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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (437)

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Door Kickers: Action Sq... 4.5/5
Biomutant 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 2 4.5/5
Journey to the Savage P... 4.5/5
Wasteland 3 4.5/5
Daemon X Machina 3.5/5
Earthlock 2.5/5
Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5
ActRaiser 4.5/5
ActRaiser Renaissance 4/5
The Outer Worlds 3.5/5
Cris Tales 3/5
Warframe 3.5/5
Immortals: Fenyx Rising 4.5/5
Boot Hill Bounties 4/5
Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2/5
Borderlands 3 4/5
Horizon: Zero Dawn 3.5/5
World of Final Fantasy 4/5
ReCore 3/5
I Am Setsuna 2.5/5
Assassin's Creed Origins 4/5
Boot Hill Heroes 3.5/5
The Bard's Tale IV: Bar... 4.5/5

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The Outer Worlds   PC (Steam) 

Private Space Travel for ___ and Profit    3.5/5 stars

“The Outer Worlds” (“TOW”) is the final game developed by Obsidian Entertainment – the Indie studio crafted from the scattered remains of Black Isle after the collapse of InterPlay around the turn of the millennium – before the studio’s acquisition by Microsoft. Indeed, “TOW” was released during the acquisition process, and only remained an independent release, published by Take-Two, due to the fact that all prior development and contracts were handled without Microsoft’s involvement. Releasing in 2019 after several years of development, “TOW” is something of a vanity project for a number of long-time Obsidian team members who got their start in gaming working on Brian Fargo’s ‘Fallout’ series of ‘Post-Nuclear’ RPGs. With the ‘Fallout’ IP officially in the hands of Bethesda and ‘Fallout’s’ original inspiration, the ‘Wasteland’ IP, in the hands of competing Indie studio, inXile, Obsidian had an opportunity to start from scratch and create a completely new game IP… but instead they just made a ‘Fallout’ game, set it in space, and filed-off all the serial numbers.

Presentation
“TOW” is a thoroughly-modern First-Person Shooter developed and built in Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. Unfortunately, instead of aiming for some sort of iconic visual identity, the graphical styling is all in the Uncanny Valley of mediocrity. Both humans and the ‘adapted’ wildlife of the game’s extraterrestrial planets are ugly and bland, with seemingly great effort put into making sure that nearly all of the NPCs the player interacts with will be as ugly and painful to look at as possible. Oh, and there are a LOT of NPCs to talk to, all of whom go into a close-up bust view, highly reminiscent of the dialog portraits from “Fallout” and “Fallout 2,” so we can see how painstakingly-animated their facial features are, as they stand stock-still and emote into the camera, like some hammy actors from Hollywood’s forgotten past. Environments are likewise unimpressive, with most being highly generic and fairly small for an open-world game that covers multiple planets in a solar system, only expressing any kind of originality when filled with blindingly-garish ideas of what alien plantlife might look like.

Audiowise, “TOW” does the typical small-studio thing, saving money on voice acting by skipping the big celebrity cameos and sticking with more affordable vocal talent. The result is still fine, with mostly-good performances across the board, though with a few dubious accents and characters whose voices don’t really jibe with their appearances. Unfortunately, the budget soundtrack is where “TOW” really takes it in the pants. Let’s be clear: ‘Wasteland’ and ‘Fallout’ games have never had good stand-alone soundtracks – not even in the vicinity of ‘good.’ Where Bethesda made its greatest contribution to ‘Fallout’ and related IPs was in using licensed pop music from the 1940s-50s, and giving the player an in-game radio that would cycle through a selection of period-and-thematically appropriate tunes to cover up the miserable silence or ‘ambient’ noise that would make up the entire soundtrack otherwise. Apparently, Obsidian either couldn’t afford the licensing fees or just didn’t think about how much depth of world-building something as simple as pop music can bring to any game. Alas, the closest thing we get is the handful of muffled, difficult-to-understand jingles played by the game’s plethora of vending machines.

