Game characters from Outriders
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Credit: Square Enix

The Week in Gaming: Hands on with Outriders - a genre-mixing sci-fi shooter at the edge of dystopia

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Apr 2, 2021, 2:57 PM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to The Week in Gaming, the place where we pause each week to take a look at the video game news beats both big and small that you might be missing — while also taking a peek around the corner at what's ahead. Check in each Friday for news (and occasionally even views) on everything from sprawling RPGs to Metroidvania platformers to the latest in VR and free-to-play. We'll even throw in a good old-fashioned board game every now and then!

It was hard to stop playing Outriders long enough to write this column. The much-hyped new sci-fi shooter from Square Enix and developer People Can Fly has been in players' (and the media's) hands for only a day — but its addictive looter-shooter loop, surprisingly deep RPG systems, and unique far-flung world just begging for exploration all add up to a game that, at least in the early going, isn't easy to flee.

An all-new IP, Outriders is creating tons of early buzz, and it has little big-name competition to lure fans elsewhere until Resident Evil Village comes along on May 7. The game debuted on April Fool's day to substantially better engagement, at least on Steam, than Marvel's Avengers, another Square Enix title that got tons of pre-launch hype. VGC reports that Outriders tripled Avengers' launch-day number for concurrent Steam users, squadding online players together for four-member co-op runs as they intrepidly set out across the vast and colorful alien planet of Enoch. To save time and make as much headway as we could for our hands-on, we've been playing in the available single-player mode — and don't feel we've missed a beat.

Outriders on YouTube

Square Enix and the People Can Fly team have spent months playing up their new shooter's spacey sci-fi angle. Though it's easy to see why (and we'll touch on the setting further down), it may be the game's genre-blending mechanical underpinnings that keep players coming back in the long run. From what we've seen thus far, Outriders takes the proven appeal of Borderlands' loot-reward cycle and adds a far deeper dose of character progression and ways to make leveling up feel meaningful. It also puts a big RPG-like emphasis on story, a tale of journeying across the universe to keep the human race from vanishing — and what happens when the half-million would-be colonists who make the voyage arrive at their seriously under-investigated destination.

If that sounds like a familiar sci-fi setup, well, it definitely is. But there's a dark and dystopian thread weaving through Outriders' second-chance story that's a little more intriguing than the more abstract sci-fi fare in (somewhat) comparable sci-fi shooter franchises like Destiny. Outriders is intently committed to fleshing out its lore, too, giving players reams of databank text, via "journal" entries, that you'll encounter in a breadcrumb-like way that's organic (and not too overwhelming) as you progress through the game.

While it's not going to win any next-gen graphics awards, Outriders wrests a lot of world-building mileage from its quasi-realistic art style, which paints to the very corners of Enoch's sweeping and distant planetary canvas. Seeing up close the natural landmarks, the derelict remains of human projects gone wrong, and the strange alien phenomena (called "Anomalies") that got you and your dwindling group of colonists into their big mess — it all comes together with the deep lore to make reading all those optional journal entries and sitting through the abundant cutscenes feel enticing.

Though we're still rather early, it's also plenty varied: Enoch is a colorful and beautifully dangerous world, just enough like Earth to be theoretically habitable — and just enough unlike it to be extinction-level deadly. It's certainly big — big enough for sure to give the developers plenty of post-launch room to play, as they expand into the inevitable DLC content that aims at cultivating a long-term player community in the future.

Outriders on YouTube

We've not said too much about the story itself, in part because we're (seemingly) at a precarious point when any unexpected thing could happen; and also because it's worth venturing into Outriders without knowing too much. Leaving a dying Earth behind, the last 500,000 people left alive embark on an 80-year survival trip, with the majority sleeping out the voyage to their new home planet under cryostasis. Your customizable player character (which can be male or female) is an Outrider, one of a small class of front-line explorer-soldiers tasked with the vanguard mission of preparing the Enoch landing site for full-scale colonization before its new guests arrive.

Almost from the start, of course, the whole plan goes supernaturally sideways, your character ends up back in cold storage, and you awaken decades later to find Enoch a very different place than anyone had expected — or bargained for.

That's all we're gonna say, except that those unexpected early events also give your character the other RPG-lite feature that makes Outriders' moment-by-moment gameplay engaging and fun. Enoch's "Anomalies" — weird physics-defying storms that pop up and disappear with a mind of their own — sweep your character into a sort of superhero origin event, and you emerge from it with elemental and superhuman powers that set up the game's branching player class system.

