Chances are if you enjoy looter shooters, you are curious about Outriders. If not, you really should be. People Can Fly's take on the formula manages to get a lot of things right with its gameplay while giving players a coherent and complete experience on disc. It is also has some of the most disarming and hilarious jokes I've seen in a major AAA action title in years.
First, it must be understood that the world and story of Outriders isn't exactly charting new territory in video game narrative. In the broadest terms, it is a space western. In the future, Earth can't sustain life anymore, so humanity flies out to a new planet called Enoch to colonize. There's a weird storm called The Anomaly that starts mutating people and the local wildlife, your character gets knocked into a coma, then 30 years later, the entire planet is plunged into a hellscape of perpetual war over what precious resources are left. Also, The Anomaly gave some lucky individuals superpowers, referred to as the Altered.
Outriders isn't trying to ape the success of Destiny, and a lot of this seems deliberate. The drab, muddy color palette, serious tone about perpetual conflict, and how every single story mission amounts to a large gunfight in arenas full of chest-high walls all invoke the tone and sensibilities of a more bygone, self-serious age of action game.
Outriders seemed to be sticking to this playbook to the letter. Every single mission amounted to the same predictable loop of speaking to a character, going to a location, getting into a gunfight, reporting back, then getting a reward. There are no branching dialogue paths or critical decisions, just gunfights and gear.
Then I hit several side quests about halfway through the game's story that started playing with those expectations. The first of these was an SOS signal I found in one of Outrider's hubs. I needed a slightly better assault rifle, so I headed to the logging camp the signal was coming from. Upon getting there however, I discovered that the distress call was coming from an outhouse. The guy inside was in there until sundown, which is when monsters come out looking for human snacks. Cue a section where you turn on some flood flights to give this guy a path home, as well as a beastie ambush for some of Outrider's stellar combat, and the side mission appears done. But once you get your reward, the poor fool stays in the outhouse because he's far too scared of getting beat up.
It was a rare instance where something so obviously contrived got a laugh out of me. Too often, comparisons are made to Gearbox Software's Borderlands series when it comes to humor in shooters, but Outriders manages to outclass it. The secret ingredients are pacing and structure. A joke is generally broken down into two parts: the setup and the punchline. This structure also grafts on to the same idea of an action-RPG side quest: go to a place and perform a task. Due to extremely padded level structure and constantly backtracking through boring maps, the Borderlands series end up stretching out the set-ups of some of their more humorous missions that the pay off can fall flat. As funny as it is be on a mission to assassinate stand-ins for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it's not that potent when it is broken up by 10-minute stretches of mindless nothing.
By comparison, the outhouse mission in Outriders is no different from any other mission. The logging camp is its own dedicated area with a fast-travel spot nearby, which is consistent with how other missions are set up. The gunfight isn't padded out with busywork, aside from activating the floodlights, and is paced as just another challenge to overcome. Finally, the punchline comes alongside the conclusion of the fight and from a moment of genuine humanity poking out from the gameplay.
I don't want to spoil or overanalyze all the different ways this game handles jokes like this, but I will mention another notable area of inspiration: acclaimed Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones. Most of this director's golden age leaned on a more savvy form of structure. First, the audience needs to make an assumption about what will happen based on the information presented, then have reality upend it. It's a less contrived version of having the rug pulled out from under the audience; one where human behavior crashes against logic.
This came to mind during the early parts of another mission in Outriders where you're speaking to a prostitute working at a military base camp. She mentions that her friend has gone missing, shortly after meeting an abusive guy who is an Altered. To this point, the game had me conditioned into not thinking too deeply about the human element of the characters involved; these were vendors for quests, nothing more. Second, the attitude towards sex workers and the overall dire and serious tone of humanity ripping itself to pieces on Enoch was something I didn't question because it's something a lot of games of that era had normalized into mental white noise.
I agreed to help and went to the location in question, expecting a boss fight with the Altered, a damsel in distress to rescue, and a reward. Instead, after my character kicked down a door into the new area, I was greeted by a cutscene where the friend in question is housecleaning for the Altered while verbally chewing him out about being a messy pig, yelling him into submission. It was like I had barged into the set of a sitcom in the middle of a laugh track. She even turned to my character and declared, “Do I look like I need rescuing?”
In the moment, it was an amazing punchline, an anticlimax to the game's action. But in context it becomes even better. Enoch is supposed to be a new start for humanity. Why wouldn't there be people just trying to make homes, biases and prejudices be damned, and not bother being caught up in constant armed conflict or worry about the freaky sci-fi storm that's turning people inside out?
There are plenty of moments like this peppered throughout Outriders ,and it helps give the game it's own delightful tongue-in-cheek energy. Too often when games try to be funny, it's usually in relentless waves of references, dated memes, or unintended awkwardness all jumbled under a singular “comedy” banner. People Can Fly didn't set out to make this game a farce by any means, but it remembered how and when a joke should land and when to tell it.