The Outer Worlds vs. Fallout 76: Falling forward

In space, no one can hear you max out your conversation skills and put a lot of points into hacking and lockpicking.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read
Private Division

People love Fallout games for the same reason they love Elder Scrolls games. They offer a chance to get lost in a vast virtual world that offers a huge degree of freedom, but at the same time is carefully scripted and curated to keep the story moving and to be, you know, fun. It's not a surprise that both are from the same publisher, Bethesda, as the formula and mechanics are very similar. 

But the most recent Fallout game, Fallout 76, was not as warmly received. In a risky break from the usual formula, it's an online multiplayer game, set in a typical Fallout wasteland populated by (a handful of) other players. 

Feeling much more like a Fallout game is The Outer Worlds, a just released space-based roleplaying adventure from Private Division, a subsidiary of game giant Take-Two Interactive. Why does The Outer Worlds have such a heavy Fallout-like vibe? It was created by developer Obsidian Entertainment, whose other credits include the fan favorite Fallout: New Vegas.  

How much is The Outer Worlds like a Fallout game? How does Fallout 76 stack up? 

Watch this: E3 2018: A deeper look at Fallout 76

Fallout 76

Lots of credit for bold risk-taking, but many long-time fans felt that F76 was missing one of the key elements that makes an open-world Bethesda game fun -- endless hours of expertly scripted dialog with hundreds of computer-controlled characters.

When the game launched last year, we described the experience by saying: "The encounters with other players were awkward and never really got better," and that it leaned too heavily on combat and grinding. 

But also that it had a simplified (read: better) crafting system, good base-building mechanics and in-game events -- like massive battles alongside other players -- that that could sometimes be immensely satisfying, but could also sometimes fall apart. 

The world of Fallout 76 has also evolved greatly since its launch, adding new content, an in-game Atom Shop for extras, and most recently, a $13-a-month subscription allowing players to create their own private Fallout 76 servers. Sadly, the one update everyone has been waiting for -- the addition of classic Fallout-style scripted characters -- has been delayed until next year. Hopefully that will add some narrative cohesion and classic Bethesda storytelling. 

In other words, it might end up feeling a lot more like a traditional Fallout game. 

Bethesda Softworks

The Outer Worlds 

If Fallout 76 didn't feel quite so much like a Fallout game, then The Outer Worlds feels very much like a Fallout game. So much that you may catch yourself mistaking the rundown frontier towns of the far reaches of the galaxy for the rundown wasteland towns of the post-apocalyptic United States. 

Everything feels like Fallout. The character creation tools, the feel of combat and stealth, the various feuding constituencies you're always caught between. If anything, the sly humor of the Fallout games is even darker and more on-point here (let's pour one out for the late Captain Hawthorne). 

Seeing The Outer Worlds in action at E3 2019, I was impressed by the scale and freedom promised, but underwhelmed by the dated-looking graphics and gameplay that didn't feel much at all evolved from 2008's Fallout. At the time, I said that the concept of "Fallout reimagined as a space western," would be enough to get me on board, but also that I was "not expecting anything shockingly new or genre-breaking."

Having spent many hours in the game over the past week, I feel my early impressions were both on the mark but also far too dismissive. Yes, this is a Fallout clone, created in part by people who have made excellent Fallout games in the past. But it's also a refreshingly cynical take on corporate power and technology, channeling a fair bit of Brazil and Idiocracy

The final product also looks better than I expected. It's not going to be a showpiece for your super fancy Nvidia RTX gaming desktop, but the outdoor environments impress, with colorful flora and fauna that remind me of No Man's Sky. It helped that I played the game on an Xbox One X and a gaming PC, both connected to a 65-inch OLED TV. 

Private Division

Dialog and characters feel very on-point, with lots of great voice acting, but faces remain stubbornly robotic, a longtime video game problem. When you're not interacting with the local denizens of different planets and space stations, the worlds can feel eerily dead, like an automaton-filled haunted house that only lurches to life when you look directly at it. 

But despite some dated-feeling design and gameplay choices, The Outer Worlds is impossible to put down. Where Fallout 76 has a good amount of grinding, progress in The Outer Worlds happens at a good clip, with new abilities and gear turning up just when needed. I also liked how important diplomacy skills are, and new players should invest heavily in conversation-based abilities early in the game. In Fallout 76, with no other sentient beings to talk to aside from other live gamers, your charm or intimidation skills don't play a part. 

Fallout 76 gets credit for trying new and innovative ideas, and for retrenching where needed and pivoting the game towards a more traditional narrative experience. The Outer Worlds deserves even more credit for taking a potentially tired setup and turning it into something that feels fresh, even if we've seen it many, many times before.

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