My first impressions of Outriders was concerning. While the marketing was sparse, there were two painfully generic trailers and nothing else, I was more than curious to see what People Can Fly could do with modern hardware and Square Enix footing the bill. But as the recent shelving of Anthem Next can attest, the online looter shooter craze is dying down. While Outriders shares similarities with these games, it isn't setting out to be the next big blockbuster, and I'm OK with that.
I don't make comparisons to Anthem lightly; in fact I was getting flashbacks to its infamous E3 demo while playing through Outriders' prologue. Both of them start with a group of armored soldiers on an alien world scouting out the local wildlife, only for an unnatural storm to move in and cause complete chaos. These comparisons didn't stop at Anthem either. The loot and armor system from Destiny showed up, and there are even elements of realism with the focus on cover-based shooting and class synergy like in Ubisoft's The Division. From the beginning, it felt like Outriders was going to be the last big leap into a trend that is on the way out.
But as I let the experience settle, a few key details came into focus. While the E3 demo of Anthem was mostly fabricated and more a tool of marketing, Outriders' opening was a tangible declaration of intent. Your character is the main focus, and the game's setpieces are around your personal empowerment. This is exemplified in the gunplay which become much quicker and dynamic once your class abilities are introduced like teleporting or launching waves of fire. Even when you get to the hub town full of vendors and side missions, you don't see other players roaming around to give the world a sense of community. Furthermore, those aforementioned side missions have a lot of thematic and narrative context—you're avenging someone's death or searching for a missing person, and almost none of it is typical looter-shooter busywork.
It is through this distinct game and level design that Outriders reminds me of the action-shooter trend near the end of the Xbox 360's life cycle. Cover-based combat was still the focus, but there would be attempts to make the environment and gun battles more exciting. It was also the beginning of RPG elements taking more focus, and a greater push for online elements. If you could totally run through the entire campaign with three other friends online in Gears of War 3, difficulty curve be damned for example.
In fact, the entire prologue's tone feels lifted wholesale from the late 2000s. Enemy and alien designs are some combination of overmuscled beefcakes, bony and slimy monstrosities, or covered in power armor. The main characters are all perpetually bitter and violent, hopping back and forth between maudlin angst about war and pitch-black comedy. If there are any fantastical elements, they're either handwaved or undercooked, and all of it usually in service of a dark and gritty battlefield drama full of explosions, dirt, mud, and metal. It was the style at the time, and there's a certain juvenile charm to it: a holdover from the game industry's general “teenage” years.
Once you look at the game through this lens, a lot of Outriders' opening hours makes sense. The worldbuilding is generic action sci-fi fare with sparse worldbuilding because it doesn't have an ambitious, epic storyline that will unravel over 10 years. Online co-op is a small bonus feature if you just want to hang out with friends, which is why there have been no noticeable pushes for intricate content like Raids or Dungeons. The looter-shooter RPG elements are just there to give the campaign structure and forward progression, not unlike the most recent God of War game.
In a climate where too many games are treated more like second jobs, I am more than content with Outriders just wanting to be a straightforward action title. People Can Fly are such an underrated developer that have put out impressive action titles before, and I enjoy that they are leaning into their strengths here. This was a studio that got on the scene by taking an action subgenre people thought was dead and putting their own spin on it with Painkiller, so why shouldn't it be any different 16 years later?