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Character artwork of three futuristic soldiers from Outriders

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Bulletstorm devs are making a Destiny-style shooter, and it’s pretty good

Hands-on with People Can Fly’s next-gen debut, Outriders

Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix

In the not-so-distant future, a dying Earth has caused its inhabitants to look for a new planet to call home. After decades of space travel that leave its passengers suspended in time, the bold group given this monumental task sets foot on a new world. At first glance, this faraway planet is idyllic, lush, and peaceful — a place where humans can feel right at home. But not everything is as it seems, and this new world soon turns out to be teeming with hostile creatures and mysterious forces beyond human control.

Oh, have you heard that one before? OK, I’ll admit it — Outriders, the forthcoming co-op shooter from developer People Can Fly (Bulletstorm, Gears of War: Judgment ) and publisher Square Enix, definitely gives off some familiar vibes. Due out this holiday season and making its debut on Sony and Microsoft’s next-gen platforms (along with PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One), Outriders follows the titular group that’s traveled to the planet Enoch ahead of everyone else in hopes of setting up a habitable place for the survivors of the human race. What they find is a mysterious signal and a world marred by devastating storms called “anomalies” that infect and destroy the crew. Before long, there’s a mutiny as the infected are shunned, and in the ensuing scuffle our daring hero is mortally wounded, leading to another stint in suspended animation. When they wake up, decades have passed, and Enoch has become a war zone.

Described as a “very ambitious RPG shooter” by People Can Fly CEO Sebastian Wojciechowski, Outriders has been in development for about four years — or since right around the time of the studio’s split with former parent company Epic Games. After working with Epic on the Gears of War series and Fortnite’s Save the World mode, PCF wanted to get back to making its own games. Enter Outriders, a sci-fi universe built from scratch that grafts RPG elements onto its third-person shooter backbone.

A futuristic settler overlooks a lush, blue-skied alien world called Enoch in a screenshot from Outriders Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix

After keeping it within the Poland-based studio for the last few years, Wojciechowski and his team at People Can Fly showed Outriders to the media for the first time earlier this month. Its visual identity was described as “sci-fi meets savagery,” with a structure that gives players “a lot of freedom,” game director Bartek Kmita told Polygon. From the opening character creator to skill trees, difficulty options, co-op capabilities (you can play alone or with up to two pals), and different classes, Outriders does a lot to make you feel like you’re in control of how you play — even if many of its ideas have been seen before.

For starters, you’ll create a character from scratch to serve as your protagonist for the game. I was a bit disappointed by the character creator in its current form, as the choices were a little shallow: Beyond a simple male-or-female gender alignment, you can choose from a handful of hairstyles, skin colors, some barely-there makeup, and scars or piercings to give your Outrider that battle-worn look.

Personally, I could spend hours creating a custom character, but I wanted more depth from Outriders — for example, there were only five hair colors and few options for darker skin tones. While Kmita couldn’t say how many options the completed game would have, he did reassure me that character customization was still “under development.”

Three armored and armed Outriders stand in front of a grey sky in a screenshot from Outriders Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix

Let’s get the obvious comparisons out of the way: Outriders feels a lot like Destiny meets Anthem with some Gears of War thrown in. It has Destiny’s sci-fi DNA, Anthem’s otherworldly action, and Gears’ third-person perspective and convenient chest-high cover scattered throughout Enoch. It’s also got some ideas of its own, but during my two-hour playthrough, I couldn’t help but make juxtapositions to those other games in my head.

While Outriders feels like a shooter first and foremost, it’s definitely heavy on role-playing elements. There’s a leveling system and a skill tree; there are side quests to chase and dialogue choices to make. After the single-player prologue, you’ll choose one of four classes, which will determine your character’s powers for the rest of the game.

Only three classes were available at this play session, with the fourth still under wraps. There’s the Pyromancer class, which is exactly what it sounds like: They wield fire and use it to burn enemies to a crisp. The Trickster is more of a close-range class, with time-manipulation abilities that allow hit-and-run attacks. Then there’s the Devastator, which is essentially a tank. I went with the Pyromancer because its mid-range attacks most closely aligned with my own play style (but also because playing with fire is cool).

