The Strange Outcome of the Outriders Demo

It was befuddling taking in all the information of the Blizzard conference a couple weeks back. Diablo Immortal, Diablo 4 down the road, as well as a remake of Diablo 2 with a 3D uplift titled Resurrection; it all felt like too much of what used to be a “good” thing.

Like everyone else, I spent some of my adolescence defeating hellspawn over and over again, working towards weapons and armor that could outfit my character for the long term, which of course was never the case, because I never made it far enough to settle into the expansion content from the Lord of Destruction expansion. And now in 2021, with games like the Torchlight series, as well as the behemoth that is Path of Exile, we seem to be in a binge of loot-addled action-roleplaying content.

I bring up this phenomenon, the wealth of loot games, to transition to Outriders. Because it’s a game that many see as some equivalent to The Division or Destiny, but really owes its structure and mechanics to the Diablo series. There are four classes, each with eight active skills to choose from at any time. Each class has three skill trees, with just enough points to complete a tree, but not the rest. The pace of the game as a third-person shooter is fast and frenetic. Though there is a cover system, this feels like legacy code from the developer People Can Fly, when they worked on games like Gears of War in the past. Instead, the game works best when you avoid using cover and do what you did in the Diablo series: wade in and hope your skill use can sort the situation out. The loot that pops has stat rolls, color coding, and a focus back onto your skills and abilities in the form of mods. It is a shooting game with little to do with cover and an action game with an emphasis on doing maths.

If all that sounds appealing to you, you’re in luck. The full game releases on April 1st, and there is a free demo you can try out that was released worldwide on February 25th and 26th. Almost every platform (excluding the Nintendo Switch) supports it, including full crossplay.

But the release of the demo was met with tepid responses. On the one hand, the demo allows players to reach level seven with each class, reach “world tier five” which is a dedicated difficulty lever that allows you to push or pull it for bigger or lesser challenges (and rewards), as well as play the game through the first section, totaling some three hours of gameplay. This seemed like a generous offer.

Yet the initial opening of the servers caused crashes, as there simply wasn’t enough room available for everyone who wanted to play. On top of that, the response to the story and cinematics was less than positive. A handheld shaking effect from the camera, combined with a 30 FPS cap and a heavy motion blur, made for a nauseating experience. People responded with both slight praise and dismissal of the Outriders story, which features an ark of humanity leaving a destroyed Earth to colonize new worlds, with ours landing on a supposedly sanguine planet called Enoch. The truth is more sinister. Turns out Enoch has taken lessons for killing humans similar to the latest Alien movies, and some infighting between the brass sets up a recipe for a Mad Max inspired post-apocalyptic world that succeeds better in mood than it does explicit storytelling. Our character arrives at the right place at the wrong time, and rather than die horrifically, ends up with reality-bending powers. From there the tone shifts from earnest and dire consequences on the people we know to miserable attempts at dark humor and more swearing than an adolescent’s journal. It shifts too quickly from hit-or-miss worldbuilding to Joss Whedon farce.

Players were tutorialized on the cover mechanics, which make themselves apparent in every fighting arena, where chest-high walls are not insignificantly placed, yet the player also faces some very real problems with button recognition as plenty of video footage has already showcased stumbling attempts to take cover ending in a bloody pulp.

The main thrust of the game, that of getting to empower your character and experience the twitchy and intense shooting, barely gets going by level seven. With just four abilities (out of the eight) and two experience points to spend (with over two dozen more waiting) and no inclusion of the extensive modding and crafting features for guns and armor, gameplay feels handicapped.

The end result is that people who were excited for the game now have doubts whether it can achieve the endgame so heavily promised. People on the fence, those skeptical about a B-tier game collating all the worst features of live service video games, yet not being a live service, found the ammunition they were looking for. I played the demo and leveled two classes completely, and worked the other two to about halfway. I have replayed many of the side missions and spent time with the abilities and weapons. Truth be told, I felt as if I ran through many of the fears and exhilarations everyone has talked about, only to end up right back where I started, which, I’ll have you know, happened to be “tepidly excited”. This begs the question: what was the purpose of a demo, and did it accomplish what it set out to do?

In the late summer to fall of 2020, back when Outriders was still scheduled to be released close to the arrival of next-gen consoles, Giantbomb’s Ben Pack was given the opportunity to play the game, and came to a conclusion that simultaneously dismissed it for its window dressing as a looter shooter, but also vehemently stated that the game plays better than it looks. Watching footage on the game, while tucked away in my house during coronavirus, with nothing to do but play a backlog of games as release dates continued to be pushed for damn near everything, I had to agree. Outriders is almost un-style. It feels like a technical showpiece for an Unreal game featured in some movie to avoid copyright, one cobbled together using similar color schemes and design philosophies of so many other releases from that engine. No environment feels contextual to any sort of culture, philosophy, or credo. The early parts of the demo feature demilitarized bunkers and makeshift defenses, warzones never ending, with no chance to stop and think of beauty or aesthetics.

