We interrupt our Baldur’s Gate series coverage to bring you an update on a newer shiny object.
(The above video is by Skill Up, one of Youtube’s better reviewers in my opinion)
The below isn’t really a review. If you want to read a review, there a hundred out there. Long story short: it’s good. Some are talking GOTY contender, though that’s the sort of thing people start talking about in October so we’ll see.
Instead, it’s more like a barely-organized complaining vehicle. Obsidian’s Fallout-in-SpaceYes, that description is an oversimplification, but it’s a useful one. game The Outer Worlds has been out for a little over a week now, and its existence is frustrating to me.
Not because it’s a bad game – in fact, it’s quite good, maybe even very good. My only question is, why weren’t we doing this the whole time? What I mean is that between Fallout: New Vegas and this, Obsidian has demonstrated – to my satisfaction at least – that they’re better at making Bethesda games than Bethesda is. It’s been nine years since New Vegas came out, and The Outer Worlds had (apparently) a three-year development cycle, so in a better world we could’ve had three of these by now.
Instead, Bethesda became the 800 pound gorilla of the genre, and Obsidian became the studio that handles sequels, spinoffs, and localizing Russian MMOs. This is a pretty damning indictment of the industry’s ability to allocate financial resources effectively. Of course, there are reasons. Obsidian’s bottom line always smells vaguely of flop sweat, while Todd Howard is an E3 presentation made incarnate in human fleshSay what you want about the guy, but if I had to choose one person to sell my game it would probably be him.. It’s not hard to see why Bethesda is a AAA powerhouse while Obsidian is one of those developers that checks its checking account before it orders a frappaccino. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.
I’m also frustrated because I should have called it sooner. For years I’ve had an informal template for single-player RPG success simmering away in my head. I should have committed it to writing earlier, so I could say “I told you so” now, but better late than never. There are three main steps:
- Establish the tone of the game early: Every good RPG I’ve ever played had an idea of what its tone was going to be. In this case, it comes from the directors, Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, whose pedigrees go back to the original Fallout. (Though in its style of humor and overall vibe of hammy cynicism, The Outer Worlds calls Fallout 2 to mind more than the original game.) In in end it ends up being (perhaps) an overly safe and familiar choice, but when launching a new IP keeping it simple is wise.
- Don’t let the length get out of hand: Obsidian’s old signature was biting off more than they could chew – making games that just weren’t finished. The Outer Worlds is also unfinished, but it’s unfinished in a skillful way. There are several planets on the travel screen you just plain can’t visit. In one town in the final third of the game, fully half of the shops and things were closed in a way that made it seem like they ran out of development time. It’s noticeable, but it doesn’t effect the flow of the game much. They brought this one in for a smoother landing than previous titles. And a tight forty-hour game is, in my opinion, better than a sloppy 80-hour sprawler.
- Use a popular engine that everyone knows: I personally don’t think it’s a coincidence that RPGs are often instantly recognizable by their engines. There was the Infinity Engine era, then Bethesda used Gamebryo (Gamebryo gets a lot of flack, and not without reason, but the fact that Bethesda’s team probably knows its tools like the backs of their hands is an asset). Obsidian used Unity for the Pillars of Eternity series (which I personally very much liked), and now they’ve used Unreal for The Outer Worlds. RPGs have a lot of content, a lot of difficult scripting, and a lot of player freedom. With all that complicating things, you don’t want your engine complicating them further. Just pick one that’s well-supported, well-documented, and whose tools can be learned relatively quickly. Leave developing in-house engines to companies that are more specialized to the task. (Looking at you, EA and Frostbite)
On the off chance that I’m roughly as smart as I think I am, this means that a Bethesda-style AAA powerhouse is not really the ideal RPG developer at all. Back when the game was first announced, Jason Schreier at Kotaku described its publisher Private Division as a “AA” (as opposed to “AAA”) outfit. You don’t often hear of “AA” publishers – instead, everything between “AAA” and “indie” seems to be a giant grey area. But maybe we should. There’s unmet demand in the mid-market.
The combination of all the above makes The Outer Worlds one of the most meta games ever made. This is the part of the piece where I’ll start to get into story spoilers, but I’ll keep them vague and only about the game’s first area.
In The Outer Worlds, the villains are (largely – there are some exceptions) corporate fat cats. Their weakness is not only callousness but ineptitude. The first town has a problem with the plague – before long, you learn that this “plague” is probably just the flu, and it’s probably caused by the fact that the local suits are feeding the colonists a terrible diet made up primarily of artificially processed fish-like substance. Not only is this bad for their health, it’s degrading their industrial machinery, despite numerous attempts by the local engineer to point the problem out.
That pattern persists. Several times, when you finally corner the latest questline’s corporate stooge and prepare to deliver some righteous comeuppance, the game deflates your victory by revealing their real motivation: not malice but a combination of stress, a desperate situation, and run-of-the-mill human incompetence. Sometimes, it feels like a lack of nerve – like they wanted to make a full-bore anticapitalist game but blinked at the last second – but it just as often delivers affecting moments and decisions.
And so while playing The Outer Worlds I sometimes felt like I was roleplaying as Obsidian itself: trying to work within a broken system and frequently ending up in moral/economic quicksand. I have no idea if this was intentional on their part, but fortunately The Author Is Dead and therefore unable to contradict me.
In any case, the game has been critically successful, will probably be commercially successful, and, without giving anything specific away, has a cracking sequel hook. Expansions and a sequel are probably both in the future. In the meantime, earlier today I went to pick my phone up off my desk and was briefly confused when it wasn’t outlined in blue. If you’ve played the game, you’ll probably get that reference. I want to try a science build next.
 Yes, that description is an oversimplification, but it’s a useful one.
 Say what you want about the guy, but if I had to choose one person to sell my game it would probably be him.
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