A lot of heavy criticism has come Bethesda’s way in the last few years, including from me back when I made my two-part critique of Fallout 76 during the free week of E3 2019. And most of this criticism is founded, particularly considering their business decisions recently. A lot of it gets wrapped up in Fallout 76 these days. But let’s not forget the broken state that Dishonored 2 found itself in or the review embargo abuse they’ve taken part in while advertising pre-orders on the very same blog post. Same with Fallout 4 nearly half a decade ago at this point; it was a buggy, poorly optimized mess at the launch, and had greatly dumbed down many of its systems in favor of some minor improvements to production values.
Skyrim had DLC delays on PS3 and has several extremely huge issues that were never fixed, and then they had the gall to ask people to pay $60 more for the Special Edition… and then pay $60 for the separate VR edition.
We also know the technical shortcomings of games like New Vegas are at least partially Bethesda Management’s fault, let alone the seemingly shaky foundation their technology has been built on for an eternity.
The point is, there is no shortage of reasons for people to be upset with Bethesda. They’ve made a lot of very serious mistakes that I’m sure many of the craftsmen working on the games themselves have continually disagreed with.
With that being said, there’s no denying what Bethesda’s RPGs did for the industry. Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Skyrim had an enormous impact on the industry, and especially on western RPGs, which were previously usually really obtuse and clunky experiences.
What’s more, Bethesda has tried several things with their games that most of their peers will only poke at, even today. Even at their most broken, Bethesda games still take some pretty serious risks, whether it’s the settlement system in Fallout 4, the robust NPC schedule systems in Oblivion, or the sheer depth of things to get lost in, present in all of their RPGs. Bethesda games still bring something unique to the table every time.
And yet, ultimately people are fed up with the unfinished state their games seem to increasingly be released in. People are looking for a replacement.
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In comes The Outer Worlds, which has gotten a lot of very glowing praise since it released a short while ago. I myself have a lot of positive things to say about too. I bought it with the intention of doing a comprehensive critique of it. And maybe I will someday. But the more I played, the more I realized it wasn’t really necessary. A lot of the stuff I could say is just kind of uninteresting. It’s a good game. It’s not a 9/10. It’s not the perfect Bethesda-killer so many people have been billing it so that they can shove their disdain in Todd Howard’s face or whatever. The game isn’t a statement about the ‘new age’ of western RPGs being ushered in, because just like The Witcher 3, it’s not that revolutionary. It’s a solid experience that is easily better than Skyrim or Fallout 4 were at the time of their releases. But that’s not a hard bar to clear in many ways.
That’s not to say it’s not impressive though, considering there’s little doubt that The Outer Worlds had a fraction of the budget and workforce behind it that your usual Bethesda game has had since Skyrim. It runs about as well as I could’ve hoped, first of all. It’s not absolutely perfect, but most of the framerate hitches on PS4 and PS4 Pro are so minor that it’s more than understandable. What’s more, not only did I not have a single crash in my fifty-ish hour first playthrough, but I haven’t even had any major glitches at all. Nothing has broken, even when I try to push the game to its limits. It’s a polished experience.
The writing for characters and quests is strong, varied, and gives players the choice Fallout 4 feigned having. It even goes one step beyond by incorporating things like your companions in conversations with other characters, similar to Mass Effect. The player can choose to take on Flaws based on their actions, which give you a permanent debuff in return for another perk point to spend.
The world design is pretty diverse, the quest design offers something for all types of players, and the RPG mechanics are deep.
The gunplay is also really strong and proves that you can have a stat-heavy RPG without sacrificing playability in an action setting. And if you want, you can push yourself really hard on the higher difficulties.
But the game also is far from perfect. While the world design is diverse, you come across the same weapons and items over, and over, and over, and over. Quest rewards are usually useful but uninteresting. Many perks are just as bland since they focus on stat buffs rather than mechanical alterations.
Early on it’s extremely easy to become overpowered on the Standard difficulty, and I’ve yet to really run into many situations where I can’t just clean up both in conversations and in combat.
