It’s a critic’s job not only to analyze media, but also how it comments on humanity and all sorts of messy, touchy-feely stuff like that. But you can’t do that with Outriders. It’s profoundly absent of deeper ideas to explore. Yet, gosh is it consumable. We’re not just talking about the fact that it’s a third-person looter shooter with MMORPG elements or how it uses almost every storytelling cliche in the book. No, what makes Outriders so astonishingly effective is how little effort you have to put in to get a feeling of accomplishment. It might just be one of the best Skinner boxes in years.
I did not care an ounce about how I was building out my Outrider or whether her guns were the best they could be. Because you don’t have to. I made bad guys explode with firebombs while pew-pewing my cartoonishly large guns. The bar to fun could not be lower.
Polish in game design is often described in terms of graphics or animations, but rarely the user experience. Most games could only dream of being as intuitive as Outriders for players to engage with. Any time a menu might get tricky, there’s a prompt to tap your D-pad so you can zip right to it. There are also icons and color coding for what loot is best and a customizable control scheme. You can even completely redesign your character well after starting the game. The only real friction presented is that you’re locked into a particular character class.
However, this is also why you don’t see countless people going on about Outriders. Plenty played it, but what is there to say? The narrative is mostly assembled of tropes that fit the bill, rather than a force that drives you along. The art direction is highly derivative of Gears of War, to the point where certain enemies and weapons look as if they were lifted straight from it. If Outriders didn’t play amazingly with almost no hindrances, it would’ve been dismissed swiftly as generic.
The fact that the game is so fun while lacking any deeper substance contextualizes the main thing this column is often working against when recommending other games. We’re in a period of gaming where people want to see new ideas, fresh IP, and creative, impactful experiences. Yet a lot of where we put our money and time is going towards stuff like Outriders, extremely consumable AAA fare. I’m not saying everyone out there played Outriders, but if not Outriders, then Call of Duty: Warzone, Fortnite, or Destiny 2. Hell, even I play Paladins every other week or so.
Except with games that pull in those kinds of numbers, they also pull in readership and viewer numbers for media covering them. It’s easier to justify asking a critic to cover a game like Fortnite than something unique but more of an acquired taste, like Cryostasis, Mafia III, Dreamfall, or something truly weird like Mindjack. There are even downright unpleasant games like Kane & Lynch and Spec Ops: The Line that want nothing more than to make you want to stop playing them.
By design, these titles aren’t for everyone. Achieving a message while having mass market appeal is incredibly difficult at the best of times. Even games that manage to balance this out, like Marvel’s Avengers, might not ever get much recognition for it. That’s not the point for most playing these games. For everyone excited for the lore in Destiny 2’s latest expansion, there are millions more who are just happy to make explosions go boom. Finding meaning in such titles is a bonus — a wonderful surprise, not the norm.
That’s why we need to talk about things that aren’t so easily consumed, that aren’t instant bestsellers. So many underappreciated titles just need a matter of framing to reconsider. That crucial middleman of analysis opens the door for players to finally revisit the likes of Lost Planet 3 and Splatterhouse for what they are. Not all art instantly pulls you in at a first glance. That’s why games need a second look.
This is my penultimate piece for The Escapist. We’ve got one more The Stuff of Legends column coming down the track, but after that, I’m on to new opportunities. I’m gonna miss this column that constantly perplexed and sometimes delighted. More importantly, I’m gonna miss all of you in the comments. I’ll still be covering cool, obscure stuff as I’m able on my own, which I hope you’ll check out. Cheers everyone — it’s been a helluva ride.