A trio of Legionnaires are closing in on my hiding spot. Cowering in the ruins outside Nipton, low on health and running out of ammo, the odds aren’t exactly in my favour. But as the first of Caesar’s finest walks out past the wall I’m crouching behind, I drop into VATS, a shotgun held so close that, as I pull the trigger, it's almost poking them in the ribs.
I don’t remember how the rest of that fight played out, but the lead-up to it stuck with me ever since I first played Fallout: New Vegas. Its entire first act - from waking up in Goodsprings with a hole in your head to the moment outside Novac that sends you striding forth over the Mojave - is pervaded by a sense of scarcity and vulnerability that echoes across the Wasteland, an atmosphere that The Outer Worlds simply fails to match.
Obsidian’s space-faring RPG ostensibly represents the duality of a humanity that seems to be at its peak. On the one hand, late-stage capitalism has taken us to the limits of traversible space, colonising beautiful new worlds with prefabricated efficiency. On the other, the people living on the galaxy’s frontier have sold every aspect of their lives (and deaths) to corporations that see them as little more than a number, content to let entire colonies wither away with limited equipment, dwindling medical supplies, and a diet that consists of a mix of processed tuna and wood chips. When you arrive in Edgewater you’re presented with a town on its knees, whose residents are just barely scraping through interplanetary poverty.
At least, that’s what The Outer Worlds tells you you’re seeing. The reality is very different. As I made my way through the game’s opening area I hoovered up more food and medicine than I'll ever need to use. When I start a fight, I do so with two different kinds of laser sword and guns for which I have seemingly never-ending supplies of ammunition, side-by-side with companions kitted out in full suits of armour. Sure I’ve died a few times, but if you tried to melee your way through a troop of angry space gorillas you’d probably come off a little worse for wear too.
In contrast to slogging across the Mojave, Halcyon feels like a walk through the park. As I fought my way across the Wasteland, swapping between different underpowered pistols every time I ran out of a certain type of ammo and scarfing down irradiated mashed potato mix just to protect myself from overgrown bluebottles, the sense that this was a world torn apart by nuclear war reverberated through my entire experience. Eventually, when I’d completed all the DLC and become overleveled beyond anything the game could throw at me, I could run around dispatching Deathclaws at will: that's long after defeating Caesar and saving New Vegas, however, so it felt like I’d earned that right.
But when I breeze into Edgewater, ignore the famine and pestilence, and wander straight back out to batter some marauders, I feel almost like I’ve cheated. The scarcity that’s supposed to be a pillar of frontier fiction just isn’t there, despite the game's desperate insistence. Scurvy and savagery might have brought this town to its knees, but when I can sprint from settlement to settlement with no meaningful resistance and a constantly regenerating health bar, it’s difficult to have sympathy for the suffering townspeople. It's not my fault that they've forgotten how to eat anything they didn’t shove into a can themselves.
The Outer Worlds is a funny and heartfelt RPG set across a selection of beautiful, exotic worlds, but a development team and sci-fi frontier setting is all it seems to have in common with New Vegas. In the Mojave, I felt like I was lucky to come across something that couldn’t kill me on sight, and luckier still if I had the resources to actually take it on. By contrast Halcyon is almost comforting, a futuristic power fantasy in a world where comfort should only be available if you can pay for it, and power is limited to the hands of a select few. Obsidian’s latest has plenty of good qualities, but lacks the atmosphere and suspense of its spiritual predecessor.