A Review of The Outer Worlds: A Parrot wearing the skin of Fallout: New Vegas
I’ve never been a fan of the Fallout games. I played Fallout 3 a few years after it came out, got bored with the storyline pretty much immediately, and didn’t really find the open world interesting enough to explore. Chasing after your Dad was a really boring idea to me, especially after spending a few hours in Fallout 3’s infamously terribly intro level in which dear old Dad proved himself to be generic and uninteresting. And when I inevitably decided that wasn’t worth my time, the vast wasteland didn’t have anything worth looking into.
You know. Because it’s a wasteland.
In the years after I played 3, Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 came out, and just a surface level look at those reinforced my belief that the series just wasn’t for me. So when someone mentioned to me that Fallout: New Vegas, a game built from the same engine and using a lot of the assets from Fallout 3, was actually a good game, I just assumed they were remembering it with rose-tinted glasses.
About a year ago, youtuber HBomberguy released a video called “Fallout: New Vegas is Genius, and here’s why.” As the name implies, it’s a deep dive into why New Vegas is a good game, and since HBomberguy’s style of thorough Video Essay mixed with incredulous comedy is something I enjoy I went ahead and watched the video. His enthusiam and design breakdown endeared the game to me, and after a generous follower on twitter gifted me the game, I finally gave New Vegas a chance.
Fallout: New Vegas is one of the most interesting and fun games I’ve ever played, easily in my top 10 best games of all time at the moment. I’m still not a huge fan of the setting and visual style, but the narrative of the game sucked me right in. Not because the story is inherently exciting (three factions are trying to control New Vegas. You have a McGuffin that will help decide who wins), but because of what the game has to say.
Spoilers for Fallout: New Vegas below. If you haven’t played it, you should give it a shot, it’s really cheap on Steam, and goes on sale every 10 minutes.
Each of the factions has a specific view of how the world should be. The Legion, a group of Ancient Rome LARPers, believe that civilization should emulate the society of Imperial Rome. Meanwhile, the NCR wants to emulate the United States, with full representative democracy. The third choice, Mr. House, has a more libertarian belief that focuses on those with wealth and power taking control of society and shaping it in their image.
Fallout: New Vegas doesn’t shy away from the pros and cons of all of these options. The Legion is brutal and dictatorial, with many characters in their own ranks having horror stories about how the Legion destroyed their homes and humiliated them until they joined them. But traders you speak to talk about how much they love trading in Legion territory, because their roads are safer and the Legion is more reliable about their purchases. The NCR is a representative democracy, but all of their leaders are openly corrupt, chasing their own objectives and only really supporting the rich brahmin barons that hold all the economic power in their territories. Because of this, their territory is actually really dangerous because all of their resources are devoted to these out of the way corrupt objectives. Mr. House controls New Vegas, and while it is one of the few places in the world with electricity and entertainment, the lands just outside of New Vegas are barren and filled with bandits. Even inside the city, the poor are literally gunned down if they try to get into New Vegas Proper without paying an exhorbitant fee. And each of the factions have something to say about the others, pointing out their shortcomings and explaining how their system makes up for them.
Every part of New Vegas has something to say and ideas to explore, but New Vegas never tells you what to think about those ideas. It gives you the opportunity to explore these ideas and what you think about them, and it doesn’t judge you based on what decision you make. The story just goes on with whatever decision you decide, extrapolating it to it’s logical conclusion. It’s one of the few video game RPGs that actually feels like you’re a part of the world and can make an actual impact within it.
And so when I found out The Outer Worlds was a spiritual successor to FO:NV, made by the same company that made New Vegas and with the creators of Fallout 1 and 2 on the development team, I was really excited. This was a chance for Obsidian (the development company for both games) to explore complex ideas outside of an established setting. The Outer Worlds could prove to be an even better game than FO:NV. So, I bought a new PC and a copy of The Outer Worlds and gave it a shot.
The Outer Worlds takes the Future Wild West aesthetic of New Vegas and catapults it into the stars, giving you a variety of new worlds to explore and a Corporate Owned Society to do quests in. It also has a sense of humor about it, constantly making little jokes about how much living in such a world would suck.
Unfortunately, The Outer Worlds is a bad game.
I don’t mean mechanically. The game mechanics are actually pretty solid, but that’s because they are a carbon copy of the mechanics from FO:NV. The mechanical changes are so minute that they are almost not worth mentioning; lock picking no longer has a mini-game associated with it (you just hold down a button until the lock opens), and instead of picking traits during character creation, you are given opportunities to take them after certain conditions are met.
No, what makes The Outer Worlds so bad is entirely wrapped up in the narrative. The story is less interesting than FO:NV, which should have been difficult: a guy thaws you out and says you need to go get the chemicals he needs to thaw out your fellow colonists. That’s it. The core narrative is just a fetch quest.
