This game looks at me while I'm naked and calls it's friends.
Yes, that was from Dieter ;)
Outcast has so much promise, really it has. It's sprinkled all over with inventive designs and it seems (note I said "it SEEMS") to provide an original gaming experience. There are a lot of touches of genius in this game, for starters the designers have managed to create a fully believable living, breathing world. Populated with hundreds of characters that feel alive and which add a lot of "feeling" to the game. Besides the cultural aspects (which can become somewhat tedious at times) the game does make you feel like you are in a truly believable alien world, with it's own architecture, fauna, climate, etc. And not just a collection of green locations and corridors. Furthermore, the game takes place almost entire outdoors, which show off some truly magnificent (though blurry) vistas that coupled with the awe-inspiring music (specially orchestrated for the game) give the game a tremendously epic feeling. Sometimes you just feel like stopping for a second to marvel at the sheer beauty of it all, contemplating the sheer beauty of the gameworld, a thing which is made possible thanks to the game's laid back pace. Don't get me wrong, you can get into some heated action sequences every now and then, but you decide when to tackle them, and they are usually very serene affairs compared to most shooters. Some might consider this bad and label the game as sedated, but I think it works perfectly if you consider that this is an adventure first and foremost. The shootouts are there only to break the monotony and release some stress.
Another star of this show is the controls, which are strikingly different from other 3D action adventures and more similar to a fps. You don't get an independent camera control, instead you control the camera and your facing with the mouse (as in a fps) and you move around with the keyboard keys. The magic is that the keys control your character RELATIVE to your camera position, plus the combat and jumping is done solely via the mouse using a clever semi automatic/manual aiming system via a laser sight. So essentially the whole affair becomes much more intuitive and simple, I cannot imagine how much fun games like Tomb Raider or similar titles would be if they adopted this type of controls, even Heretic 2 falls behind it when it comes to ease of handling.
So there you have it, inventive, easy to control and on top of that a solid and interesting storyline (though it unfortunately falls in several pitfalls thanks to an endless stream of bad action-movie cliches) and you've got the best game ever right?? Wrong.
Sometimes a lot of games come out that have a series of innovative stuff that really stand out on their own, but which are placed in a crappy game. Terra Nova: SFC comes to mind, which is a game that did years ago what Tribes is praised for doing now, but which failed to catch attention due to the fact that it was really a bad game despite the clever things it had. The same happens to Outcast. In essence you could say that it's a piece of doggie crap covered with a delicious chocolate topping. It's epic, it's "magnifico" it's larger than life, but when you look into the game itself... it's the most tedious and uninspired affair ever to be placed in a cd-rom.
If you ever wanted a definition for the terms "Fed-Ex" quests, "Pixel Hunts", etc. This game is the textbook example of it. Ulukai must really mean errand boy to the aliens as it's the main occupation you are going to be doing. Forget about saving the worlds, your most important task in this world is to be "helpful" to the citizens and go from place to place taking messages, and looking to speak to the right alien (and yes, they all look alike). This let's through the level of lazyness the designers must have had doing the game, I can picture them right now: "-Hey Pierre, the game is too straightforward! It's too short!! What are we going to do? - I know! Instead of bothering to give the player a challenge or, coming up with some clever puzzle, let's just make him go through an un-ending series of errands and conversations... yeah!!"
So, the quest that was "Go get the mon" turns into "Go and talk to the only guy who knows where the mon is, which of course is hidden/lost/in prison/etc. and so you must go talk with the guy who knows where he is, who won't tell you until you fix his chair, which can't be fixed unless you have the magical wood of Kuluku which can only be found in an unknown area, and which you can't get through unless you get the help from a certain alien who knows of it, who won't help you unless you get him a soda which can only be made with a certain fruit that only one character in the game has and won't give to you unless you bla..bla..bla..." You get the picture, right?
And once you are done with those, you usually have to contend with the "collect the keys" type of puzzles, which involve going and hunting for the "4332543 keys that unlock the secret to the sacred temple of Koloko and placing them in the right order so you can access whatever the hell is hidden there"....
Wow, so much inventive design choices make my head hurt! This wonderful set of "puzzles" slow the game down to a crawl, and you never get the feel that you are saving anything. You are eternally lost in this world of menial tasks and riding from one point of the world to the other. That this "enlarges" the gameplay is true, but it does so thanks to repetitious, redundant, tedious adventuring. Not by providing an extensive gaming experience. Just consider how long would the game really last if you took all the "red tape" from the game's quests...
So there you have it. The game is lame... but it's still beautiful, right???
Nope. The Voxel/polygon hybrid engine makes a good work of making huge outdoor settings with minimal cpu load, managing to fully populate the areas and adding lots of nifty stuff like one of the most impressive water effects I've ever seen, but it's not perfect. Due to the voxel's nature the entire game has a completely blurry effect, and it renders everything that is not "landscape" a pixely mess. I can't understand how this is so since Comanche 3 which also used voxels had a much more clear visual quality (and I'm not talking about tanks a million miles away, I'm talking about close camera images of the choppers, buildings, etc...). Of course, that is when you are outdoors, when you go indoors the shit really hits the fan. In the best of cases the perspective will close so much that you'll see nothing but the back of Cutter's head so you won't notice the jagged textures (boy, I never really understood how much antialiasing is needed for games!) the clipping problems, but most importantly the blur, THE BLUR! And yes, I had my glasses when I played it.
Ok, so it's not so bad... but there's no question about it: the voxel engine is not the best one ever made, and it's no match for fully polygonal engines in terms of visual quality and the additional bonus of future enhancement (since no matter how powerful a machine you may get in the future, Outcast will run with the same graphics, at the same speed, forever...).
The Bottom Line
So? What the hell is the bottom line?? Is Outcast really that good? yes, but in superficial things that can't hold the game on it's own. Is it really that bad? I guess not either (thanks to those "superficial" things too) So the bottom line is that it's a game born a couple of years too early. It has incredibly inventive details, but it is an obsolete experience game-wise and it's the perfect example of why so many people hate adventures nowadays. To that you have to add that the game is filled with art-house pretentiousness, it's got a "majestic" musical score, it's epic, and most of all: it's European.
I feel at odds with this review in a way, since I didn't hate the game so much and enjoyed playing it to an extent. But I won't fall into the "Dieter" routine of praising it just because it's odd and European. Outcast is like the Final Fantasy movie: it's innovative and interesting, but it's also banal and stupid. And no matter how much innovative and interesting it gets, it will still be banal and stupid.
Now it's the time on Sprockets when we dance! - Touch my monkey!! ;)