The most shocking thing to happen in the first 10 hours of Outriders, the new online shooter from Square Enix and People Can Fly, is that it actually, suddenly, gets interesting for a minute. After hours of gunning down hundreds of identical assholes and generic space monsters, grinding your character’s admittedly nifty power-set deep into the ground, and choking down the game’s rote nihilism by the gallon, your motley squad of non-heroes finally arrive at a location dubbed The Trenches. As the name implies, it’s the biggest of the numerous warzones raging on the crapsack world of Enoch, the interstellar craphole you and the rest of what’s left of humanity now finds itself trapped upon. Rather than the generic video game locations you’ve been bashing your way through so far, though—forest level, swamp level, ice level, volcano level, field strewn with waist-high cover walls level, etc.—The Trenches offer up something genuinely visually interesting: A No Man’s Land hellhole plucked straight out of the muddy nightmare madness of World War I, with machine-gun toting warriors and super-powered demi-gods waging the endless fight.
Besides being at least nominally unique—The Great War has been covered in gaming, most notably by the Battlefield series, but it’s a less obvious touchpoint than the ones Outriders has been trafficking in so far—The Trenches is also the first time the game attempts to be about something more robust than “People sure are shitty, huh?” The attempt at a little classic “War Is Hell” philosophizing is undercut, though, by Outriders’ relentlessly cynical approach to storytelling. Even excepting the tremendously dark premise—Earth is dead, humanity’s space-borne ark is busted, and our last refuge turned out to be a disease and monster-ridden hellhole—this is a game that hates the human race in a way that feels wholly its own, and transcends any one particular topic.
It’d be bracing, if it wasn’t so predictable. The story structure of an Outriders sidequest runs something like this: Introduce a character who wants you to do something. Kill a hundred dudes to achieve said goal. Then, if said character is good, you inevitably find out that they’re actually a murderous asshole, and that the thing they wanted you to do was evil. If they’re described as bad, then they’ll turn out to be even worse. Toss in a boss fight, then clear up any extraneous characters still hanging around by casually shooting them in the head. Repeat as necessary.
It’s possible that this assembly line of head shootings eases up in the game’s second 10 hours—setting up some sort of long-term reconstruction of ideas like heroism, or at least “not all people are absolute murder garbage.” But the thought of sticking with Outriders long enough to find out if it makes that turn feels exhausting. (It’s also why we’re filing this as a For Our Consideration, focused on the experience of our grind of playing it, and not a formal review. We also didn’t engage with the games’ co-op, which is presumably more fun—but that’s true of almost any game.) It’s not just the writing, either: While the Outriders’ combat, on first blush, has some cool touches to it—your character, one of the super-powered Altered, has an array of abilities designed to keep you bouncing around the battlefield, dropping death on people’s heads—its long-term prospects similarly stretch out into misery. Partly, this comes down to a lack of enemy variety. Outside of sporadic monster encounters, your Outrider* will mostly be facing off against the same basic squads of guys with guns, guys with axes, guys with sniper rifles, and guys who break the basic rules because they’re bosses, for the entirety of the game. The only variety, then, comes from how high the developers have turned up the numbers (damage resistance, weapon power, number of dudes) on any given encounter. Or how high you turn them up, through the game’s difficulty-modifying World Tier system, which lets you dynamically change how punishing any encounter in the game is on the fly.
(*To be clear: Some Outriders are Altered, and some Altered are Outriders, but not all Altered are Outriders. You are, though! We’re happy to clear this up.)
Lifted loosely from games like Diablo III, the World Tier system is a genuinely good idea—in theory. Fight too hard? Turn things down. Plowing through enemies? Turn the World Tier up, and reap the increased rewards. This kind of increased control over their personal experience is something people have been demanding from gaming for years, and, as a boon to accessibility, it’s hard to discount it.
Where Outriders’ approach falls down, though, is in how thoroughly the developers have ceded control over the experience to the World Tier system. As a semi-RPG in the Destiny/The Division mold, numbers in Outriders really matter, and the difference between stomping your way through a battle like a teleporting demon, or getting cut down like a jerk as you run straight into a hail of gunfire, usually come down to how nice of a jacket you’re wearing. (The game’s status as a cover shooter that seemingly hates the idea of taking cover, instead prizing tactics that push for power-use and aggression, only compounds the issue.) The World Tier system means that People Can Fly doesn’t really have to worry, though, about how finely tuned its fights are—because if they’re too hard, the player can just turn them down, right? That abdication of design responsibility leads to a fairly wide inconsistency in base encounter difficulty, forcing players to ride the World Tier dial like it’s cruise control on a highway with constantly shifting speed limits. Among other things, it makes the game damn difficult to learn how to play: Are you repeatedly slamming into a wall because your tactical expertise needs more development? Or because you have the Bad Boys turned up too high?
Every once in a long while, Outriders hits something close to joy—usually when you’ve just dropped into a middle of a crew of hapless jerks, activated your more badass Trickster powers, and torn them all to shreds. But there’s always more nastiness waiting around the corner, whether it’s the plot giving another predictable spasm of cynicism, or a boss enemy with its dial turned just a bit too high, or yet another field full of the same four guys and all their identical buddies, waiting politely to get mowed down in droves. The thing about Outriders is that it frequently feels as bad to play as its characters seem to feel about existing in its ugly and awful world—a remarkable achievement, really. Just not a fun one.