Developer: People Can Fly | Publisher: Square Enix | Genre: Third-Person RPG Shooter | Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Google Stadia, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Reviewed On: PlayStation 5
People Can Fly’s Outriders feels like a relic from a time when Gears of War pushed a lot of games to consider going from being a first-person shooter to a third-person cover shooter. It was heavily influential and plenty of B-games spawned from its sudden popularity. Subsequently, AAA game development slowed, indie games became more popular, and the “B-game” seemed to basically disappear after the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Those games weren’t necessarily bad, but they tended to have less polish and a smaller scope while still trying to create a fun game that felt worth your investment. Outriders is exactly that game. Rough around the edges and leaving a poor first impression, it’s a cover shooter that feels fantastic to play while wearing many of its influences on its sleeves.
Players create a character who is part of an expedition crew aided by Outriders – a group of soldiers who are tasked to help in recovering probes found on the planet, Enoch. Enoch stands as a last-ditch attempt to save humanity as a colony ship looms over the planet awaiting instructions to land and begin rebuilding a civilization for humanity. However, those plans are squashed when the colony ship is prematurely told to land and the planet turns out to be ravaged by Anomaly storms that knock out communications and leaves those stranded on Enoch in a worse state than they were on Earth (which was nearing its demise when the colony ships left). You are forced back into cryostasis where you awake to find Enoch in ruins and what was left of humanity is barely surviving.
Pick and choose any post-apocalyptic or science fiction tropes and Outriders has them. Enoch is basically divided between the haves and the have-nots, with the haves being the Altered, and the have-nots being everyone else. Altered are the lucky few people affected by the Anomaly in a way that provides them abilities such as being able to command fire-based attacks or teleport. Your created character becomes an Altered as well, except unlike every other character tempted by power, you aim to finish what you started and find a home for humanity.
To accomplish this, players choose between four classes, each one with its own defining abilities. The Trickster was what I played with for my time with the game while dabbling in some of the other classes, and it became very evident that the class you choose has a significant effect on how you play. I barely played Outriders as a cover shooter because healing is tied to my abilities, almost all of which required me to be up close and personal with enemies. Where Tricksters heal from attacking up close, a Pyromancer might adjust their equipment to benefit the fact that in order to heal they need to deal damage to enemies on fire thanks to their incendiary skills.
Outriders is initially deceptive because of its class abilities and the risk/reward system associated with them. Outriders have their loadout of weapons and armor, each tiered and associated with a firepower or armor rating. On the surface, the game’s loot drops (which vary from Unusual to Legendary and are more unique the higher up that tier-list you go) and cover shooter mechanics makes it seem like just another loot-based shooter with repeatable mission design and the ability to party up with friends or random players to complete those missions. It has all of that and then more limiting design decisions that only exacerbate the feeling that Outriders is just aping off every game of this style.
However, when playing as a Trickster, every time I walked into an area with plenty of cover, I almost never used it. There’s no benefit of killing enemies from afar because I won’t heal and my abilities depend on me being in the thick of combat. Instead, I’d survey the scene, take out a few enemies at the beginning and then begin teleporting behind enemy lines. Armed with a shotgun and assault rifle that I almost never changed to any other type of weapon, my abilities ensured I had a means of escaping combat if it gets too rough and a way to control the flow of battle to my advantage. Enemy types vary from long-range snipers to tanks that can absorb and deal immense damage to melee-wielding insurgents who will rush you. Outriders feels designed to make players aggressive and tactical at the same time.
For starters, it gives you more abilities than the maximum three that you can hold at one time and they all have an effect on how you approach a combat scenario. For example, the Trickster has multiple offensive attacks including changing your ammunition type, becoming a cyclone of blades, or slicing a wide spread of enemies in front of you. However, I always had Borrowed Time equipped which allowed me to activate the ability and then move around the battlefield taking out enemies until I needed to retreat. Then I just tap the button again and I’m instantly back where I activated the ability. Combine it with a shotgun and the ability to instantly warp to an enemy and you can do some severe damage before warping back to where you were.