A lot of the UI and user experience design is rough too. There are categories in your inventory, but the only sorting mechanism doesn’t really seem to sort things in any coherent way Items just seem to sort of be shifted around. Switching weapons is done with two rather clunky choices: using a radial wheel that takes a second to come up, or by switching linearly through each weapon. Equipping weapons also feels unintuitive. Clicking on a weapon already equipped will unequip it. But clicking on a weapon that’s not equipped will automatically place it in the last equip slot you interacted with, instead of letting you choose manually. This means to equip a weapon to a certain slot. You have to click on the slot you want, which will unequip whatever’s already in it, and then click on the weapon you want instead. It’s a minor thing, but it just feels off.
Continuing on, the map moves incredibly slowly unless you zoom it way out. But zooming is also slow, making it feel really clumsy as a whole.
Weapons also largely all feel the same. Some types seem far too powerful, ammo is a non-issue, and there are very few alternatives to either basic guns or melee weapons. There are no grenades, and despite the fact that enemies can use traps, you cannot.
Your companions each have perks and abilities as well, though not only are their perks just as bland as yours but so far all of their combat abilities just seem to be generic AOE explosions that have elemental effects of some sort.
The pacing of areas in each world is also really mind-numbing. It’s rare that there are more than fifty or so yards between pre-determined mobs of enemies, and they’re nearly always in really similar configurations of 2-4 basic enemies and then a tougher leader. Most of them are just sitting around too, rather than guarding anything particularly interesting. It makes the worlds feel manufactured, and removes any of the alternative ‘modes of play’ you’d hope to see. It can be interesting to go for a few minutes with no combat while exploring outdoors or to just run into a single enemy out in the middle of nowhere. It feels diverse; it feels different.
There’s also rarely anything interesting to find when exploring or looting. Outside of a handful of Science Weapons that you can get through quests, you can find unique weapons. But they’re rare, usually not very powerful or interesting, and as far as I’ve found don’t have unique models either. Same with equipment. As such, you primarily just find a ton of useless consumable items that clog up your inventory, mountains of ammo, and a bunch of useless equipment you immediately break down into parts. On top of that, the equipment your allies use can be pretty freely swapped out. But this makes them all feel generic in combat and means they all end up wearing generic armor that might not even make sense with their personality unless you wanna spend an arm and a leg upgrading their starting equipment.
The stealth system is extremely simple, it’s super easy to lose enemies really quickly if you get caught, and so the repercussions of failing stealth are basically nonexistent.
As I said earlier, the difficulty is incredibly lax as far as I’ve played. I decimate enemies with ease and have only had to heal around twenty times across all thirty-ish hours of playtime.
The game is also terrible at telling you when you’re getting shot, and how much damage is being done to you. In that regard, the game feel is pretty awful, forcing you to stare at your health bar constantly, in case an actual threat comes along.
Despite very much having better shooter mechanics than any Fallout game has had, the general movement on the controller still feels a bit janky. It reminds me so much of the movement feel of Fallout 4 that it’s honestly scary. But the player has no options for adjusting things like dead zones, aim assist, acceleration or anything like that.
The time dilation mechanic is great, but it runs out too swiftly with automatic weapon types since it’s based on shots taken instead of something else. And it also highlights how annoying it can be that some abilities can’t be turned off without choosing to re-spec your character. I got an ability that gives me 70% more movement speed when slowing downtime. That’s useful, but it also made the whole trickshot thing I was using it for impossible. But I can’t turn it off now that I have it.
The game regularly puts railings around stairs and things in locations that are just tall enough that you can’t jump over, forcing you to go around. That sort of thing gets really tedious. The hacking and lockpicking have no real minigames tied to them, meaning while they’re not obnoxious, they’re also not interesting; they’re effectively just stat and resource checks.
The Outer Worlds is filled with a bunch of little things that I think very much stops it from being the ‘Bethesda Killer’ everyone wants to pretend it is. Again, it astonishes that they created something this good with seemingly so much smaller of a pool of resources than their peers. This is a triple-A experience from a large indie studio effectively, which makes me excited to see what they can do with Microsoft money and push behind them. But that doesn’t make the game itself any better. It’s good, edging on great. But not a masterpiece like people would have you believe.
It did make me realize something about Bethesda games though, and the last bastion of unique design they really have the market cornered on. Games like Divinity have the insane mechanical depth to offer. Witcher 3 has incredible dialogue and character writing. Outer Worlds has the polish and focus. Mass Effect had the gunplay. Two Worlds had the… heartwarming cheese.
Bethesda… has the ‘lived-in’ feel. That in and of itself isn’t particularly unique. But what makes it special is that the player can interact with a lot of the things that make the world feel lived in.
