Friday, March 25, 2011

Review: Outlaws (PC)

Outlaws is a wild west first person shooter released in 1997 by LucasArts. It uses the Darkforces engine, one of the last Doom-like engines, meaning it doesn't allow full 3D scenarios, but supports slopes, limited looking up and down as well as buildings with multiple stories and simplistic polygon objects. Enemies continue however to be represented by simple 2D sprites.

The game starts with an elaborate hand animated seven minute intro that portraits the death of James Anderson's wife and the kidnapping of his daughter, which in turn send him, the player's character, onto a tour of revenge and a search for his daughter. While the intro implies a strong focus on story, the game doesn't really follow up on that promise. Further cutscenes follow, but they are much smaller in scope and limited for most part to the final last words of the last boss enemy you fought. Transition from level to level in turn feel a little rough, as they are only sometimes outlined in the cutscenes and hardly ever explained by any kind of real story. Never the less, the cutscenes are well animated and do a good job of setting up the atmosphere and setting.

The music in the game comes in the form of 15 fully orchestral Audio CD tracks, spanning two CD. Just like the intro, the music is one of the strongest points of the game and does a great job of underlining the western atmosphere.

Mechanically the game follows for most part the traditions of Doom. The player is confronted with plenty of enemies which he has to fight over the course of the level. Like Doom, the levels rarely have a clear linear structure and instead are pretty open and require the search for keys and items which in turn unlock doors and allow further progress. While the game features an actual inventory for items, most of them serve the same purpose as the keys, a crowbar will open a stuck door and a shovel will allow you to dig into the ground in special places and give access to a new area that way. Truly creative use of the inventory items however doesn't really happen and thus most puzzles don't require much thinking, but only finding the right item to open up the next area. This can frequently turn into tedium, as the game only rarely gives a hint of where the next item might found or where you even have to go. In a few instances you can figure things out by looking at the level structure, but that happens far to seldom. The final goal in each level is a boss, which is marked on the auto-map, but that hint doesn't really help much in practice as levels are constructed in multiple floors, thus the actual direction to the boss might be completely different from what the auto-map suggests.

The action in the game on the other side works quite well. The ability to duck allows to take cover behind tables and objects and jumping allows creative level design that requires jumping to rooftops or perform other acrobatic acts. Enemy design is rather limited and only includes a few different kind of cowboys that mainly differ in weapons they posses. The game also features numerous special boss characters, but while they differ in design and health from the regular enemies, they don't really stand out and frequently you might end up killing a boss before even realizing that you where fighting one, as the boss fights do not take place in special areas, but just in normal parts of the level. AI in the game, while overall nothing special, is clever enough to occasionally take cover. The ten weapons in the game are a bit limited, even so knifes, dynamite and three kinds of shoot guns are offered, one spends the most of the time with the pistol and rifle, as they are the most effective, especially on long range. The three different forms of shotguns just feel redundant.

Aside from the nine levels that form the main story campaign, which take around six hours to complete an the easy difficulty, the game also features five historical missions that are supposed to take part before the main story and detail James Anderson work as Marshall. However as those levels don't follow any kind of story, don't provide cutscenes and can be accessed in any order and thus end up feeling a bit disjoint. There also exist an patch for the game, still downloadable from the LucasArts page, that adds another four missions. All that additional single player content combined takes pretty much as long as the games main campaign.

Overall I enjoyed Outlaws, especially given its western setting which isn't touched by first person shooters very often, but it is not without its short comings. Its story is a bit lacking, the atmosphere and music are however both very good and still hold up, the action is also very well done, big innovations are however missing. The non-linear level structure is a very welcome diversion to the more linear level structure of modern games. The hunt for missing items, keys and switches is by far the weakest point of the game, what might look like an opportunity for fun puzzles on the surface turns frequently into pure tedium and disrupts the games otherwise fast flow quite a bit. A walkthrough can help reduce that tedium a good bit, so I would recommend using one when needed.

Technical notes: Outlaws runs without problems in Windows Vista when using the software renderer, which goes up to 800x600. The Direct3D renderer, provided by an official patch, allows basically any 4:3 resolution, but failed to work properly and resulted in graphical glitches that made the game unplayable for me. The blur caused by the filtering also didn't really suit the games comic style, so the software renderer is the prefered choice. Sometimes, when switching back to the desktop, the games color palette will glitch out, simply going to the load/save screen will however fix that. Under Linux in Wine the game functions properly, but only until one enters the menu for the first time, after that the sound will simply stop and I haven't found a way to start it back up, thus I wouldn't consider the game playable in Wine, even so the graphics and controls itself work fine.

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