Getting back to Outriders’ story, the post-prologue portion of the game takes place after your Outrider wakes up from 31 years in cryo — quite a long nap after taking 80 years to get to the planet in the first place. If Enoch seemed like a disaster on day one, things have only gotten worse in the years since. The Outriders have become pariahs, blamed for Enoch’s often-fatal conditions and humanity’s sorry fate. Few of the protagonist’s colleagues have survived, and those who did have spent the ensuing decades holed up in a makeshift home base called Rift Town.

But there’s something different about the Outrider upon waking; they find themselves in possession of strange supernatural powers. That’s how the classes tie into the story: Somehow, the anomaly has granted the Outrider with otherworldly abilities. From then on, combat uses a mix of more traditional weaponry and these special powers, though taking cover is also a huge part of battle strategy.

This is also the point where the game opens up to cooperative play, and I found myself teamed up with another player at my event. It took a little time and some communication, but we eventually found a similar wavelength and figured out how to work together. It’s hard to say if Outriders is better alone or with a group, as it largely depends on your personal preference.

Co-op was built into Outriders from the beginning, according to Kmita, who called it a “core pillar.” Its difficulty scales to the number of players, but co-op isn’t the only factor that affects difficulty level. In addition to more traditional player levels, Outriders introduces World Tiers, which progressively make the game more difficult — but only if the player wants to. Outriders starts out easy and gradually works its way up; by the end of the demo I’d unlocked the fourth world tier, which was already getting noticeably hard, but there were many more to go. Players can change the World Tier at any time, switching difficulties on the fly (though in a group, only the leader can pick a tier).

A pyromancer class Outrider shoots a column of flame in a screenshot from Outriders Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix

It’s not that we haven’t seen difficulty levels before, but Outriders makes it part of its DNA, rewarding players as they unlock new options without forcing them into a challenge they’re uncomfortable with. Kmita told us that World Tiers were part of an overall development strategy of encouraging players to try different strategies. Those who want to focus on the story can breeze through on a lower World Tier, while players looking for a real challenge can crank it up as they go.

It’s when Outriders presents the player with new ideas like this that it gets really interesting, and I wish I’d seen more of that in my demo. For example, during a presentation, PCF promised a “twisted and beautiful” aesthetic to its customizable weapons, mixing the organic with the mechanical. On the other hand, the weapons available in the first couple hours are pretty standard varieties of shotguns and assault rifles. I got the feeling that there was something more lurking beneath the surface, but I didn’t have enough time to get there.

The more I think about Outriders, the more I want to find out the rest of the story. We’ve been to outer space before, sure, but Outriders shows that there’s still room to explore out there. What’s behind Enoch’s anomalies? Why does it tear some people down to the molecular level and bless others with superhuman abilities? What’s the mysterious signal broadcasting from the planet? I don’t know, but I want to.

But here’s the important thing: it’s a lot of fun. The action is fluid and satisfying, even if it feels familiar. Kmita told me that the developers looked to the games they were playing to determine what sort of genres and features they liked; they wanted to make a game they’d want to play.

Three characters walk side-by-side past a dying tree in a screenshot from Outriders Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix

“On the one hand, it’s scarier,” Kmita said of working on the studio’s first new IP in a number of years. “We’ll have to figure out … how to create the gameplay from scratch.” But at the same time, “It’s super exciting, to be honest.”

Lead writer Joshua Rubin, who previously worked on franchises like The Walking Dead, Assassin’s Creed, and — yes — Destiny, echoed Kmita’s sentiment. “It’s such a different experience because working in a known IP, it’s like writing historical fiction ... Whereas creating a new IP with a group of people as a group of creatives, it’s more like… building this fantasy castle in the air that you’re all describing different sides of to each other and then you get to go play in it.”

You’re probably hoping to know more about People Can Fly’s experience working with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, but Kmita and Rubin remained tight-lipped when it came to any details about the next-gen consoles. For the most part, the next generation of PlayStation and Xbox remain a mystery, but at least we know one game we’ll be playing when they launch later in 2020. Hopefully with a few new hairstyles.