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Outriders hands-on preview and interview – ‘It’s old school but we think it’s good’

Outriders – destined for success or riding on Gears’ coattails? (pic: Square Enix)
The co-developers of Gears Of War and Fortnite unveil their new mix of third person shooter and RPG, coming to PS5 and Xbox Series X this year.
The last year of a console generation is always a strange one and this year seems set to be one of the strangest of all, with still next to no information on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. But while launch games for the new consoles often disappoint, the first few years of a new generation is when you tend to see the greatest number of new IPs and that, for us, is always the most exciting prospect. Outriders isn’t a sequel or a licensed tie-in, it’s a brand-new franchise and we’ve already played it.
Outriders is being developed by Polish studio People Can Fly, who made their name with the Painkiller series of old school first person shooters, before working on various Gears Of War games, getting bought by Epic Games, co-developing a little known game called Fortnite, and then buying their independence in a management buyout.
Apart from re-releasing the underappreciated Bulletstorm on Switch, Outriders represents their first big project since going independent again. With Square Enix as publisher they already have some heavyweight backing, although the more we learned about the project, at a recent hands-on event, the more we realised how large a company People Can Fly actually is, with two offices in Poland and one each in London and New York.

Given the background of its creator, it’s not hard to guess what kind of game Outriders is and it already seems doomed to be described as Gears Of War meets Destiny, which is not only accurate but hardly any kind of criticism. The set-up is that the Earth has been destroyed by war and climate change and you’re part of a paramilitary group called the Outriders, aboard a spaceship sent out to colonise the planet of Enoch.
Enoch doesn’t appear to be populated by any sentient life but there is a strange storm system called the Anomaly, which kills most people but gives other superpowers. This naturally includes yourself, as you get to pick between three class types: the Trickster who can teleport and slow down time, the Devastator who can cover themselves in rocks and control gravity, and the Pyromancer who controls fire (obviously) but is also better at medium range as they’re not as strong as the other two.
There’s also a fourth, secret class type but while that wasn’t revealed during our hands-on we did get to play through the demo missions with the other three classes. Despite what you’d imagine though the game doesn’t play that much like Gears Of War. The basics are the same, but the controls are a little looser and taking cover is only of moderate importance. There’s also no complications similar to active reloads or being able to drag enemies out from cover, but according to Kmita that’s because he doesn’t want to take anything away from the ‘skills’.
Skills are basically magic and work very similarly to Diablo and many MMOs. You can equip three skills at once, depending on how many you’ve unlocked, but each has a different cooldown time, from a few seconds to half a minute, depending on whether they’re a shield or a blast of flame. These already feel well balanced and do the most to deflect criticism that Outriders is just a Destiny clone (even though the interface in particular is a blatant rip-off at the moment).
Outriders – the Devastator’s skills are all based around earth powers (pic: Square Enix)
Although the developers were a little evasive on the subject, it seems the game world is made up of a series of interconnected hubs, each comprised of mini-open world areas. You could argue this is similar to Destiny too, except instead of just random encounters there are also surprisingly meaty side quests to take part in, which reward you with more powerful weapons and insight into the characters and lore.
We’re still not clear about the tone the game is taking though, as on the face of it the Outriders are portrayed as generic dudebros and the first villain you encounter is an English guy with a cape (we can’t remember if he had a moustache or not). It’s not inspiring stuff and as you watch the Outriders merrily gun down the wildlife and knock over trees in their giant trucks it all begins to get a bit uncomfortable. But if you take the time to talk to people at camp you find out that the characters are more three-dimensional than they first seem.
There’s a clear environmental message to the game, as well as commentary on humankind’s inability to get on with each other. This is most clearly illustrated by the opening hour taking place on a verdant landscape teaming with life and then when the story jumps forward 30 years (while you’re in stasis, after being injured by the Anomaly) it’s turned into a Mad Max style hellhole.
