There has been a void in quality sci-fi shooter RPGs lately, as the giants of the genre have been downsizing in the last few years. Borderlands 3 didn’t meaningfully evolve the series, EA put the Mass Effect franchise into deep freeze after the Andromeda letdown, and Anthem failed to launch. Square Enix and developers People Can Fly are taking their shot with a brand new IP, Outriders. But is the gravitational pull on gamers toward this new contender written in the stars, or does Outriders burn up upon entry?
In the not-too-distant future, humans have taken to the stars, leaving behind an Earth devastated by climate catastrophe, to find a new home for the sake of the species’ survival. Fortunately, they have discovered Enoch (which they hope will be the planet of milk and honey) and the survivors begin colonization of the new world. You are an Outrider, a well-equipped explorer of the frontier, a cowboy of the future. In a twist of fate, you get zapped by an Anomaly storm and become gifted with extraordinary powers. But through another act of fate, your character is put back into cryofreeze only to awaken in an even further distant future. The humans who had just gotten settled a few decades ago have already become unsettled. They’ve formed warring factions competing for power, led by other “Altereds,” individuals who possess paranormal abilities much like yours. On the Spinal Tap scale, Outriders starts at 11 and quickly goes to 12 in the prologue alone. It’s a lot to take in, but your character takes it all in stride. You set out, looking to uncover the mysteries of the planet and figure out exactly what happened while you were sleeping.
Throughout Outriders, you try to navigate the bullet hell of dozens of enemies coming at you at once. This is not a cover shooter, per se, but there is usually ample cover in the big set-piece environments. It’s generally a good idea to stay in cover unless you’re on the move. On the other hand, you can’t hunker down forever, as opposing troops try to flush you out by sending melee fighters and explosives your way. Refreshingly, the healing system pushes you to be more aggressive rather than turtle. There are no recovery items for you to spam, and the only way to regain lost hit points is by killing enemies. The Anomaly has also granted you transcendent special abilities that more than even the odds. It’s an engaging frantic sprint trying to deal with everything enemies throw at you during an attempted advance, moving between cover, and using your powers to your advantage. As Enoch supported life prior to humans’ arrival, there is also native wildlife that doesn’t appreciate your presence and tries to chase you down. The fights with these monstrous bipedal or birdlike creatures play out differently from your battles with humans, as massive hordes attempt to swarm you from all directions while you fire away, trying to hold them off. Yet, they are so pretty as their bright colors glow in the dark.
Outriders’ loot system borrows heavily from the Borderlands series. There are tons of guns and armor for you to scavenge from, as if Enoch is a giant thrift store. Early on, the loot you find offers simple stat upgrades, but eventually, you start to run across items with powerful special effects that do more to turn the tide of battle than preliminary upgrades. Some of these are visually spectacular. One such pleasure is hitting enemies with the Slow effect and watching them go into their death animation in slow motion.
After the prologue, you choose between four very different classes for your Outrider. Choose wisely, because class is permanent for the rest of your character’s natural life and there’s no crossover between classes. Each class handles differently, and their unique special abilities are the most exciting aspect of Outriders. One of the (tank) Devastator’s powers, stopping bullets with your hands, Matrix-style (and seeing each bullet get caught in the field of effect) before sending them back at your enemies, reaches into the core of my late ‘90s teenager being. Sadly, you don’t learn jiu-jitsu. Another ability belonging to the Pyromancer (sort of like a battlemage) sets an enemy on fire. If they are killed while on fire, they explode and damage nearby enemies. These over-the-top violent specials are extremely satisfying to utilize and look great, too. They do more to make you feel like a super-powered hero than most superhero games.
Outriders does especially well at letting you customize the game into the experience you want. Whether you prefer to feel super powerful and tear through enemies or you’d rather put your survival skills to the test with greater challenges, it’s easy to adjust the difficulty to accommodate. You collect a massive amount of loot and thus will be switching out your gear often. But if you find that perfect pair of trousers that make your butt look good and they just aren’t protecting you the way they used to anymore, you’re in luck. The simple crafting system allows you to keep your fashion sense by boosting your pants’ stats to keep up with the game’s challenges. Or you can just change with the times and make a Frankenstein outfit out of the most powerful equipment you find. There’s something to be said for a game that allows you to approach it the way you prefer.
You pick which location you want to visit next as you make your way across Enoch’s world map, and more sites open as you progress. The map shows spots where quests are available in each area, but don’t mistake this for an open world. Maps are more like a network of paths than vast open spaces, each path usually housing its own quest. Quests are structured like a traditional video game level, as you travel exclusively forward through them. Despite levels essentially being one-way corridors, they are extra wide corridors and the spots where you run into enemies are open playgrounds of violence for you to play your bloody game of death.
Though it has its moments, the main story is lacking in direction. The looming possibility of a second downfall for humanity due to splintered factions’ inability to collaborate is a clever, if a little obvious, warning for us on the real Earth. Sadly, the chapters feel too segmented to be cohesive. When the story attempts to be serious, the tone is muddled, mainly because of your own character’s bemused, shoot-first attitude and rote one-liners undercutting the mood. Your character just isn’t very likable, always letting their gun think for them. When a big, emotional moment happens, your character’s response is to walk toward your murderous rival, arms extended in the “come at me bro” gesture, and quip, “Let’s dance!” That scene sums up the main narrative’s awkward flow.
