One of the things I have to get out of the way before I write my thoughts on the OUTRIDERS demo is that I have to respect what People Can Fly is trying to do with the game. It seems like they’re trying to capitalize on the stumble CD Projekt Red took with CYBERPUNK 2077 to become the premiere edgy Polish game studio, by intentionally going against the grain of other games similar to OUTRIDERS. The team is aware of their newest lootin’, shootin’, skill-tree-choosin’ game’s similarity to titles like DESTINY 2 and, even more chillingly, ANTHEM. However, there are a few conventions of the game industry they’re determined to flout that have driven their development process; namely they refuse to follow the “release it then make it” pattern of popular games with massive day-one patches, and refuse to treat the game as a live service once it’s out. It’s admirable, given the way the AAA winds have been blowing.
But in spite of all of these efforts to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack, OUTRIDERS feels like an amalgamation of a lot of games that were done much better previously. The story centers around the titular group known as the Outriders, rough-and-tumble fighters who have been enlisted in the search for a new home for mankind after the polluted Earth finally shakes them off. The player is only technically an Outrider, however, as the main force was all mostly killed when one of the spaceships designed to carry humanity through space exploded, leaving you and your group of mercs as the team bushwhacking an alien land.
Unfortunately, this planet must’ve heard about that crap you pulled on Earth, because it greets you with a horrible energy storm known as The Anomaly that decimates your crew and leaves you Altered, a mutated demigod with powerful abilities. But before you can fully understand your new abilities you get put into cryo sleep for 30 years, so you accidentally wake up to find that the rebirth of human civilization ain’t going so hot.
Despite the cataclysm upon arrival, humanity decided to set up shop anyway, and in the 30 years you’ve been out, the landing team of pioneers has aged and hardened, fallen victim to petty squabbling and violence, as well as a group of separatists known collectively as the Insurgents. As the last Outrider, it becomes the player’s job to make sure that humanity doesn’t fall again.
One of the first things I noticed when booting up the OUTRIDERS demo is that it didn’t quite feel like the game was 100% optimized for the PlayStation 4. With the wreckage of the CYBERPUNK 2077 launch still somewhat smoldering, People Can Fly surely must’ve recognized the importance of providing for backwards compatibility. While the game looked nice, things felt very off. Fabric would jump whenever there were cuts to it, as if the camera WHOOSH’D its way over. Many cutscenes had a noticeable audio-visual lag that neutralized any sort of tension. The cinematography was especially interesting as it looked like the camera had been directed by someone who’d had THE BOURNE IDENTITY described to them through bad cell reception because the scenes would not stop shaking. There was such a bizarre commitment to a shaky cam aesthetic, even during scenes where largely nothing was happening. I understand that it’s an action game and it’s supposed to ratchet up tension, but not only was it plain distracting, it didn’t feel like we were invested enough in the story to be affected by that sort of manipulation.
The tone of the game is also somewhat in flux. It wants to be a gritty dystopian shooter rife with dark humor and comedic disregard for life, but it doesn’t quite commit to either. For example, it’s supposed to be a big deal when you encounter the idealistic science researcher you meet in the prologue 30 years later and discover that she’s grown hard and callous. Her scarf, a fun aspect of her character design upon landing, becomes a bandage and eyepatch, signifying that the years you’ve been under haven’t been easy. That I get and understand, but I can’t tell whether it’s this gritty “war is hell” motif or this grimdark situation where your character is ripping off heads and not flinching at civilian deaths.
Also I feel the need to bring up that in the wake of #NoAsianHate, the only named Asian character in the demo is “Mr. Chang,” a parody of a Chinese shopkeeper who only exists to get fridged as a sidequest. Your character is only upset about it because they’ve been having “a shitty day” and this guy was going to show them “the good stuff.” This moment is literally a demonstration that sidequests can be run and rerun for different loot, but I can’t help but feel that it’s emblematic of the game’s wildly oscillating tone.
I played more of the classes than I thought I would, trying out Trickster, Devastator, and Technomancer. With each I experimented with various loadouts, trying out shotguns, sniper rifles, revolvers, assault rifles, and others to see how each fits into each class’ playstyle. I didn’t know if it was similar to DESTINY’s “get good gun use good gun” meta or whether a specific kind of weapon served a particular class, but I experimented as much as I could. What I did notice was that the abilities each class learns tends to lean toward a specific combo meta. The Devastator uses its teleporting ground pound attack to jet to an enemy or group of enemies, destroy them, and then its armor-up attack to run to the next batch and use its seismic blast to eliminate those. Likewise, the Trickster can use its time-stopping AoE attack (which I’m pretty sure plays the bass-boosted “THE WORLD” effect from JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE when you use it, or maybe my mind is Swiss cheese), then the temporal slice attack, and zip to the next enemy. OUTRIDERS also has an interesting health-regeneration mechanic in which the player regenerates health depending on which class they’ve picked. Classes like Trickster and Devastator regenerate through close-quarters kills, and Technomancer through mostly long-range kills.
The purpose of this, the game says, is to encourage a frenetic, fast-paced gameplay style and to encourage players to play to their class’ strengths. Personally, I didn’t quite feel like it enhanced gameplay in any particular way, but I did feel like it was trying very hard to be DOOM (2016).
There are some kinks to work out to be sure, because at the moment the largely support-focused Technomancer was the worst class to play. Especially because after extensive special attacks, the more powerful Captains and Altered can develop resistance to the various effects used on them and the Technomancer’s main attack almost instantly breeds this resistance. This can really throw off the pace of a whole fight.
I don’t want to be the kind of guy that has only ever watched LORD OF THE RINGS and then sees it in everything with swords and sorcery, but I couldn’t help seeing some pretty specific DNA in OUTRIDERS. Again, PCF has been quick to shut this sort of comparison down, but I was getting a lot of FALLOUT 4, a lot of DESTINY 2, even a lot of ANTHEM, and I’m still not sure what even happens in ANTHEM. What troubled me the most were the similarities to ELEX, THQ Nordic’s open-world “be-who-you-want-to-be” superpowered fandango that was riddled with bugs and ultimately a slog to play. But to say that isn’t necessarily to condemn OUTRIDERS, it’s more of a warning.
In I THINK YOU SHOULD LEAVE, there’s a sketch in which Tim Robinson hosts a game show legally distinct from PRESS YOUR LUCK. Instead of Whammies, which steal the players’ points in a humorous spurt of animation, they have Chunky, a large costumed monster who hassles the offending player to symbolize their loss of points. Chunky, however, isn’t really sure what his bit is yet, and tries things like messing with a player’s hat, wrecking his shirt, and even smashing the player’s laptop. Chunky doesn’t know what he’s doing, and it’s just causing havoc. So too in this case is OUTRIDERS. There’s a lot going on here—loot-grabbing, grinding, leveling, crafting, loadout optimizing—but it all kind of feels jumbled and confused right now. There is something there, I can feel it, even beneath the bugs and the cinematic shenanigans. But OUTRIDERS has gotta figure out what it does, or risk players dumping it like a half-assed game show.