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Both the art style and the storytelling seem to vacillate between surprisingly unique and disappointingly generic, but we’d have to see more of the final game to say whether this was an actual problem. For now though we got to play through some of the opening battles and the first main boss battle and… it was a lot of fun.
Just like Destiny, Outriders is best played with three other people but even then we all found the first boss incredibly hard the first time around. But on a second go, playing as a different class, none of us died once – in part because we were more practiced but also because we’d taken the time to complete all the available side quests beforehand. Seeing that much improvement in such a short time helped prove the role-playing elements aren’t just a tacked-on gimmick but make a genuine difference to your abilities.
What’s also interesting is that, despite the obvious Destiny comparisons and talk of endgame content, Outriders is emphatically not a games as service title and does not have loot boxes or any of the other shadier gimmicks of modern gaming. What kind of success it’ll be able to carve out for itself we’ll have to wait and see, but as a cross-gen game that’s aiming to be an Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 launch title it should end up as one of the most exciting new franchises of the year.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5, and PC
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: People Can Fly
Release Date: Christmas 2020

GC: I usually only ask this sort of question of Japanese developers, but it occurs to me that there are a lot of very prominent Polish developers around at the moment: you, CD Projekt, Techland, 11 Bit Studios, and more. The only other European country that has more, I think, is Sweden and maybe the UK.
BK: Yes, probably.
GC: So… is there something special about Poland or the Polish psyche that makes you good at making video games?
BK: [laughs] I was thinking about this recently, actually!
GC: All the studios seem quite connected too, in terms of ex-team members and so on.
BK: Yeah, in Warsaw we have a couple of very big, good companies. But I’m not sure what is the real reason why there are so many at the moment. But I feel after the communists, we wanted to catch up with the West. We really wanted to do something that would help us, and that in this industry at least we could do something together with the Western companies and not get behind with new technology. But, also, we are a big country, so there is a lot of people with good IT and programming skills.
GC: Does the government help at all in terms of subsidies and that sort of thing?
BK: The last couple of years they started to offer some help, but at the beginning people didn’t even learn at school. No-one learnt to be a programmer at school. So everyone had to be self-taught and then the people and companies that survived started teaching others and it all evolved quite organically into something which is now quite strong. Which is cool.
GC: Definitely. The other thing I like is that there is a little bit of cultural flavour in Outriders. The accents are a lot more varied than a typical Western production and the Jakub character seemed obviously Polish. Outriders in general seems more identifiably Polish than a British or Swedish game would be for their countries.
BK: I think it just comes from my nature. [laughs] I have to draw from things that I know. So the Jakub character is based on people that I know from my personal life, so I try to use the Polish way of thinking… whatever that is. [laughs]
GC: When the game was announced on stage you said that you had a great love of RPGs. Was there any specific titles you were influenced by?
BK: There were a lot of games we were playing that were an influence, and Diablo is definitely one. But we talked about a lot of RPG games when coming up with the the game.
GC: The term RPG can mean almost anything nowadays…
BK: Exactly! So a lot of RPGs have branching side quests, which we don’t have, so we took our idea of an RPG more from the technical aspects, from the freedom we want to give to the player – the freedom to customise the character and the story as well.
This is Enoch when you first arrive… (pic: Square Enix)
GC: There are obvious similarities to Destiny though. Everyone’s going to call it Gears Of War x Destiny. I assume you realise that?
BK: [laughs]
GC: But was that the original idea, because it’s a perfectly reasonable one?
BK: We took inspiration from Gears Of War and from Bulletstorm. From Bulletstorm we learned to do different gameplay that is not so reliant on cover as Gears of War. So in this game we try to merge these two ideas, to give people the chance to use cover but also have more freedom. And we were thinking, let’s take that and combine it with a role-playing game. We were really thinking of Diablo, not Destiny or The Division.
GC: I could see that because we were rubbish at the boss the first time round and then didn’t die once the second time.
BK: What happened?
