Outriders is upon us, and I think it's fair to say that its popularity has taken most by surprise. Part of that popularity could be attributable to Xbox Game Pass, and also good timing since no other huge releases came out around this time. It's also word-of-mouth; Outriders is genuinely fun, with infectious combat (literally if you're a Technomancer) and an intriguing apocalyptic, alien world.
I've been gradually making my way through the game, mostly solo due to co-op issues. I'd be lying if I said my experience hadn't been greatly marred by the game's multiplayer systems, which arbitrarily require a Square Enix account despite Outriders' insistence that the game isn't a "game-as-a-service" title. Things have improved in recent weeks though, after a couple of hefty patches.
I'm having an overall good time though, but how long will that good time last? I wanted to lay down some of my own thoughts on the current incarnation of Outriders, and where its future could lie.
I prefer its story to Destiny and The Division
It could be the fact that my 10,000-hour playtime (seriously) in World of Warcraft has damaged my brain, but for some reason, many of the service-type looter-shooters that have come and gone over the years have failed to stick with me. I do not begrudge people that enjoy Destiny or The Division — in fact, I envy them. I love shooters and I love the loot-addled gameplay loop of World of Warcraft so these games should be my bread and butter. However, every single one I've tried has failed to captivate me in the same way.
Outriders comes across a bit like a Saturday morning cartoon at times, but hey, Saturday morning cartoons are awesome.
It could be that my experience of what a loot 'em up should be is narrowed by my reverance of World of Warcraft and Diablo. And that might be why Outriders seems to have grabbed my attention so much better than some of its contemporaries. Outriders is far closer to Diablo in terms of formula, with a constant stream of loot that not only provides compelling upgrade options but also heaps of crafting materials to more carefully tailor your experience. Admittedly, I haven't delved too far into endgame yet, where many of these types of games tend to fall apart, but the general gameplay loop has grabbed my attention in ways that The Division, Destiny, and many others simply haven't been able to.
Part of that is the story. Outriders is set on an alien planet called Enoch, where humanity fled after destroying Earth. It's a cautionary tale — and a predictable trope, perhaps, with some slightly rough dialogue. Outriders comes across a bit like a Saturday morning cartoon at times, but hey, Saturday morning cartoons are awesome.
I also actually remember Outriders' characters. I remember their place in the world, and I care about the challenges the characters face, which revolve around saving the remnants of humanity from extinction. It's poignant, given what's going on in the world right now.
Millions of refugees from Earth fled to Enoch, and things didn't exactly go according to plan. You play as an Outrider, who has become "altered" by an alien force that exists on the planet, and are bestowed with superhuman powers. Outriders were the first to land on Enoch, and were supposed to begin the colonization process. Unfortunately, all they found was deadly alien fungus, gigantic hostile monstrosities, and violent anti-gravitational storms called anomalies, which destructively defy the laws of physics. After waking up from decades trapped in cryo, you emerge to find a human race truly on the brink, fighting over scraps and control of what little habitable space has been found.
I don't want to spoil the plot for those who haven't experienced it yet, but it's full of larger-than-life characters, giant monsters, and physics-defying deus ex machina. It's not the most elegant story delivery you'll ever see, but this is from the makers of Bulletstorm. It's all about comic book violence and larger-than-life situations, and I wholly prefer it to Destiny's obscurity-masquerading-as-complexity, or The Division's dry "realism." That preference extends to the gameplay, too.
People often don't like it when you compare one game to another, but it's a bit tough when they share a genre. I'm a big fan of violence in games, for the simple dimension it adds to combat. If I hit a dude in the face with a shotgun, I expect giblets. If I hit him in the face with a shotgun and he turns into a floppy ragdoll, what exactly was I shooting him with? Bean bag rounds?
This relatively simple and superficial addition is a big part of why Outriders just feels better than Destiny, The Division, and many other similar shooters. Given People Can Fly worked on Bulletstorm and Gears of War, it's not wholly unexpected either. There's just something satisfying about Outriders classes and combat system.
Freezing enemies and shattering them, turning them into living bombs spraying viscera across the map, or popping skulls with tight sniper gameplay just feels right. The four classes offer a truly diverse range of playstyles, unlike Destiny's relatively simple "different colored grenade, melee, very occasional ultimate" conservative approach to what it calls classes. The Division also felt quite cookie-cutter when I played it, although I have no idea what it's like these days. I remember trying to make a build that was oriented around flamethrowers, but they were underpowered in most situations. Most players ended up all using the same personal survival builds, with very little synergy in multiplayer.
I'm sure Outriders could have similar imbalances as I dive deeper into the endgame, but as of right now, it feels like I'm just scratching the surface of a much more complex game. Every build I've tried offers something different and viable. Whether I'm focusing on freezing, vulnerability, and explosives, or poison skills and acid thrower turrets with my Technomancer, I've been having a blast. You can create synergies with other classes, playstyles, and weapons that feel like they offer so many more tools for creating havoc than some of Outriders' competitors. Other games restrict how much you can bust out your "superpowers," whereas Outriders says fuck it, do whatever you want every few seconds.
