People Can Fly's Outriders does not, we think it's fair to say, get off to the grandest of starts. Kicking off with a prologue that showcases all of its weakest elements at once - the janky cutscenes, buggy facial animations and duff dialogue, it's an introduction to a brand new IP that had us pretty worried if we're being perfectly honest. However, ride this brief rough patch out, let the characters and story settle into their groove and the glorious combat take centre stage, and you'll find yourself rewarded with one of the very best looter shooters of recent years, a fiendishly addictive, challenging and inventive action RPG that we just cannot get enough of.
Outriders kicks off with the remnants of the human race touching down on the planet Enoch having left a disaster-stricken Earth aboard the enormous colony ship Flores. You assume the role of an Outrider, a soldier charged with leading the way into uncharted territory, hand-picked to scout and secure a new home for humanity. Of course, within moments of touching down on Enoch, everything goes entirely wrong. An enormous electrical storm, known as the Anomaly, rolls in and devastates the very first makeshift human camp while the ECA (Enoch Colonization Authority) attempts to contain the situation by eradicating any and all witnesses, including the Outriders themselves. Injured in the ensuing chaos and imbued with strange powers by contact with the Anomaly, you're put into cryo-statis and left to slumber for some thirty years, finally awakening to a planet in chaos, one you must set to rights using the altered powers you now possess.
It's absolute gubbins, there's no doubt about it, and it's gubbins that gets off to a terrible start, but it does its job in laying a reasonable enough narrative foundation and then quickly, mercifully, gets out of the way, standing aside and letting you get to grips with what Outriders is really all about - knocking the absolute pan out of relentless hordes of enemies and hoovering up all of their sweet, sweet loot. What at first appears to be just another cover shooter, with combat arenas full of waist high walls giving us the sinking feeling that we're in for a second-rate Gears of War/Destiny mashup, very quickly shows itself to be anything but. Those walls, you see, are for emergency use only, mate, this game is all about getting right up into your enemy's face, making clever use of your chosen class's powers, doing damage in order to heal yourself, always moving, always killing, always thinking two steps ahead...it's breathless stuff, addictive, satisfying and clever.
During our playthrough of Outriders' lengthy campaign, and into the generous dollop of endgame content that follows, we chose to play as the game's Trickster class, a close range specialist that deals in time-manipulation and sneaky assassination techniques. We spend skirmishes moving quickly around the battlefield, using our Hunt the Prey power to blink out of existence and re-appear behind a chosen foe for a sneaky attack - a beautiful way to instantly manoeuvre out of harm's way. We throw up slow traps that warp time around our foes, slowing them to a crawl and allowing us to throttle them with shotgun and assault rifle fire and fling Venator's knives, temporal blades that richochet between targets and freeze them helplessly in place. Outriders is all about taking advantage of the havoc you can wreak through your altered powers in order to assume control against large numbers of enemies that constantly, relentlessly threaten to overwhelm.
Alongside the run-of-the-mill enemies who make up the vast majority of the hordes you face off against here, there are also powerful altered foes and bosses thrown into the mix, tougher opponents with the ability to utilise many of the same cosmic powers you wield. As these altered enemies charge up their special attacks a yellow bar appears above their heads, giving you a very short window of opportunity to cancel their upcoming assault by blasting them with an interrupt attack. The Trickster's temporal blade, for example, a flashy attack that slows time and shears the skin off enemies - temporarily revealing the skeletons beneath - can interrupt a foe's attempt to wind up a special, and it's in the rhythm of watching out for these big attacks, sticking within striking distance of altered opponents whilst wading through lesser foes, ensuring you've got an interrupt available to counter while furiously performing crowd control, that Outriders' combat finds its magic.
Progressing through class ranks by accumulating XP via combat sees you unlock skills that branch out in three paths, Assassin, Harbinger and Reaver, as well as unlocking further altered abilities, with a generous total of eight powers to choose from per class come the later stages of the campaign, and these can be freely swapped out at any time by quickly jumping into your character menu. We stuck with our Slow Traps, Venator's Knife and Temporal Blade for the most part, occasionally swapping in Hunt the Prey in order to deal with tricksy snipers, but we also had the ability to perform Cyclone Slices, fill our weapon's magazine with twisted temporal rounds and create time rifts that send groups of foes floating off into the air for easy pickings. There's so much flexibility here, so many different ways to approach combat, even within the confines of a single class, that the action always feels fresh and engaging. Brief stints trying out the other three classes on offer also show that each and every one - Pyromancer, Technomancer and Devastator - feels markedly different to what we experienced as a Trickster and we already can't wait to run through the whole thing again as our second choice Pyro.
