Until I actually had the controller in my hand, I had no interest in Outriders. Visually, Outriders sort of bleeds into the mush of gritty science fiction games and of beaten-down, generic protagonists who stand tall against aliens. Or is it Mad Max-style gangs? Fiendish corporations? It's hard to tell these days.
Outriders looks a lot like Destiny, as players become faceless sci-fi soldiers with super powers. There are four Altered classes—Pyromancer, Trickster, Devastator, and Technomancer—who break down along broad playstyles. There's the cover-based gameplay of Gears of War, a series developer People Can Fly touched with Gears of War: Judgment, but also the hard "fuck you" edge of Bulletstorm in the cutscenes. The weapon types are a randomized potluck of firing rates, damage, perks, and more, kind of like Borderlands. It's a little bit of everything to be honest, which is why it hasn't stood out to me before now.
Controller in hand though, I actually enjoyed it. This demo was for the game's final Altered class, the Technomancer, who wields a mix of turrets, poison, and freezing cold to control the battlefield. A cryo turret thrown over there draws fire and slows the oncoming hordes of enemies, while the Blighted Rounds skill infuses every shot with the toxic effect. The skills in Outriders are on short cooldowns, because you're meant to use them all the time, fast and frantic.
The enemies you'll come up against also wield Altered abilities, giving the harder encounters a little flavor. One fight had the leader of a group of marauders who could teleport short distances around the battlefield. Another boss summoned a black hole, which would draw you in and teleport you to another location if you get caught. Given that the other location was "in the middle of the bosses' goons", that didn't go too well for my team. We also fought against the Brood Mother, a large inhuman monster that summoned its children to attack while it slammed the ground in bright blue electric flames. These encounters felt different, which is a good thing to see, even if I only played a few hours of the game.
Like Destiny, Outriders just feels good to play on a moment-to-moment basis. I chose to run with a mix of sniper rifle and assault rifles, and the feel and sound design of both were great. (The sniper rifle could've used a slight more kick to it.) The expertise from Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgment does People Can Fly credit here, and I just slid into the world-torn environments of the planet Enoch. The only thing I really felt I was missing was a jump; your Outrider is stuck to the ground, dodging via a combat roll instead. It's a cover-based shooter, sure, but Outriders feels more aggressive than I would've expected and I loved that.
I also have to applaud People Can Fly for a proper sense of scale to its combat. The final mission of my demo took my squad to the front of a conflict between local warlords. The battle actually felt like a proper warzone, with charcoaled forests, sandbags, trenches, and smoke obscuring a wide battlefield. Air strikes from phantom planes above come hard and heavy, softening up the enemy forces and helping you push forward. And the ground we took felt hard fought, with large groups of tough enemies forcing us to stay behind cover. I even switched over to a straightforward healer to help my team out. (You can change between unlocked skills on the fly.)
Already, I'm enjoying Outriders more than Destiny because of the third-person perspective. First-person shooting is great, but I'm just predisposed to seeing my character and all the cool cosmetic gear they're wearing. Seriously, I got this awesome bomber jacket, the Jacket of the Summit, at one point that just looked way more fly than the tattered mantle my character started with. Actually having loot change my look was a positive here, in contrast to Square Enix's other loot game, Marvel's Avengers. I would prefer a system that allows you to lay one cosmetic look over your existing armor though, as eventually I had to replace my bomber jacket.
Despite the enjoyment I found in Outriders' gameplay, I'm a bit sad that the narrative and aesthetic aren't more impressive. It feels like a perfected version of whatever BioWare was aiming for with Mass Effect 2 and 3 all those years ago, but the rest doesn't step up to support it. I didn't get a strong sense of the supporting cast at all, despite seeing them in a number of cutscenes, and the environments are depressingly basic in their composition. Imagine Destiny 2 without the bright red forests of Nessus or the alien architecture of Io, where every environment is just… Earth. Perhaps Outriders will go further in the final game, but that wasn't readily apparent in my demo. Get weirder, People Can Fly. The variety in the armor in the demo shows more verve than the levels themselves.
Outriders feels like it should be a live service game, but People Can Fly is particularly hard on the fact that it's not: players will get a complete package at launch and there are no microtransactions. It's almost a quaint throwback to the last generation, before loot boxes and online marketplaces ruled the day. The developer touts a finite story, but there's been little indication of what happens once you complete the story campaign. Higher difficulty replays like Diablo? A wider, repeatable series of events across the game's map? Raids? People Can Fly hasn't said yet.
I don't know if players want a finite, third-person shooter RPG. Outriders doesn't wildly stand out among its peers, taking a little bit of a ton of modern games. But it was fun to play, and I honestly ended my demo wanting to play more. I like the perspective more than Destiny 2, I like the shooting more than The Division 2 or Ghost Recon Breakpoint, and the loot feels better than Marvel's Avengers. I'm not saying Outriders is vastly better than those other games, but it does enough that I'm hoping there's more depth to the story and world. We'll see if that happens when Outriders releases this holiday season on PS5, Xbox Series X, PC, PS4, and Xbox One.