Outriders feels like a game design period piece for the Xbox 360 generation

Outriders was supposed to be the first big, third-party video game of this new console generation. It was revealed back before players had a hint of what the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X would even look like, making it seem like a day-one launch was imminent. A few delays later and the sci-fi game was pushed out of 2020 entirely and into a new April 1 release date.

With the release date finally looming, Square Enix dropped a demo for the third-person shooter, which gives players a taste of what’s to come. The three-hour gameplay snippet features a handful of missions, a brief introduction to the game’s war-torn world, and a whole lot of shooting.

While Outriders offers up intrigue with its ability-based class system, playing it feels like entering a time machine. It’s a game design period piece that harkens back to the heyday of Xbox 360 shooters, for better or worse.

Take cover

It’s not hard to describe Outriders; it’s a sci-fi third-person shooter with cover-based mechanics. Just like Gears of War or Mass Effect, players will spend the bulk of battles sticking onto waist-high walls and popping up to fire shots. Did you ever play a shooter in the mid-2000s? Then you can imagine exactly how Outriders plays.

The shooting itself feels as fun as any competent game of that era, which is important considering that the demo provides a constant stream of action. It’s the kind of game where players walk into a room, see a bunch of walls just high enough to duck behind scattered around, and think “Oh, another fight is about to start.”

Its game design feels dated to the point of retro, which is weird to think about. The first Gears of War game came out in 2006, meaning that the franchise is already 15 years old. When Mario hit that milestone, old NES games like Super Mario Bros. already felt like a blast from the past. We don’t often use the retro label to describe 3D games, but Outriders truly feels like a period piece that teleports players back to their best friend’s basement.

Outriders

All that wall-sticking gameplay isn’t the only thing that feels dated. The flat voice acting and vague sci-fi story feel plucked from an era where video games struggled to figure out what it meant to be “cinematic.” Characters talk a whole lot without saying much of anything and big-budget explosions light up cutscenes.

If all of this sounds like a vague description of the game, that’s because the game itself is a bit vague at times. Its basic shooting mechanics, story, and characters all feel a little stock in this short snippet. It’s a game that seems like it’ll resonate most with that one friend who still maintains that Xbox 360 was the best video game console.

In with the new

With those criticisms aside, Outriders does have some promise thanks to its ability system, even if that too feels like a throwback. After the tutorial, players can choose one of four classes from Pryomancer to Trickster. Each one grants the player special abilities that can be used during combat. For example, the Trickster can drop a bubble that slows enemies down or teleport behind them to get a better shot.

The system has drawn comparisons to Destiny, but it’s more akin to Borderlands. Each class feels different and gives players a lot of different tools to play around with. I personally had a blast with the Technomancer, who is able to drop a turret that freezes enemies. Players will be able to unlock a whole suite of abilities in the full game and mix and match them, which is promising. I left the demo genuinely curious about what else my class could do, which is a good sign.

The game also drops a lot of modern game design ideas on top of the old-school gameplay. Players gather resources to craft new gear and find new weapons with incrementally higher stats, not unlike a modern looter-shooter. There’s also a fireteam system that lets a trio of players drop into the world together and complete missions as a squad.

Outriders gameplay

All of that doesn’t help with the Destiny comparisons, but it’s important to note that Outriders is not a live service game. That label has doomed similar games like Anthem over the years as studios struggled to roll out content over time. Instead, Outriders takes some of the systems and social components that make those games appealing and layers them on top of a traditional action game. For those who want a new game to play with their pals without the long-term commitment, Outriders might very well scratch that itch, though Godfall already tried and failed to take that same approach this generation.

The prognosis for the full games is a bit of a mixed bag. The combat felt tedious by the end as shootouts dragged on and it was difficult to get invested in its boilerplate sci-fi setting. However, the abilities system created for some satisfying combat moments and I can imagine how fun it could be to play with a high-level squad slinging their different powers around the battlefield. Considering that multiplayer is king during these socially isolated times, the demo certainly makes its case for Outriders as a loud co-op distraction.

Perhaps that dated design, which teleports players back to their carefree, high school glory days, will be exactly the kind of escapism we need in this particular moment.

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