To say that the recently-released sci-fi video game Outriders takes a jaundiced view of human nature would be something of an understatement. Matters start out bleak, and only get darker from there: fleeing a dying Earth aboard a lone colony ship to seek a new home for humanity on the planet Enoch, the player assumes the title of the eponymous Outrider – a member of a vanguard unit sent down to scout out ahead of the full colonization party. Things go wrong almost immediately, with the landing party encountering a deadly fungus and then getting caught in a massive electromagnetic storm.
Surviving the storm, the Outrider suffers injuries and is placed in emergency cryo-stasis for some 31 years before reawakened. In the intervening decades, humanity has reverted to the Hobbesian state of nature on Enoch: a war of all against all, with all the savagery and brutality it entails. Captured by a thuggish militia and forced to cross a hellish no-man’s land, the Outrider discovers that the storm – known as the Anomaly – has left your character (and others called the “Altered”) with what amount to superpowers.
After you make your way back to the tattered remnants of civilization and complete some scattered tasks – this is a video game, after all – the Outrider is sent on a mission to trace the source of the strange radio signal you encountered when you first landed on the planet. It’s a classic Heart of Darkness-style journey into the depths of human depravity while searching for a way to deliver what’s left of humanity from its seemingly hopeless predicament. This isn’t the first time a video game has tried to tell this sort of story; 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line used a similar narrative and third-person shooter style to ask serious questions about the use of war as a setting for entertainment.
Despite its desolate setting and otherwise deeply pessimistic take on humanity, Outriders doesn’t aspire to that level of introspection. Instead, the game takes a more sardonic tone via the character of the Outrider. Most often, the player character can best be described as exasperated with mess humanity has made of its new home. This you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me attitude plays well against the dismal world the Outrider finds herself in and the absurd situations she encounters with alarming regularity.
That doesn’t prevent the Outrider from displaying a strong and no-nonsense sense of right and wrong that dances on the edge of brutality. There’s no real element of choice that allows players to shape the narrative of Outriders; instead, we’re treated to cutscenes of the Outrider forcing a murderous extortionist to play his own rigged game of Russian roulette and the summary execution of a doctor engaged in barbaric practices to concoct an antidote for the lethal fungus encountered in the game’s early moments. Still, the Outrider’s unsentimental moral code sets her apart from the despair that’s consumed the remnants of humanity – and yields a solid narrative pay-off in the end.
Though its quests and fights can become somewhat repetitive, Outriders more than makes up for it with gameplay and combat that’s downright fun. Unlike other third-person shooters, Outriders doesn’t let the player hide behind cover and blast away at enemies. Instead, a combination of enemy types – heavy brutes tossing grenades, berserkers that close in on your position, and bosses with heavy firepower – compels you to move around the battlefield with alacrity. Despite the lack of real variation in combat, it’s still enormously satisfying to combine your powers with your firepower to tear through enemies and take down bosses as you progress through the game’s narrative.
You’ll make crucial decisions about your Outrider early on, including appearance and class – selected from a suite of preset characters, my Outrider bore an uncanny resemblance to the default female Shepard from Mass Effect 3. These important early choices play out with fairly standard role-playing and gear collection elements as the game progresses, allowing for a modicum of player customization throughout. While it’s important to keep your Outrider’s gear and skills up to date if you’re playing casually, there’s no real need to pay all that much attention to the game’s role-playing and gear collection components – though those players who enjoy this aspect of this genre will find plenty to explore here.
Overall, Outriders provides players with an intriguing narrative experience and enjoyable gameplay in a bleak but absorbing setting. The game doesn’t take itself seriously enough to make any particular point out of the dismal view of humanity it presents; the Outrider’s mordant approach to her circumstances takes the edge off the game’s otherwise gloomy atmosphere. For all its pessimism about human nature, though, Outriders does end on a note of optimism – suggesting there may well be hope for us yet.