More important that the disappointing narrative, how you interact with that narrative is equally boring. Gone are the well thought out choices of FO:NV, now every choice you make is both thoughtless and meaningless. Every time you are given the opportunity to make a decision, and the opportunities are few and far between, the choice you make has next to no influence on the world at large. As an example, let’s take a look at one of the first quests in OW
The Outer Worlds Spoilers Ahead
To get off of the first planet you find yourself on, you have to replace the power supply for the ship you end up getting. So you travel to the next town, a Company Town owned and operated by Spacer’s Choice, and find out that while they don’t have a spare power supply, you could take one from a botanical facility nearby. However, that facility is currently being used by job deserters as a new home away from the town, and if you take the power supply from them they will have to return to the town. You’re given a companion, and told to redirect the power to the faction you decide.
On the surface, this sounds like an interesting choice: Do you force the job deserters to come back to the Company Town by taking their power away, putting them back under the thumb of the corporation but giving them better shelter and protection from the wilderness and raiders? Or, do you take the power away from the town, forcing the company to abandon it and all the people who live there, freeing them from corporate domination?
Unfortunately, the specifics are where things fall apart. You find out that the reason for the job deserters having left is because the leader of the company town let a man die because it wasn’t in the best interest of the company to heal him. The leader of the job deserters is the mother of the man that died, but she also uses the corpses of humans to fertilize the soil so that the deserters can grow food. And so a difficult philosophical decision is reduced to a pissing contest; do you support one woman’s spite, or not? Not that the reason for your decision matters at all, as the only explanations you are allowed to give for it, regardless of who you choose, are “Because I hate you, specifically,” and “I don’t have to justify my actions.”
Whats more, when you finally finish the quest and make your decision… nothing happens. You can convince the job deserters to go home, but that’s a separate decision outside of the scope of the quest. The most intense thing that can come up in this quest while making your decision is that you can offer to kill the Company Town’s leader, but only after you make the decision to cut power to the botanical facility. This option is given at the exact moment that you find out that he let someone die, with no pre-amble or build up, as you’re already committed to helping the guy.
But more importantly, it doesn’t matter what you choose. If you choose to power the botanical facility, the town gets a little angry but is ultimately unchanged. If you choose to power the town, you make the woman in charge of the deserters mad, but no one goes back (don’t worry, there’s another quest you can do where you find out that none of the deserters actually want to desert their jobs, they just like the old woman). The most effect you can have is you can murder the guy in charge of the town, but if you do that just means the old woman is in charge of both places, which stay populated.
Spoilers for Outer Worlds over.
And that’s the mindset that the rest of the game stays in: All choices are the same, nothing can or should change, the status quo is how it is because that’s just what people naturally gravitate towards, any deviation from the status quo is usually a single person’s fault, and the status quo can be restored if you just kill that specific person. While the game constantly cracks jokes about how much Hyper-Capitalism sucks, there is no way to influence the world to function any other way. Where as FO:NV would have seen something like the homeless population of Groundbreaker forming a society of their own away from the corporate owned and operated sections of the station as something to explore and potentially influence, OW simply calls them insane, makes them into cartoonish murderers, and treats that as just “the way things are.” In summary, OW simply has nothing to say about anything, treating sardonic detachment as the only legitimate way to view the world.
So how did that happen? How did the company that made FO:NV end up making the wet fart that is OW? After all, as the PR went at the time, it was being made by some of the crew from FO:NV, the creators of the Fallout franchise were part of the development team, and Obsidian was putting a ton of effort into it. By all rights, OW had everything going for it and should have been fantastic.
I was curious, so I did a little bit of digging. As it turns out, “some of the crew that made FO:NV” actually means roughly 6 people from the level design and art teams. None of the writing team was brought back. The Game Director roles was given to Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, and while that sounds like it should have been a great idea, Tim Cain has never actually had any other Director roles (he was the Producer and Lead Programmer of Fallout 1), and while Boyarsky is credited as the Project Lead of Vampire: The Masquerade, he was not the Creative Director, and has had no other Director or Project Lead roles.
None of the FO:NV’s writers were brought, not it’s creative lead, not it’s project co-ordinator… just some artists and programmers. And I don’t mean to put down their work; they did an excellent job of bringing the visual and mechanical essense of FO:NV to OW. But without the writers, directors, or any of the creative team, any spiritual successor (to any game) has to rely entirely on their team interpreting what the good parts of the original were and translating that to the new game. Unfortunately,it’s very clear that the creative team of OW did not know what the core experience of FO:NV was about.
And so instead of a spiritual successor to FO:NV, we were given a moderately competant action-shooter wearing the skin of FO:NV parroting similar talking points without really understanding what it was saying.