Outriders from developer People Can Fly and publisher Square Enix is, at the very least, an interesting game. The story inconsistently teeters from wanting to bring up very big ethical questions with its sci-fi Lord of the Flies-esque setting and characters who are potentially very complex to just being serviceable enough to get to the next checkpoint. The gameplay, at its best, is a thrilling and engaging experience that can truly make you feel god-like as so many of the games characters strive to feel. At its worst, it’s a frustrating mess that practically punishes you for playing how the game is pushing you to play. All of that, wrapped in some frankly scary questions about the future of games and their necessity to be online brought up by the consistent server issues, makes for an interesting game. Unfortunately for Outriders, though, that intrigue comes more from its shortcomings and what could have been rather than what is.
Okay, that may sound vague, but I promise to explain. Part of where the problems in Outriders begins is with its story and its setting. I am by no means saying that the setting is bad; I think the setting is one of the strongest aspects of Outriders. Enoch is an incredibly interesting and gorgeous planet to explore, and compared to the lives of those left in humanity who have mostly just resorted to war, it feels like a tragedy that Enoch is not a more central character within Outriders.
Rather than focus on the potentially deep exploration of an alien world, we’re subjected to linear firefights that all happen within three or four areas with plenty of chest high rocks to hide behind. You play as an Outrider, a soldier whose job was originally to carve out a safe home on Enoch and explore the potentially hostile world. When the anomaly hits at the beginning of the game, you become Altered, which is where you’ll decide which of the four classes you’ll play as. All of this is an incredible setting for gameplay to follow up with “now go explore this new open world.” Instead, we get small sandboxes to travel between—and for the first time in a long time, I find myself wanting a game to be an open world game.
Are you beginning to see what I mean? Exploring more of Enoch and making the world and setting more of an active participant in the gameplay would have gone a long way to keeping me interested in the events of the story. Instead, the game focuses on its human characters, who we’re presumed to care about just because they’re the last humans in the galaxy. This does absolutely nothing for me, especially when the story really begins 30 years after the anomaly and you wake up to find that they haven’t been doing anything except try and kill each other. It’s an opportunity for depth wasted, as you could add complex layers of stories about building communities, the stresses of survival and, of course, what happens when people turn violent and how, if at all, you could maintain peace. The worst part is hearing the multiple lines of dialogue in-between gameplay, detailing events along these lines that would have been far more interesting to play through rather than hear about second-hand. The story we get is very little more than just a brief explanation as to why you’re in this new open space shooting people, and no longer in a previous open space shooting people, and I won’t pretend I’m not disappointed in it.
Despite this and other issues I have with the gameplay I’ll divulge soon, Outriders really has one issue that rises above them all, because it’s the one issue that renders the game unplayable in some instances. For some reason I’ve not yet been able to devise in my most wild imagination, Outriders is a game that requires an online connection to play. You need to be connected to the game’s servers, even when playing solo, with the option to let other players join turned off. In 2021, you’d think this wouldn’t really be that fair of a criticism anymore, due to the variety of popular titles with the same restrictions. But for a game that can be played entirely by yourself with no requirement for multiplayer, it should have an offline mode. Without one, Outriders creates this criticism for itself because the need to always be online has made my experience a buggy, inconsistent, and unreliable mess while trying to both play and simply log in.
In my time with Outriders, at no point was I able to sign in without having to first close and then re-open the game after sitting for almost 10 minutes waiting to be signed in. I would launch Outriders, wait for it to load up, press the X button to sign in, and be faced with a message that I was “Signed in!” while a loading circle continued to spin and spin and spin on until the end of time seemingly. There were even a few nights that, after spending near an hour just trying to sign on, that I would not have persisted if I was not reviewing the game. One occasion had me fed up to the point where I closed the game, switched to something else entirely and actually played video games the rest of the night instead of looking at a loading screen.
That all might sound harsh, but I don’t think my frustration comes without validity. Every time I was left looking at the same “Signed in!” screen I felt like I’d downloaded the wrong thing; I’ve not downloaded Outriders, a third-person cover shooter, I’ve downloaded the digital equivalent of Escalator Land. It just feels entirely unnecessary to make this an issue at all, and I understand that I wouldn’t have these problems if the servers were running fine, and once they’ve been fixed players likely won’t go through this again with Outriders—but it didn’t have to be a problem in the first place.
