Outriders is a game that isn’t defined by big new ideas, but rather a variety of familiar elements mixed together in experimental ways. It’s a role-playing game with loot-shooter elements; it’s a serious, dark sci-fi outing with a big dose of goofiness and humor; it’s a cover shooter that demands you rush out and smash enemies with your ludicrously lethal magic powers. Whether this mixture works for you will determine how much you’ll enjoy exploring the war-torn planet of Enoch and the last desperate vestige of humanity clinging to life there.
Outriders blends well-known video game elements into something new and challenging, and while it takes itself seriously, it isn’t self-serious. The world of Enoch seems huge and strange, and while the game is literally about the last gasp of the human race that has ripped itself apart, its heavy themes are always lightened up by a general blockbuster goofiness and characters defined by their gallows humor. Your place within it is as an accidental superbeing with space magic powers, and you’re mostly just annoyed that irritating people are wasting your time with their gopher chores. It’s a fun, self-aware fit.
Though Outriders looks like a live game of the loot-shooter persuasion, it’s actually much more Mass Effect 3 than Destiny 2–like Mass Effect, RPG progression and cover-shooting are more the engine of the game than chasing the next new gun. Outriders is, in fact, a cover-shooter RPG with a hearty dose of gear progression, leaning heavily into an epic story told with tons of dialogue, cutscenes, character interactions, and collectible lore.
Developer People Can Fly draws a lot from its past work on the Gears of War series in creating Outriders, and the influence is easily identified. Rifle-sporting enemies take fortified positions to unload on you at a distance, backed up by shotgunners that try to close the gap, armored troops carrying chainguns who plod toward you through the open, and cleaver-wielding sprinters who charge straight at your face to drive you out of cover.
The gameplay core of Outriders is shooting, and you’ll have a mess of guns at your disposal. Though you can only have two main weapons and a sidearm equipped at any given time, you’ll have lots of options thanks to the loot-shooter half of the Outriders formula. That means you can pair a sniper rifle with a shotgun or assault rifles and SMGs, and since you’re constantly searching for weapons with better stats, you’ll cycle through a lot of different loadouts in a short amount of time. What makes them especially fun are the myriad different properties and status effects they can have, like dispensing poison, blowing enemies up, freezing people solid, and more. Recalling Gears of War again, Outriders’ shooting is reliably solid, fun, and feels good–but finding synergies between your weapons’ weird properties is a lot of what makes the shooting part of the game rewarding.
Things get weirder in its merging of space superpowers with the cover shooter core. You can choose from one of four ability classes early in the game: Devastator, Trickster, Pyromancer, or Technomancer. These each have the general roles of tank, rogue, damage-focused mage, and debuff-focused mage–the Devastator uses gravity attacks for close-range kills, the Trickster teleports around to get the drop on enemies, the Pyromancer is a mid-range fire-flinger, and the Technomancer can summon turrets and rockets that also poison or slow targets.
Each class has a different way of replenishing health through combat, generally by focusing on their specific strengths. The Devastator, for instance, heals you for every close-range kill, encouraging you to get in close to enemies to hit them with powers like a short-range earthquake. Combat becomes a constant calculus between when to cut the distance and take down an enemy and when to take cover, bide your time, and protect yourself.
That combination can be a bit confusing and, as a result, combat is a place where Outriders can both sprint and stumble. You’re playing a shooter where you use cover to keep yourself alive, but you’re encouraged to leave cover to keep yourself alive. That push and pull of avoiding incoming damage and taking the fight to the enemy means you have to be constantly managing the battlefield, as well as your ability cooldown timers. If you jump out of cover and go wild with all your powers on an approaching enemy, you’ll leave yourself exposed for all their friends and quickly find yourself cut down by incoming fire.
That means having an earthquake ready to stun incoming fighters is essential to saving your life, since it allows you to grab kills while keeping your head down. Similarly, abilities like the Trickster’s teleport, which instantly puts you behind enemies in cover, are just as useful for dramatically repositioning yourself across the battlefield as they are for eliminating foes. But you can rarely just go all-out with your guns and abilities–you really have to think about where you are, where your enemies are, and how you can best eliminate them without exposing yourself.
