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SummaryZort, Ulukai! Get on your twon-ha and bring some magwa to the shamaz!
The GoodThe turn of the millennium was the time of daring experiments in the realm of 3D games. It would take too much space to list all the breakthroughs of the epoch marked by full mastery of the new technology and its adaptation to timeless gameplay concepts. Three games spring to mind as pioneers of immersive, hand-crafted three-dimensional world design: Nomad Soul, Ultima IX, and Outcast.
Developed by a little-known Belgian studio, Outcast is a stunning achievement. Created with its own peculiar technology, the game presents vast free-roaming environments of such intense beauty that simply controlling your character through them becomes an unparalleled aesthetic pleasure. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Outcast is one of the most gorgeous, artistically appealing games ever made. It is mind-boggling how such marvel could be produced using voxels and a fixed low resolution.
I can keep heaping praises on this world, but my vocabulary is too poor to adequately convey the beauty of hypnotic twin moons, breathtaking sunrises, and sensual, lush nature in words. The important thing, however, is the way how this world becomes open to your interaction. Imagine Tomb Raider taking place in generous outdoor areas and populated locations. Even though there are only a few instances actually requiring you to use your physical abilities, you can physically interact with the environment at any time, anywhere. Climb on house walls, jump on roofs, crawl around, swim in the beautifully rendered water, dive for crystals and avoid angry fish. There are few boundaries, and only enemies and some plot-related constraints can put an end to your joyful exploration.
The main idea of the game was obviously to create a living, breathing alien world. Indeed, Adelpha is one of the most incredibly attractive locations ever seen in a game. Each of its five regions has a distinct personality: a journey from the deceptively peaceful Okaar with its deep forests and shiny blue rivers to the stern brown rocks and angry boiling lava of Motazaar is refreshing no matter how many times you take it. Each region has a large settlement populated by Talans - aliens who look a lot like Alf from the popular TV series. The environments in those inhabited areas are so detailed and busy that simply observing their everyday life becomes a goal in itself. People would engage in a variety of activities, work, lie down, and react to whatever you do.
There is so much attention to detail in the game that it becomes clear how much love was put into it. The conversations, while too verbose and not always well-written, reveal a wealth of information about Adelpha's rich lore. The local fauna is fascinating and includes a creature you can ride to travel through the world quicker. The sound effects are impeccably done, and every single line of dialogue is voiced (though not always well). However, what really steals the show is the music. I rarely talk about music in my reviews because, being a musician myself, I appear to have different standards for judging a soundtrack than most other players. But the music of Outcast honestly belongs to the best of the best: magically sensuous and luxuriant, expertly composed and performed by a professional orchestra, it could easily serve as background for the most expensive Hollywood blockbuster. I can't stress enough how much this music contributes to the incomparable atmosphere of the game.
Outcast is more than just a game of leisurely exploration: it also has one of the best combat systems around. It can be played both as a third- and first-person shooter, with various degrees of zooming complementing the already silky smooth, elegant controls. Laser rays are used for aiming, making third-person shooting much more dependent on your precision skills than on awkward manipulations or luck. The enemies display advanced AI routines, teaming up, alerting others, acting with coordination and mercilessly ganging up on you. The fights in Outcast can get quite challenging, and are always exciting thanks to the open battle arenas where you can use a wide variety of tactics to overcome the advantages of the enemy. Six weapon types, explosives, and nifty devices such as teleporters that allow strategic retreats when places cleverly add to the mix.
When not brought to a grinding halt by artificial sub-quests, the plot of Outcast is actually quite good. I don't think it's wise to expect book- or even movie-quality storytelling from a medium that should focus on interactivity and immersion above all and usually needs a narrative only as a bonus. Outcast happily employs all the cliches of American "tough hero" movies to the point of nearly starring Bruce Willis, and there is nothing wrong with that. It's a cheesy story featuring a square-jawed, feebly wisecracking hero who single-handedly solves the problems of two parallel universes - and that perfectly fits the game's extravagant premise and ambitiously cinematic presentation. Hopefully you are patient enough to play the game through to the end: there are some nice plot twists that lend more credibility and logical coherence to the story in a rather unexpected, yet fairly clever way.
The BadThere is one thing in Outcast that constantly undermines the game, preventing it from reaching the state of near-perfection it so ambitiously tries to achieve: bad quest design.
Outcast starts so strong: a fantastic intro that presents a bunch of interesting and promising characters; something happens, and you find yourself in a strange alien realm. You step out of Zokrym's house, and one of the most wonderful views ever to be seen in a game spreads in front of you. Soon you discover (following Jan's tests) that you will swim, shoot, jump, and sneak in this game. You rub your hands, saying: "What a game, what a game! I can't believe it's happening..." And with moist eyes, you enter the portal and prepare to engage yourself for the first Mon quest...
And here it begins. To find the Mon, you have to speak to a certain guy. But this guy won't talk to you unless you bring him something. This something can be obtained from a certain someone, who will talk to you only if you bring him something that you can obtain from someone who will talk to you only if you bring him something that you can obtain from, etc. The brave Cutter Slade (horrible name, by the way) is lost forever in a universe of insultingly inept creatures. The promised savior of Adelpha will be too busy retrieving various household items for priests and village chiefs, running from one Talan to another with his tongue outside. The cool special agent won't find a better occupation other than grilling every boring NPC for obscure information, which they won't share with him immediately, but only after he finds for them their favorite salami sandwich they have lost many years ago.
Outcast thus becomes a curious phenomenon: it becomes noticeably less entertaining when you are trying to advance its plot. The constant stream of pointless tasks and long-winded, repetitive conversations emphasizing the Talan's incompetence in an irritatingly condescending way sap the life out of the game. It is therefore best enjoyed in an aimless state, as a virtual adventure in a beautiful world; it is at its worst when it tries to impose on you a dull stretch of linearly arranged errands you'll have to endure in order to see everything the game has to offer.