The Outer Worlds hands-on preview – Firefly meets Fallout
GameCentral gets to play the new game from two of the co-creators of Fallout, in Obsidian’s black-humoured sci-fi epic.
The Outer Worlds are not a place for the faint-hearted. Colonised by heartless corporations and their sycophantic lackeys, and infested with ferocious mantisaurs, raptidons, and heavily armed marauders – the latter a sort of Mad Max-ish wasteland inhabitant – the Halcyon system is a brutal frontier land in space. You’re new in town and will need to acclimatise in a hurry.
After a solid showing at E3, The Outer Worlds is in its final months of development, making this a fascinating moment to give it a spin. We started from a save point a few hours into the game to best sample the delights of its Wild West-flavoured space opera. Beginning in a brightly coloured wilderness of radioactive swamps, glowing sulphur pools, poisonous plants, and howling local fauna, we started by making our way towards the well signposted local town of Stellar Bay.
One of the first things you notice when wandering the beautiful but deadly landscapes is that you’re not alone, but have two companions with you. Although they’re computer-controlled, they’re also persistent, allowing you to crew your spaceship and also giving you a range of different options as you go about completing quests and solving problems for Halcyon’s inhabitants. You’re perfectly welcome to use the game’s noisy, precise-feeling gunplay and handy bullet time effect to straighten out messes, but there’s always another way.
‘Companions are wonderful because they give the player a connection to the world that as a newcomer you wouldn’t necessarily have. They’re characters who grow and journey with you and have their own arcs alongside yours’, senior narrative designer Carrie Patel told us.
This was a feature noticeable in even throwaway conversations, where they would chip in with pieces of local knowledge or indeed just to have their say. ‘All of them have joined you because for some reason or another they don’t really fit in the world, so they’re outsiders sort of like you are’, explains Patel.
As well as crewing your ship with a Firefly-esque band of misfits, companions also open up new ways of completing quests and objectives. Senior designer Brian Heins described how that works: ‘They have things like engineering, lock-picking, hacking, so all of those can contribute to your ability to explore areas… you’ll see some options where there’s a silhouette of a character next to a response. That’s showing that you wouldn’t have been able to meet that requirement yourself, but your companion is helping you to do that.’
Roaming the wasteland with our companions gamely helping to gun down marauders and local predators, there were plenty of settlements to explore, both large and small. As well as having their own distinct character, they all had a dusty, Western frontier town feel, where law and order is only a thin veneer on a rampaging lawlessness just underneath. They’re also all nicely weathered, the buildings dilapidated, strange mushrooms sprouting between paving stones.
As we entered Stellar Bay we were immediately waylaid by a distraught mother who’d lost her son in the wasteland. After a quick chat we were off following a lead to a nearby town where the little fellow might have wandered, picking off raptidons and a checkpoint manned by gun-toting marauders along the way. On arrival though, we discover the town under the control of the Iconoclasts, a religious cult run in opposition to the rigorously commercial interests of absolutely everything else in the system.
When we do finally catch up with our target, he turns out to be a 42-year-old man desperately trying to escape the clutches of his overbearing mother. Your possible courses of action, depending on your character’s skills and those of your companions, include persuading him to return anyway, intimidating him into it, shooting him and bringing back his body, or faking his death in order to finally get his mum off his back. It’s also important to note that all those choices are delivered with darkly witty dialogue that enables you to role-play a character who’s friendly, or a little bit more mordant.
As Carrie Patel says, ‘With any of these options we don’t want to punish the player for picking them, we want any kind of role-playing we’re offering you to be rewarded with something interesting and fun, so you’re not going to lose out on quest content just by being cheeky a lot.’ That’s not to say you can just go around shooting everyone though. ‘If you decide to prematurely attack someone that might change the way the quest goes, but those options are very clearly flagged’, adds Patel.
In this case we opt for the non-violent approach of faking the man’s death, bringing his father’s signet ring back to Stellar Bay as sad final proof of his demise. His angrily tearful mother eventually accepts her son is gone, grudgingly issues a reward, and before we know it we’ve discovered a dead body in a nearby rundown block of flats, and have become the lynchpin in the ensuing murder investigation.
Another feature of the game we were keen to unravel was that as well as acquiring perks, The Outer Worlds has a surprise up its sleeve: character flaws. These are triggered when your hero or heroine repeatedly takes a certain type of damage or falls prey to a particular beast. The game monitors your progress and when you meet certain criteria it may decide to offer you a character flaw.
According to Brian Heins this isn’t all bad: ‘[if you] choose to take it, you also get a perk that you can purchase for your character, so by making yourself a little bit weaker, you can also make yourself stronger in a different area, and that allows you to develop your character in ways you wouldn’t always see in a straight progression system.’ It’s a perfect match for the tone of the game, which steadfastly refuses to be either cheerful or downbeat, instead charting an unusual path between the two.
Currying favour with various factions, helping corporations or supporting the Iconoclasts, and which quests you decide to complete and for whom all have an impact on the story, as do the conversational choices you take, giving proceedings an unusually weighty sense of consequence, a feeling that’s underlined by the broad range of options available at any given moment. It’s inspiringly reminiscent of the earlier Fallout instalments that its director, Tim Cain and creative partner, Leonard Boyarsky also worked on.
With less than three months before release, it’s likely that the final game is going to look, sound, and play very much as it did this week. On the basis of this brief play through, there’s a massive amount to look forward to, and, potentially, an extremely wide variety of experiences available for different players exploring the Halcyon system in their own ways.
Formats: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Private Division
Release Date: 25th October 2019 (Switch TBC)
By Nick Gillett
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