Technically, “TOW” is adequate by modern gaming standards, but immaculate if compared side-by-side with the Bethesda/Obsidian collaboration that was “Fallout: New Vegas.” Naturally, “TOW” has all the modern QoL features we’d expect these days, like native Xinput that seamlessly swaps to keyboard and vice-versa. Unfortunately, we also get some of the downsides of modern gaming, like a Season Pass – cleverly titled the “Non-Mandatory Corporate-Sponsored Bundle” – which introduced the one and only major bug I encountered in the game, which prevented me from completing a side-quest the way I wanted to, as I couldn’t turn-in recovered documents to the alternative recipient that became apparent mid-mission. In general, there were a number of other small glitches, like the region map in one DLC area taking forever to load each time I opened it and a slight bit of stuttering when transitioning between different segments of the game’s largest map (again, part of the DLC), but nothing too troublesome.

Story
“TOW” is, unofficially, set in the same universe as the ‘Fallout’ series of Post-Nuclear RPGs. However, instead of taking place on an alternative future Earth ravaged by nuclear war, “TOW” takes place in an alternative future in which humans have colonized a far-off solar system within the Milky Way via commercial space travel… Private commercial space travel!

Indeed, perhaps the release of this game aligning with increased shenanigans in private space flight funded by the likes of Musk and Bezos is a fluke… but it’s certainly a timely fluke! The picture painted of a world where megacorporations and privately-funded exo-planet colonization have been allowed to do their thing without any external oversight is grim, indeed. The corporations that run the Halcyon system’s colonies are painted with such a grim, satirical brush that, combined with the similarities to what’s happening in the real world of private space flight, makes for a satirizing parody that isn’t actually funny. Everything in the game world is ruled by bureaucracy and slow-to-act committees, with more vested interest in covering their own asses and preventing competing corporations from gaining the upper hand than they do in the success of the colony or wellbeing of the citizens.

The plot opens when a rogue scientist with the gloriously-retro name of Phineas Welles awakens our custom hero from cryo-sleep. It turns out that we have been in suspended animation for something like 70 years aboard a lost colony ship that was supposed to be bringing a second wave of colonists – containing numerous scientific experts and skilled workers – to the Halcyon system, but suffered a faster-than-light drive failure and had to limp along the entire distance at sub-light speeds. Welles informs us that he needs our help to un-freeze the remaining lost colonists, but that the corporate Board that rules the system refuses to do anything, instead dubbing Welles a criminal and forcing him into hiding in an abandoned research lab on an asteroid.

Of course, Welles doesn’t implicitly trust our newly-thawed hero, and in order to build his case sends the player to a backwater corporate town known as Edgewater, ostensibly to retrieve a ship and its captain, but practically to let the state of affairs in the colony start to build a case against itself. Naturally, our hero finds the captain he’s looking for dead, and must repair the damaged ship with a component scavenged from either the nearby Saltuna canning facility – which has been canning rats and ‘mushrooms’ instead of tuna for quite some time – or a decommissioned greenhouse occupied by ‘dissidents,’ who are really just striking workers who are tired of the lies and abuse coming down from the top of the corporate structure. This, naturally, leads to the game’s first-of-many Important Choices That Matter ™, which allow the player to begin imposing their own will upon the game world and ultimately determine what happens in the end.

In addition to the main narrative about a remote space colony on the verge of collapse via class striation and bureaucratic neglect, “TOW” has two DLC packages: “Peril on Gorgon” and “Murder on Eridanos,” both of which feature self-contained locations and narratives that strongly smack of the popular pulp novels and radio serials of the 1940s, and which help to bolster the game world’s identity a bit.

