Hands-on: Outriders is a potential co-op sleeper hit

While we have previewed Outriders previously, I came into the latest, and my first, hands-on play session with no expectations. It looked familiar enough with echoes of Destiny, Gears of War, and Horizon: Zero Dawn running through it but until I got under the hood for a demo I wasn’t sure of what to make of this.

I walked away pleasantly surprised. The game has the grindy-ness of Destiny, the sci-fi storytelling of Zero Dawn, and the action of a Gears game. It manages to transcend an overpacked field of sci-fi action shooters to deliver a very solid experience.

For our playthrough, I was teamed up with two other players and unleashed for three hours into the game somewhere around the 15-hour mark of the story. I had some points to spend and built out my skill tree to give my chosen class, the Trickster, a bit more of an edge in combat.

There are a decent amount of branches to the skill tree that typically offer buffs to your abilities rather than specific traits. “20 percent boost to X” is the order of the day but once you get into Outriders’ combat you begin to see why.

A focused RPG shooter

The RPG elements are fairly standard with tons of guns, armor, and skills to choose from depending on the situation. While you can get really into the weeds if you want and compare which gun does what amount of damage and what combination of weapons really give you the edge, you can also just, you know, play the game and not worry about it too much. The real meat of the game is in your abilities.

Your character is an “altered” meaning they’ve got special abilities that make them nigh unstoppable in combat. You see, humanity has been forced to abandon Earth in search of a new home among the stars. The planet Enoch seemed like a good choice until the new arrivals discovered deadly wildlife, unforgiving terrain, and a swirling force of nature known only as “the anomaly.”

This anomaly, I presume, is what gives the select few among the human arrivals superhuman abilities. There are four classes to choose from, each with unique abilities: the pyromancer, the technomancer, the devastator, and the trickster.

Pyromancer, as the name implies, uses fire. Technomancer has all manner of cool gadgets to slay foes and support teammates with. The devastator is the heavy of the group and the trickster is the rogue-like class that’s all about mobility.

You pick your skills and set them to the left and right bumpers if you’re playing with a gamepad. Hit both and you turn on your super ability. I started out with an energy blade I could summon and strike foes with at close range, a teleport that let me close the distance to an enemy while also putting me behind them, and for my super, I could summon a bubble around me that slows down time inside of it.

That last one I kept for my entire playthrough, so useful it was for Outriders’ combat. The game throws foes at you wave after wave with plenty of little ads to satisfyingly crunch. Alongside them are big bullet sponges you and your team have to coordinate in order to take down.

The squad

My squad consisted of two technomancers and with my time-slowing abilities as a Trickster we were able to funnel enemies into a bubble or bottleneck and our guns and powers did the rest. The result isn’t a reinvention of the wheel but more like a weathered and well-used car. Nothing here is going to be unfamiliar but how it blends together will impress you when the rubber meets the road.

I won’t go into too much story detail but will say the cutscenes and characters all feel well developed and voiced. There’s a cantankerous guide who manages the massive truck you haul around the world in; exchanges with him are fun and informative. A scientist character provides you with enough context to feel grounded and the quest-giving characters all have well-established motives.

A nice touch that struck me was one side mission where an old man asked us to meet some smugglers for him. He’d been giving letters to them to take to his daughter across a war-torn stretch of the planet. Humanity seems to have figured out space travel before how to be peaceful and so of course a bloody conflict between two factions has been raging.

We eventually tracked down the smugglers but turns out there’s a bit of a twist to this side-quest. I won’t give it away but it’s clever and worth applauding for the extra level of effort that went into making things feel more than just a fetch-quest you grind for XP.

The main story quest we set out on at the beginning of our demo was to hunt down a particularly powerful altered. The only problem is he disappeared into an extremely dangerous region and we’d have to parlay with a local warlord to gain passage.

This built up to the climax of the demo, a charge across a no man's land and through a horde of enemy soldiers. I will say some of the heavies can be a bit much to take down and ammo being spread out between what are basically checkpoints makes for some touch-and-go moments. But having a pistol with infinite ammo certainly helps.

This will also prompt you to find new ways to combine your powers with that of your team to burn through enemies faster and faster. In a lot of situations, players can do their own thing and then tighten up when things get tough. There’s a great rhythm that sets in that lets players push their limits but then come back together to support each other when the battle starts to get serious.

This is what’s waiting for you behind what at first glance seems like your standard take on the sci-fi action game. You could call bread generic but that doesn’t mean the sandwich is going out of style any time soon. And I must say this is a pretty well made (and tasty) sandwich.

Visuals are on point, the gameplay is on point, RPG elements are on point, there’s really a lot going well for Outriders. It’ll take playing the full game to really decide where it lands but for now, I feel confident in saying this will be a solid experience and one especially to be enjoyed with friends.

Outriders is coming to PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PC, and Google Stadia this December.