Amnesia has been a plot device since time immemorial and at some point or another, we've all taken control of a protagonist with a memory wipe and attempted to piece together the events that surround us/them. It's a great way of ensuring that the player and their character are in exactly the same position, with their shared understanding unfolding with the story beats. In Outriders, amnesia has been replaced by cryosleep (not dissimilar to the set-up in The Outer Worlds), with your character put on ice years before being woken up on a strange alien world that has been ravaged by conflict.
And thus begins your adventure in Outriders, the new third-person sci-fi adventure from People Can Fly, the studio that gave us Bulletstorm and that now is building a shooter to rival the likes of Destiny and Warframe with its futuristic arsenal of weapons and special powers. However, waking up clueless on a strange rock isn't how our gameplay demo started, so we should probably tell you a bit more about what we played.
Before we picked up the controller for our remote demo - an increasingly common occurrence for us during these days of self-isolation - we were asked which two classes we would like to sample. Our first pick was to try out the Pyromancer (too much time spent as a Gunslinger in Destiny, perhaps) although we ended up playing that class second and starting out as the Trickster. It turns out that this was a terrible choice.
The Trickster, as the name implies, has a few unusual abilities up its proverbial sleeve. Leaning into the lore, the planet Enoch is home to a strange anomaly, and this grants powers to those living there, including our tricksy Outrider, who can slow time for their enemies, turning then into a slow-mo target to pick off from range. It's a neat trick, for sure, but the class itself is a bit more nuanced than the others and, combined with our previous lack of experience, it meant that we laboured through the first half of the demo.
The second run at the demo was much simpler. Playing through the same section of the game helped, as, no doubt, did our new-found familiarity with the controls. However, it's also fair to say that the Pyromancer is a more straight-forward class to use with flame-powered special abilities complementing our weapons of choice. In fact, we didn't swap out the Pyro's main rifle for one found in a loot crate because the gun we started with was so useful; upon the death of an enemy, a small percentage of their health transferred over to us. Handy.
Each run had us pushing through a number of set-pieces where we were switching between close-combat and gun battles at mid-range. Shooting from distance was less viable due to poor visibility, although it's hard to say whether that was because further optimisation is required in-game or whether the streaming software being used to play the demo was at fault. Either way, we got a good idea about what we were supposed to be doing, and long-range combat isn't really the aim of the game anyway.
Back to our two class demo: both characters were several levels in so we had some points to spend on a skill tree, giving us passive boosts to damage dealing and resistance in its many forms. Then, as you'd see in an MMO or something similar, you must choose the abilities you want to use and assign them to three slots (playing on an Xbox controller they'd be on LB, RB, and LB+RB), and here's where Outriders starts to come into its own. You see, judged as a straight-up third-person cover shooter, there's not a whole lot to shout about, but People Can Fly's shooter sparks into life once you start blending traditional gunfire with the game's more unique attacks.
The various abilities come in different forms, but they're each themed around your class. Our Pyro, for example, was able to send a wave of flames into an enemy, while one of the Trickster's attacks is a temporal throwing blade that you can chuck at an opponent and both slow them down and whittle away at their reserves of health. What we discovered, especially when playing as the Trickster, is that the combat in Outriders is tactical, and you can't simply run in and empty bullets into your enemies; you need to find a good position, you need to have a steady aim, and you need to keep using your abilities, which are all on cooldown timers and need careful management.
Our demo consisted of a string of engagements with groups of enemies, each of which is fronted by a heavy unit or a captain. Naturally, these dudes take a bit more punishment before they go down, and they're helped by the ability to heal up mid-battle. Therefore, it's a case of finding a good balance between conservative fire from cover and exerting enough pressure to take down their first and then second health bars. Some of these battles were surprisingly tough (especially during our first run as the Trickster) but eventually, we were comfortable enough with the mechanics and our abilities that we were able to push through to the end of the demo, which concluded with a cutscene that wasn't afraid to pull its punches.
The tone of the narrative and its delivery points to a game with serious undertones, and this is perhaps the area where Outriders is most vulnerable, and there's a risk that the whole project could be dismissed as generic because it walks an undeniably similar path to Destiny with its mysterious anomaly granting special powers, for example. People Can Fly has its work cut out if it's going to convince people that its new game has enough character to stand on its own two feet in this competitive sub-genre. We liked the alien setting, and the premise is more interesting than a simple amnesia story, with the player waking up from an enforced slumber to find themselves in a living hell, many years after going to sleep. We're certainly intrigued.
Will it be enough, though? Outriders is set to land on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X later this year, and it lands at a great time to launch a new IP, with proud owners of new consoles no doubt looking to play fresh and original games on their powerful hardware. That alone should get people onboard, but if Outriders is going to prove to be more than an interesting launch title and establish itself as a franchise (the holy grail for any new IP such as this), we're going to need to see how the story plays out, as well as spend more time with the game's four classes and its extensive arsenal of weapons. The potential here lies in the sweet spot between narrative-driven abilities and systemic gunplay, and if People Can Fly can strike the right balance here and weave that gameplay around a meaningful and unique sci-fi adventure, Outriders could turn out to be an absolute blast.
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