The loot shooter subgenre has not exactly fared well the last few years. We've had radical (seemingly near daily) overhauls on Destiny 2, wildly inconsistent quality on DLC expansions on Borderlands 3, ridiculous season mechanics in The Division 2, and it's reached a point where the masses are crying out for something different. People Can Fly, creators of the Painkiller series and Bulletstorm, supposedly heard the cries of frustrated gamers and purportedly wanted to alleviate their suffering with Outriders. Unfortunately, they managed to make things worse.
Set in the far future on the alien world of Enoch, Outriders puts you in the role of a hapless survivor of Mankind's first (and so far only) attempt to plant a colony in a distant star system. You are one of the titular "Outriders," explorers and pioneers whose job was to take point in the howling wilderness and protect the fledgling colony. Exposure to a mysterious anomaly has granted you incredible powers. Unfortunately, your exposure also happens at the same time the colony's advance team comes unglued, leading to you being stuffed in a cryo tube till "things settle down." The same anomaly has also pretty much trashed the colony itself by destroying any electronics and making even simple electrical machines a dicey proposition, leading to decades of bloody warfare while you were on ice. Once you're thawed out, circumstances push you into an odyssey to discover the source of a mysterious transmission which might yet pull the survivors back from the brink.
Visually speaking, Outriders is quite good. Given they're using the Unreal Engine, it's hard to imagine a bad looking game with it. The environments are diverse and highly detailed, from squalid settlements to verdant forests. Creatures are well designed and look plausible, maybe not as outrageous as some of the critters running around No Man's Sky, but something you could see being done in a good sci-fi action movie. Player gear leans towards the bulky, almost oversized, and slightly ridiculous at the lower levels. The "legendary" rarity items are considerably more exotic and have a decidedly incredible sensibility to their aesthetics. This, of course, is something of a letdown given the scarcity with which they seem to drop. There are a number of excellent special effects which help accentuate the action, from thick shells of ice coating targets when they're hit with a freezing special ability to flames engulfing bodies when set on fire. A wide variety of characters exist in terms of general NPCs, and some differentiation for different types of humanoid enemies, though you'll notice a certain "sameness" from faction to faction.
Yet for all this, there are a few problems. Periodically, you'll see odd visual artifacts and texture tearing. And certain types of armor will have clipping problems during cutscenes, particularly when a character is sitting down. Oddly enough, on certain text entries (primarily during the game's loading screens), the writing is slightly off, as if it wasn't entirely localized correctly. There also seems to be an odd issue with the character's hair, where coloration seems to look off, as if the setting has been changed despite still being what it was originally set to during character creation. More troubling, though, is the way that environments and cutscenes are implemented. Long loading screens and activated entry points rather than a seamless open world exploration creates a highly "choppy" sort of experience, one which gets worse the deeper you get into the game. As a final irritation, the game doesn't ship with a "Photo Mode," which made capturing screenshots without HUD elements in them a practical impossibility.
The sound side of Outriders is something of a mixed bag. On the plus side, there's a really good soundtrack and a variety of well executed environmental sounds, as well as good special effects. There are plenty of explosions and a variety of gunshots appropriate to different types of weapons, as well as the battle cries of different humans and creatures. However, there are problems which diminish the overall effect. While the voice acting isn't terrible, it's not exactly outstanding, either. The writing for the actors isn't particularly spectacular; They manage to make do, but the dialogue isn't what you'd call quotable. NPC barks seem to recycle a little more often than they probably ought to, and there's an overuse of certain musical "stings" during cutscenes which grow increasingly irritating the more you hear them. Moreover, there's a significant problem with audio playing but character models not actually speaking when they're supposed to, which diminishes a lot of dramatic punch during cutscenes and interactions.
Gameplay is what dooms Outriders to the ranks of the also ran. For months leading up to the release of the game, People Can Fly was promising a loot shooter without all the "games as a service" stupidity. Yet players are still obligated to sign into Square Enix's servers, most likely to facilitate multiplayer support. This in and of itself wouldn't be a problem if it didn't take upwards of ten minutes or longer for it to happen. Sure, you can simply close the game, restart it, and see if it takes. But the fact you have to even do this sort of dance is indicative of serious problems which either People Can Fly or Square Enix were not anticipating. But this is only the first of many problems which plague this title.
Going into menus does not pause the action, which makes sense in a multiplayer situation, but doesn't in single player. In situations where you need to adjust your loadout quickly, you're pretty much obliged to get killed just so you can respawn at a point right before the fighting starts to make changes. It's a needless irritation which People Can Fly should have thought about, undermining the promise of "no GaaS shenanigans." That promise is further undermined by the instances where players had their entire inventories (including their equipped gear) inexplicably deleted. People Can Fly has stated this issue shouldn't be coming up again, but we'll have to see if that's the case, since there's no telling when one update or another will break something the devs thought was fixed.
