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URL: http://www.loonygames.com/content/2.1/shelf/


Vol. 2, Issue 1
November 10, 1999
The Top Shelf:


by Noel "HB" Wade

What comes to mind when you think of the term “Adventure Game”? For most of us, these words are immediately associated with various Sierra and LucasArts games. These games, while having fun and a good story line, can be reduced to location-based puzzles involving various props strewn about a defined area. However, Outcast re-defines the “adventure” part of that tried-and-true phrase; and old adventure games really do seem less grand after playing Appeal / Infogrames' offering.

The opening story is cliché enough to bore most experienced gamers: Scientists have been fiddling with the fabric of reality in an attempt to reach an alternate universe. The experiment goes awry, and triggers a black hole that is destroying the Earth. You take the role of Cutter Slade, a troubled ex-Navy SEAL (whose career was cut short by a mishap that you learn about both in the manual, and during the game). Cutter is sent to the alternate universe along with three scientists, to safeguard them while they try to repair the damaged military probe that is the cause of the whole mess.

Luckily, the clichés pretty much end there with the back-story; which gets itself out of the way enough for the game to come through. The game starts with you arriving in Adelpha (the alternate world) barely conscious, and with a horrible headache. What’s worse, you don’t know where anyone is – nor do you know where the probe lies. This sets the stage for a breathtaking, exciting, and sometimes hilarious romp around wilderness areas, across seas, and through crowded city streets.

As I mentioned before, this game really is different from your “standard” adventure game. To put it as simply as possible, Outcast is a huge game of fairly free-form exploration and interaction. This may sound boring; but the immersion, story-line, dialogue, and a million other details make this every bit as engrossing as the best games I can think of.

The game bills itself as being open and non-linear, and they did a fabulous job of this. Obstacles and quests can truly be solved in different ways; and are often given an equal chance of succeeding. There are other things, too – like events happening without a particular order – that really lend an “open” and “non-scripted” feel to the game. Even conversations with characters are malleable; and while snippets of them are scripted, your options on what to talk about and how they respond is all dynamic. And cut scenes, dialogue, and special events are all handled directly in the game engine (much better than with previous games that have tried to do this). In the end, you feel much more immersed in the game because you get to do what you want to do, at any given moment. No one thing forces you to go in any particular direction or do any one thing (though there are times when you are given really strong reasons for a course of action). Care to run off and hunt wild animals for a little while? Feel like ignoring your larger tasks and helping out individual natives’ needs? It's all possible, provided you haven’t been playing so long that you pass out at the keyboard!
The other great thing is that the game continuously throws challenges at you. Just as you pass one major hurdle, another one will get set to present itself. However, these aren’t bulldozed down on top of you with no break; and I’m quite impressed with the pacing of the game, overall. With all there is to do, it's nice that the game doesn’t time you. Just because you didn’t take care of something immediately, doesn’t mean that you have to load an earlier game and try again. Don’t get me wrong, you can fail tasks or die (most of the time by doing something dumb like trying to pet dangerous animals; or in battle against soldiers) – but because its almost always a result of something you chose to do, it doesn’t get you frustrated with the game developers so much as yourself.

The quests themselves vary from a simple message-bearing request, to killing a monster, to searching an entire landscape for an artifact, to going around and trying to get a whole group of merchants to lower their prices – and the proverbial “much much more!” The major quests in the game seem to follow a common theme, but each one requires different sub-quests and activities; so they never really get boring - though I will say that the entire explorable area of Adelpha is vast; sometimes taking several minutes to traverse. Throughout these quests (which, basically, comprise the game), you’ll constantly be dealing with the natives of Adelpha. The voice acting for these characters is superb; and the sheer number of people you run into breathes a lot of life into the game. I’d venture to say that a full 60 to 70 percent of the populace is unique and has different knowledge, needs, requests, and so forth. They also do a good job of sprinkling humor throughout the game; which not only provides a break from the seriousness of some of your tasks, but makes your character seem more “real” – and less of a goody-two-shoes, or digital puppet.

It's amazing that only a handful of people were used for the voice-talent of these natives – the digital processing and voice skills carry a vast array of inflections, mannerisms, and tones that uniquely identify them. Good variances in clothing and animation also help avoid the “cookie-cutter” effect seen in most games. There’s some repetition; but its not so high as to interrupt the enjoyment of the game. This brings us to the graphical elements of the game. I personally think that a great job was done with the graphics in Outcast – nice particle effects, detailed textures, and vibrant colors.

The one drawback (which everyone comments on) is the use of voxels to render the terrain. While it makes for very detailed landscapes, it forces the use of software rendering - severely limiting screen-resolution (performance is almost totally CPU-dependant, instead of video-card dependant). As a result, graphics are fairly chunky and not very crisp in most modes (things seem to kick into super-high detail during close-ups while conversing; which is nice). While being “ugly” at first glance, I can remember that only a couple of years ago, 400x300 mode was quite acceptable for Quake and the like. And if you give the game a chance (i.e. play it for more than 10 minutes), you will find that you quickly become accustomed to it; and the graphics take a back seat to the game-play and the story. As I mentioned before, however, there is evidence that the graphics really were done well – as details and effects can be quite pretty, especially in “close-up” mode. They also have included a bunch of anti-aliasing and other rendering tools designed to “nicen up” the graphics, even at their low-res., without causing major performance hits - and they do help.
Jumping from the “weakest” feature of the game to the “strongest” (in my personal opinion), the music and sounds for the game are the best I have ever heard in a game, bar none. The Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Choir did an amazing job of performing the musical pieces that were composed for the game. You can take Disc 2 of the game and pop it into a normal CD Player, listen to the music (which I’m doing while I write this), close your eyes (which I’m not doing as I write this), and literally imagine yourself back in Adelpha. The music is also dynamic, switching between mysterious or awe-inspiring tunes and blood-pumping battle rhythms as the situation demands. Add in ambient sounds and superb special effects (though weapons can be a bit loud at times), and you couldn’t ask any more from a game as far as aural experiences go.

Control is a separate issue. Like all third person games, camera movement can occasionally be a pain; but on the whole I believe that they pretty much stay close to industry-standard quality. The interface is a bit of an adjustment, since your primary and secondary actions are context-sensitive (meaning that a button that dives you into a lake one minute, may be the same one you press to ride on a creature the next minute); but it is simple enough to learn and get used to quickly. Keys are fully customizable as well, and the auto-aim in the third person mode is adequate for most people who aren’t sharpshooters (or don’t want to bother becoming one). You can enter a first person mode (which enables a “free-aim” firing mode); but it’s a bit jerky, and the field of view seems “wrong” if you have Cinemascope turned on (which effectively “letterboxes” the game). The view is graphically correct – but this option makes the screen so wide that your brain has trouble reconciling it, especially if you’re used to playing first-person-shooters. All in all, the controls take a little getting used to, but are good enough to keep you enjoying the game quite happily.

As with all games today, there are also a few minor bugs here and there (clipping and bounding-box related for the most part). However, considering the poor state that many of the industry’s recent “hit” games have had upon release – this game is remarkably bug free. The few that exist are minor annoyances, and do not interfere with the game-play.

Taken in total, Outcast is one game that you should definitely try out. No game is for everyone – but the developers did a darn good job of trying to put a little something for everyone in the game. It can excite you, whisk your imagination away to far-off places, and even make you a bit introspective at times. Give Outcast enough of a chance to get past your initial reaction to the graphics; and you will be rewarded with a rich, dynamic, musical, grand epic that immerses you for hours – no, days on-end.

- Noel "HB" Wade is a regular contributor to loonygames. Basically, he
just wants attention.


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