The solar system of Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds is swimming with comically evil corporate products: toothpaste that causes blindness, hangover cures that induce comas, each with its jaunty advertising catchphrase and baleful barbershop jingle. Compared to that trove of terrors, the corporate product that is The Outer Worlds itself is kind of like a posh cup-a-soup. It’s far from haute cuisine, or especially nutritious – the packaging probably accounts for a solid 30 per cent of the calories – but it goes down easily enough and it won’t do you any damage. It’s fine, is Outer Worlds. There’s nothing I really loathe about it, the tedium of looting aside, and nothing I really love about it either. If you read the sales pitch “Maker of Fallout: New Vegas makes Fallout-tinted cover version of Mass Effect” and broke your thumb on the pre-order button, rest assured that this is broadly that. But what else could it have been?
The game begins eccentrically enough. The Outer Worlds unfolds in an alternate universe where the USA never passed some critical anti-trust legislation, and humanity is accordingly owned and operated by vast corporations. Your custom-created character is a pioneer aboard the interstellar colony ship Hope, cast out toward the Halcyon system by the all-knowing hand of Profit Motive. Said hand then declines to revive you when the Hope turfs up, decades late, due to a drive malfunction. The system, you learn, has already been settled in your absence and transformed into a fungal, retro-futuristic Wild West, its planets dotted with flat-packed, hardscrabble townships of chrome and timber. It’s a place of on-going resource wars and caricatured ideological tensions, with quasi-communist “Philosophist” rebels embedded on one moon and a trio of big companies tussling for preeminence. The last thing your employers need is another few hundred mouths to feed, particularly if those colonists then fall in with the lefties.
Fortunately, you are sprung from cryosleep by motor-mouthed mad scientist (is there any other kind?) Dr Phineas Wells, who sends you on a quest to unfreeze the remainder of your crew. Among your first feats is to land an escape pod squarely on top of the mercenary captain Phineas has asked to be your chaperone. This frees you from oversight, while also giving you the keys to the mercenary’s ship, the Unreliable, a cousin of Mass Effect’s Normandy made entirely from trashcans and spit. This serves as your mobile homestead – complete with sarky AI landlord – as you explore Halcyon, undertaking main and optional quests, picking allegiances, unearthing ulterior motives and recruiting six companions to your cause. The two major planets consist of lavish open worlds with several landing sites. You’ll spend the bulk of the game here, but there are also smaller areas such as asteroid hideaways, makeshift space bazaars, scorched mining facilities and prisons. Many landing sites must be unlocked by obtaining a pass, which turns The Outer Worlds into an interstellar game of Find the Keycard. You’ll obtain these cards as part of the main story, which should last you 20-30 hours if you take your time.