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An Outriders character points a gun at something off-screen Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix via Polygon

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Outriders’ gun playground tells a grim story about colonizing space

People Can Fly’s loot shooter has a sad sci-fi backdrop

In Outriders, Earth is doomed. So we leave.

It’s an enticing fantasy right now. As humanity continues to flail for solutions to climate change (not to mention all the other problems we’ve caused), the people on Earth best suited to save it want to leave.

But Outriders doesn’t think that us leaving Earth would go so well. In it, you play as an Outrider, one of the early settlers of Enoch, the planet that humanity has pinned its hopes on after abandoning a ravaged and war-torn Earth. As one of the first people out of an 83-year cryogenic sleep aboard the S.M. Flores, you begin to scout the planet, but not before you chat with Jakub, a longtime friend of yours who’s pessimistic about the Outriders’ odds of turning this “perfect” and “beautiful” new planet into a utopia. “Maybe we can finally stop sleeping with our guns under our pillows and stop worrying about food every goddamn day ... but people don’t change,” he says.

The Outriders player character crouches behind cover Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix via Polygon

It’s an oddly depressing and elaborate prologue for a third-person squad-based shooter in which you mostly end up shooting droves of bad guys and poring over the guns and armor you find on their corpses. After your conversation with Jakub, a powerful storm caused by something called The Anomaly destroys most of the early settlements. In the chaos, you’re thrown into a cryogenic pod and wake up 30 years later to an Enoch where storms continue to destroy the planet and the people who managed to stick around have formed warring factions, repeating the same cycles of violence they’d left behind and hoped to prevent. You do get magic powers out of the whole deal, so at least there’s that.

The plot of games like this tends to be background noise, but Outriders spends a lot of time setting up its story and characters. Despite that, you can often tune it all out, because the combat loop of Outriders is a pretty good distraction from its bummer of a setting. Running, dodging, taking cover, and shooting all strike a balance between allowing nimble movements and making them all feel substantive. The pop of a well-placed headshot, the sliding into cover, the raw power of unloading a 100-round magazine into a boss, managing swarms of monsters by sweeping the area with bullets to stagger them all — shooting bad guys here is just simple enough to let you get into a flow, but involved enough to avoid being tedious.

But then, after you clear several rooms of bad guys, who include human “Insurgents” — the term that the Enoch Colonization Authority, the organization in charge of settling Enoch, uses for defectors — and alien monsters, Outriders hits you with another reminder of just how bleak everything is. After getting those new magic powers, you’ll get tasked with tracking down a signal that could reestablish contact with the Flores, still in orbit and packing the supplies that might salvage humanity’s botched attempt to settle Enoch. As you meet back up with Jakub and the rest of the crew from the prologue (now 30 years older), you travel through some of the human settlements that have sprung up while you were gone. They’re not pretty: Any outposts that aren’t barely scraping by in ramshackle housing and tents are under the thumb of some despot or another. You end up tackling whatever quest they need you to do, even if that means transporting a slave from one town to another, since these towns block the path of least resistance to the signal. Your character tends to play the role of pragmatist, immediately looking for the most salient solution to keep things moving. You want to save the planet, but you’re also just here for the guns.

Three Outriders characters gather by some crates. One of them uses a flamethrower in the background Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix via Polygon

This at least gives you the chance to try out those new magic powers. With these abilities, Outriders builds on its solid foundation as a shooter to further distract you (in the moments when it doesn’t want to linger on the consequences of your actions). As you take on enemies, your health only regenerates so much on its own. To survive these fights, you have to be aggressive, whether that means lighting enemies on fire or picking them off at close range. Depending on which class you play, you can successfully take potshots with sniper rifles from afar or avoid cover altogether. There’s a good variety within each class, too, since each one has more abilities than they can equip, and the game’s skill tree forces you to specialize, since you can’t fill it all out by the time you hit the level cap. Most of the class skills have a nice oomph to them; igniting my bullets for extra damage as a Pyromancer adds a satisfying cracking sound to firing them, which makes them feel more powerful.

Where Outriders really starts setting itself apart as a loot-shooter, however, is in how quickly it’s willing to jump into the deep end of its loot pool. Rarer pieces of gear come with one or two perks. Some of them will simply bump up the damage you do, but many others significantly alter your abilities, and they’re worth building around. A sniper rifle can create bolts of lightning with every headshot, while an assault rifle can freeze every enemy you hit with the last magazine when you reload. Even Destiny saves these kinds of perks for its rarest weapons, so it felt like Outriders was just giving them away. It’s easy to lose yourself in character optimization; I spent tons of time obsessing over all the cool builds I could put together with the right gear and abilities.

