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Outcast - a genre bending masterpiece
Review - posted by DarkUnderlord on Mon 19 July 2010, 09:13:03
A game that executes shooting and puzzles well, binding them into a fascinating world fuelled with intriguing characters, Outcast is a genre bending masterpiece. Some hit-and-miss design decisions, a contrived (and unnecessary) main plot arc and occasionally stilted dialogue make it stumble just short of unadulterated joy.
We're not in Kansas anymore
The premise of Outcast is pure B-movie. A plotinum driven probe tunnelled into a parallel universe, but a malfunction has turned it into a doomsday device. You are Cutter Slade, an ex-SEAL and black ops dude tasked to protect the elite team of scientists by any means necessary. Almost instantly things go wrong, and you wake up in the alien world, alone, to the natives who treat you like a Messiah.
It's a big world out there...
Your ride: one Chocobo, hold the Wapanese.
This isn't the most promising start (and the other B-movie esque twists aren't much better), but Outcast shines by a) keeping the dialogue saleable and b) making the aliens and the world really rather interesting. The neat touches of realism in the intro movie with Cutter being tired and gathering his faculties and the back-and-forth between him and Kaufmann (K: How did you get selected for this job, anyway? C: I drew the short straw. K: Funny, me too. See you on the other side) are competently done. The designers also opted out of Tabula Rasa protagonism and happily had Cutter remonstrate and interject outside the players control. These are plausible, and characterize Cutter nicely (helped by an able voice actor). Not all smiles, though: Cutter and Marion's sudden flirting in the finale of the game is excreble, and some of the swings at comedy miss the mark.
The world-building deserves hysterical praise. Adelpha is a magical place, and the fantasy elements are interesting in their own right as well as massage abstractions into the game world. There are six regions (with a particular environment, like Marsh, Polar, Desert, etc.) linked by Stargate-esque Daoka. Each has its own ecology (particularly cool were trees dropping explosive helicopter seeds). The aliens are the Talan: brown humanoids with weird heads and hands. The amount of craft that went into them is pleasing: from the appropriated dialogue and idiom, to the gestures, to the underlying elemental spirituality, and to the Talan themselves: although with a caste system (earth = worker, water = merchant, fire =soldier, air = healer) the 'caste determines entire personality' issue is avoided. Although most Talan remain vignettes, their characters are neat cameos: Oru the hunter and Zokrayce the rebel leader are two bigger examples, but smaller bit players like the leader of Cyama and the androgynous riss merchant are another.
There's lots of people to talk to in Adelpha.
The gently heinleined information about the world make it well worth listening.
Look, sound, and feel
The dialogue is broadly good, and is also broadly well acted. The music is utterly sensational: well composed, well motifed, and well performed by the Moscow orchestra and chorus. Three examples although I really could have taken any of the tracks: 1 2 3. Also the incidental sounds (especially the beast calls) make the world of Outcast come alive.
Helping this is the careful scripting of the NPCs. Talanzaar, the bazaar-esque trading hub of Adelpha is a case in point. Dozens of NPCs carry loads, move to and from each other, go on set 'rounds' or patrols, go to their workshops to craft items for you and generally, well, make it look like the bustling bazaar. It simply beggars belief why games almost ten years later still can't do something similarly convincing. Similar sentiments apply to the fauna too.
Talazaar: all the NPCs you see move. All the blue dots in a minimap are NPCs. Bioware, are you taking notes? This is how you do a city.
Much was made of Outcasts novel engine at the time. The game still looks good, especially as any modern system can trick out the anti-aliasing and bump mapping to help ameliorate the low resolution and simple textures. The engine hosts several neat effects, with particular praise for the water, allowing you to see through it only at particularly deep angels of attacks, but otherwise giving wavy reflections of the skybox. Some of the animations (like cutter running) are clumsy, and the engine struggles with certain environments (like forests), but the graphics were at worst acceptable and at best impressive.
I take your bloom and raise you some incredibly pretty water effects.
What do I need to do? How do I do it?
The first few minutes of the game suggest utterly superlative quest design. After waking up and being briefed, you explain that you need to find a probe. The leader cuts you a deal: if you help him forment rebellion an evil tyrant over the Talan (Fae Rhan, helped by Kroax), he'll set his guardians to search the land for the probe. They're non-violent, but there are hundreds of them. I was utterly enthused by this: the game was telling me they'd take the fetch quests and plot coupons out of my hands plausibly, and set me instead a non-directive open-ended task to complete? Fantastic!
Imagine my crushing disappointment, then, when the game, after masterfully excising any need for plot coupons, sticks them back in anyway. You need to collect five Mons, special plot coupons that you need to fix the probe for some unspecified reason. So, in fact, the main plot arc in each of the 'worlds' is to pick up this mon, and the route to get there is wildly convoluted and crazily contrived.
One example: One Mon is on an Island, and the water is filled with uber-piranhas (so you can't just swim). You could take a boat, but the local fisherman won't take you because there's a big monster on the island. But there is a hunter who has a grudge to settle with it. You go to his island, and he tells you he needs a special gun and special ammo to hunt the Monster, and tells you to talk to the healer and merchant back in the city. The Healer tells you he left the special gun inside a sunken temple - you need to go nearby and convince another Talan to help you press the buttons to let you inside. The merchant tells you that five of two types of plant are needed. One type of plant you can pick up all at once at another island. However, to get five of the other plant you need to a) get one of the merchant (either do his sidequest or buy) b) go to another temple to pick some more up c) break a guy out of a prison so he can give you the last one. With all of these the hunter will take you to the island and you kill the monster. Then it's a simple case of getting the monster's odour on you to repel the uber-pirahna's and swimming across to the final island.
What's so bad about this is the utter gratuity. Parallel to the fetching the mcguffin quests are the bits where you try and win the hearts and minds of the Talan: to convince the guys on the terraces to stop giving the soldiers rice, the merchants in Talazaar to stop giving taxes, and so on. Not only do these have tangible in game consequences (stop Fae Rhan's food and the soldiers have less health, stop the miners and the soldier's weapons are weaker, etc.) but are more than sufficient to motivate the plot. It's hardly like excuses couldn't be found to include all the 'find the mon' content into the much better insurrection plotting trope. Further insult to injury is that the plot coupons don't just get you the denouement, they also get you all the development as well: the plot critical events are inter spaced with each Mon collected.
On a more tactical level, you achieve your goals primarily by shooting bad guys and solving environmental puzzles. Both work well: the enemy AI works far better than many modern games at seeking cover and outflanking you, even if the weapon selection is pedestrian and the balance means that so long as you keep moving to avoid the uniformly slow projectile attacks, groups of soldiers fewer than six are no threat at all. The puzzles, although perhaps slightly hard to justify in the story are neat and interesting. Unfortunately, there is a general drone of Fed-ex and running interference, but it's a fairly high note, thanks to what you get to hear and see along the way.
Outcast does takes a medley of things and does them very well. The things that it does badly are not unbearably so, and mostly suggest reflexive conservatism after all the risks being taken. The care and craft that went into these elements, and the underlying setting and logic in which they take place makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. It was a very fun ride with plenty of content (although, alas, not much replay value). I recommend it unreservedly.
We also wouldn't be the self-promoting whores we are, without mentioning that Outcast is available from Good Old Games.