But when the game runs smoothly at 60 frames per second (not a guarantee) and when group skills synergize, and when you see the skeletons of your enemy discombobulate in slow-motion, there is a spark of magic there. Getting into a flow state in the push forward combat that Outriders leans into with its health-regeneration is unlike many of the games it emulates in the looter genre. The Division 2 has a cover system unparalleled for its mobility while also making it a necessity. Players are fragile. Destiny’s weapons, grenades, and melee work on a rhythm that requires shields and cover, and although the series has degraded into infighting and back-end business nonsense, no one doubts that the game plays well. Outriders is another breed, a game that wants you to close distance more often than not. Sniper rifles are often fired while running (typically forward), where the game shifts into the mid-field. Abilities pop, and the player closes distance with a diving melee. Follow up shots clean up the remainders. Pick up the loot, and move on. If you didn’t make it, don’t worry. Dying is easy, and reloading from a checkpoint is forgiving.

Now if only that was true in Outriders’s story. People playing through the demo learned of a very involved narrative, one with more fade to blacks than Return of the King. Transitions to areas involve a fade to black, a cinematic where a character jumps a small gap, or waits for a wall to lower, where the game fades to black again in order to load in the next area. Where the combat seems especially tapered to allow player enjoyment, the story seems paradoxically tedious and handholding.

From the Outriders Twitter:

Potential (and temporary) workarounds while we continue to resolve this issue on our end:

- Limit your fps to between 30 and 59
- Put the game in Windowed mode and disable V-Sync

Please let us know if this helps. https://t.co/kXCmkURVIb

- Outriders (@Outriders) February 26, 2021

Where I am most concerned about the game is in its performance. While there are options for PC players in regards to graphics settings tweaking and 60+ FPS options for monitors that can support it, I could not for the life of me find a method for getting those higher frames reliably. Not only that, my game would frequently crash when I attempted to go to my inventory (which happens often in a game like this). Apparently I was not alone, and People Can Fly have acknowledged the issue and are trying to find a workaround. But what I discovered when I played the game was something PC players worry about constantly (and are often vocal about it). When I lowered the graphics settings to LOW, and capped my frames per second to 60, the game handled wonderfully. Turning your PC into being more like a console achieved the best results. This is unsurprising, considering that the game is releasing on so many different platforms, and features full crossplay, that the developers must have only focused on a certain bottom-of-the-barrel functionality. But PC players don’t like having to choose between lower-end stability and higher end chaos. I was getting over 100 frames per second, which led to more frequent crashes and various sound problems. Outriders, for as fast-paced and twitchy as it is, demands a higher framerate. Its action benefits tremendously from it.

Especially considering that in a recent video explaining system requirements, I was handedly above recommended specs for running on the “high” preset. To bring my game down to low across the board felt wrong.

It was a demo that felt more like a Beta. It was an action roleplaying game that revealed a little too much of its story. Its combat, though enticing, failed to deliver on the most sought after features, the chances for characters to tweak abilities, mods, weapons, armor, and skills.

So…what did it do?

In my opinion, it took anyone galvanized on the game and made them seriously question what the release has in store. More people will likely wait for content creators and game journalists who get advanced copies (if that still happens) so that they may get a backstage pass on the endgame content. I think for those who despise the state that video games finds themselves in have more firepower to disregard the genre for its unappealing style and for what they take to be a lack of substance. People Can Fly took a gamble on getting the game into gamers’ hands so that they might be convinced through interaction with its combat rather than put off by its bland style. In my opinion, the result was not as unequivocal as they might have predicted. I now have serious misgivings on whether the game can hit all the right notes on April 1st. Will the combat expand and lend itself to that desire to go back in with each playthrough? Will the weapons continue to evolve in fun and weird ways? Will the locales shift in some form or fashion beyond the dismal? Will the technical hurdles of various PC players be resolved, or will consoles continue to get majority attention? Where things seemed gracefully nebulous, now all the cards are on the table.

It’s a sad reality, but it’s the one that game developers should always consider. Perhaps a demo, though kind to your fans, may not be the best idea. Perhaps any news at all is not the same as good news. Perhaps a few copies to content creators who value deep dives into these games would be more analogous to the game’s design, rather than hundreds of thousands playing the shallow end of a pool that promises much more and couldn’t possibly deliver in a demo. Maybe frontloading a poor prologue with contradictions in playstyle, where players are not really sure whether or not cover is a legitimate strategy, though the game instructs you on how to use it, is not the way you wanted to announce it.

As Andrew Ryan, that bane of video games decision making from Bioshock once told us, “We all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us.”

Originally published at http://theroyleline.blog on February 28, 2021.

Colton tries to picture a world in which nobody trusted their System 1 thinking. He is currently working on trying to be a better listener.

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