GC: We didn’t do any side quests the first time, so on the second we had better weapons and levelled up characters, and of course we were more practiced.
BK: That’s exactly what happens with an RPG sometimes, you have to develop to fight a boss.
GC: To me, the strongest element of the game was the magic or whatever you call it. That was working really well, which is interesting because it’s the element most different to anything you’ve done before.
BK: Yes, I think that combination of the guns and skills – that’s the name – has been the idea from the beginning, we wanted to make the powers and weapons at a similar level of importance. Because it’s not quite a shooter but it’s also not quite a slasher, we tried to merge those two things together. I think we’ve succeeded quite well, because when I was watching everyone playing they were all using the powers. So I think it is working and gives quite a unique gameplay experience.
GC: It does, but I was surprised that there wasn’t a bit more texture to the gunplay. There was no equivalent to active reloads from Gears Of War and I missed some of the more recent additions like being able to pull an enemy across and out of cover. You didn’t have to do exactly that, but there was nothing to really replace those sorts of things.
BK: We realised that having the two guns and pistol, and three skills, was starting to become overwhelming to people trying to enjoy the game. When we added more elements to the core combat loop it got to the point where people stopped using skills at all. We didn’t want to have that. So instead we focused on the core that felt the best and we definitely didn’t want active reload because that’s very Gears specific [laughs]. We tried a lot of different set-ups, but we found it’s best when you’re using guns and skills all the time.
GC: So you did have that sort of thing in at one point?
BK: We were thinking of that, yes. We also had more skills and also we were trying to prototype some different approaches and we chose this one as working best because it’s not very complicated, but on the other hand gives a lot of freedom to play the game.



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GC: The other thing you emphasised during the announcements was no loot boxes or pay to win, which is great, but also that Outriders is not a games as a service title. But what do you have against that? Unlike loot boxes, games as a service is not an inherently bad idea.
BK: Sure, if the game is designed as a game as a service then it’s fine. But our game was designed to have a beginning and an end, the story is a complete package. When we started thinking about whether it could be games as a service, the idea went that ,’We’ll have to chop out a chapter, we cannot tell a story because we have to think all the time about adding new content’. So we thought, ‘It’s not working for our game’. We wanted to give the complete experience, so let’s have the endgame ready before the release. It’s old school but we think it’s good.
GC: Do you have DLC plans? Or a season pass?
BK: We hope this game will last a long time on the market, so we will develop some DLC in the future. But right now we are focusing on finishing the game, so we are not even thinking about DLC right now.
GC: So it’s not going to be one of these games that wants you to pre-order the season pass before the main game is even out?
BK: No, no, no!
GC: [laughs] At what point did you turn against loot boxes and all the rest. Did you always hate them or was it when Battlefront 2 came out that you realised how bad things had got?
BK: No, no, it was a lot earlier. We are gamers too, so we already know what is good or what is bad. We are gamers so we know what we want.
GC: But what about the endgame? If you’re not a games as a service title how does that work in terms of replaying missions for rare loot and so on?
BK: I can’t really talk about the endgame just yet…
GC: If you’re after specific loot what will you have to do to get it?
BK: If you haven’t found the kind of loot you want during your playthrough then you will have different activities where you can find it or use crafting to craft the loot once you gather the resources.
GC: Side quests are unusual in this sort of thing, especially ones with a lot of story elements and cut scenes. Was that an influence from The Witcher, perhaps?
BK: The Witcher? No. We have a layered story. If some people only play the main story they will understand the story in some way. If they want to go deeper we offer the side quests, where each story offers more information about the game world and the characters.
For us the narrative is very important, as multiplayer games often don’t have a story at all. We wanted to have a game like when you are going to the cinema with friends and you all discuss it afterwards. So that’s why we put a lot of effort into the side quests.
GC: OK, that’s great. I think I’m out of time.
BK: Thank you for coming.
…and this is Enoch 30 years later (pic: Square Enix)
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