“Peril on Gorgon” sees our hero involved in unearthing a family secret for a wealthy heiress on an asteroid that houses the ruins of a corporate drug research facility. Yes, it’s a commentary on the Opioid epidemic, handled with the same lack of subtlety and ham-fisted satirization as the base game’s coverage of private space flight. “Murder on Eridanos” is, like the other DLC, a self-contained story that takes place in a single location – a luxury space hotel – where a movie star turns up dead right before the unveiling of a new brand of vodka. In this one, we are treated to a light “Inspector Poirot” parody, in which we are given a talking, AI-powered magnifying glass (that is also a really terrible handgun), which can detect ‘things that aren’t as they should be’ through some sort of poorly-conceived Quantum Mechanics handwaving jiggery-pokery. And, once again, the overall theme of the second DLC is corporations trying to use drugs to make people not care that the corporations are running the colony into the void.

It really shows that the lead writers for “TOW” are the original lead writers for the first two ‘Fallout’ games, as “TOW’s” attempts at satire and socio-political commentary feel both heavy-handed and very dated, even as they address some of the newest ills inflicted upon Western Civilization. Of course, no modern game release with socio-political commentary worth its salt would go without virtue signaling, which “TOW” includes in spades, with a Diverse™ array of boring caricatures as companion characters, whose personal problems can all be solved simply and without nuance.

With the base game clocking in at around 30 hours, and each DLC clocking in at around 15 hours, “TOW” is ultimately a 60-hour experience. However, I was quite bored with the whole thing before I even started the DLCs, and they only moderately helped to re-spark my engagement. The world-building is just too shallow, the companion characters too flat, the plot too weak, and the satire to un-satiric for the game to hook me and reel me in.

Gameplay
Let’s say it again, folks! All together now: “Fallout 3” is not an RPG. Neither is “New Vegas,” nor “Fallout 4.” Those games took the ‘Fallout’ IP which started out as an isometric RPG and turned it into an open-world First-Person Shooter. Whether you consider that a crime against humanity or not is a personal, subjective opinion, but the fact that ‘Fallout’ hasn’t been an RPG since 2008 is not. What does this have to do with “TOW?” Well, it’s a game clearly spun-off from ‘Fallout’ (and there’s some spoilerific lore dumps that hint that they do, in fact, take place in the same universe), and made by the same people who made the original ‘Fallout’ games AND “New Vegas.” Unfortunately, instead of diverging from the path laid out before them and jumping on board with the cRPG Renaissance of the 2010s, Obsidian decided to keep doing what they were contracted by Bethesda to do with “New Vegas,” and create a not-quite-‘Fallout’ FPS with lots of dialog trees, poor combat, and an absolutely unholy amount of junk to pick up off the ground.

For people who think the main requirement to make a game an RPG is dialog trees, well, I guess “TOW” qualifies… but then so does nearly every Visual Novel. For the most part, dialog is handled well in “TOW,” giving the player more than just different tonal options for saying the same thing. There are also numerous dialog options that are only available if the player character’s skill stats hit certain arbitrary thresholds, which rewards players for building their characters in different ways, but ultimately feel frustrating at times, because there are a number of ‘compromise’ and ‘best of both worlds’ dialog options that require hella high numbers in skills that aren’t particularly useful otherwise. This skill system is, itself, quite basic, presenting a number of categories which each contain 2-3 discreet skills, and allowing the player to increase all skills in a category by spending a single point, until one of those skills hits rank 50, at which point each point only increases a single skill. Leveling up, though killing enemies, discovering locations, or completing quests, grants the player 10 points per level to spend on skills, with a special Perk coming every-other level. It’s also possible to take Flaws, which pop-up in response to things the player does in-game, in order to gain an additional Perk per Flaw, but the game barely has enough interesting Perks to take upon reaching the level 35 cap, so I never experimented with Flaws, as their downsides feel like the type of thing only a masochist would want to work around.

