In ‘Outriders’, powers and teamwork beat guns

But keep those guns handy, they're still needed.

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Outriders
Square Enix

Square Enix has been drip-feeding details of Outriders, its upcoming squad-action RPG-shooter... chimera since last year’s E3.  Its latest broadcast, now live, added details of the fourth and final character, the Technomancer, alongside more gameplay details. It also coincides with a two-hour playthrough session, which I played remotely earlier this month. There’s still a while to go before Outriders arrives on consoles and PCs, and it’s already a lot of fun. But how will the game avoid the pitfalls of similar (notoriously named) ‘looter shooters’ like EA’s Anthem?

Outriders
Square Enix

It’s easy to frame Outriders as a combination of several great and hugely popular games that came before it. Anthem aside, the weapons UI and stores take unmistakable cues from Destiny. The over-the-shoulder view is lifted from Gears (or Mass Effect, perhaps), and that’s even before we get to the gunplay and how the game works. (Part MMORPG, part Destiny was my shorthand while I was playing). 

This makes it very easy for someone who’s played one of those games to get up to speed quickly and start enjoying blasting mutants and other creatures. Established conventions and gameplay features do make it harder to explain what Outriders is bringing to the party, however. 

Judging from my early time with the game, it boils down to cooperative play, and how you kit out your character in different combinations of otherworldly powers -- something you can do anytime without needing particular items or money.

The source of your powers is what’s known as the anomaly. Your foes are also imbued with similar powers, and unraveling the mystery of the anomaly forms a major part of the storyline, it seems. These powers are apparently born from the same energy that destroyed the technology and structures in place when humanity got to Enoch, the name of the space colony where the game is set.

This world building was the wobbliest part of Outriders for me. I’ve watched the teasers and earlier playthroughs of parts of the game, and it’s all a little familiar and bland, if I can use the word bland to describe an apocalyptic wasteland. Barring a few of the big, bad bosses, characters struggle to stand out -- even the one you’re playing. Perhaps the universe building will come later? It’s my biggest worry for now. 

Let’s touch on the characters, now that we have the full roster. There’s the Devastator (a tank character), Pyromancer (fire abilities), Trickster (close-range with time-bending powers) and the recently revealed Technomancer character, which plays like a healer-summoner, albeit one retooled for a post-apocalyptic failed space colony. It can install turrets, rocket launchers and mini-guns. The Technomancer is your long-range support, with best-in-class healing powers to provide support to your allies.

Regardless of character class, the guns are satisfying too, each with their own feel, whether it’s a potent sniper rifle or shotgun. Even your lightweight pistol, which I always had on hand during my playthrough, is capable of felling most foes in tandem with your powers. 

You can equip three powers at a time, although you’re able to swap these in and out in a sub-menu when you’re not gunning down foes. I went with the Trickster for this preview, mainly because its powers and abilities jived with how I used to play Mass Effect years ago. 

Like that series, there are power cool-down timers, run-and-gun, find-cover-to-survive gameplay mechanics and more. It’s not a complicated posit. From the parts I played, you mostly gun down enemies, secure areas, pick up loot and new weapons, rinse and repeat, with some heavily armored, powerful bosses scattered throughout. Yes, that’s an oversimplification but the takeaway is it’s still a lot of fun. I hope there’s a good selection of levels and setups in the final product, like the Saving Private Ryan-styled frontline run that came near the end of my play.

Square Enix
Square Enix

The part I enjoyed most was mixing powers with other players, experimenting with skill load-outs and upgrades. It’s about how they all work with each other. The Devastator’s ‘endless mass’ attack can pull enemies together, meaning any explosive splash attack from the Pyromancer or area-of-effect powers of a Trickster can be stacked together easily for maximum destruction. The Technomancer, meanwhile, can pick off the stragglers either from a distance or through auto-targeting turrets.

During my playthrough, I was given a blank-slate Trickster with plenty of points to assign to skills. It also gave me ample opportunities to test out multiple powers, like time-slowing fields, or a very addictive teleportation strike that put me behind the enemy ranks. I was then free to shoot them from behind, catching them unawares. Combine your collective powers -- say, with a friendly Technomancer’s mortar-style attacks -- and enemies explode in a shower of gore.  

Later on, I swapped this out for knives that damaged and slowed multiple enemies at once, hopping from cannon-fodder to cannon-fodder, enemies that couldn’t be targeted with area bombs. It made easy work for the Devastator also on my team, with his heavy-hitting attacks, who was able to survive the now-limited fire from the slowed-down enemy.

This is what seems to separate Outriders from all the other games I mentioned earlier. Improving your equipment and weapons are key, yes, but combining characters’ strengths and weaknesses (and stacking powers together) seemed to be the path to victory, at least if my early playthrough was any indication. As such, this game will hinge on how you interact with other players, unless you decide to play it alone. 

There’s an additional layer here: a "World Tier" difficulty system. When you start Outriders, you’ll be placed in the lowest difficulty level. As you gain experience in the world, separate to your character’s level, you’ll level up through 15 different stages, and then leap up to a newer, more difficult tier. Enemies will hit harder, but they’ll leave behind better loot too -- it’s a little like the system in Diablo 3. That said, if you die, your character will lose a percentage of this World Tier experience, and you’ll have to build it back up again. It’s all meant to ensure players choose the appropriate level of difficulty to play.

When Outriders launches, you and your friends can complete the entire game together, or you can drop in and drop out, not beholden to other people’s schedules. Unfortunately, it won’t be something I’ll be able to test until the game arrives, and whether I’m able to convince friends to play it with me. Are they ready (and willing) to play something else that looks, at times, built for regular, time-intensive, sustained gaming?

Yes, you can (and probably will have to) grind for gear, but the Outriders team has said several times that power layout and team composition and skill will trump shiny new guns. 

Outriders launches on PS4, Xbox One and PC holiday 2020.

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