It can feel unintuitive for a while, but when you do find the balance between using your powers, healing yourself, and staying out of fire, Outriders can create some pitched, frantic battles that use cover just enough to give you a second to breathe, without nailing your shoulder to a single chest-high wall and leaving you there for minutes on end. But there are also times when you find yourself surrounded or cut off, trapped between enemies, unable to kill anything fast enough to heal or escape the onslaught to save yourself. Sometimes a situation is just unwinnable, but luckily, Outriders generally only sets you back a bit when you die, so you can re-enter a fight quickly and try a new approach. Facing tougher Altered enemies, who have powers similar to yours, can result in battles of attrition where you have to cheese the situation by scurrying out of the arena so enemies don’t all chase you down at once. Sometimes, even careful management of powers, cover, and your spacing on the battlefield aren’t enough to save you, and it’s these moments when Outriders can get frustrating because it doesn’t feel like you’re losing for lack of skill.
There are ways to deal with that issue, however. Outriders is largely pretty open and has liberal fast travel, so you can bail on a mission to go do a side-quest without much difficulty, allowing you to grab rewards that can boost your gear and character. The difficulty of enemies is also determined by the overall World Tier level, which rises as you earn experience points alongside your character. World Tier also determines loot drops, so there’s an incentive to keep it on the highest level you can, but if you’re in a particularly annoying fight, you can always back it down a touch to keep yourself from stalling. The World Tier is a smart solution to the difficulty problem, and since it can be adjusted at any time, it gives you a lot of freedom to avoid frustration at key moments.
I’m only about 10 or so hours into Outriders, so it’s difficult to say how all its elements gel over the long term. So far, though, I’m intrigued by the way it blends disparate ideas to create new flavors. While the combat can be tough to wrap your head around at first, the frenetic balancing act has created some heart-pounding moments–more fun and intense battles than annoying ones. You can also play all of Outriders cooperatively, which seems like it could also go a long way to lessening combat irritations, and while I haven’t had a chance to team up with anyone else yet, I can already see how powers, abilities, and gear might work together on teams to create fun strategies and synergies.
Outriders’ story also has me pretty hooked in. People Can Fly has obviously put a lot of time and thought into the game’s lore, and there’s a lot of interesting writing to be found in journal entries and side-quests. What I’m liking most, however, is the unexpected mixture of desperation and humor. Enoch, the planet where Outriders takes place, was meant to be an idyllic new world for the remnants of humanity to colonize. Instead, it’s a war-torn hellscape where the last vestiges of the human race are literally ripping each other apart. The misery and torment of the situation is exacerbated by the Altered, like your character, who have gained godlike powers. How those people choose to use them is an ongoing moral question and I’m interested in the ways the game is attempting to explore it.
Coupled with the dark, serious, and gritty sci-fi take are the moments of levity that make Outriders feel human. One mission I played found a group of cultists sacrificing soldiers to the Anomaly, the weird Enochian storm that destroys electronics, rips apart buildings, disintegrates people, and sometimes bestows superpowers. Rather than plead with the Anomaly worshipers for his life, the soldier attempted to reason with them, explaining that there was nothing supernatural in the strange storms. “It’s just electromagnetic … scientific … sh-t!” the guy yelled before they kicked him over a cliff, and I couldn’t help but laugh. If I were trying to disabuse some fanatical cultists of their misplaced and lethal worship of a colorful electrical phenomenon, I’d likely say something similar.
There are a lot of these moments where Outriders strikes a delicate balance between being serious and being light, developing its world and recognizing that it’s dealing in some fairly absurd concepts. These moments likely won’t land for everyone–it can feel a touch edgelord at times, although rarely so far–and the tone can pingpong between extremes, especially jumping off the main quest to explore side content.
Those swings are also where Outriders excels, if you meet it where it is, though. Its story is often funny but similarly intense; its combat requires you to take cover and to charge; its abilities make you phenomenally powerful but prone to overestimating yourself. If you can find the balance in Outriders, People Can Fly’s RPG-shooter finds ways to combine well-worn video game ideas into something new and fun. Whether those new combinations will carry it all the way through its seemingly expansive runtime remains to be seen, but I’m excited to see what’s still waiting in the wilds of Enoch–and to smash it with seismic earthquake magic.