fucking dogs who were confused as to why I won't let them up on the couch. Sorry, who are you people again?
I don't feel invested in my party members as characters, because all of them feel like random dudes who invited themselves onto my crew one day; I didn't see any of them do anything that marked them as exceptional, largely because no one can do anything, at least not in front of you. As I said, the game can only show you people talking while standing stiff-as-boards or fighting to the death, like a theater that mistakenly double-booked a Greek drama alongside a kickboxing tournament, so all that they can do to establish character is verbally explain their personalities. "You can always not bother with party members, Yahtz." What, and lose my "+10 bonus to engineering" skill checks?!
I talk shit, but I did willingly finish the game. I prefer the game world being divided into multiple planets to the one big wasteland sandbox; it meant that the environment can unfold alongside the plot, and I don't feel overwhelmed by it all being dropped on me at once like a marshmallow duvet. I can report to all those Fallout fans who consider it important that yes, there's an epilogue that explains what happens to all the lives you saved/ruined, and yes, you can murder absolutely any NPC you can physically reach and then the plot will clutch its temples for a few moments before finding a way to struggle on, regardless; which is only fair, because engaging with the plot was a bit of a struggle for me, too, even besides all the telling without showing.
Unfreezing all my fellow Vault Dwellers is the initial, overarching goal, but I fail to see how having 500 more whimsical murderers around would help anything. Eventually, it turns out that the system is unsustainable and the corporations are going to bureaucracy the whole colony to death, but what the fuck am I supposed to do?! I'm a freelance adventurer; come back when there's a threat that I can have a swordfight with! Essentially, the game has to pull a big villain out of its arse in the last hour or so for the sake of a final boss fight. Maybe it was a mistake to try to gel the dashing-space-captain thing with the on-the-nose-societal-commentary thing; Flash Gordon crash-lands on an alien planet because he got shot down by villains, not because the insurance company kept contesting his maintenance costs.
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