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Outriders Demo -- Just Passing Through

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The looter shooter genre is something of a peculiarity. On one hand, there is no denying that the genre has seen a boom for several years now. But on the other, many of these games have been released in an unpolished state, and while some adjust and adapt over time, others fail to meet those initial expectations (or worse). So given this stigma, it is strange that so many offer demos or beta tests which allow players to experience the game and make initial impressions without having to commit. Available next month, Outriders is the latest entry in the looter shooter genre, and like many of its predecessors, there is a free demo that lets players get a taste of what the full game will offer.
Note: this review is based on my experiences with the Outriders Demo which is an unfinished product and may change before the final release. A review of the final product may follow its eventual release next month.

For the sake of brevity (I hope..), I wanted to focus my thoughts on the Outriders Demo on three topics, the world, gameplay, and the hook and long-term prospects. The Outriders Demo lets players experience the first two to three hours of what is purportedly a thirty to forty hour game. After ruining the Earth, humanity traveled through space and arrived at the planet Enoch. The game opens as the first teams land on the lush and lively planet to prepare it for the rest of the survivors. However, a storm dubbed the Anomaly strikes and everything rapidly falls apart. Players wake up thirty years later to find the paradise and promise of the game’s prologue has been replaced by slums, despair, and an endless conflict. Whereas the opening moments of the game are vibrant and beautiful, the meat of the demo is comprised of varying shades of brown. I only downloaded the Outriders Demo because a friend asked if I was interested in giving it a try, and prior to that, had only seen one or two trailers. If my only experience with Outriders came from this demo, I would think the game abandoned the colorful and promising prologue in exchange for something completely bland and uninspired. Since trying the game and as I have worked on this review, I have watched more of the pre-release content and I was shocked to see that later parts of the game embrace color and outlandish and creative designs. Much of the promotional material promises more varied locales, but that visual shift from the prologue to the game’s first section was still incredibly jarring and disappointing. I imagine it will fit into the game’s narrative, but the visuals that comprise the majority of the demo are not doing the game any favors.

Unfortunately, it is not just the visuals as the game’s narrative seemingly drops the hopefulness of a fresh start for humanity and replaces it with what feels like an unoriginal and uninspired edgy and gritty story. This is best encapsulated by Shira, one of the two characters players encounter before and after the time-skip. During the opening, Shira is a hopeful engineer who talks about giving humanity a second chance, takes selfies, and has ambitions and plans for the future. When players encounter her again, she only cares about doing what it takes to survive the war she has been fighting for thirty years. It also does not help that the game tries to make most of its characters out to be these tough and hardened bad-asses, but the writing is just terrible. Given how depressing the complete tonal shift felt, I honestly do not think it would have hurt the game to just cut the initial section. Exploring Enoch and learning about the Anomaly are mysteries for players to unravel in the full game, and I do think the story and world have potential, but the brief story beats players experience in the demo have undoubtedly tempered my expectations.

Outriders is a third-person looter/cover shooter which supports up to three player co-op and with a heavy emphasis on role-playing game elements. There are two key components to the gameplay, one side that feels really good, and one side that does not. Let’s start with the good. Players choose one of four classes (only supporting three person co-op when there are four classes feels like a missed opportunity) with each class having its own distinct identity and gameplay mechanics. The developers have done a great job crafting these unique and largely offensive toolkits that allow each class to feel powerful in its own way. The game’s approach to healing is also really intriguing and helps craft each class’ identity by playing into their strengths and roles. For instance, the Devastator, my favorite class, is a close range tank that heals by killing enemies that get too close. It can launch itself into the middle of a group of enemies, wrap itself in stone to protect itself from damage, and then fire off powerful earthquakes that devastate the enemies and heal any damage that has been inflicted. As much as these abilities complement each other, the classes really shine in co-op when you start to synergize the abilities of different classes together. Characters have a variety of abilities to weaken and entrap enemies and set them up for your friends to unleash their own powerful attacks. Playing with friends is when the game really stands out as, even in the demo, you can become a roaming squad of death that cuts through enemy lines, unleashing explosive and powerful abilities.