Bethesda, more than any other studio making these sorts of games, really emphasizes putting tiny, pointless things in their worlds. They’ve gotten extraordinarily great at telling organic stories with little more than objects the player is likely to either ignore, toss around like an idiot, or gather up like a hoarder.
It really feels like every object in a Bethesda RPG has a story to tell, and the fact that we can interact with nearly all of them truly makes the world feel real. It’s not just a movie set meticulously crafted to tell a story. It’s a movie set that we can completely dismantle if we want.
Some of my fondest memories in any game are from when I first played through Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I ended up going city to city trying to find any house I could afford and stumbled across Benirus Manor in Anvil, which was fully furnished. I then spent the next twelve hours straight through the night and into the morning taking all of my most precious treasures and decorating the house with them. And I continued to add to it every time I got something else valuable. I myself was telling a story with my house.
These sorts of things make the game feel so real because you can truly make it your own. It’s the same appeal you can get from games like The Sims, but with so many of the objects having an actual, mechanical use to the player. What’s more, there’s an enormous variety of objects that potentially rivals the variety found in Katamari games.
And that extends to some other aspects of the design, like the world pacing I mentioned earlier. Bethesda worlds are generally rather large, so they’re content to let the world breath with negative space in between points of interest. It creates ups and downs in the pacing which prevents the world from feeling suffocating to explore. And that usually continues through the other various systems you can take part in.
Theft in The Outer Worlds feels unfinished. I honestly don’t know what the repercussions of getting caught are, because it’s so easy to avoid getting caught. It’s so easy to just lift absolutely everything, and most of the objects as discussed before are uninteresting and stale. You also can’t move around objects in the world. And on the handful of occasions, I did get caught stealing, I easily talked my way out of whatever the punishments might be, purely because the speech checks are often so low.
I’ve also yet to find any way to get caught with stolen items themselves after I’ve snatched them, giving me the impression that the repercussion for failing the speech check isn’t a fine and the removal of the stolen goods or something like that. Rather, I’d be willing to bet that getting caught simply means the entire settlement bears down on you like a mob of marauders until you’re dead. It feels soulless and ‘game-like’, as if theft laws in this world are just a suggestion, and despite the incredible shortages and disrepair much of this world finds itself in, nobody really cares much about their belongings.
Despite how much more nuanced and engaging the choices and characters in The Outer Worlds are when compared to modern Bethedsa RPGs… and despite how much more polished it feels… the game also still comes across as strangely shallow in many ways. It feels like a game; a set of raw systems aimed at giving players a very rigid set of choices to make. And while all of these choices usually lead to incredibly interesting outcomes, I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m playing the game on Obsidian’s terms… that I’m playing a game in general.
Again, I don’t want to imply the game is bad. It’s a pretty great accomplishment, and it was worth every cent I spent. I’m still really enjoying it and excited to see what it’s like with different choices and on different difficulties. Likewise, I don’t want to pretend that the things Bethesda games get right to make up for their numerous shortcomings. As I said up top, they deserve nearly all of the criticism they’ve been getting.
But I also have an unsettling feeling like we’re leading Obsidian to the same fate as Bethesda, by just blindly worshiping The Outer Worlds as a way to tear Bethesda down. And in the process, we’re also missing out on the things that made Bethesda games so grand in the first place. I mean, did we all forget how much people hated on Fallout 4 for turning VATS into a pseudo-slow motion mechanic? And yet people are praising The Outer Worlds for implementing actual slow motion, with no sign of turn-based combat options at all? Why when Fallout was buried for being ‘a shooter pretending to be an RPG’ is nobody criticizing Outer Worlds for straight up making a shooter that happens to also be an RPG?
I’m not saying these criticisms are valid. Their pretty trash all things considered. But they illustrate the dangerous game people seem to be playing, where they come across as if they’re less concerned with the validity and consistency of their criticisms, and more concerned with making some sort of statement that stokes a flame war.
I want Bethesda to get better, and I want Obsidian to do the same. So I think we should spend more time reflecting on and communicating our honest feelings, rather than just stoking fires and building pedestals. What all of these developers deserve is the support that helps them grow, not blind hatred or admiration.
But what do you guys think? Have any of you played The Outer Worlds yet? What do you think so far? How does it compare with your favorite western RPG? Sound off in the comments below, and I’ll see you next time!
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