Our relationship with looter shooters has been long and tumultuous. We’ve spent years mowing down monsters, dancing in the rain of treasure that erupts from their shattered bodies. Outriders is the latest milestone in this grim harvest, the newest always-online Arrow Examination simulation from Square Enix and People Can Fly. Don’t get me wrong! I love a good looter shooter, and Outriders delivers that core experience with effortless grace. I’m not as sold on the rest of the package, but rest assured: fans of well-crafted, fluid loot grind cycles are going to love this game.
Right from the jump, the story is a grim one. Every character is either caked in steely-eyed pessimism, or they’re marked for death. Every story beat is rich with epic struggle, a doomed race setting off from a dying world to settle in a hostile, merciless new home. There are moments of light and levity, but it’s apparently quite important that they’re bookended by bad times. You quickly get used to NPCs dying to demonstrate the banality of brutality. While my tolerance for Serious Storytelling has eroded of late, perhaps this brand of narrative will hit differently with you.
Lot Of Red Shirts Among The NPCs
I had a similar problem with the voice acting and the dialogue. Every line feels like this is all very grim business, like a gravelly narrator is seconds away from starting an “In a world where” voiceover. I recognize that my grievance here is a personal one. That’s totally fine! I just can’t help but feel like we’ve done this somber dance so many times already, the steps are starting to feel quite routine. All of this is to say that I wasn’t invested in the narrative in any significant way. The gameplay loop is a different matter.
Looter shooters and loot grind games have two stories, running in parallel lines. The first is expressed in dialogue, plot arcs, and character motivations. The second story is purely mechanical, a nested series of loops where your actual, tangible emotional energy is spent. It’s this story that gets all of my attention. Outriders is a series of vignettes crammed with constant power use, blistering pacing, and fluid challenge levels. You’re always on the move, always half a second away from annihilation. If you’re not popping your skills the moment they light up, you’re dead. The breathless speed of the combat is almost enough to overshadow the constant inventory management.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A waterfall of gear tumbles from the sky, you scoop it up with reckless abandon. Suddenly, you’re poring over every piece, carefully comparing stats to determine which one will make the numbers go up the highest. Ten minutes later you’re ready to start another incredible firefight. Such is the blight beneath every loot grind game. While Outriders has provisions in place to combat this, you can never totally avoid it. You can only pick up loot of a certain rarity, you can lean on your skills more than your stats, and you can level up your favorite pieces to delay the inevitable. You can even harvest weapon mods to add them to new gear! But eventually, in spite of your best efforts, you’ll be staring at two assault rifles, trying to pick the one whose green stats you like the most. It’s all meaningless if you can’t shoot straight, however.
There’s Always A Better Gun
My previous comment about skills over stats can’t be overstated. All that time comparing arrows in the menu is pointless if you can’t use the gear you choose. Thankfully, the difficulty settings are pretty nuanced. Things get harder as you go along, but you can turn the toughness back down whenever things get too hot. The only caveat you need to remember is that this affects the drop rate as well. You can cruise through the game if you’d like, but this will make the loot worse. And that’s like, the whole point of a looter shooter. What are we here for, if not those sweet drops? Outriders does a great job making shifts in difficulty feel slight instead of severe. There’s no shame in rolling things back until you shake the dust off, you know?
There’s an argument to be made for always-online games, and Outriders does not make that argument. I didn’t get my hands on the game until it launched, so the servers were fully armed and operational. Until they weren’t! I understand that online games have horrendous hiccups at launch, but it feels like a weird decision to tie the entire game to the health of its servers. You can play the whole thing solo if you like. You never have to engage with the online element at all! And yet, you must. It makes sense for a more PvP-focused title, but that’s not what Outriders is. This is a weird move, is what I’m saying.
What we have here are two stories told with mixed results. The grim, gorgeous sci-fi saga fell flat for me. I couldn’t get invested in this last leg of the human race turning to tribalism and violence in the face of adversity. I’m pretty bored with ‘special soldier saves the day’ stories. But the loot cycle was a different matter. This tale of frustration, anticipation, determination, and joy was immediately compelling. I dug into the mechanical guts early and easily. The combat is varied, breathless, and brutal. The character progression is a decent mix of stats and skills, there’s a ton of customization to mess around with, and the difficulty scaling is perfectly fluid. I can tolerate a lot of nonsense in exchange for a good gameplay loop. But if you’re hoping for a package as good as the prize, you might be disappointed. So long as you’re prepared to dig a little for that glittering pearl, there’s a ton of fun to be had with Outriders.
***A PS5 code was provided by the publisher***
- Tons of skills and powers to play with
- Challenge level is fluid
- Good balance between shooting and skills
- Story falls a bit flat
- Voice acting feels wooden
- Online element is all rough edges