[Review] The Outer Worlds – Nintendo Switch

Written by Abram Buehner
  • Developer: Obsidian Entertainment, Virtuos
  • Publisher: Private Division
  • Release Date: 05/06/2020
  • Price: £49.99 / $59.99
  • Review copy provided by Private Division

Introducing: The Outer Worlds Switch Review

There’s something to be said for the sprawling open-world – the sense of adventure, the scope of the experience. Yet, I’ve never found much attractive about this design. I’ve tried the best that the genre has to offer, but I’ve always come away disinterested. From too much padding to a lack of focus, I’ve always had a list of complaints as expansive as the worlds these games create. The outlier, though, is Nintendo’s 2017 masterwork, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. On paper, that game shouldn’t have done much for me, as it shifted away from the pillars of the Zelda experience, leaving a vast open-world in its place. Yet, in practice, that game floored me. It offered me an unparalleled sense of freedom and agency. For once, it felt like my adventure.

After that game dropped a Remote Bomb on my expectations for the open-world experience, I’d been waiting for another game of its magnitude to pick up the pieces. Since then, I’ve tried such titles as Red Dead Redemption 2 and the Switch port of The Witcher 3 – but nothing recaptured that magic. That is, until Obsidian Entertainment’s The Outer Worlds. While lacking some quality of life considerations, Obsidian’s world is so alive and so engrossing that it doesn’t evoke anything short of complete awe.

Dynamic Narrative Decisions

The plot structure of The Outer World is so unwaveringly dynamic that it’s hard to offer any more than its beginning.  You’re awoken from your cryofreeze aboard the Hope, a colony ship from Earth, by Phineas Welles, a scientist and wanted man. With a corporate conspiracy afoot and an intergalactic community on the brink of collapse, Welles recruits your custom character to assist him in righting the wrongs of the capitalist superstructure. The wrongs you right and story beats you encounter will largely become a function of your decisions throughout the universe, but the game’s tongue-in-cheek script and cutting satire will remain consistent. It’s impeccably realized, and as a pro-capitalist myself, I never found the world or tone to be obnoxious or preachy. To the contrary, I was fascinated to understand opposing perspectives through the lens of smart satire. The unique flavor of The Outer Worlds truly compelled me.

As I mentioned, though, the course charted after the opening moments will be dictated completely by moment-to-moment gameplay decisions. There is an unrivaled amount of fluidity in this narrative structure. At every turn, you as the player have the ability to carry out quests as you’d like, making allegiances with those who strike your fancy, and wantonly disregarding those who do not. These decisions carry real weight and materially affect the course of your experience. For instance, at one point in my quest I had to negotiate with two opposing factions on behalf of a third-party. I chose my allegiance and wiped out the opposing force. I thought that would be the end of my time with this group. But, in the game’s eleventh hour, my commitment to these people (which went beyond what was necessary for the questline) resulted in their leader sending troops to help me lay siege to a corporate prison.

That was a long-term example of my calculated decision making and the fruits that it bore. Momentary, snap decisions also ripple into larger plot points, and further highlight the flexibility in The Outer Worlds. Early on in my quest, I was faced with the opportunity to betray a corrupt baron and shut down power in his oppressive labor town. After doing so, I returned to him, and instead of allowing the town’s baron to deliver his diatribe about my actions, I shot him in the face with a plasma rifle and turned him into a literal pile of ash. This resulted in a dialog exchange ten hours later, where the corporate apparatus thanked me for dealing with the town for them. It’s a game of cause and effect where even minor decisions have major impacts.

Focused Firefights, Cunning Conversations

These sorts of choices build upon the core gameplay of The Outer Worlds. In essence, the game is an open-world, first-person shooter with heavy RPG elements including dialog trees and level-based progression. While I’ll discuss the minutiae of the gameplay systems soon enough, it’s the requisite thought process behind the gameplay that makes The Outer Worlds so effective. You have to decide when to use stealth, when to go in guns blazing, when to buy, when to steal, who to kill, who to spare, when to lie, when to tell the truth. It’s a game that requires the player to orient their own moral compass and act accordingly. Every action has a direct impact on something else, and it all feels so organic and sensible. The design is so impeccable and nuanced that I became deeply attached to every facet of my experience.

From a mechanical perspective, The Outer Worlds is just as engaging. Its gunplay is punchy, bolstered by an array of modifiable, unique weaponry. The game also employs a slow-motion, V.A.T.S-like aiming mechanic that opens up more options in combat. It allows you to target particular parts of an enemy to particular ends – which further empowers the player. The options and polish in the combat keep it from feeling rote, which is especially important as the lion’s share of the gameplay will see you aiming down sights.

When you aren’t in a firefight, the gameplay largely revolves around exploration. This can take several forms, but by and large you’ll be traversing alien landscapes and towns, looting and bartering, meeting new people, and simply gaining an understanding for The Outer Worlds’ locales. The world is engaging, dotted with enough points of interest and dynamic encounters to keep the exploration compelling without feeling overwhelming. However, it’s fairly par-for-the-course with respect to open-world adventuring. What is particularly noteworthy, though, are the interactions you’ll have with NPCs across the colony.

