Outriders is a game that isn't defined by big new ideas, but rather a variety of familiar elements mixed together in experimental ways. It's a role-playing game with loot-shooter elements; it's a serious, dark sci-fi outing that often comes with a pretty big dose of humor; it's a third-person cover shooter that demands you rush out and smash enemies with your ludicrously lethal magic powers. Whether this mixture works for you will determine how much you'll enjoy exploring the war-torn planet of Enoch and the last desperate vestige of humanity clinging to life there.
Outriders blends well-known video game elements into something new and challenging, and while it takes itself seriously, it isn't self-serious. The game is about the human race destroying its home, violently colonizing new spaces, and tearing itself apart, but its heavy themes are often lightened up by a general blockbuster goofiness and characters defined by their gallows humor. You find a place within it as an accidental superbeing with space magic powers on the newly colonized planet Enoch, and you're mostly just annoyed that irritating people are wasting your time with their gopher chores. It's a fun, self-aware fit.
Though Outriders looks like a live game of the loot-shooter persuasion, it's actually much more Mass Effect 3 than Destiny 2--like Mass Effect, RPG progression, an expansive story, and cover-shooting are more the engine of the game than chasing the next new gun. Although it does have a hearty dose of gear progression, Outriders is a cover-shooter RPG, leaning heavily into an epic story told with tons of dialogue, cutscenes, character interactions, and collectible lore.
Developer People Can Fly has clearly drawn a lot from its past work on the Gears of War series in creating Outriders. Rifle-sporting enemies take fortified positions to unload on you at a distance, backed up by shotgunners who try to close the gap, armored troops carrying chainguns who plod toward you through the open, and cleaver-wielding sprinters who charge straight at your face to drive you out of cover.
The gameplay core of Outriders is shooting, and you'll have a mess of guns at your disposal. Though you can only have two main weapons and a sidearm equipped at any given time, you'll have lots of options thanks to the loot-shooter half of the Outriders formula. That means you can pair a sniper rifle with a shotgun or assault rifles and SMGs, and since you're constantly searching for weapons with better stats, you'll cycle through a lot of different loadouts in a short amount of time.
What makes these weapons especially fun is the myriad different properties and status effects they can have, like dispensing poison, blowing enemies up, freezing people solid, and more. Recalling Gears of War again, Outriders' shooting is reliably solid, fun, and feels good--but finding synergies between your weapons' weird properties is a lot of what makes the shooting part of the game rewarding. The deeper into Outriders you get, the more fun the shooting becomes as you start to rack up the Legendary guns that do awesome, ridiculous things. The core shooting is spiced up with wrinkles like hitting enemies with lightning strikes, healing you for landing headshots, and dropping comets on people.
Things get weirder in its merging of space superpowers with the cover shooter core. You can choose from one of four ability classes early in the game: Devastator, Trickster, Pyromancer, or Technomancer. These each have the general roles of tank, rogue, damage-focused mage, and debuff-focused mage--the Devastator uses gravity attacks for close-range kills, the Trickster teleports around to get the drop on enemies, the Pyromancer is a mid-range fire-flinger, and the Technomancer can summon turrets and rockets that also poison or slow targets.
Each class has a different way of replenishing health through combat, generally by focusing on their specific strengths. The Devastator, for instance, heals you for every close-range kill, encouraging you to get in close to enemies to hit them with powers like a short-range earthquake. Combat becomes a constant calculus between when to cut the distance and take down an enemy and when to take cover, bide your time, and protect yourself.
That combination can be a bit confusing and, as a result, combat is a place where Outriders can both sprint and stumble. You're playing a shooter where you use cover to keep yourself alive, but you're often encouraged to leave cover to keep yourself alive. That push and pull of avoiding incoming damage and taking the fight to the enemy requires you to constantly manage the battlefield, as well as your ability cooldown timers. If you jump out of cover and go wild with all your powers on an approaching enemy, you'll leave yourself exposed for all their friends and quickly find yourself cut down by incoming fire.
That means having an earthquake ready to stun incoming fighters is essential to saving your life, since it allows you to grab kills while keeping your head down. Similarly, abilities like the Trickster's teleport, which instantly puts you behind enemies in cover, are just as useful for dramatically repositioning yourself across the battlefield as they are for eliminating foes. But you can rarely just go all-out with your guns and abilities--you really have to think about where you are, where your enemies are, and how you can best eliminate them without exposing yourself.
It can feel unintuitive at first, but when you do find the balance between using your powers, healing yourself, and staying out of fire, Outriders creates some pitched, frantic battles that use cover just enough to give you a second to breathe, without pinning your shoulder to a single chest-high wall and leaving you there for minutes on end. As you hit tougher battles in the late game, the combination of overwhelming enemies and incredible powers and guns mixes together to create some explosive, nail-biting battles. These fights also highlight how well Outriders' modding system works, even if it is a bit awkwardly implemented. Earning new mods requires you to scrap armor and weapons that already include them, and you can only change one of two mod slots on any given item, so figuring out how it all works can be a bit confusing. When you spec out your gear to make your powers and guns stronger, adding defensive buffs, higher damage, and better healing, though, you really start to feel unstoppable, and the game ratchets up the challenge to match.