In fact, I feel like if they had an offline mode to play solo, it would have made the online mode more enticing, because story and server issues aside, the gameplay is really still what matters the most in Outriders. When I said the gameplay can make you feel god-like with your abilities, that wasn’t hyperbole. Despite my issues, Outriders can be a really fun and engaging experience because of its core gameplay loop. Using a mixture of your unique abilities and strategic gunplay to move throughout the battlefield, make your enemies explode, and keep your own health up is endlessly fun. It works well solo, but it works beautifully when playing with others. Having a squad of multiple different classes or even multiples of the same class can make the gameplay feel even more varied in your ability to create combos between characters. For example, the Technomancer class has the ability to generate a turret that shoots ice cold pellets at your enemies, which will freeze them in place. Once frozen, an earthquake sent by my squadmate playing the Devastator class will always make them crumble in a way that is most pleasing to my eyes and ears.
The other side to this, unfortunately, is the side that makes it feel like a frustrating mess: difficulty balancing. Outriders uses 15 different world tiers, which make up essentially 15 different kinds of difficulty—or so it would seem. World tiers 1-2 are easy, 3 is normal, 4 is hard, and from 5-15 are 10 different variations of really damn hard. You unlock higher world tiers as you progress through the game and become more proficient in your abilities to wipe out everyone in front of you. The game even gives you an option to have your current world tier automatically set to the highest one available, raising the difficulty throughout your playthrough.
Where this actually becomes a problem is how the higher difficulty levels create a major contrast between how the game seems to be telling you how to play, versus how you have to play to survive. I played significant amounts of the game with each class (mostly solo with some co-op), though I got farthest with my Technomancer and Trickster characters and completed the game with my Technomancer. Each class was set to various difficulties so I could get a feel for each of them, but that never really happened because I couldn’t unlock anything higher than world tier six. Maybe it’s just that I’m really bad at Outriders, which is entirely possible, but I don’t think that’s all of it. The Trickster class has the ability to slow down time, teleport behind enemies from far distances, and generate a temporal blade that can slice through anyone unlucky enough to be caught in its path. And therein lies the challenge with that class—you have to get close to use your powers.
The only way to heal in the game after taking damage is by killing enemies you’ve affected with your powers. The close quarter nature and movement-based focus for the Trickster and the incentive to consistently be close to enemies as a way to survive the fight is extremely engaging gameplay that gets ruined by the higher difficulties. I was losing health faster than I could regain it and ended up having to resort to pushing forward in inches rather than moving across the whole battle arena. So while the game is encouraging me to push ahead and put myself in the heat of the fight, I’m also being punished for that strategy by dying while my powers are in their cooldown. It brings the gameplay to a halt and my frustration to a maximum. I would be able to survive encounters only after dying countless times before I memorized each enemy placement and perfectly eliminated them all in a way where I could barely stay alive. It just felt like all the freedom I once had to play the game was stripped, and if I didn’t play with extreme caution then I wouldn’t progress.
Again, maybe I’m just really lousy at Outriders, perhaps there’s a certain way I should have been using my skill points better, or I haven’t figured out the best attributes to mod my armour with. But I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the steep difficulty curve for anything beyond world tier 4 is not balanced properly for solo players in certain classes. The Devastator is the other CQC class, and while what is true for my time as a Trickster is also true for Devastator, the Devastator class does have certain ranged attacks that mitigate those issues greatly, but not to the full extent. Pyromancer and Technomancer both have more of an emphasis on ranged abilities, which doesn’t create the same contrast in gameplay. It all ultimately feels like a lack of polish and creates a huge dichotomy between the classes, with half of the choices essentially being neutered by the game itself.
So where does it all land? Like I said at the beginning, it landed me at “interesting.” I genuinely have an incredible time with the gameplay, especially when I’m playing co-op. I think the different character abilities that come with the classes are all really well designed and work beautifully to create different combinations in combat, both within a single character class and with other players. The fun I have with the core gameplay, though, does not lessen the frustration and issues I have with the difficulty balancing, consistent network issues, and the ultimately poor story—which has a disappointing ending that could have been so much more. What we’re left with is a game that feels tragically half-finished, because it was halfway to greatness.