Floating in space watching your ship speed away rivals moments in Gravity or Interstellar – and it’s one of the things that makes Outer Wilds among the best games ever made, says Jacob Aron
10 March 2021
PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
THE first few months of any year are a slow time for video game launches, but whether it is due to the pandemic or the recent release of next-generation consoles, new games are thin on the ground at the moment. That is why I spent this month checking out 2019’s Outer Wilds – and I am glad I did, because it is one of the best games ever made.
A bold claim, but hear me out. Outer Wilds is set in a miniature solar system filled with planets bearing evocative names such as Giant’s Deep and Brittle Hollow. As the newest member of Outer Wilds Ventures, an organisation that is as much a bunch of trail hikers as it is NASA, you set off to explore these worlds – and in 22 minutes, the sun explodes in a supernova, wiping out you and everything else in the solar system.
Moments later, the game resets and you begin another 22-minute session. This time limit, combined with the small solar system, gives you space exploration without the boring bits. After launching your trusty spacecraft, you can be walking on the surface of another planet within minutes. At the same time, everything operates under more-or-less realistic orbital mechanics, making space flight a challenge of matching orbits and velocities – you can’t just point at your destination and go.
I spent my first few runs getting to grips with the controls, which allow you to thrust in either direction along all three spatial axes, and more than once found myself falling into the sun, triggering an early reset. Yet little by little, I mastered my ship and was soon merrily exploring.
“There are no new abilities to unlock as you play – the only thing you gain is knowledge”
I am deliberately avoiding saying much about what I found because Outer Wilds is about the joy of discovering things for yourself: it really is everything you could want from a space-exploration game. To give you a flavour, during my playthrough, I fell into a black hole, docked with a mysterious space station and landed on a comet, before falling off again.
But not all in a single go. Your ship’s computer records your discoveries, linking them together like a corkboard with strings. This doesn’t reset, allowing you to uncover the game’s many mysteries over a number of runs. There are no new abilities to unlock as you play – the only thing you gain is knowledge, so you could theoretically complete Outer Wilds in your first 22 minutes.
The result is that the game is full of “aha!” moments that are both incredibly satisfying and make you feel very clever, but it is also mechanically brilliant. Launching your spacecraft at the start of a run is always a tiny thrill as you rumble into orbit. Your spacesuit has limited oxygen and fuel, making it essential to manage your resources. If you run out of fuel, you can use oxygen as propellant in a last-ditch effort to get to safety.
This comes together to generate moments that easily rival Gravity or Interstellar. At one point, I was floating around a planet, separated from my ship, which was orbiting another planet.
I could see the ship was heading away from me, and doubted I would be able to catch up with my remaining fuel. Instead, I pulled open my map of the solar system so I could estimate when the two planets would have their closest approach. Timing things just right, I jetted off for what I thought would be a daring rendezvous. For a moment, it seemed like I was on course… until I smashed into a moon, cracked my helmet and died. Thankfully, the next run was just a moment away.
Jacob also recommends…
PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, iOS
The Witness is full of mysteries. Set on an island split into regions, each locale puts its own spin on grid-based logic puzzles. It is gorgeous, but extremely mentally taxing.
PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
No Man’s Sky offers billions of procedurally generated worlds. This can make them feel samey, but the latest update lets you collect alien pets.
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