But there are also times when you find yourself surrounded or cut off, trapped between enemies, unable to kill anything fast enough to heal or escape the onslaught to save yourself. Sometimes a situation just seems unwinnable, forcing you to die and try again. Luckily, Outriders generally only sets you back a bit for these losses, so you can re-enter a fight quickly and try a new approach. Facing tougher Altered enemies, who have powers similar to yours, can result in battles of attrition where you have to cheese the situation by scurrying out of the arena so enemies don't all chase you down at once. And sometimes, even careful management of powers, cover, and your spacing on the battlefield aren't enough to save you, and it's these moments when Outriders can get frustrating because it doesn't feel like you're losing for lack of skill.
There are ways to deal with that issue, however. Outriders is largely pretty open and has liberal fast-travel, so you can bail on a mission to go do a side-quest without much difficulty, allowing you to grab rewards that can boost your gear and character. As mentioned, once you get comfortable with the modding system, you can make changes to your loadout that make specific powers more viable, allowing you to really lean into powerful builds that give you an advantage and reward planning and strategy. The difficulty of enemies is also determined by the overall World Tier level, which rises as you earn experience points alongside your character. World Tier also determines loot drops, so there's an incentive to keep it on the highest level you can, but if you're in a particularly annoying fight, you can always back it down a touch to keep yourself from stalling. The World Tier is a smart solution to the difficulty problem, and since it can be adjusted any time, it gives you a lot of freedom to avoid frustration at key moments.
The combinations of over-the-top guns, ridiculous superpowers, and huge groups of enemies creates some awesome combat moments. Outriders might not reinvent any of the ideas at play in its battles, but it mixes them all together in some really inventive ways. Not every single battle in the game works exactly as intended, but it's not a problem with the mix--it's when the arena layout of a fight puts your back against the wall, or when you're not specced out to deal with an unexpected threat.
You can also play Outriders cooperatively, which elevates how frantic and wild combat can become. Having multiple superpowered players working together to stun enemies, teleport behind positions, spread out status effects, and dish out massive damage makes for a bombastic, sensory-overloading combat experience, especially in tougher endgame battles. It's not a stretch to say that Outriders is best experienced with friends and other players--solo is fun but can get tough, while co-op fighting just continually highlights the game's best features and encourages you to think creatively about combining powers, guns, battlefield control, and teamwork. After putting about 40 hours into Outriders, I regret not recruiting more pals to work through the main campaign at my side, especially because the game makes it very easy to drop into and play or replay every mission.
Unfortunately, playing together has been difficult since Outriders' launch. Cross-play between PC and consoles, an element People Can Fly touted throughout the game's development, is currently disabled (consoles players on separate platforms can currently team up, though). Some players have complained of server connection issues, and while I didn't encounter any while I played on PC, I did have repeated crashes when connecting with friends and trying to play together. On console the server issues are more prevalent, with lengthy wait times when loading into the game and unexpected disconnects when playing.
These technical issues will likely get cleaned up over time, but right now, Outriders can be tough to play, and it's frustrating that the game's always-online nature means even those taking it on in single-player are stuck dealing with some of the problems. People Can Fly has said it's working to improve the experience, but so far the most frustrating thing about the game has been those times when I was trying to load into an endgame Expedition mission and instead crashed to desktop two or three times before finally getting to play.
When it comes to narrative ambitions, I enjoyed Outriders' lengthy story, although it winds up being darker and more disjointed than what is implied in the first half or so. People Can Fly has obviously put a lot of time and thought into the game's lore, and there's a lot of interesting writing to be found in journal entries and side-quests. What I liked most, however, is the unexpected mixture of desperation and humor. Enoch, the planet where Outriders takes place, was meant to be an idyllic new world for the remnants of humanity to colonize. Instead, it's a war-torn hellscape where the last vestiges of the human race are literally ripping each other apart. The misery and torment of the situation is exacerbated by the Altered, like your character, who have gained godlike powers.
Coupled with the dark, serious, and gritty sci-fi take are the moments of levity that make Outriders feel human. One mission found a group of cultists sacrificing soldiers to the Anomaly, the weird Enochian storm that destroys electronics, rips apart buildings, disintegrates people, and sometimes bestows superpowers. Rather than plead with the Anomaly worshipers for his life, the soldier attempted to reason with them, explaining that there was nothing supernatural in the strange storms. "It's just electromagnetic ... scientific ... sh-t!" the guy yelled before they kicked him over a cliff, and I couldn't help but laugh. If I were trying to disabuse some fanatical cultists of their misplaced and lethal worship of a colorful electrical phenomenon, I'd likely say something similar.
Unfortunately, the longer it goes on, the less Outriders leans into that mixture of intense topics and blockbuster levity. Things get dark as time goes on, but the road trip-style story abandons examining how to handle being a human-turned-god and instead looks into atrocities related to scientific ethics and colonialism. In the end, it feels like Outriders shifts subjects a few times, leaving a lot of threads hanging and without bringing many to a satisfying conclusion.
But the moments where Outriders is taking daring swings at mixing disparate elements are when it's at its best. The game is surprisingly deft at combining things that shouldn't work together: Its story is often funny but similarly severe; its combat requires you to take cover and to charge; its abilities make you phenomenally powerful but prone to overestimating yourself. If you can find the balance in Outriders, People Can Fly's RPG-shooter finds ways to combine well-worn video game ideas into something new and fun. Especially when you're accompanied by friends and put the time in to really understand the game's systems, Outriders rewards you with epic battle moments and a sprawling scope. It left me wanting to continue venturing out into the wilds of Enoch to see what I might find there--and to smash whatever it was with seismic earthquake magic.