Outriders is a fantastic game once you’re in the flow of combat for two reasons: abilities are better than weapons and encouraged heavily; and the game’s AI knows how to react to your play style, forcing you to adapt to their strategy. There is never a dull moment in a combat scenario when the enemy has guns of their own. Throw in an Altered who also has abilities and you’re looking at a much more difficult scenario.
World tiers largely affect how difficult the game is going to be and also encourage thinking differently. Essentially, they govern the game’s difficulty, and the higher the difficulty, the better the loot and the tougher the enemies. Maintaining the mods on weapons and armor to benefit abilities and cause more status effects becomes absolutely crucial. Eventually, it forces your hand to play with other players via matchmaking if you desperately want better loot drops. However, at the time of this writing the servers have been inconsistent so the few times I did match with a full party, we ran into minor bugs and issues that didn’t ruin the experience but also didn’t last long enough because someone would drop out shortly after due to server issues. That can all be remedied over time, but it did force me to play the majority of the game alone due to the inconsistency of the matchmaking.
Playing alone is actually fairly fun though because Outriders knows that the combat is when it is at its best and rarely lets too much time go by without shooting someone. However, very quickly the game’s shortcomings surface outside of the combat itself. For starters, each area is segmented into chunks and within those chunks, you can expect three types of level design: narrow corridors, open areas with no cover, and open areas with cover. Humans will be the enemy type for the latter, and wildlife will be the enemy type for areas with no cover. There is little to no variation in this. Only once did I get to an area where there was some wildlife attacking me immediately followed by humans, but never at the same time, and only that once.
This sort of rigid structure bleeds into the overall composition of each area you discover on your expedition East to find the source of the Anomaly. Almost every location has a Wanted, Hunter, or Historian questline, and then potentially one or two side quests, outside of the main questline that will funnel you from one side of the map to the other. They are repetitive, nearly identical, and do not feel rewarding to complete. Doing every Hunter quest doesn’t unlock some big hunt for a legendary creature, instead, you just get the option to reset the questline and do all ten hunts again. Every quest ends the same way too: here’s a big area (again, cover or no cover decides the enemy type) with a boss-type enemy and your reward will be the choice between one of three pieces of loot. But you’ll want to do all the quests for experience so you can spend points on the immense skill tree of each class type.
Eventually, the game even starts throwing side quests at you that have you exploring three different areas in the same map, seemingly only because you didn’t explore them so they can be turned into parts of a fetch quest. It’s boring, uninspired, and feels like a huge waste of potential when there are genuinely a handful of interesting side quests and plenty of flavor text to discover that is more engaging than the other quests. To do everything in the game, it could probably be done in a very short time depending on your World Tier, including the game’s post-game content. After that, it’s pretty much just Accolades left to complete which are milestones that unlock cosmetic items for the truck used for your expedition and are usually just doing a certain task ad nauseum.
As mentioned, B-games often lack polish and Outriders is no exception. Cutscenes have stiff animation and middling to poor voice acting that leads to emotional beats that don’t land; the world feels lived-in but static because everything is hidden behind a canned animation or a loading screen (playing on PlayStation 5 these were very brief but still constant); and everything just feels like corners were cut whenever possible. What happened on Enoch and the environments subsequently explored could have been riveting. The problem is that the game has a lot of ideas that are executed poorly, whether from a writing standpoint or just lose their impact because of the game’s overall jank.
That being said, Outriders is actually still tons of fun. At its core lies mechanics that make the player feel powerful. This is because the player’s abilities and weaponry are powerful, but also because the player is always forced to react differently. The risk/reward system of each class lends to a sense of accomplishment and relief when you come back from low health because of the actions you did out of necessity. When matchmaking has worked, having a group of players stacking status effects and abilities in a battlefield covered with enemies is a constant rush.
Outriders proves the same thing that Destiny did when it first launched: build a game around a solid foundation and getting through the game is less of a struggle. The two offer gameplay that triggers a dopamine release at each kill and requires varying your tactics to adapt to the enemy’s adapting strategy. It may not have a fantastic story to propel players across Enoch, but Outriders feels great to play and that’s enough to want to spend time skipping cutscenes to get to the next combat encounter.