Outriders Review in Progress: Demo Impressions

February 26, 2021
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Since seeing our first hands-on preview of Outriders last summer, I’ve been cautiously optimistic about People Can Fly’s new co-op shooter/RPG. I was disappointed by the latest delay, but as a consolation prize, Square Enix has released the first act on schedule as a demo for us to start forming impressions off of. After spending the last day or so wreaking superpowered havoc on PS5, I’m still not sure whether the final game will end up being the Mass Effect/Destiny/Gears of War mashup I’ve been hoping for, but it’s definitely sold me on the fun of its sci-fi setup.

What I find most engaging about the Outriders demo  – which covers its prologue and first chapter and has kept me going for about six hours so far – is its insistence on more closely resembling a single-player RPG than a “shared-world” shooter in the vein of Destiny and The Division. I may not be able to make huge, story-altering decisions like in a classic BioWare RPG, and they’re still yet to crack the code of making every player the story’s Chosen One simultaneously, but being able to have optional conversations with almost every NPC I interact with and seeing tangible in-world consequences to my actions – like unlocking a new merchant with a permanent discount by completing a side quest – goes a long way toward getting me invested in Outriders’ post-double-apocalypse world.

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Though maybe “post-post-apocalytic-apocalypse” is a more appropriate way to phrase it, because while the planet our crew of survivors from “Earth that was” land on was originally full of verdant forests and bizarre fauna, by the time the story kicks off in earnest it’s become anything but. The world dubbed “humanity’s last hope” quickly goes awry for our titular customizable character and their friends, and an unexpected lengthy time jump (which is a trope I’ll admit I’m a sucker for) sends things into territory that would make even the maddest of Maxes wince.

Its writing may not win any awards this year, and cutscenes suffer from some unfortunately out-of-sync audio, but it does a serviceable job of moving the story along and endearing its NPCs to you, whether they’re novel takes on established archetypes or making good use of People Can Fly’s affinity for self-aware banter. The latter can create some clashing tones, though. This is clearly a story that wants to address serious themes like humanity’s penchant for conflict and overconsumption, but it also kicks off with a somewhat bombastic attitude that doesn’t really let up, especially in the first chapter showcased in the demo. It sort of feels like hearing someone yell “YEE-HAW” during the somber acoustic part of a country set; it’s not entirely out of place, but it doesn’t quite fit in, either.

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Similarly, the prologue (and several trailers, too) hinted at a lush and colorful world to explore, but most of what we see in the demo is the drab browns and greys of war-torn lands and refugee camps. Hopefully we’ll see more varied environments and characters in the full release, but for now the majority of the color in the world comes from the flashes of red, blue, and green as you carve your way through each early-game zone with a variety of weapons and special abilities.

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Combat is, for the most part, some solid fun – as one would hope since it’s where 90% of Outriders’ gameplay lies. It follows the satisfying (if familiar) formula from other co-op heavy looter-shooters and adds a gory dash of time-bending elemental superpowers for good measure. Gunfights – whether playing solo or with friends – are frenzied affairs that leave battlefields literally coated in blood, and there’s something morbidly hilarious about seeing a whole-ass ribcage rolling through a skirmish like a bony tumbleweed.

In more or less standard fashion, the four classes all boast strengths, weaknesses, and skill sets that will be familiar to anyone with some experience in classed-based action games – though where other squad shooters typically have a variety of roles for players to fill (healer, support, etc), Outriders is very clearly focused on the DPS side of things, at least based on the abilities available in the demo. Yes, the four classes each “fill a role” on the team, but aside from the Devastator’s Golem ability (which effectively just turns on “tank mode”) they’re all in service of how quickly you can reduce your opposition to a sticky red paste. That uniformity may be a turn-off for anybody who really loves to play The Healer or Buffy McBufferson, but it also allows those who opt not to team up with others to feel safe playing as any of the four classes. And there’s a very real possibility that they’ll become much more different as they level up in the full game – there was an entire skill tree that the demo barely scratches the surface of.