For all the talk of making a brand new loot shooter, People Can Fly seem to have ignored far too many of the tenets and conventions which make a loot shooter good in the first place. One can have a third person perspective (see The Division), but the controls in Outriders veer between wildly sloppy or painfully sluggish, with no room for fine tuning. The "World Tier" system which increases difficulty as you progress through the game sounds like a good idea in theory, but founders all too often on missions which throw giant waves of enemies or numerous elite enemies at you, leading to considerable frustration and painfully slow progression through the story. As a practical matter, I found myself having to keep the World Tier at 1 (the "Story" level) just to get any sort of forward movement, since the time-to-kill period at World Tier 7 (where I finally ran out of patience) is just ridiculous. The additional slog of unlocking accolades through weapon and power usage doesn't help, and the in-game economy when it comes to purchasing new gear (especially the legendaries) is so horrifically broken there's virtually no point in it. While the ability to swap out special abilities on weapons and armor is certainly less painful than in the dreaded "Recalibration bench" in The Division 2, the struggle to keep your epic and legendary quality gear updated is almost painful to the point of discouraging.
Players are given four different character classes to choose from, a slightly wider array than the Destiny series. But the progression through the class trees seems more like blind luck than any sort of rational escalation or evolutionary scheme. You have no idea when you're going to get your next class point, and the upgrade trees themselves seem to be a torturous mishmash between Destiny and Path of Exile. As for how the classes play, all of them require a considerably more "kinetic" style of gameplay than what you might find in most other loot shooters. Cover is available, with some of it being destructible, but there's no way for a character to heal unless they play basically how the devs expect you to play. Perversely, this makes what Outriders call the support class (the Technomancer) the most solo friendly class to play, since you heal when you inflict any sort of damage. Anything else requires you to constantly get up close and personal in your mayhem. It almost makes the inclusion of battle rifles and sniper rifles seem superfluous. And here again, the lack of fine tuning on your control speed makes aiming down the sights incredibly cumbersome. More irritatingly, battle rifles do not have a first-person sight the same way sniper rifles do. They're treated the same way auto rifles are, which means using the sloppy reticle and praying that the enemy will pop their head up just far enough for you to get a good shot in.
Navigation through the environments of Outriders is painful on a number of levels. As mentioned before, it's not really an open world. It's more a collection of small combat arenas stitched together like rides in a theme park's "zone", with the occasional fast travel point stuffed in that only works within that zone. If you want to go to a different zone, you'll have to use the game's truck to take you there. Adding insult to injury, there's no compass, and there's no way to accurately ascertain your position within a given area. For certain areas, this isn't necessarily a problem, but it throttles one of the key tenets of a good loot shooter: curiosity. There are nooks and crannies in the game, but they're not as evenly placed as you might expect, and there's rarely anything like you might find in something like Destiny or Warframe. You won't be stumbling into hidden quests. You won't be getting subtle hints to examine something more closely. What you see is what you get, and once you've gotten it, there's nothing more to see, no incentive to come back and revisit an area. And the constant holding of buttons for actions like harvesting resources or picking up documents, which should only require a single click in most cases, is a mechanic which does nothing but needlessly aggravate a player.
When it comes to the storyline carrying players through Outriders, one should not be expecting the sort of sweeping sci-fi epic you'll find in the Destiny series or Warframe, nor will you find technothriller accuracy such as in The Division series, and certainly not much in the way of humor like you'd see in the Borderlands series. People Can Fly created a really great setting, unquestionably. But they somehow missed the entire point. There's no surprises to be found by the players, very little in the way of engendering a sense of wonder, and the humor is self-referential rather than universal. It's this last point which is inexplicable, given the sometimes slapstick humor found in Bulletstorm. The main quest basically boils down to the theme of "power corrupts," but also involves a completely half-assed twist towards the end leading to an utterly unsatisfying ending. Far too many side quests and even main story arcs end with a bullet to the head for NPCs and a lack of introspection from the character pulling the trigger (not always your own avatar). The buildup to the climax is shambolic and its ultimate execution is just incredibly messy. The final scenes between chunks of end credits are meant to be inspiring, but they feel cheap and unearned. Worse, the ludonarrative dissonance pervading the game is so bad, it kills a lot of the fun. What else should a player feel when they watch their avatar play Russian roulette, lose, and come back to life moments later except cheated when they get killed trying to complete a quest?
Like too many games of late, Outriders has utterly failed to deliver on its promises. The highly crafted worldbuilding and well executed visuals can't excuse, much less compensate for, the frogmarching gameplay, hollow narrative, and myriad technical issues. People Can Fly may have wanted to make the Next Big Thing in loot shooters, but all they have accomplished is creating a cautionary tale which will regrettably disappear over the horizon far sooner than we probably think.
This review was based of a copy of the game purchased by the writer.
Postscript: Just prior to publication, People Can Fly updated the game to version 1.07. This update addressed a number of technical issues, including the login issue, and some balancing issues. The review was written prior to the 1.07 update, and as such was accurate at the time of its initial submission.