Outriders is actually at its liveliest when it’s big and loud, like a Hollywood summer blockbuster. It’s a marvel that the writing too often leans heavy instead of keeping the action fast and furious. The narrative picks up steam only shortly before a rather abrupt ending cuts it off. When I started what would be my final session with the main story, I thought I was only about halfway through, only to finish it a couple hours later. I completed the main quest in under the advertised 30 hours, despite playing through a decent portion of the side content. Outriders’ story feels more like the first act of a complete tale, though with DLC probably on the way, there likely will be more adventures to come.
Despite my disappointment with the main story, the sidequests are excellent. Those scenarios are much more effective narratives, reflecting a variety of moods. From helping an older man reach his house in the middle of a warzone and recover a precious family heirloom to bailing out a guy stranded in an outhouse who’s afraid to leave because of the monsters outside, there’s emotion and entertainment to be found in these short side stories. Almost all of them feel as though you’re doing something meaningful, and there are no standard, boring kill x number of monsters or fetch quests. Side stories also contain the best world-building — even your character’s dialogue is stronger. The Historian missions you can do for junk collector Madame Beauvoir are also well worth your time. Essentially the same as side missions, these quests have you seeking out items colonists brought with them from the old Earth and might be the most grounded moments in this extraplanetary tale. But the priorities are questionable when the game’s best writing and jokes are tucked away off the beaten path.
A crew of companions joins you as you make your way across the planet, but they never are present in combat. They all offer you services, such as letting you buy and sell or craft equipment. You can converse with them, though the dialogue is limited. The characters seem likable and interesting enough. Channa is one of the more intriguing characters with her colorful, mysterious visions, and Jakub, your old war buddy, is a fun grumpy elder. But never getting to fight side by side with them makes it hard to feel any deep emotional connections. I would have liked to spend more time with them than the game offered me. But your combat “party members” are the humans who join your squad online.
While the combat is fun, it does wear thin by the end. Granted, using special abilities continues to thrill throughout, and you gain more of them as the game goes on. But the last time you take on a big group of enemies is essentially the same as the first. This lack of progression would be more forgivable if the story held up its end. A few massive boss fights are integrated in and offer a change of pace, but there are only a handful of those. There is endgame content after you finish the main story, but the only difference in those missions is that you’re mobbed by hundreds of monsters at once, rather than mere dozens.
On a more positive note, Outriders is heavily marketed for its optional co-op, and it’s definitely the superior way to enjoy the gameplay. You can have up to three in your party, and though the gameplay doesn’t differ much from solo outings, having teammates feels better, whether they’re buddies or mysterious strangers. I left the privacy open and a random player surprised me by suddenly popping into my world unannounced at one point, but then we had some good fun plowing through monsters together — or at least I had fun. But the implementation of co-op in the narrative is strange. You can play through the entire game with a team, but as far as the story is concerned, you, specifically, are the only Outrider left, an unrivaled, unstoppable one-person army. When you get to a cutscene with a group, your partners disappear, as if you’re the only Outrider present, while each other person in the group is watching the same scene with their own Outrider in place of yours. The narrative totally ignores the other people on your team, making the co-op aspect feel like a secondary mode rather than the core experience. The game’s “always online” requirement also was ill-conceived. I luckily escaped connectivity issues and some other issues like disappearing inventory items, but others haven’t been as fortunate since the April 1 launch. And People Can Fly has said, truthfully, that the game offers a complete solo experience, so from a lone player’s perspective, there’s no reason why an online connection should be mandatory.
Among the first RPGs to showcase the power of the next-gen consoles, Outriders, as expected, offers impressive visuals and a smooth framerate, though you hit some stutters in both categories. Featuring a wide variety of environs, from vibrant, colorful jungles to footprints on icy mountain peaks and rippling sand dunes, the eye candy is sweet. The characters are near photorealistic, except at some points where the textures lose their resolution and they look more like something from the PS3 era. During cutscenes, characters with flowing clothing or hair experience flutters as if they had just landed from jumping, which undermines more serious scenes. The visuals can be stunning at times, but the glitches break the immersion, even if only momentarily.
The sounds of Outriders are largely solid, offering a good mix of gun blasts and background music. The actual music is fine, if expected. Blaring horns and earth-shuddering bass are the norm for sci-fi action games, and no new ground is broken on that front. The voice acting mostly feels natural and fits the characters, with Dmitry Chepovetsky standing out as Jakub. When the story hits its high-strung points, however, the actors sometimes don’t quite rise to match the mood. There are some oddities in the sound department, too. Sometimes in cutscenes, the crunching sound from when you take damage during battle plays with every step you take, sounding as though all your bones are breaking.
Despite my complaints, Outriders makes for a solid, if slightly underwhelming, experience. Several elements left me scratching my head, and there are some bizarre glitches. But going god-mode with your abilities is good fun, even if battles can feel repetitive. Your enjoyment of the game will stretch further if you have a buddy or two to bring along with you for the (out)ride. People Can Fly threw a lot at the wall, and some of it definitely stuck. With DLC and updates surely to come, the Outriders crew will hopefully hone its focus on the parts that work. There is a solid core already, but I hope Square Enix and People Can Fly will take steps to freshen up the gameplay and story so the momentum doesn’t die out the way humans did back on Earth so long ago.