Of course, this wouldn’t be a 21st century colonisation story if things stayed idyllic, and so we’re hurled thirty years into the future to see exactly how far towards hell in a handbasket the world has gone (spoiler: it’s the whole nine yards and a few feet extra). But that future still holds onto that RPG storytelling framework. There are cinematic narrative set pieces, including an early one that involves a drive through what one Square Enix rep fondly calls a “corpse carwash”. When things are a little safer, there are towns to visit that house folks with plenty to say, be that the local barkeep, or your personal grizzled chauffeur Jakub, who drives you around in a sci-fi RV.
That truck functions as a travel system between the major locations of Enoch; it’s effectively your SSV Normandy. Like BioWare’s late 2000s games, Outriders is not an open world, but made up of multiple large environments discovered as part of a linear narrative. These areas, split into hub towns and mission zones, can be revisited to discover new elements, clear up side quests, or even repeat main quests.
To show off hub towns, People Can Fly let me take a look at Trench Town. Like its name suggests, this is a miserable outpost inspired by the living conditions of soldiers stuck on the frontlines of the First World War. Dug into the earth, the sand-bag lined walls and concrete bunkers are sanctuary for townsfolk going about their business. Core NPCs here help direct me to the main quest, but I’m also able to swing by a saloon and chat with the bartender, who suggests I hunt huge monsters so he can hang their heads as trophies on his wall. I… er… guess you do what you gotta do to get the punters in during harsh times.
Outriders – IGN First
Beyond the walls of Trench Town is the Wreckage Zone, an example of the combat areas where most of Outriders plays out. More open Monster Hunter map than linear Gears of War level, there’s a golden path that runs through it for the main mission, but a myriad of side routes that branch off, leading to optional quests and discoveries. A few minutes into following the main Wreckage Zone quest, for example, me and my co-op buddy discover a wanted poster for the “Bloody Baron”, and so we abandon our current objective in favour of tracking down and exterminating him instead. Ravaged carcasses identify the start of monster hunts – boss fights against Enoch’s wildlife – while other paths can lead to loot chests or narrative side quests. It’s currently unclear exactly how many different activities a zone holds, but with enough variety these areas could prove a solid halfway house between linear run-and-gun and open world design.
Narrative presentation and an array of activity-filled locales are not the only base building blocks of an RPG, though. The genre’s core is all in building a character, and Outriders features an ambitiously flexible system that has its roots firmly planted in Diablo’s rich action-RPG soil. After choosing one of four different classes following the prologue, Outriders allows you to freely develop your character using a skill tree that can be reset at any time for zero cost. This allows for constant experimentation. Enjoying using a particular ability? Throw all of your points into reducing its cool downs and buffing its damage. If a few hours later you pick up a fantastic gun that could be the core of a new playstyle, you can simply reset every skill point you’ve earned and turn your character into a weapon-focused build.
A hands-on session – even a multi-hour one – isn’t enough to truly see how this system works, but my all-too-brief taste did indicate that there’s a lot of depth. Further layers add complexities to how you build your character – for example, weapons can be modded with items that enhance your abilities. One of my assault rifles allowed me to cast the Pyromancer’s Heatwave twice without need for a cooldown, and so I could build around that ability to ensure it hits with as much force as possible.
The vast web of options also hopefully means you can create a build that synchronises well with your other teammates, when played in co-op. The Devastator, with its ability to catch bullets mid-air and harden itself with a rock-like armour casing, could make an effective tank. Yet, swap to an entirely different trio of abilities and respec the skill tree, and it could be a single-target DPS character. One more respec, and it’s a crowd control specialist focussed on area-of-effect abilities. Adjusting your points is a bit too fiddly to do mid-battle, but certainly simple enough to mix up between encounters, and so there’s potential that you could be quite a different character at the end of a mission than you were at the start. My main hope is that these builds feel genuinely different, rather than minor stat tweaks.The looter-shooter genre is one undeniably born from Diablo, itself a game with unending piles of glittering swords, staves, and shields. But where games like Destiny, Borderlands, and The Division have focused almost solely on the loot to provide options, it seems that People Can Fly has remembered that it’s the freeform experimentation that makes Blizzard’s action-RPG so moreish. That could be pruning a skill tree branch to perfection, or felling the entire tree and starting over from scratch when a new ability or weapon provides a fresh avenue of opportunity. I hope that, over long-term play, this approach feels satisfying and offers continual depth.
After being unsure of what Outriders was at the end of my first hands-on with it, I’m now more confident as to its identity: it’s a sci-fi action-RPG. While its inventory is driven by a looter-shooter system, what I’ve now seen points to a more traditional roleplaying game structure than other loot-focused games. Its characters and scenarios have yet to capture me – and I do have my doubts that this will be another Mass Effect in terms of audience adoration – but I can envision enjoying the structure and experimental nature of the game based on the hours I’ve sunk in so far. But it’s only a linear RPG for part of its runtime; People Can Fly has acknowledged there is an endgame, but refuses to talk about it yet. The team does, however, assure me that it’s not just replaying missions on higher difficulty levels to farm better loot. And so, once again, I’m left with a question: what is Outriders beyond its RPG campaign? This time, however, I’m more positive that the answer will be something more interesting and surprising than Outriders’ homogeneous aesthetic suggests.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Entertainment Writer.