Outwars is a game stuck on the horns of a dilemma: The very things that make it unique and interesting are also the source of some of its most frustrating aspects.
The setup for Outwars is part Starship Troopers, part Aliens. At an unspecified time in the future, an alien race has begun ravaging several of Earth's colonial outposts. As a member of the Colonial Defense Force's Marine Jump Corps, you've been assigned the task of putting an end to the raids - but as the game opens, your intensive training on how to use the Jump Corps' standard-issue jetpack becomes a baptism by fire when alien ships arrive and start dropping an invasion force right in the CDF's own back yard. Yep, they're bugs all right - extremely big bugs armed with some pretty strange weapons.
But you've got some big-league firepower at your disposal, too - everything from pulse rifles and Gauss cannons to flamethrowers, guided and unguided missiles, and several types of mines. And because many of the bugs can't fire upward, your jetpack can help you maneuver past enemy concentrations and launch attacks from new directions or reach the relative safety of a plateau. And a newly discovered "glider wing" technology lets you fly for nearly unlimited amounts of time (though I'm not sure what's so futuristic about something that's little more than a hang glider...).
At first glance, Outwars seems to have all the requisite ingredients for a first-rate action game. You get to choose what type of combat suit you'll wear, and the weapons loadout is up to you as well. There's a good variety of mission types here, ranging from full-scale attacks to desperate evacuations requiring you to hold off hordes of bugs with only a teammate or two to assist you. The Direct3D terrain graphics are nicely rendered, and the animation is impressively smooth even on a lower-end machine (until you get four or five bugs simultaneously onscreen, that is).
Without the jetpacks, Outwars would be just another run-and-gun shooter - but it's the jetpacks that can cause a lot of frustration, especially at the start of the game. Yes, it's great being able to use the jetpack to avoid enemy fire and find your way to those hard-to-reach spots, and it's also a treat to deal death from above during a hot firefight. But instead of letting the jetpack complement gameplay, the designers made it the focal point of the action - and the result is that intense combat is too often replaced with platform hopping. What this means, at least for the first several missions, is that you'll often wind up missing a platform and falling to your death.
The problem is that these jetpacks aren't as high tech as they're made out to be: They have only enough fuel to keep you aloft for a few seconds at a time (they do recharge after a short period, though). I don't mind dying in combat - and that'll happen a lot, too, especially from the midgame on - but dying because I ran out of gas isn't quite as noble an end as I'd like. Considering how tricky landings can be at first (unless you switch to an MDK-style third-person perspective, which is somewhat lousy for actual combat), there's really no need to aggravate things by giving you such a short amount of air time. Personally, I'd prefer an unlimited supply of jetpack fuel, but at the very least an advanced device like this should work better than something Robert Goddard could have designed.
You might not find the limited fuel or hippity-hoppity missions as annoying as I initially did - and even I've got to admit that I eventually got used to it. But Outwars doesn't reach its full potential for a couple of other reasons. Take the idea of leading a squad, for instance. On many missions you'll have a couple of marines under your command, but all you can tell them to do is stay put, attack, withdraw, or join up with you. What's more, you can only issue global team commands, eliminating the ability to have one team member guard a position while another goes on the attack with you. And if you notice that a buddy's taken damage, you can't order him to pick up one of the medkits lying around - and wounded team members don't have the common sense to pick up medkits on their own.
You'd think that going up against these big bugs might send a shiver or two down your spine, but until you get deep into the game and start seeing some new insects, the truth is they actually look a little silly. It doesn't help matters that the graphics for an exploding bug are a mass of red and green pixels (yes, even with 3D support enabled), or that the graphics for weapons fire - both yours and the enemy's - are, for lack of a better word, uninspiring. I don't know about you, but when I use a flamethrower on a bug I want to hear some screams and see him dance around as he burns to a crisp; instead, all you see is its health bar go down.
Even with these shortcomings, though, there's a lot of fun to be had here, so long as you're patient and don't mind hearing Aliens-style cliches over and over again during battle. Some of the level design for enclosed places like tunnels and aboard ships is excellent, and the game is pretty great in multiplayer mode - it's pretty latency-tolerant, and the free-for-all games combine the tension of a cat-and-mouse duel with the high-octane pyrotechnics action hounds crave.
In the end, Outwars is a good game that almost achieves greatness: It's definitely worth trying, and you might even wind up loving it. Give it a few tweaks here and there, though, and the sequel could move undisputedly into the top echelon of action games.