The player character in Outriders inspects a piece of loot before picking it up Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix via Polygon

Outriders starts out rough, both because it takes time to learn to play your class and hone your build, and because the opening is when the game is at its most laboriously cinematic. While other loot-based games like Borderlands or Diablo might make their stories a footnote, Outriders insists on filling you in on the details of its world. Cutscenes, while entirely skippable, have a surprisingly high production value; they’ll emulate camera shakes and tracking shots, then feature longer, better-acted, and more thoroughly voiced dialogue scenes than the game’s contemporaries. The individual beats are either hackneyed or easy to see coming; I got into a pretty good rhythm of predicting the one-liner that a character would say next, and there’s a bit about hiding inside a fridge when a nuke is about to go off. Even so, my quest to get that signal lingered in the back of my head more than, say, killing Diablo in Diablo 3 did. As I played, it got harder to tune it out.

It’s hard not to retain some of Outriders’ pessimistic view of interplanetary colonization. As you play, you’ll find diaries and lore entries (often “hidden” right next to the characters they’re about) with stories about how, after the storm, many of the cryogenic pods left on the Flores were set to fail, so the ECA opened the remaining 400,000 of them. But the organization could only house the occupants in a settlement meant for one-tenth that many people, so it caused riots that it then had to quell by destroying those settlements. Then there’s the story about how a captain of a smaller settlement decided to feed their child extra rations, denying food to others as a result. Outriders revels in this kind of misery, painting Enoch as a world in which every human you encounter should be met with suspicion until they give you a gun or clear your way forward.

One of the journal entries in Outriders Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix via Polygon

As I got toward the end of the campaign, Outriders’ guns got cooler, but I also became more frustrated by its technical shortcomings. Several glitches and crashes forced me to restart encounters and boss fights. Plus, it’s an online game that kicks you out when the servers go down. Even after setting my game privacy to “open” (which lets anyone join you at any time), I only once had a random player hop in to help me. When the random matchmaking regularly proved unfruitful, I had to resort to hitting up a Discord server filled with people looking to play. And the lack of a promised cross-play feature (as of this writing, anyway) meant that I couldn’t play with the friends I’d planned to.

That’s a huge letdown, because the encounters feel tuned for co-op rather than solo play. Playing alone, I could feel the absence of other players; although enemies are tougher when playing with friends, having another person to divert a boss’ attention feels more natural than having you and a boss circle a pillar as you whittle down its health, or slowly working your way through the unrelenting hail of bullets that some of the later encounters subject you to. You also get to revive your friends in multiplayer (you even get one self-revive), which makes some of the tougher fights a little easier.

I tackled the last few missions alone, which became all the more grueling thanks to how Outriders wants you to push yourself. Below your experience bar on the screen is a “world tier” bar that fills up as you play. The higher the world tier, the better the loot — but also, the tougher the enemies. This will gradually make the game harder (at times, punishingly so) unless you opt out of it. But pushing that world tier as high as you can handle is how you get the best gear. While it’s easy to scale back the challenge if you get clobbered by a particular boss, lowering the difficulty by one or two tiers (out of 15) means opting out of getting any relevant loot. Not a great solution in a game where loot is king.

Outriders’ protagonist comes across a waterfall Image: People Can Fly/Square Enix via Polygon

The last act is also when Outriders is arguably at it most dour. Without spoiling too much, the final moments of the game are chock full of echoes of the monstrous first-contact narratives of the Americas, in which European settlers enslaved and tortured Indigenous peoples. It’s an extended metaphor complete with indigenously coded stereotypes. It paints Enoch’s colonizers as similarly awful, but it does so in the clumsiest way possible. After putting you through that depressing wringer, Outriders does end on a slightly more hopeful note: The endgame loop after the campaign has you running short, increasingly difficult missions on a timer to get better gear, but also, to get supplies for everyone on the settlements you trek across on your journey. These limited “expeditions” won’t save all of humanity, but they’ll probably feed a few mouths for a while.

That’s the note Outriders goes out on. You do those expeditions to slowly get humanity back on track until you get tired of all the loot. It’s anticlimactic, sure, but it gets its lesson across: We don’t get a clean slate, and leaving Earth wouldn’t give us one. At some point, we’re going to have to get to work fixing the problems in front of us instead of forgetting them. And if we can work up the muster to solve them, we might just get a cool gun out of it.

Outriders was released April 1 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.