Original Release: 1997, Platform: PC, Developer/Publisher: LucasArts, Image Source: GOG, Thanks to GOG for providing my review copy.
A few weeks ago, GOG announced that it was releasing yet another round of games from LucasArts’ classic PC library. While there were a few interesting titles I might have picked from of the latest batch of re-releases, the one that immediately grabbed my attention was Outlaws. A cult favorite from the late 1990s, it’s a game that I’d heard a lot of good things about from a number of sources. Chief among these was my own wife who, on several occasions, had regaled me with tales of the hours she’d spent playing it with her grandfather when she was younger. Deciding that was as good a reason as any to saddle up and give it a try, I decided to see if Outlaws lived up to the fond memories that many have of it.
The short answer is yes, though not without some caveats. While Outlaws definitely succeeds in providing an entertaining and even unique experience, it does so in spite of some sincerely rough edges. The in-game visuals, for instance, have not aged well in the slightest. Built on the Star Wars: Dark Force engine from 1995, the game’s environments are blocky, angular and, oftentimes, painfully repetitious to look at. Normally, I’m not much of a graphics hound and I wouldn’t even bother mentioning it. However, in the case of Outlaws, the visuals can be a genuine detriment to the play experience. While the environments and settings actually vary quite a bit chapter-by-chapter, the visuals in each level can often be so same-y that it’s easy to get lost just travelling between rooms. Even with the level map switched on it can be confusing.
There was also something about the enemy character art that rubbed me the wrong the way. They all just kind of struck me as being a bit too flat looking. Mind you, this is an issue that a lot of “3D” shooters from the 90s dealt with. Where something like Duke Nukem 3D did a good job of using 2D character art to create the illusion of 3D, the bandits you gun down in Outlaws never stop looking flat. Whether they’re facing you, running away or turning from side to side, they always look like a 2D image stamped on top of a 3D environment.
The gameplay itself, has its own little foibles to contend with. To be sure, it’s solid overall and has a lot to enjoy if you grew up on or have a taste for 90s-era first person shooters. You’ll run, you’ll gun, and you’ll have fun doing it. I have no complaints about its execution of the genre’s fundamentals. Where Outlaws stumbles is with its puzzles which, in my experience, bounced back and forth between being tedious and obtuse. Now, to be fair to Outlaws, I am horrendously bad at puzzles. Part of the reason you don’t see me review many adventure titles is because I simply don’t have the patience for their pointless complexity. Outlaws never gets to that point, but it definitely has moments where your progress will be stalled by some puzzle that does nothing more than slow you down and kill the fun.
Many of them aren’t even that difficult; they just take a long time. The big puzzle in the Sawmill level, for example, requires you to manipulate a series of gates and redirect a current of water that, in turn, will lead you to five gears that you need to retrieve to open a door leading deeper into the level. There’s no real challenge to it; it’s a just a whole lot of trial and error.
There were also several points where I, for the life of me, couldn’t find essential keys. Again, some of this probably stemmed from me personally not being observant enough. There were a few occasions though, where the location of a key wound up being so obtuse that the only way I would have found it without referencing a walkthrough would be to scour every single unlikely nook and cranny in the map. Seriously, why would I ever check on top of the cupboard in the kitchen of the hotel? Why place it so that it’s completely out of sight unless I’m standing on top of the counter right next to it? Why make it so that I can’t trigger the boss fight until I kill the enemies locked away by this key? HOW IS THAT FAIR?
Where the game arguably makes up for these flaws is with its devotion to style. While it relies on a familiar set of FPS mechanics, it colors in its experience with a fairly brilliant homage to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. You play as a retired Old West lawman, James Anderson. In the midst of a land dispute with a local railroad baron, he leaves home one day to pick up a few things at the nearby general store. Returning home, he finds his ranch in flames, his wife dying, and his daughter kidnapped by the baron’s thugs. Intent on saving her he digs up his long abandoned weapons and rides off to exact bloody vengeance on the men who have set his world on fire.
The story is simple, but executed almost perfectly. Anderson is your classic quiet protagonist; an Eastwood-esque bad-ass that’s short on words but also doggedly driven and deadly with a six-shooter. His foes are, likewise, an enjoyable cavalcade that couldn’t be slimier if they tried. They’re the sort of guys that are fun to hate and that never leave you questioning if they deserve their demise or not. The story plays out through a series of animated cut-scenes which, unlike the in-game visuals, are actually attractive to look at even today.
Far more impressive than the cut-scenes, however, is the game’s audio which, in a word, is sublime. The music, benefiting from the use of a live orchestra, is absolutely luscious and does an incredible job of replicating the iconic music of the western genre’s most famous films. There were moments when I could close my eyes and the music alone would have me flashing back to my favorite scenes in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The voice acting also helps to set the tone, with a variety of actors delivering hammed up performances that nonetheless feel appropriate and fun. One thing that constantly amused me, were the taunts that your foes would call out throughout the course of each level. There are only about three or four unique lines, but they’re read with such conviction and commitment that I couldn’t help but smile every time some distant bandit would remind me that I was “outnumbered” or comment on how terrible a shot I was.
What it all adds up to is an experience that feels like an incredibly authentic take on a western-themed first person shooter. It isn’t just Doom with cowboys; you can tell that the developers put some real hard work into making the player feel like they’re the hero in a Sergio Leone flick. Add in the fact that, despite its flaws, it’s also a good, fun shooter and you have yourself an experience that’s a must play for anyone who’s ever bemoaned the odd lack of western-themed titles in the game industry. If that’s you, you can pick it up at GOG for $5.99.
Next week I want to spend a little time talking more about Western-themed video games and why there are so few of them. Afte that, I’l be shifting gears and reviewing Freespace! In the mean time, feel free to PM me comments and suggestions for future reviews.