As with most experiences in its genre, The Outer Worlds has robust dialog options and conversation trees. I tend to space out (no pun intended) during such sequences in RPGs, as I itch to return to the more tactile gameplay moments. Here, though, I was enraptured by the way each conversation felt like a puzzle or a verbal spar. You can make quests much easier for yourself by smooth-talking your way through dialog, which is a  deeply rewarding feeling. Or, things can go sideways quickly if you make sloppy choices. It’s one facet of the experience that exemplifies The Outer World’s emphasis on cause and effect better than almost anything else.

RPG Intuition and QOL Quibbles

Your conversation options can be widened even more by upgrading skills such as persuasion – which segues nicely into the game’s deep RPG elements. Your character is fully malleable. Depending on where you decide to allocate skill and perk points, you can specialize in any number of ways, creating an avatar who epitomizes your playstyle. From stealth skills, to science skills, to dialog skills, to weapons handling skills, there is a surprising amount of nuance here. Nuance which, importantly, manifests itself tangibly in the gameplay experience. Initially these systems felt overwhelming, but the more I played, the more organic and digestible these options became.

With all of that said, The Outer Worlds is a wonderfully considered and engaging experience that misses the mark on the finest of points. The game simply needed a bit more quality-of-life polish. These foibles feel particularly inconsequential when the rest of the game is so bold, but they nagged at me, nonetheless. Attempting to pick up loot can be strangely finnicky and breaking down weapons to only collect their parts can lead to pop-up windows that obscure other, useful field information. Trying to toggle between menus and submenus can feel like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. Most strangely, attempting to fast-travel to locations that are marked as housing an active quest on the map can be needlessly cumbersome, as both icons overlap on the map, and the game doesn’t prioritize the input for traveling. You have the line up your cursor just right to even get the option.

Of course, such annoyances are just that – they barely impose upon the towering success of The Outer Worlds. At this point in the review, I’d like to be able to issue the game a 5/5. I wish my review could end with a quick summarization of the game’s masterful design and engaging gameplay mechanics. However, this isn’t where the narrative surrounding The Outer Worlds on Switch ends.

Technical Turmoil

Any review of the game would be irresponsibly incomplete without touching on the port itself. And, unfortunately, this is the largest hurdle The Outer Worlds has to clear – which it does, but not cleanly. For the sake of efficiency, the game is ugly on Switch. The texture work is muddy, the environments are low-poly, and everything just looks blurry and dull. Calling the game’s fidelity sub-optimal would be a serious understatement. This sacrifice, though, comes at the prioritization of performance. Which, outside of one key example during my fifteen hours with the game, was more than acceptable.

The framerate is serviceable, and I never felt as though I had sacrificed playability by choosing to experience The Outer Worlds on Switch. What I lost instead was the ability to truly connect to the environments and locations. The game’s presentation is too compromised to evoke awe or reverence through its art design and direction. I can tell that there’s a wonderful world here, but I couldn’t fully appreciate it.

The essential question, then, is knowing that the game itself is deserving of a perfect score, how far the marks should drop on account of its fidelity. When the rubber meets the road, expecting a game of The Outer Worlds’ scope to look anywhere near as impressive as it does on PS4/Xbox One is a fantasy. The Nintendo Switch simply isn’t powerful enough to facilitate that. With that in mind, the question has to be reframed: what is lost by playing an unavoidably compromised version of the game?

A Case of Cost and Benefit

From my experience, what’s lost isn’t material. I experienced one instance over the course of the adventure, where the pop-in and framerate reached what I would consider an unplayable state. This lasted for perhaps five minutes. In a fifteen hour, highly dynamic open-world experience, that ratio is pretty impressive. In both handheld and docked mode, my gameplay experience was smooth, and the added (customizable) gyro controls bolstered the game’s performance and options.

What’s lost, of course, is that aforementioned sense of immersion. In a game that is so concerned with storytelling and worldbuilding, this stings considerably more than the similar and almost-assured graphical hit that we’ll see in the port of DOOM Eternal – a gameplay-driven title. For as much as The Outer Worlds is a gameplay experience, it’s narrative shoulders just as much weight. The symbiosis between these elements is part of what makes the game so successful, so when one facet of that relationship is kneecapped by the game’s existence on Switch – any recommendation I make has to bear that in mind.

Final Thoughts

As such, I left my time with The Outer Worlds feeling more conflicted than I should have. Personally, the game’s technical performance was detrimental to my enjoyment of the game, but it was far from destructive. The game’s design brilliance and wonderful mechanics were the object of my fixation. Its lacking port was a secondary consideration. However, I know the weight that fidelity carries for many players, and as such, I have to recognize the ways in which The Outer Worlds doesn’t make that mark. I’m smitten with The Outer Worlds and I believe it’s an essential experience, but in light of this version’s inherent shortcomings, I can’t offer an all-encompassing recommendation.

Pros

  • Masterful design
  • Deep player choice
  • Elegant mechanics
  • Fantastic storytelling

Cons

  • Mild quality-of-life issues
  • Lost immersion due to shoddy Switch port

Verdict

The Outer Worlds is a design masterstroke and a deeply engaging RPG hybrid, but its intrinsic limitations on Switch make it hard to full connect to Obsidian’s epic.

4/5

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