Combat is generally pretty crappy. While “TOW” does at least have proper ironsights and scopes for ranged weapons, more like “New Vegas” than “Fallout 3,” none of the guns really feel like they have any oomph. I wanted to play a stealthy sniper character as I usually do in such games, but found that it was nearly impossible to kill enemies outside of the tutorial region with a single headshot, while the horrid recoil and noticeable weapon sway (even when using a good Shooter controller, like my Hydra) make follow-up shots impractical. On the other hand, up to two NPC companions can accompany the player into the field, and eventually become quite capable of killing every hostile without help… eventually. Early on, the first recruitable companions are useless in a fight and nearly always end up ‘unconscious’ (or just ‘dead’ if playing on a higher difficulty). I tried nearly every weapon in the game, including the special ‘science’ weapons, and never found combat to be fun, engaging, or really anything beyond tedious.

Complementing the generally abysmal combat system, there’s a deep and robust weapon modding system that allows the player to install mods into multiple slots on both guns and melee weapons to change their performance. There are silencers and long range barrels, scopes of varying magnifications, as well as magazines that can change a gun that shoots generic bullets into a gun that shoots plasma, electricity, or acid. In addition to mods, it’s also possible to ‘level up’ weapons by Tinkering with them. Unfortunately, Tinkering costs an increasing amount of in-game money with each level-up applied, and each weapon archetype has pre-leveled variants that appear in late-game areas, making the entire process feel like a waste of resources. And speaking of wasting resources, weapons and armor also have a durability meter that makes them less effective as they receive wear-and-tear through use. Fortunately, “TOW” isn’t a “Break of the Weapons”-style game, but more like “The Witcher 3,” in that weapons don’t break and disappear when they run out of durability, and it’s entirely possible to go into battle wearing raggedy-ass armor and wielding a completely cocked-up gun, and the only penalties involved will be simple stat decreases. So what’s the point in having an equipment degradation system in “TOW?” There isn’t one!

Lastly, I feel like I really have to address the sheer amount of clutter in the game’s open world. While much of the clutter takes the form of Bit Cartridges (money, and a not-so-subtle jab at BitCoin) and bullets, there is also an OBSCENE amount of consumables scattered everywhere. While there are only a handful of consumable archetypes – Sugary Drinks, Caffeinated Drinks, Meat, Carbs, Immune Boosters, Skin Tougheners, and a handful of drugs that provide temporary buffs that turn into debuffs once they expire – each and every corporation in the game world has their own take on these archetypes, and items in the inventory system only stack with exact duplicates. So stopping at a vendor to sell trash isn’t just a matter of dumping all the useless tobacco and alcohol items, but skimming over each and every item to determine what archetype it is – and to read the cute and ‘clever’ flavor text. It actually got to the point where I just stopped looting consumables, since they were so tedious to sell every time, and I decided that money was useless because all the best loot items are ‘found,’ not bought, and, as already mentioned, Tinkering with equipment is too expensive to be practical. Indeed, the only compelling and unique feature about “TOW’s” take on consumables in the Healing Inhaler. Instead of popping medkits or stimpacks as in other similar games, “TOW’s” in-combat healing takes place by huffing an adrenaline stimulant through an inhaler, and increasing the main character’s Medicine skill allows them to add more consumables than just the base to their custom drug concoction. Of course, this is ‘novel’ but not particularly practical or interesting, since it’s necessary to keep only ONE brand of these extra ingredients on hand, since, as mentioned, it’s impossible to stack multiple brands of products that do the exact same thing in the inhaler’s medication slots.

Overall
While “The Outer Worlds” features far more polish than previous Obsidian (and Bethesda) efforts within the open-world FPS subgenre, it feels wanting in nearly every other area. The storytelling tries to do satire without subtlety or wit, while the gameplay gets dragged-down by mediocre combat and a cluttered world that quickly leads to Inventory Hell. I’m not quite willing to say that “TOW” is a ‘bad’ game, and the effort put into it places it at the high end of ‘mediocre.’ But I just didn’t feel a compelling sense of engagement with the world or gameplay systems.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 2.5/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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