BOSTON – When I had the chance to play Outriders at PAX East 2020, I very nearly turned it down. I heard that the game was going to be a live-service looter-shooter, akin to Destiny or Anthem, and that’s just not a very appealing mix for me. I tend to enjoy solo games with defined endings. But when I heard that People Can Fly was the developer behind Outriders, I simply had to try it for myself.
In case you’re not familiar with People Can Fly, it’s the Polish developer behind cult-classic shooters like Painkiller, Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgment. While the company’s games don’t always have the most coherent storylines, I can’t think of a single company that makes shooting feel more weighty or satisfying. Mechanically, People Can Fly’s games are things of beauty, and that alone made Outriders worth checking out.
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My demo began with a lengthy tutorial, which also set up the ambitious sci-fi story. After customizing a character (sex, skin color, name, face, scars – you know the drill), I learned about the planet Enoch, where humanity would make its last stand. In the somewhat-distant future, Earth is ruined, and a small bastion of settlers set up camp on the Earthlike planet after 80 years in cryogenic suspension. Specialized soldiers known as Outriders are along for the ride, to help survey and map the new planet.
Things go awry almost instantly, of course. The planet has a breathable atmosphere and plenty of flora and fauna, but it also has a mysterious black goo that attacks people and kills them – usually. During the prologue, I also learned the basics of moving and shooting, as I had to fight back against the planet’s native wildlife and some soldiers who had gone rogue. This all felt tight and satisfying, but left me wondering when Outriders was going to do something to distinguish itself.
The answer was “as soon as the prologue was done.” After being wounded in battle, my Outrider was stuck back in cryogenic storage for another 31 years, during which time the settlement effort collapsed nearly completely. The only humans left on the planet are either sadistic warlords and foot soldiers, or part of a severely undersupplied resistance movement. Naturally, many of your friends from three decades ago have joined the resistance, and can’t help but resent your absence when they needed you most. It seems like a decent setup for some narrative drama down the road.
While the story changed considerably after the prologue, the gameplay changed even more. That’s because I was prompted to choose one of three classes: a balanced Pyromancer, a dexterous Trickster or a sturdy Devastator. I also had the opportunity to sync up with other players, and happened to be on a network with two other journalists. As such, we had one member of each class present: an ideal party to tackle whatever Enoch could throw at us.
(In the final game, your party makeup can be whatever you want it to be, of course. There will also be a fourth class available, but the devs wouldn’t even hint at what it would be just yet.)
Each class has access to three different abilities, which determine how they’ll tackle the enemies that come their way. For example: as a Devastator, I could pound the ground to stun enemies, shield myself with a stone skin to absorb damage and – my personal favorite – leap high in the air, then slam myself into an enemy to break shields and deal massive damage. This meant that I was often at the front of the fray, soaking up damage while my two teammates kept back and weaved in and out of the crossfire.
One thing I especially enjoyed was that each class has a different way to heal itself. You don’t need to waste time hunting for health packs or burden a player with the thankless job of keeping everyone’s health up. As a Devastator, my health increased every time I shot an enemy at close range, or hit one with a melee attack. This meant I could take and recover damage with a kind of equilibrium that (usually) kept me alive and out of trouble.
Defeating enemies and completing quests also grants experience points, which help you level up. Each new level brings with it a respectable boost to your health, as well as the ability to equip more powerful gear. While I started out with a set of low-powered pistols, I was eventually able to equip a devastating shotgun, which let me chase enemies and annihilate them up close. My party members also found equipment better suited to their classes, which meant that we were all much better at dealing damage and staying alive toward the end of the demo.
Outriders enemies and World Level
That turned out to be a very good thing, since generic enemy soldiers were only the first threat that we faced. After a few rounds of low-powered goons, we started to encounter beefier soldiers armed with machine guns, melee warriors with dual hooks and, finally, a superpowered boss enemy who had abilities much like our own.
The boss fight in particular was a tough experience. Not only did he have a gun that shot lightning, but he could teleport around the battlefield, leave mines in his wake and surround himself with a metallic shield. Teamwork saved the day here. My Devastator could go toe-to-toe with him for short periods of time, while the Pyromancer could dish out plenty of fire damage, and the Trickster could slow down time and give us some breathing room.
Had we found the boss too difficult, though – or too easy – we could have simply adjusted our World Level. Using this feature, you can customize the difficulty of your game, and connect with like-minded players. When the game begins, only World Level 1 is available, which means that enemies will always be two levels below you, as well as dish out less damage. World Level 2 puts them one level below you, World Level 3 puts them on even footing, and so forth, all the way up to World Level 5.
By the end of our demo, we had unlocked World Level 3, but decided not to push our luck too much, and stayed at 2. Playing at higher World Levels will earn you better rewards, as well as more bragging rights.
While my party stayed focused mostly on the main quest and combat, there’s a lot more to Outriders that we didn’t get to experience. You can have extended conversations with many non-player characters to learn their backstories and opinions. Characters in hub areas offer side quests and sell equipment. Most combat areas have secondary objectives, such as destroying all enemies rather than just making your way to the end as quickly as possible.
What really sold me on Outriders, however, was just how good the combat feels. Like People Can Fly’s other games, gunplay here is fast and furious, but with a level of precision that simply doesn’t exist in most other games like this. Compared to Destiny, in fact, I found shooting to be a lot less floaty, and special abilities to be better-defined. The story in Outriders also makes a modicum of sense, which immediately wins it some bonus points over some other games in the genre.
Outriders will be out later this year for PC and consoles – including the upcoming PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. If you need a live-service multiplayer shooter for the next console generation, Outriders seems like a solid choice.
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.