Outriders does have its tankier "elite"-style mobs too, but the swarming regular mobs are what keep your health topped off. You recover health by causing damage, keeping the pace of combat at a break-neck speed. Outriders remembered that swarming your screen with dozens of enemies Diablo-style needed to be fun so it doesn't include a slow-paced drip feed of bullet sponges that tend to plague the genre.
The world tier system also gives you a large degree of control over how the difficulty scales. If you leave it on auto-scaling, Outriders can be unapologetically tough, forcing you to reconsider your gear and your tactics to meet the challenge ahead. The variety of enemies has also been quite impressive. You have your human factions which are all effectively the same, but there are also crazy alien wasps, exploding spiders, acid spitting monstrosoties, weird mutants, and much more, alongside some impressive setpiece bosses. All of this coalesces in a shooter that is relentlessly feeding you new things to do, new abilities to use, new interactions to discover, and moves far beyond the simple act of pulling the trigger.
Outriders is buggy as f$%£
However, I would be lying if I didn't mention how damn frustrated Outriders has made me. I don't think I've played a game ever in my life that crashed as much as Outriders. This might be the buggiest "AAA" game I've played at launch, quite easily with the most crashes. Many of those crashes came from the same source, triggered either by state suspension not working properly or desynchronization issues stemming from bad connectivity code.
I've played Outriders primarily solo because playing online with friends has simply proven to be impossible. A game like this in 2021, particularly from a big publisher like Square Enix, should have dedicated servers with player-hosted matches as a fallback option, instead of being the default.
I can't help but lay blame at Square Enix for a lot of the problems. Despite the marketing spiel that this "isn't a service game" to avoid comparisons to Destiny (it totally is a service game), Square Enix has an always-online requirement baked in, complete with a Square Enix account requirement. During the launch window, the authentication servers for Square Enix's systems were overwhelmed, leading to a range of disconnects, desync problems, and other issues.
Beyond that, the game simply doesn't perform well in co-operative play. Even playing with someone in the same household feels invariably bad when compared to similar games. Destiny and The Division have Outriders thoroughly and utterly beaten in this area.
Although I haven't experienced this issue myself yet, there's also, at the time of this writing, a catastrophic bug in Outriders that wipes your inventory and loot, which is not ideal. There's a range of other Outriders bugs big and small also impacting play too, from side missions not triggering to specific crashing bugs.
Despite the endless frustrations in this area, I find myself unable to put the game down. The fact that I still struggled through Outriders' launch window is a testament to how fun it is. But will the general population spare the game the same patience, particularly after Outriders eventually exits Xbox Game Pass?
Will Square Enix capitalize on Outriders' potential?
Square Enix has had, shall we say, mixed success with its Western portfolio. Games like Marvel's Avengers, which should've been an obvious hit, became relatively stagnant quite rapidly due to some less-than-stellar live service gameplay and launch issues. Similarly, Square Enix was quite frank about the Tomb Raider reboot's sales not meeting expectations in some ways, and it cancelled the Deus Ex franchise altogether.
I sorely hope Square Enix will give Outriders the investment it needs to enjoy some decent longevity.
With Outriders, Square Enix has a rare opportunity to actually fund and maintain a game that could someday grow to sit alongside Destiny as a premier co-op PvE shooter experience, but only with the right investment.
It's potentially complicated, given that People Can Fly is an independent studio and only works in partnership with Square Enix. Would Square Enix be willing to go as far to invest in the dedicated servers the game definitely needs? Would they be willing to fund People Can Fly's growth as a studio to work on future content for Outriders?
Square Enix has struck me as a publisher that is more risk averse than most, which could explain the partnership with Xbox Game Pass. A lump sum from Microsoft not only offsets risk, but ensures the game has a massive audience from the outset. Indeed, Outriders not only became one of the most-played games on Xbox, it also became one of the best-selling games at retail on Xbox, despite also being one of the best games on Xbox Game Pass right now.
As a fan of this brave new world dubbed Outriders, I sorely hope Square Enix will give it the investment it needs to enjoy some decent longevity.
Thousands still log on to Diablo III every season for new rewards, and Destiny enjoys a stable player base that enjoys perfecting builds while waiting for those big expansions. People Can Fly certainly has earned my attention, but I can't help but remember how I felt about Anthem when it launched. Anthem was full of promise and uniquely fun gameplay mechanics, ultimately let down by a weak endgame and then a lack of leadership, vision, and investment.
I feel like Outriders has already reached far beyond Anthem ever could, but where the game goes from here is a bit uncertain. People Can Fly have my faith, but I'm not so sure about Square Enix. Here's hoping they prove me wrong.
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