How ‘The Outer Worlds’ Shows the Right Way to Port AAA Games for Nintendo Switch

     June 6, 2020

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In 2017, I sold my PlayStation 4. I had already been feeling prickly about how much time I was spending on overly gritty, complicated, “mature” games, but I settled on my decision moments after viewing this intense trailer from The Last of Us Part II (a game whose released footage seems to only get more and more brutal). I loved the first Last of Us. I’ve loved most of the dark, critically acclaimed triple A titles I’ve played on every PlayStation console I’ve ever owned (1, 3, and 4; dunno how I missed 2). But that trailer, a contextless slice of bitter hatred, aggressive violence toward women, and aestheticization of very real horrors into something edgy and marketable left such a bad taste in my mouth, I knew for my own mental health I needed to get rid of the box that would house this experience as a flagship, must-own title. Would the sequence make sense and feel justified within the game? Perhaps. But the unearned potency of the trailer was enough for me to ditch the grown-up system and stick with my neon-colored, “family-friendly” console: My beloved Nintendo Switch.

It was, assuredly, the right decision for me. I’ve since enjoyed a life with only games available on the Switch, most of which celebrate joy with accessible simplicity. And yet… since then… I’ve sometimes missed the culture-grabbing AAA titles folks with PlayStations and Xboxes are playing without me. I’ve sometimes wanted just a touch of darkness in my life that Bowser and Waluigi, as bad as they are, can’t quite fulfill. I’ve sometimes thought to myself, “Boy, you sorta overreacted with that whole ‘sell your PS4’ thing when you could’ve just not bought that game!” Which is why I am so pleased to report that the Switch port of The Outer Worlds, from Obsidian Entertainment, hits my perfect spot — and represents what AAA ports for the Switch should strive for moving forward.

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Image via Private Division

If you’re unfamiliar with the game on its original release for PS4, Xbox One, and PC, feel free to check out our own Dave Trumbore‘s glowing review of the title. A brief summary: The Outer Worlds is an original first-person role-playing shooter set in alternate history future motivated and fueled by corporate interests, profit over people, and systemic dehumanizations (hmm, “alternate history”). Your customized character must travel through the outer worlds of the Halcyon star system, under the orders of Dr. Phineas Welles, and try and save not only fellow colonists but the entire fate of humanity from the vicious syndicate of corporations known as The Board. Gameplay consists of firefights, melee combat, dialogue tree interactions, and world-building explorations. Allies assist you, enemies are slowly formed, nearly every facet of the game is customizable, down to the moral alignment of your character (you can undergo actions siding more with The Board!) and the story paths and endings you discover. It’s a game that earns my sincere recommendations, a game that hits you in the gut with its satirical prescience, a game packed to the gills with imagination, humor, and heart.

But if you are familiar with the game in its original release, none of this will be news to you. You’re simply asking, “How does it play on Switch?” The answer, upon first glance, might be “not so great,” and I wouldn’t blame you. Graphically speaking, The Outer Worlds on Switch falls somewhere in the range of “higher-range PS2 to lower-range PS3” when playing handheld, and “mid-range PS3 to low-range PS4” when playing docked (from a more technical perspective, it runs 720p while handheld and 1080p while docked). While a lot of Outer Worlds‘ aesthetic joys and comedy beats come from the dusty, sepia-toned, retro-skewing bric-a-brac skewed throughout the margins and loading screens of the game, I appreciate just how colorful much of its outer worlds are, especially in its bright and loud pinks and purples. But these landscapes, imaginatively designed as they are, often clip and apparate out of nowhere instead of seamlessly being pre-rendered. Polygons, of both background and characters, feel unrealistically sharp and dirty. In close-up dialogue sequences, character faces look surprisingly great; in wide full-body moments, characters look a bit bungled.

And here’s the most important thing about the graphical limitations on the Switch version: I don’t care. I know that for many playing contemporary video games, cutting-edge graphical quality is of high priority (and I’m only human; I was as blown away by the new PS5 Unreal engine demo as anyone else). For me, I care much more about consistent immersion. I would much rather have a game that doesn’t necessarily look like the big-budget AAA titles of its peers, but absolutely feels like one. The Outer Worlds on Switch never once stuttered to a crunchy frame rate, never once missed a step in any of its multiple gameplay components, never once felt like I was playing a “watered down” version of the game.

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Image via Private Division

Obsidian’s production director Eric DeMilt admitted the port of Outer Worlds would always be a challenging one: “Porting a game with thousands of assets designed to be loaded and displayed on current gen PCs and consoles with the power to display in 4K made streaming and visual fidelity a challenge on a handheld.” But by making the necessary sacrifice of “4K equivalent graphics” in order to maintain this consistent sense of immersion, and keeping it locked at 30 FPS rather than the sometimes annoying insistence on reaching toward and not always hitting 60 FPS, Obsidian’s work resulted in a game for the Switch that feels like “a game for the Switch,” rather than a C+ port of a game obviously not for the Switch. On top of all this, I was playing the digital version, and it didn’t make me get rid of any space to make room, like other AAA port titles I’ve played on Switch constantly do!

Name names, you say? I shall just call out one other AAA port to Switch that has simply missed the mark. I’m talking about Mortal Kombat 11, the latest and, for those who aren’t cursed to have to play it on Switch, greatest installment of one of my favorite multimedia franchises of all time. I was beyond thrilled to pick up the new entry of the iconically gory 2D fighter, and just a little worried as to how NetherRealm and Warner Bros. would move it to Switch. Is the resulting game fun? Um… hmm.

On a foundational, biological level, I will never not at least have a little of a good time playing as these characters bashing the hell out of each other. But in nearly every other way, it “Fatalities” itself in the ways that Outer Worlds achieves “Flawless Victories.” I am never fully immersed in the world of MK11 for the Switch. It reaches for its PS4/Xbox One’s high-level tiers, and because not enough effort seemed to have been made to focus on smooth playability, it jars at every level. The game regularly stumbles over its high frame rate goals, story mode graphical transitions between cutscenes and the game are assaults on the eyes, and despite my playing it on a cartridge, there is simply never enough space on my Switch and its SD Card for all the bug-filled content it wants me to keep installing and updating.

The Outer Worlds, despite the game’s delivered promises of wide-reaching, deep, ever-changing expansions and explorations, plays with smoothness and clarity on the Switch, whereas other recent AAA Switch ports don’t just bite off more than they can chew as they do fundamentally misunderstand the recipe. It’s the high point of Switch ports moving forward, especially for Switch gamers who actively made a decision to eschew good-graphic, jam-packed, gritty-on-purpose games as a base reality. Either docked or handheld, you will get lost in The Outer Worlds, and you will hope other studios keep making the Switch like this.

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Image via Private Division

For more in the world of Nintendo Switch, check out our starter guide on Animal Crossing.

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