Outriders seems to want you to play like you’re playing Gears of War, which isn’t a stretch, given its developer.
Polish studio People Can Fly is the studio behind 2013’s Gears of War: Judgment, and there is so much of that game here. To a fault, really. Last, last generation level design is all around. That Xbox 360 brown fudge, that convenient hip-high cover dipped generously into a war-torn flan. Chunky enemies and chunks of enemies, bad guys exploding in a puff of blood for no real reason at all. The chug of a rifle, a shotgun blast when someone gets too close. Hold a button to observe. Even the name of the game sounds like something Spark Unlimited would have come up with the decade before last.
The story is one I’ve heard a million times before. It revolves around a soldier who mysteriously gains powers and must fight to save humanity on a harsh alien planet called Enoch. There’s a quite incredible tonal whiplash as your soldier shifts from utter bemusement to wise-cracking asshole and back again. Outriders is trying to be a gritty, cool sci-fi romp, but its demo is too often undone by unintentionally hilarious cutscenes whose character deaths ought to be accompanied by canned laughter. The story teases that you’ll eventually uncover the truth about the alien planet’s mysterious energy, but when the writing’s this bad it’s hard to care.
And it’s, you know, quite janky. Outriders does a lot of things other games do and it does them not as well. The cover system is fiddly, the shooting imprecise and the animations jarring. There’s no jump button so you get those silly moments where you can’t step up onto a knee-high ledge. The sprint is kind of hilarious in a sped-up, Benny Hill sort of way. There are lots of little quality of life annoyances sprinkled throughout, the kind of annoyances you used to get in the early noughties. I’ve already reported on the immersion-breaking cutscenes for loading. The normal cutscenes have an annoying camera shake for super gritty effect (People Can Fly tells me this will be tweaked in time for launch). The normal cutscenes also have terrible audio and lip-syncing. And don’t get me started on the user interface, which is so clearly lifted from Destiny’s as to border on plagiarism.
So far, so mediocre. And thus Outriders would remain, I’m sure, if played like Gears of War from 2013. But against the run of play, Outriders is at its best when you ditch the cover and get stuck in.
Your character’s magic powers are significantly more effective and more fun than shooting guns. The Devastator class, for example, can pound the ground for an earthquake effect, leap into the air and teleport to an enemy for a big blow, and even catch bullets they fire back.
Healing in Outriders is, on the whole, triggered by using these class abilities. Going back to the Devastator class, it means getting up close and doing lots of damage that in turn heals you. There’s really no use in cowering behind cover and shooting from afar. Shoot close up and spread your magic powers liberally all over the battlefield.
Similarly, the Pyromancer recovers health whenever enemies marked by your skills are killed. Even the Technomancer, which is as close to a long-range class as Outriders has, recovers a portion of damage dealt as health.
It helps that the cooldowns on these powers is short, so you can do them quite often in a firefight. Play Outriders in this way and you’ll have a decent time. Viewed through this lens Outriders is more Mass Effect 3 multiplayer than it is Gears of War. The game really should shout these powers from the rafters.
And even just from the demo you get a sense that Outriders will have a decent build game. Armour piece mods change the way your skills work and you can end up with some interesting combinations, even at this early stage. I’ve got the Life Absorption mod on my boots, which makes the Gravity Leap skill heal for 100 per cent of damage dealt. If my target dies, it heals for 200 per cent of damage dealt. So the mod turns this skill from a cool way to enter combat into this super useful stay alive button.
Weapon mods give Outriders a bout of the Borderlands. I snagged a legendary light machine gun called Grim Marrow, which came with a level three mod called Singularity. This mod makes killing shots create an anomaly that explodes to deal splash damage. It’s also got a level two mod on it that inflicts slow on enemies. So, as I’m pumping bullets into enemies up close (who needs cover?), I’m making them float in a sort of stasis, then creating singularities as they die. It’s pretty cool.
I see potential in Outriders’ endgame because of this. Outriders tugs at that Diablo 2 / Borderlands itch, I’ll give it that. But it’s just so… old-school, I’m not sure I’ll be able to suffer it long enough to get to that point.
It turns out this old-school feel even extends to Outriders’ monetisation. There are no microtransactions. No battle pass. No seasons. No way, from what I can tell, to spend more money on top of the full price of entry.
I had a chat with the developers at People Can Fly recently and they told me Outriders is the complete package at launch. The game began life as a live service game, with the intention of having daily quests and all the other sorts of engagement gubbins you get with these sorts of games nowadays. But it made Outriders worse.
“Being totally honest, we thought at the beginning of games as a service, because other studios and competitors are doing it this way,” creative director Bartek Kmita told me.
“But during the production of the game, we realised the more things we were doing for the game and the more we were thinking about this game as a service, the more problems we had with the structure and the design. We realised games as a service was not allowing us to make the game better. The game would be worse.”
Kmita is keen for Outriders’ story to shine through, when story tends to play second fiddle to service in other games of this type. He doesn’t want players to rush through the campaign just to reach the endgame, ending up in “this infinite daily loop” of daily quests. “This is not our game,” he said. “We have the game about the world. We have the game about the story. And when we thought about the game as a service, always we were tempted to think, OK, maybe we will do this as a season, maybe we will chop content, maybe we will do something with this.
“Really, the beginning and the ending tells the whole story. People have to care about this and have to care about what they are playing – this for us is crucial. So then we realised, no, let’s not do this game as a service. It’s not our game, basically.
“That was more or less the thought process for us. It was more organic. The game was prepared as a game as a service, from the beginning. It’s just a different construct. We are giving this mix of a story-driven game and a loot game, and for people who we want to stay with the game, we are giving endgame content. So for us it was better to go with an old-school way, like Diablo in the old days.”
This isn’t to say that when you get to the end of Outriders the game ends. Far from it. Included are Expeditions that offer super challenging missions for potentially top tier loot. And People Can Fly said it would like to tell more stories in Outriders post-launch, but this would probably be bigger chunks released less often, rather than smaller, daily updates the likes of which you get with a service game.
So, Outriders is old-school all over. Old-school in structure, old-school in design, old-school in look and feel, and old-school in delivery. I mean, there’s a big, free demo that offers plenty of the game to play. Outriders is laying itself bare, for all to see. Some will recoil in horror. Others will revel in it.
Me? Outriders feels like a game out of time, but it also feels – strangely, I admit – ever so slightly compelling. Playing it reminds me of all those years I spent shooting stuff on my Xbox 360, and I really bloody loved that console. A blast from the past.
Outriders launches on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and S, and Stadia on 1st April 2021. The free demo is available now on all platforms, and progress carries over to the launch game.