If you have read or watched any impressions about the Outriders Demo, you have probably seen high praise for how the game gets players engaged with the loot system early (as in, you can already engage with the loot system during the first two to three hours). One of the common criticisms of the looter shooter genre is that looters force players to reach and engage the endgame before they can really start to experiment with perks, mods, or builds. That is seemingly not the case with Outriders. During one of my playthroughs, a random chest in the second mission dropped a piece of armor that increased the strength of one of my main abilities and made my character feel more powerful. Early gear offers perks that allow you to build and customize your character and its abilities based on your playstyle. Although crafting was not available in the demo, from what I have gathered, you can dismantle guns and armor to remove perks which can then be crafted onto other pieces of gear, which is a great system to give players flexibility in building their characters. I am curious to see how these powers develop as players start to find higher tier loot and how strong some of these perks allow players to become. I am not expecting the game to venture into the same territory as Risk of Rain 2 in terms of embracing letting players become over-powered, but at the same time, I could see them getting a lot closer than a game like Destiny that limits power creep by limiting how strong players can become. Each class also has a robust skill tree with various perks, but the trees did not seem especially interesting when I skimmed them and it seems that the core of customization will come from armor and weapon perks.

But then there’s the bad. Outriders is a looter shooter, and while the classes and loot feel great, the shooting does not. The shooting feels clunky and unsatisfying, guns sound mushy, using cover is not as crisp and responsive as you would expect in a cover shooter, the game could use more weapon diversity, and the level design reminds me of the era when cover in video games was there to be cover and nothing else. It is almost as if the developers focused so much of their attention on making the classes and abilities feel good that they neglected the gunplay. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with ability-driven gameplay, but abilities in Outriders have cooldowns. Yes, some of those cooldowns are short, in the range of ten to fifteen seconds, but when players do not have any abilities available, they are forced to engage with subpar shooting mechanics. All that said, when I was playing Devastator, I found a gun that gave my character a shield that recharged as I did damage with that gun. It helped me overlook some of the flaws with the game’s gunplay because my weapon played into the class’ identity and made my gun feel like another piece in the class’ kit instead of a different part of the gameplay experience. I will be interested to see if this was a unique case, or if the game finds ways to capture that feeling in other ways. Another thing that really hurts the shooter experience is the heavy motion blur, which is especially bad when turning and causes heavy drops in frame rate. Motion blur is one of those things in gaming that I am pretty sure no one likes, but is especially problematic in a third-person shooter which wants players to fight in the thick of enemies, often by using abilities that leave them literally in the middle of a horde of hostiles. The developers have said they are aware of the criticism and are toning down the motion blur, but I am waiting to see how it changes with the final release.

Every game needs a hook. Whether it is a ten hour single-player game, a multiplayer player-versus-player game, or a looter that wants you to sink hundreds if not thousands of hours into it. Having played through the Outriders Demo on three classes (sorry, Pyromancer), I see the hook as leveling and building your character, cranking up the world tier, and facing tougher challenges to unlock better loot. The developers have even discussed some of the endgame activities that open up to players after finishing the campaign as well as the game’s crafting and customization, so there is definitely more than thirty to forty hours of gameplay. More specifically, they have described activities called Expeditions which are post-game levels with new mechanics, challenges, and storylines with difficulty tiers designed to test players' skill and builds. As I have mentioned before, I love games that allow me to develop and show mastery by investing more time into them, and the character builds and customization look like they can scratch an itch that Destiny has been missing. That said, the demo was only two to three hours long and then opened up to let players repeat quests and missions. Naturally, players grinded those missions and found the most optimal ways to farm loot which the developers quickly patched. I understand that they probably did not want players to spend the month leading up to the game’s full release farming amazing gear that trivialized that content, but at the same time, players are always going to find the fastest way to get loot in a looter, so it concerns me that the developers were already so quick to act to stop that.

Outriders is a looter shooter, but unlike most recent entries in the genre, it is not a live service game, so I am curious to see how long it will last (or if that is even a concern for the developers). I do not know if there are plans for additional content or expansions, but I imagine Outrider’s longevity depends on how well the game does upon release. I can see a world where the game does well and merits additional content, but the developers have also said it is a complete experience out of the box, so I could also see a world where they release the game, support it with any necessary patches, but then start working on their next project. If the goal of the Outriders Demo was to get me interested in the game’s full release, it succeeded and put the full game on my radar. While I found the gunplay, world design, dialogue, and other aspects disappointing, I can see potential in the character customization, loot, and endgame content. Outriders is not a game I am planning to pick up at release, but the demo has me interested enough that I will be checking reviews and early impressions before I make a final decision.

...our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence...

All images owned by People Can Fly.