Ask anyone reviewing an RPG on a tight deadline how they're doing, chances are, you'll receive either stony silence or a murderous glare. These are typically vast things, where the main storylines alone can last upwards of 40 hours: and with such a huge variety of quests, narratives and locations, it's necessary to put the time in to get a feel for the title. There's also plenty of world-building going on, meaning some quests are lore-heavy, and some storylines will inevitably be less interesting than others. Which is fine, because you can simply move onto a better one with ease.
But what happens when you pick the wrong one, and you've only got an hour?
This, unfortunately, is the story of my Outer Worlds hands-on demo session - in which I spent 90 per cent of my time on one of those duller side-quests, and the other 10 per cent wandering around aimlessly. Whoops.
It all started off well, at least: after travelling through a sweaty London on a certain 38℃ day, I was grateful to be in a cool dark room with The Outer Worlds on my computer screen. I was finally going hands-on with the game I'd been excited about since its Rick lookalike character first tapped on our screens back in December, and I couldn't wait to explore it for myself.
"You'll get an hour to roam around the surface of Monarch - it's an open-world area, and you can either re-explore the town of Fallbrook or check out a new town such as Amber Heights Stellar Bay", a dev cheerily told me. (Or thereabouts. I'm paraphrasing.)
"As Fallbrook was already shown in the E3 demo, I'd recommend checking out one of those new towns, so you've got something different to show people," the dev added. "You've got an hour to play, have fun!"
Here's the thing: I'm a serial side-quester in open-world RPGs, and I'm essentially incapable of following a golden path. Sure, The Outer Worlds has neon-purple paths, but these are still designed to lead you towards certain key destinations. Such as the towns I was recommended to visit, like Amber Heights and Stellar Bay.
True to my nature, I selected a direction at random and toddled off.
Within moments, I spied a couple of oversized moth-scorpions creatures called mantisaurs having a picnic on the road. Given players had been sceptical of The Outer Worlds' combat from the trailers (the main concern being that the gunplay looked loose), this was going to be the first real test.
What can I say? The combat feels solid - even if it's not going to win any prizes for originality. I guess this fits with what co-director Leonard Boyarsky told me at E3, when he explained combat isn't the main focus of The Outer Worlds, and the open-world nature of the game means fighting isn't as choreographed as an FPS. The shooting feels fairly tight, while the time-slowing function (tactical time dilation) creates some incredibly satisfying opportunities for multiple headshots with a sniper rifle. There's a great deal of chaos involved in nearly all the battles (particularly when plasma's being fired everywhere and you're using a machine gun with massive amounts of recoil) - all of which gives it a fairly cartoony feeling. Expect silliness rather than serious combat.
With the bugs now splats on the pavement, I proudly turned to my companions for praise. Look how well I'd done! Did they have anything to say?
Nyoka actually had more than a bit to say, and I was presented with a companion side-quest option which involved finding some old friends. Very dead old friends, as she wanted to collect some memorabilia from their corpses. There was also something about tracking devices and a mantiqueen. Sure thing Nyoka.
Despite the slightly odd reasoning for grave robbing, I wanted to see where this was going, and accepted the quest. But first, I had to see what was at the end of the road. A camp? Another quest? Treasure?
Turns out it was a literal road to nowhere, as the path led to a broken bridge with a merchant sat on the end trying to sell stuff. You can't escape capitalism.
In an effort to Skyrim-myself out of the situation, I tiptoed towards the edge to see if it was possible to tactically fall down. I'm not sure if it was me or one of my over-enthusiastic companions, but before I knew it the ground was accelerating towards me at a very fast pace. I hit the floor and wondered if I'd gotten away with it. I hadn't.
Back at the crossroads once more, I decided to pursue the road up towards Cascadia and the grave-robbing quest. Somewhat enigmatically, Cascadia hadn't been mentioned by the dev earlier on - a mystery that was solved when I reached the entrance and found the doors locked, and my skill level too low to open them. Back on the road, I discovered an abandoned relay station - one which I couldn't enter as the door was bolted. I was fast learning that The Outer Worlds wasn't quite as open-world as I was expecting. Which is fine, but it required a certain shift from my usual approach of walking around until I found something. With its winding environments and furrowed ground, it's hard to spot things in the distance and simply walk to them - making this a vastly different experience from patrolling the Mojave in Fallout: New Vegas. It feels like the game wants you to pick up quests in populated areas and then head out along set paths, rather than encouraging environmental exploration.
After my fruitless wandering, I decided to focus on the companion quest, and wound my way through the landscape until I found Hayes' grave, where we encountered yet more beasties. I dug up a medallion for Nyoka, who said a few words about Hayes before swiftly blabbering something about two other people, a UDL contract on another planet and that mantiqueen again. Eh?
For some reason we had to speak to another guy called Hiram, at which point I gave up trying to understand Nyoka's narrative explanations, and simply followed the instructions given to me. This involved slaughtering dozens of insects as I made my way up a hill towards Hiram's marauder-ridden base.
Here, I was finally presented with the sort of multiple-route scenario we'd seen in the E3 demo: some corporate enforcers were sat outside the base, and careful prodding through the dialogue options revealed you could convince them to help out. The trouble was, I simply couldn't find the back-up troops, and instead stumbled straight into combat.
The fight itself was straightforward, but at least Hiram was an interesting character: as an info broker, he was able to deliver some useful tidbits regarding the main storyline, and digging through the dialogue to find these felt rewarding. While the broader narrative on this quest was underwhelming, the dialogue here was thoroughly enjoyable, with plenty of sassiness.
At this point the dev came back over to my station, tapped at their watch, and told me I had ten minutes left.
That wasn't long enough to finish off the companion quest, and I'd barely seen any of the more civilised parts of Monarch. I had to get out of the base.
What followed was a panicked rush over to Amber Heights, where I had a chat with some tired anti-capitalists (a mood). Realising I wanted to see something a bit different, I then high-tailed it over to Stellar Bay. As I rounded the corner to see the big neon sign, I heard the words...
Well, that was a disaster, right? I'd been given the opportunity to explore so much in The Outer Worlds and had instead spent my time fighting overgrown slugs in the wilderness, pursuing a fairly average companion quest.
Still, while I could have followed instructions and headed to one of the towns for perhaps some sort of "main" quest, the experience of playing The Outer Worlds as I normally would does tell us something. This open-world RPG's a little different, with seemingly more limitations on exactly where players can go and when.
From watching previous demos, I had wondered if The Outer Worlds would be able to maintain the snappy dialogue and well-constructed quests throughout the game, but it seems that isn't the case. Which, in a fairly large and complicated game such as this, is to be expected: at times there will be less interesting content. And at least a lot of the dialogue was still entertaining, even in an underwhelming quest.
The real question is how many of The Outer Worlds' quests are going to be as good as the one shown at E3: something I cannot answer in this preview. And while this may have brought my expectations down to earth, I somehow found myself wanting to explore the rest of The Outer Worlds - feeling instead that I'd only just scratched the surface.