The original Gundam 0078 anime series opens with an attack on a rotating colony space station in orbit around the earth. The attack was carried out by a space-born empire, The Principality of Zeon, which is seeking independence for their colonies from Earth’s influence. The show is framed from the perspective of the Earth Federation, which are painted out to be the good guys in the mess. But over the series, layers of hidden politics emerge and the viewer is left with the sense that there are good people on both sides of the war, and the cause of the Zeon proves righteous, even if their methods are brutal.
This level of nuance allows the later entries in the Gundam universe to play around with who is and isn’t the villain, with characters regularly switching sides and their morals on full display. Despite having a similar premise to Gundam 0078, Outriders manages to divorce its setting from any sort of deeper analysis, espousing morals that are regularly contradicted and ultimately saying nothing about anything.
Since Outriders isn’t meant to be just a game, but the start of a whole sci-fi franchise with transmedia ambitions, let’s go deep into the story. It takes place in the somewhat distant future after a series of increasingly devastating natural disasters renders the Earth uninhabitable. Two interstellar ships carrying 500,000 cryogenically frozen colonists each are set to travel to a potentially livable planet called Enoch, but only one ship, the S.M. Flores, is able to launch. As an Outrider, your character is one of the first colonists to be unfrozen and sent down to Enoch to scout the planet. But the planet is not as hospitable as once thought.
On the first expedition out, your team of Outriders is attacked by a black fungus that quickly kills a number of them. The Outriders then attempt to race back to their basecamp to warn the Flores to hold off on sending down more people, but an over-eager commander gives the go-ahead anyways. An anomalous, electric storm begins forming seemingly out of nowhere, turning some Outriders into ash and mortally wounding others, including yourself.
In a desperate attempt to save your life a fellow landing party member, Shira Gutmann, pushes you back into your cryogenic pod. 30 odd years pass, and your character awakes to a war torn world. After managing to find Gutmann, now leader of the Enoch Colonization Authority, the player learns that the anomalous storm knocked out the fledgling colony’s power before they could prepare for all 500,000 people to be unfrozen, and has also trapped everyone inside a single valley on the planet. In addition, the still-orbiting Flores only shot down half the supply pods it was supposed to.
With almost all the colonists awoken and not enough resources to go around, the ECA effectively banished the new colonists outside their walled city. The abandoned colonists become insurgents, and a forever war is launched between the two groups. In the middle of this war are the altered, people who have been hit by the anomaly and not only survived, but gained godlike powers. And lucky you, the player character is one of these godlike people. Gutmann points you in the direction of a signal that she thinks will be pivotal in getting the Flores to shoot down the remainder of the pods, and you’re off.
It’s a setting dripping with potential, but rarely does anything meaningful or unexpected occur. The first time the player sees the insurgents, they’re shown to be child eaters, slavers, and the kind of crazy only seen in the post-apocalypse genre. After learning a bit more about the world these insurgents were dumped into, I couldn’t help but empathize with them; I too would be pretty pissed if I woke up and was kicked out of the only city in existence. I kept waiting for the game to humanize the insurgents and really delve into the situation it had created, but it never does.
There were plenty of times where Outriders’ story felt like it was on the cusp of saying something, before falling silent. Early-on, the player is introduced to an altered named Seth. Seth’s painted out to be the altered, and touts himself as a god. He regularly fights alongside the ECA, but is not directly aligned with them and is more interested in keeping a balance between the sides; the insurgents, being closer to the anomaly, have a lot more altered fighting on their side. He forces the player to confront their godliness: “These people need their Gods. Only one like you could lead them to a future.”
But before the player can learn more about Seth’s outlook on the war and striking a balance between the ECA and the insurgents, he bites the dust. From that point on, most of the game just sort of happens. There’s no suspense or guesswork expected from the player. If a bad dude looks bad, it’s because he is bad and it’s your job to make him not exist anymore.
It’s a shame because 90% of the time, making people not exist anymore in Outriders is an engrossing experience. There’s a tendency in power fantasy games to limit the player’s abilities to maintain some concept of balancing. Outriders largely does away with this.
Four classes of anomaly power are available to players, each with their own abilities and focus on combat styles. These abilities weave together with the game’s gunplay to produce segments of nonstop action, and the game itself offers numerous areas for this action to occur.
The game’s encounters are tightly designed. Enemies will spawn in certain areas and utilize cover to their advantage, rarely advancing or charging up on you unless provoked into action. It’s up to the player to make the first move, and advance on the enemies. These encounters are more like puzzles than typical shooter levels, requiring the player to think out a plan of attack in order to reach the end. One slip up sends you back to the beginning and drawing board, with only yourself to blame.
An adaptive difficulty setting called world tiers complements these encounters, with each successive victory automatically increasing the difficulty. Dying too much or too little seems to swing the pendulum back and forth, always keeping the game challenging but never overbearing.
The other 10% of the time, Outriders is downright frustrating. Most area of effect attacks that are thrown your way feature highlighted areas on the ground to warn you about the incoming threat. These visual markers become invaluable in making out what’s going on, and yet it’s noticeably absent from many late-game attacks. I would be on the lookout for these highlighted areas while mowing down basic enemies, only to be chump-changed by an elite out of nowhere.
The game features a dodge mechanic, which would come in handy for dodging these attacks from the ether. But, unlike most games with the feature, dodging in Outriders doesn’t actually do anything. It’s a quick way to reposition your character, but in terms of offering a brief period of invincibility to the player there’s nothing to be found.
These issues can be overlooked for most of the game, but become unavoidable in the post-game expeditions content. These expeditions throw out the tight-knit encounters seen in the story in favor of sending hordes of enemies at the player from every angle. Instead of planning out and executing a plan, as they’ve been taught to do the entire game, players are expected to run and gun as enemies pop up from behind with undodgeable, undetectable attacks.
Outriders’ gameplay that could have kept me coming back for more day after day. It has a setting that could have been used to tell meaningful stories about war and the people fighting in them. It openly admits that the protagonist is practically a god, and can be a transformative force for the world. Outriders introduces a good concept and the basis of a good shooter, and then seems to take it all for granted, ultimately doing little with either. There’s a solid game underneath its problems, and when I was in encounters I was absolutely engrossed. But when it came time to put my gun down and watch a cutscene, I found myself wanting to pick up my phone. Outriders is worth playing for its story missions, which offer well-designed encounters and engaging gameplay. Outside these missions however, there’s little worth seeing.
Outriders was developed by People Can Fly and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X|S version. It’s also available for the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, PC, and Stadia.
Nicolas Perez is a freelance writer and opinion co-editor for New University. He’s rambling on Twitter @Nic_Perez__.