Alongside the wealth of combat options and powers on offer through its four classes, Outriders also introduces a slick World Tier system that levels up alongside you as you make your way through the main campaign. Keep killing enemies and dealing with bosses successfully and the World Tier will rise through fifteen levels from Story difficulty all the way up to Madness, with each new tier raising both enemy diificulty and the chances that you'll get yourself some epic or legendary loot drops. Get killed and you'll lose a chunk of World Tier progress, the game automatically adjusting itself to your ability level. It's a cracking system, one that keeps the challenge just about surmountable if you let it adjust naturally, but also one that you're entirely free to drop down a few tiers should you hit a wall or run into difficulty with a particularly nasty boss encounter. By the end of our time with the campaign we'd managed to top out at World Tier 8, a properly stiff challenge, especially when playing mostly solo, and we'll admit to having had to drop this to level 6 in order to make our way through the final onslaught of bosses that round out the game's story.
Of course, without good loot to back up all this slick shooting action all would be for naught and, thankfully, Outriders also manages to deliver in this regard. It may start out pretty bog-standard but, by the time you're raking in epic and legendary guns and armour, equipping yourself with snazzy shotguns that turn enemies to ash or sniper rifles that suspend foes in the air, the loot here has become massively satisfying stuff that meshes well with the game's wonderfully straightforward and satisfying systems of modding and upgrading.
Breaking down guns and armour, defeating enemies and mining resource points whilst out in the field sees you rewarded with iron, anomaly shards, titanium and leather to be used to improve your weapons and armour, boosting their rarity, raising their bonus stats and adding all-manner of powers and buffs to their mod slots. This stuff can be a bit of a pain at times but in Outriders it's a doddle, easy to understand and with an instant and unmistakable impact on your abilities in combat. Where we might tend to not bother with modding our gear all that often in other looter shooters, here we got right into the mix, ensuring our guns and armour were attuned to the anomaly powers we were currently rocking, adding massive damage effects to our weapons, doubling the size and duration of our Slow Traps and a host of other buffs that turn your altered warrior from a regular beast to an absolutely unstoppable war machine.
By the time you've got to the later stages of the campaign here combat really is an absolute joy, a consistently engaging and addictive death dance that's never less than thrilling to engage with. Even the story, after such a shocking first impression in that awful prologue, slowly begins to turn things around. Let's be clear, it's still guff of the highest order, but as things progress the rag-tag bunch of friends you make as your convoy snakes its way across Enoch in search of the source of a mysterious signal begin to grow on you, the stakes become more personal and, by the time it wraps up, we were surprisingly invested in the ridiculous tale being told.
The endgame content too, judging by the hours we've managed to play in both solo and co-op, is a properly meaty affair to get stuck into once the story draws to a close. Here you'll take on expeditions to find and retrieve precious drop pods full of delicious and powerful loot. These are tough post-game challenges that charge you with surviving some absolutely relentless onslaughts, making your way to your objective as quickly as possible in order to maximise your rewards. Expeditions drop the campaign's World Tiers - rather confusingly - in favour of adjustable Challenge Tiers that determine difficulty and loot rarity, and forging a path through them as the challenge level rises will unlock further expedition locations as you make your way towards the game's final Eye of the Storm excursion. We've spent several hours in this endgame content and can already tell it's gonna take a good long while to accrue the 40,000 drop pod resources required to gain access to that final challenge.
With all of this endgame goodness to blast through, as well as an already strong desire to re-run the main campaign all over again as a different class, Outriders really has got its hooks into us big time and, we reckon, for the long haul. Of course there have been problems with the launch here too, with an opening weekend beset by widescale server issues - not ideal for a game that really should be available to play offline as a solo Outrider - but, once these issues settle down, once you're in the game and shooting, Outriders is a slick, pretty much bug-free experience that delivers non-stop carnage on a grand scale whilst plying its players with sweet loot and a multitude of flexible options with regards to how they choose to approach its gauntlet of challenges.
People Can Fly showed us it knows its way around the sharp end of a slick shooter all the way back in 2011 with the excellent Bulletstorm - a game we always reckoned deserved a sequel - and now they've delivered a fresh new IP that can easily stand alongside the likes of Borderlands, Destiny and The Division as the very best its genre has to offer. This is absolutely one of our favourite shooters of the past few years and, with talk already of incoming DLC in the form of additional story expansions, it's one that we look forward to spending many hours with in the future.
Outriders really has taken us completely by surprise. This is a game that gets off to a pretty bad start but, once the combat kicks off properly, quickly reveals itself to be one of the slickest and most addictive looter shooters we've played in a long while. Launch weekend has been a mess of server issues, for sure, but stick with what People Can Fly has dished up here and you'll find yourself handsomely rewarded. This one comes highly recommended.