There are four classes from which to choose: the melee-focused Devastator, the fire-flinging Pyromancer (featured in the second clip above), the time-bending Trickster, and the Technomancer, an elementally gifted long-range gadget guru. Once you've picked a class, you can't undo it — but the progression tree for each one is huge and divergent, allowing you to fine-tune your focus in dozens (if not hundreds) of ways during a single playthrough.

Thankfully, your class-specific superpowers deliver on their descriptions. The power moves are well animated in action, and come across loud and clear with much-needed devastation during the frantic heat of battle. Abilities have cool-down periods that seem to reset just when you need them most, and they spice up the run-and-cover shooter mechanics with fresh tactics that make it easy to see Outriders as more than a simple shooter game. Best of all, you can reset your progression tree at any point and completely start over — a fun way to tinker with new abilities while removing any buyer's remorse over the ones you've already picked.

Though it'll remind a lot of fans of other established looter-shooters that owe their core traits to Borderlands, Outriders brings a lot of genre elements together to create a mile-deep experience that's more than the sum of its familiar parts — and in the process, it somehow ends up feeling new. Though it doesn't reinvent or innovate on any single gameplay trope you've seen before, Outriders brings them all together in a way we didn't know we wanted. The next story turn in our playthrough could unravel everything we think we know, but so far we're hooked — and despite Enoch's rapidly-fraying dystopian edges, it's a world we can't wait to dive back into and explore.

Outriders is available now for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Google Stadia, and PC, and supports full online co-op play across all platforms.

Spare parts

- After a year's hiatus, E3 is coming back as a digital event in June, and anyone taken aback by a report this week suggesting it could be a pay-to-attend event can breathe easy. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) responded to a VGC report this week that had cited "[m]ultiple publishing sources" in delivering possible details on gated attendance, clarifying instead that "there will be no elements at E3 2021 that will be behind a paid-for pass or paywall." VGC stands by its original sourcing and notes ESA clarified the matter after the original report was published.

However the story unfolded, we're just glad to have an E3 to look forward to this year — and that it won't cost anything for fans to have a front-row seat for all the announcements and previews (we hope) are in store. Free of charge, this year's E3 will take place from June 15 to June 17.

- While we're talking gamer gatherings, the Tokyo Game Show has reportedly set the date as it charts a virtual course for another year. TGS typically serves up a huge slice of announcements and previews from AAA developers based in Japan, in addition to fielding an increasingly bigger presence, at least in recent years, from western studios. Via Gematsu, TGS 2021 was announced this week as an online-only event set for Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, marking the second year in a row that the globally-watched festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary, has gone digital.

- Sony has unveiled another nicely-packaged trio of titles for its monthly PS Plus lineup, with Days Gone, Oddworld: Soulstorm, and Zombie Army 4: Dead War all free for subscribers beginning April 6. Get the full details at the PlayStation Blog — and get in on the action before May 3, when a new batch of freebies come along to take their place.

HelloGamesTube on YouTube

- No Man's Sky has added an "Expeditions" feature in its new update this week, introducing "a brand new way to play" by embarking on "a fresh journey" while rising to meet "a unique set of challenges with revitalized mission mechanics" and more. Visit developer Hello Games' blog post for the full rundown on Expeditions and everything else that's new in No Man's Sky Update 3.3.

Bethesda Softworks on YouTube

- A familiar pair of big gaming names is making next-gen moves. Tamriel gets a seriously epic makeover (just check out the above trailer) for PS5 and Xbox Series X/S in the upcoming The Elder Scrolls Online: Console Enhanced edition, which is set to arrive on June 8. Coming sooner is Final Fantasy XIV, which takes its first next-gen steps with the launch of an open beta for PS5 players that begins on April 13. Visit the ESO and FFXIV websites for the full lowdown.

- What started as a 2020 April Fool's prank has just turned into a real game. Platinum Games is taking things old school with Sol Cresta, a retro-style vertical scrolling shooter that looks closer to the arcade 1980s than AAA Platinum hits like Bayonetta and NieR: Automata. Platinum appeared to be trolling fans a year ago when it teased Sol Cresta — a seemingly joke-y spiritual "successor" to '80s arcade shooters Moon Cresta and Terra Cresta. But after making the same tease again this week for the second year in a row, the studio followed up with a tweet confirming that Sol Cresta isn't just being played for laughs, and that it's coming later this year for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.