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I spent a decent amount of time exploring on my own as both the tank-ey Devastator and the far squishier Trickster, and found that the combat was balanced as well for one person as it is for a group – the only notable difference being that while I was playing with friends there were a lot more enemies to deal with in each encounter to scale up the challenge. The roster of enemies present in the demo is fairly limited, featuring run-of-the-mill riflemen to melee-focused berserkers and the occasional superpowered miniboss – but they provided enough tactical variety to demand some quick thinking and strategy, especially in larger groups. Aside from some floaty movement and a frustrating lack of clearly climbable (or, perhaps more importantly, non-climbable) objects, I’ve had a grand time-bending earth or using teleportation and stasis powers to chunkify hordes of nameless baddies, and there was something sadistically gratifying in seeing just how ruthlessly one set of powers could crush, incinerate, or straight-up disintegrate enemies when paired with a teammate’s if I was playing with a group.

Thus far, what I’ve played of Outriders might not revolutionize the looter-shooter formula, but it’s a solid take on it and has a good variety of upgrades and perks that mesh well with the chaotic pace of combat and promise some really interesting builds for late-game characters. While the weapons are a fairly standard array of assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles – with some notable inclusions like the “double gun” or more powerful Legendary-tier weapons – the inventory metagame gets more interesting as you collect rarer gear. While “Unusual” (I don’t know why they can’t just call them “uncommon” like everybody else) items have simple passive buffs like additional crit damage or armor piercing, Rare (or better) items often have special perks that can either enhance your class-based abilities or even provide new ones, like generating a protective shield with every hit.

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Similar to other loot grinds, it appears you can either sell or disassemble items to purchase or craft better gear, though the crafting system was offline in the demo. I’m glad that progress from the demo will transfer to the final game when it launches on April 1, though, because I’ve found a winning set: a rifle with the aforementioned shield ability and a preposterously powerful auto-shotgun that restores health with each kill. I hope I can upgrade these bad boys as I reach higher levels and world tiers (which increase both enemy difficulty and loot quality as you level up) in the full game.

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Outriders’ demo highlights a lot of what it has going for it – fun combat, both for fire teams or solo players (though it’s definitely more fun with friends so far), intriguing sci-fi plot hooks with a lot of potential, and a unique take on how co-op shooters can adopt elements of more traditional RPGs. That said, it also shows some spots where the apocalyptic space shooter is starting to stumble. Replayability is a big part of whether a not a co-op RPG shooter remains enjoyable, and while combat in Outriders is a bloody good time, I found myself yawning through my third and fourth runs of its several sample missions. Similarly, while I really enjoy some of the concepts introduced in the story, what I’ve seen so far is on a tightrope between being the first game to crack the “shared-world shooter with a good story” puzzle or another instance of mashing “skip cutscene” as fast as possible – and nothing takes you out of a story faster than buggy cutscenes.

What I don’t think the Outriders demo has done yet is really sell me on it in the long-term, and while that’s very hard to do in a few hours it’s also crucial in determining whether a game like this is worth becoming invested in. I’m definitely interested to see more of its world and unlock more nifty pseudo-magic, but I’d venture a guess that 70% of my playclock in similarly structured games takes place well after the credits have rolled, and this demo provides little to no insight on what to expect from Outriders’ endgame. Its developers have detailed a fairly robust endgame plan, but whether or not it has the staying power of other service-adjacent co-op shooters – or if that’s even the team’s goal – remains to be seen. Hopefully, it’ll keep up the fast pace of its action and decently fun, pulpy story – because I really want to level up that auto-shotgun.

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This demo hasn’t been quite substantial enough that I’m willing to put a temporary score on Outriders yet, but I am having a good time with it and am looking forward to playing more for the full review. Look for that sometime on or around the release date of April 1.

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