Some games suit bad luck. Whenever I think of Wolfenstein Cyberpilot, for example, I think not of its plot, nor its mechanistic brutality, but of the July heatwave in which it was released: a bad time for strapping on a VR headset, you might think. On the contrary, what better way to breathe in the petrol-rich fug of its premise—that of piloting the robotic machines of the Wehrmacht—than by feeling beads of sweat pool into the rubber cups around my eyes? It was in this spirit that I approached Outriders, the new game from People Can Fly, which is beset by bugs, crashes, and failures to launch. How perfect, then, that it tells the story of human colonists, quitting a trashed Earth and venturing to a distant world, whereupon they land, get booted through time, swarmed by enormous insects, and find their mission breaking down before it can really get off the ground.
The crew of the Flores, some 500,000-strong, has spent eighty-three years in a hopeful hypersnooze, before landing on Enoch: a large planet composed of a human-friendly—and thus inherently wreckable—mixture of blue and green. First off the boat are the Outriders, a military force clad in the sort of drab and durable uniforms that abound in games like Mass Effect. Since when was space a thing to be moped through? What I wouldn’t give to be able to report that Enoch’s first sight of us entailed the ambitious glint of aluminium foil, or even a sexy update on the suits of the Apollo missions, as bright and clean as toothpaste. The job of the Outriders is to take one small and heavily armed step—scouting ahead, mapping the terrain, spotting suitable camping sites, and so forth—the better to facilitate one giant reap for mankind.
I would happily spoil what happens next for you, but, truthfully, having hypersat through eighty-three years of cutscenes, I still can’t be sure myself. From what I can tell, it involves a rift in spacetime, called the Anomaly, which jolts us into the future (though, with its lopped trees and burnt-out trenches, it resembles the battlefields of the First World War) and juices us with super powers. Add to this the presence of the natives, who recall the race of milk-white worriers from Prometheus; another faction of humans, who are raggedly dressed and enraged for some reason; and the appearance of a second colony ship, the Caravel, which mysteriously exploded years before. The writing, by Joshua Rubin and James Exarcopoulos, feels like it has been microwaved: a surface of hot sci-fi bluster with a chilly sentimental core. It is admirable, if ill-advised, that such attempts at narrative were made in an online, loot-encrusted shooter—a genre where your ears, traditionally clamped by a headset, resound with the wisecracks of friends. As such, when moments of dramatic weight are attempted, you wind up bemused at lines like, “All this time thinking we were gonna reach ‘a place beyond the Anomaly,’ only to find the place it all started…” Huh?
To be fair, those words, delivered with a heavy breath by an ally, do resonate. A lot of your time with Outriders, especially at the moment, will be spent trying to find a place beyond a host of anomalies—crumpling servers, glitches, communication errors—only to find yourself in the place it all started: your console dashboard. This is a shame, and I harbour no ill will toward the developer; you can do all the quality assurance testing in the world, before your game comes out, and it’s still no match for, well, all the quality assurance testing in the world. An hour after launch is already worth a few million more hours of testing than even the most colossal budget could hope to muster. Still, if the public is being pressed into service as a game-testing programme, should this not have been a free open beta? The blow is considerably lessened for those with an Xbox Game Pass subscription, through which Outriders may arrive as a pleasant surprise, but it is still a blow.
As disheartening as it sounds, when it comes to service games, a shoddy start is practically expected. “They say you get used to seeing stuff like this out here. That you get numb to it eventually. Don’t think I’ve reached that point yet.” Such are the words of one of your comrades, on Enoch, as if addressing the entire genre. As it happens, he is talking about your surroundings, as you creep, rifles raised, through a jungle of luminous midnight blue. The art direction, by Bartosz Biełuszko, along with lead environment artist Piotr Arendarski, is restless and eager to loot the landscape for images that strike the eye. The usual biomes show up—the toffee-brown sweep of a desert, the polar mountain range, scraped by snowy wind—but they’re often blended with the surreal or transfixed by a singular detail. A standard alien vista is upgraded with a downed starship the size of Manhattan, holding court on the horizon. And one late level apparently takes place inside an Aero, with brown bubbles rippling on the breeze.
It seems almost a shame that these sights should be backdrops for shooting, and not, say, for exploration or platforming. I would happily spend hours filing away the flora of Enoch into a compendium, maybe starting a greenhouse. Then again, the shooting is the best part of Outriders. People Can Fly, having made Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgment, have a keen grasp on combat—how it can be leashed to supernatural abilities and lanced through with traditional firepower. There are four classes, each boasting its own perks. Picking up my progress from the demo last month, I stuck with the nippy Trickster, whose powers include teleportation, and an attack that turns my grunt into a garden strimmer.
The best time I had with the game was a ten-minute stretch that contained (a) no crashes or bugs, (b) the right level and world tier—essentially, a measure of enemy toughness—and (c) a harmony of tactics, sorcery, and gunfire. With me were a Technomancer, with a clutch of mini-turrets and healing skills, and a Pyromancer, who lashed our foes with long-distance tongues of fire. Coupled with the punch and crunch of the guns, the action had a satisfying flow. We fought through a series of caverns, vanquishing waves of foes who looked like spiders wrapped in layers of rock, before facing down a screen-hogging boss. This is where Outriders is at its most fun—flighty bursts of action, in between the lulls of loading screens (usually after a server drop) and minutes spent fumbling with loot before the next fight.
Personally, I find little joy in loot. The urge to surf a churning tide of trinkets, to supplant the organic process of getting better with that of getting more stuff, has never appealed. Having said that, I think I could come round to the idea if the stuff available didn’t verge so earnestly on the satirical. I collected one item called—I kid you not—the “Waistcloth of the Mass Awakening,” which not only sounds like a tremendously smutty euphemism but also seems to have made its way into the wrong team-based Square Enix RPG; surely it belongs in the other one, covering up the immodesty of the big green guy?
Still, the breadth of strategy is there for those who love to garb themselves in tiers of colour-coded gear, and the endgame, a series of timed horde-like expeditions, stripped of story cutscenes, is a streamlined arena in which to hunt for more. What about for everyone else? What we’re left with is another online shooter RPG with a boring story, hobbling through a blighted launch, and hoping to stand out from the blur of its genre with a scattering of arresting panoramas and a streak of magic-fuelled strategy. Maybe, after the talented developers at People Can Fly have furnished the game with a few patches, Outriders will shine. The problem is that, aside from its technical troubles, the charms of its world and its combat lose their edge. I get numb to it eventually. Who knows? Perhaps, in a couple of weeks, we might set aside the pains of its landing, and find the urge to jump back in. Don’t think I’ve reached that point yet.
Developer: People Can Fly
Publisher: Square Enix
Available on: PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X / S [reviewed on], PC, Stadia
Release Date: April 1, 2021
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