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People Can Fly hasn’t released its own new game since Gears of War: Judgment in 2013. That disappointing spin-off had the signature Gears mechanics and beefy protagonists but lacked soul and the je ne sais quoi the mainline entries had. Outriders is People Can Fly’s first original title since and is a cooperative loot shooter with little in common with that Gears prequel, but has the same monotonous combat and looming sense of disappointment.
Outriders is a third-person shooter and looks like others in the genre. It even has an optional cover mechanic. But you probably won’t be using it that often because of the game’s faster tempo that encourages you to get in and use your many powers instead of cowering the behind a waist-high wall.
Outriders Preview | Ultimate power…
Despite claims from the developers that playing behind cover was viable and there for those who want it, it’s a rather dry way to play and seems antithetical to the game’s true focus: the powers from each class. While there will be four at launch, only three were playable: the Pyromancer, Devastator, and Trickster.
The Pyromancer is the medium range hero and can shoot out vertical pillars of fire that burn opponents, send out a shockwave that freezes them, or slam the ground and turn foes into bombs if they die while affected by the ability. The Devastator is the tank as it can summon rocks as makeshift armor, send out a cone-like ground pound, soak up bullets and send them back, or quickly soar up in the air before slamming to the ground. The Trickster has to get up close to do damage, which is aided by its ability to slow down time in one area and slice enemies with a time sword that also slows the clock.
Outriders’ skill trees are gigantic with loads of splintering branches and each character seemed to have eight unique abilities. Each controlled well and the cooldowns were pretty fast, which encourages you to freely use them as much as you can. Short cooldowns were important to the team as they wanted to have a “dynamic mix of gunplay and powers,” and that mix is likely better achieved when both are used equally. Lead Level Designer Rafal Pawlowski explained the result of equally focusing on both.
“We struggled with our gameplay and the mix of gunplay with powers with short cooldowns,” said Pawlowski. “That’s makeup for very high-octane action, which is very important for us as well. I believe that we achieved that.”
Outriders Preview | …At a cost
But the result isn’t quite as successful. Using abilities is empowering as it lends a sense of kinetic movement to the game and keeps things moving. And even though some of their effects can have similar outcomes, there are some ways to combine powers and obliterate the opposition. For example, turning everyone to ash and slowing down time are both simple ways to set up a combo with your partners. The powers are explosive and the shooting is smooth, which makes it even easier to set up said combos.
However, that adrenaline begins to fade as you fall into a mindless rut of constantly shooting and using the same three abilities over and over. You’re either mindlessly mowing down horde after horde of bad guys or endlessly firing into a big bullet sponge. Neither require much thought and the former — which is naturally going to be more common — gets old pretty quick as enemies are quite dumb and weak; a formula that is almost guaranteed to foster a repetitive gameplay loop.
Levels also didn’t appear to have any sort of hook to change things up and, thus, added to the repetition. Both of these are quite odd departures for People Can Fly, given how thoughtful the combat encounters were in Bulletstorm. Gears of War: Judgment may have gotten stale, but that was more of a result of it being one too many entries in a series rather than a dull core.
Having quick access to more of your abilities at once would likely help bring in variety as would fewer, tougher enemies that you couldn’t burn right through without a second thought. The fast pace is attractive on the surface, but it seems as though it’s pointing out how quickly these games can loop if they don’t make the player slow down just a bit to think and strategize. These kinds of games are naturally grindy, but they shouldn’t feel like a grind. Hopefully, the game opens up and diversifies as it progresses and this monotony is only a byproduct of the first act and a relatively small toolset. But, if true, late-game enjoyment shouldn’t come at the cost of early-game tedium.
Outriders Preview | Gearing up
The moment-to-moment parts of the gameplay might be more enjoyable when factoring the meta RPG layer that touches everything else. In a very Destiny-like menu, players can outfit their created character with a slew of gear from helmets to boots. The early loot was pretty standard — normal gloves, shirts, and the like — but People Can Fly revealed some of the later game items that were covered in bones and armor and looked appropriately rad.
It’s unknown (but likely pretty standard) how or how often it’ll dump equipment on the player, but you won’t be able to buy your way to the top. Outriders will not have microtransactions and while Randy Pitchford has shown how that can be misconstrued, Studio Head Sebastian Wojciechowski was adamant that the game would be a “complete experience in the box.”
“That was one of our decisions that we made at the very beginning. We wanted to make a game that we wanted to make but also wanted to play,” he said. “And as gamers, we are old school gamers. We don’t necessarily want to participate in microtransactions. And if you are suddenly playing and you need to buy something in order to progress… Well, that’s not how we want to put on our players.”
Lacking microtransactions is a bold choice especially in the realm of the looter shooter genre it resides in. But that might be one of the only things as it didn’t immediately stick out as something drastically new and inventive. Destiny has Bungie’s otherworldly design and fascinating universe. The Division has realistic interpretations of actual places. Warframe’s sleek sci-fi setting is iconic and immediately recognizable. Even Anthem has its flying mechanic.
Outriders Preview | A whole new (and broken) world
Outriders didn’t appear to have its own thing, but Wojciechowski claimed that its story would be a differentiating factor. The game tells the tale of colonists moving on from an uninhabitable Earth and onto a planet called Enoch. After touching down, a storm forces you into a cryopod and you awake 30 years later with new powers and in an evolved world that your people failed to colonize. It’s a mishmash of different sci-fi tropes, but Wojciechowski had faith.
“One thing that distinguishes us from those games is story,” he said. “Story is super important to us and we are representing this through cutscenes and a strong narrative and storytelling within the game. There are four hours of cutscenes in the game and that are selling the story and lore of the world we’ve created.”
There were a surprising amount of story beats in Outriders’ first few hours. Even the intro was unexpectedly a little heavy on the setup and narrative. Yet despite the effort, nothing aside from the setup was particularly engaging. Characters were rather one-note and uninteresting, which deflated the storytelling fairly quickly. It’s not impossible for Outriders to lean into its setting and pick up in the later hours, but the intro was unexciting and dated; something that co-op doesn’t usually remedy as plot details get lost in the friendly chatter.
Outriders has some of the pieces of a quality RPG shooter: three-player co-op, the allure of slick gear, a long upgrade tree, and fast gunplay. But there are just enough questionable aspects in and around those pillars that are concerning. The focus on story seems misguided, given early indications, and the repetitive combat hardly required much tactical thinking or restraint in the early hours. People Can Fly hasn’t made a bad game and both Wojciechowski and Pawlowski claimed it was the studio’s best title yet. There’s still time for the game to prove them right and be one of the standout titles that welcomes in the new generation with a bang. But despite its “launch window” status, it’s looking more like a “launch game” that might have trouble carving out its own path.