I recently reviewed Fahrenheit for Quandary and referred to a classic action/adventure game called Outcast. It was only then that I realised that Quandary had never reviewed the game, so I decided to fire it up and fill that hole. It would also give me a reason to revisit a game that was now 6 years old, and see how it stood up to its classic tag all these years later.
I am pleased to say that while it has its little weaknesses, and that any game 6 years old is going to be a little graphically challenged, its strengths are such that if you lean towards some action in your adventuring, and you haven't played it, then you probably should.
First off it plays perfectly in XP without any tweaking or even the need for compatibility mode, provided you don't have hyperthreading. I didn't, which I was able to check thanks to Steve's XP Corner. If you do, Steve's corner can tell you how to get around it.
Outcast puts you in charge of Cutter Slade, a laconic and droll Navy Seal escorting a scientific team into a parallel universe to undo a military experiment gone wrong. A black hole has been opened which is sucking up the Earth, and it's up to Cutter to save the day. All of this is revealed in an opening cut scene and, needless to say, things aren't smooth sailing after that. Cutter's scientific team is scattered to the winds on the planet Adelpha, as is most of his equipment, and he has been anointed as the Ulukai by the local Talan race. In return for saving them from the despotic Fae Rhan and his henchman Kroax, they will help him.
Everything about Outcast is big. Big worlds, big objectives, big creations, big gameplay. The Gorgor is pretty big too (you will have to wait to meet him).
One of the fascinating things is the amount of effort put into creating the Talan culture. They are a talkative lot, and much of what they say will provide helpful information, be it the location of another Talan you are looking for, details on where and how sacred items can be found, or requesting help on a problem of their own. But they will also tell you all about their religion, their folklore, their rituals, about hunting and farming, animal husbandry and even their mating regime. Numerous details about their society will be revealed.
They even have a language of their own, a lexicon screen keeping track of the words you learn.
Before setting out you get a little bit of training which will help you settle into the controls, and the finer points of jumping, swimming, shooting and sneaking. You will also receive some items which have been found by the Talan.
You can decide not to talk to the Talan, and just about every single one of them will chat with you, but for a whole variety of reasons you should be as garrulous as they are. You will miss some wonderful banter if you don't, the personalities of the Talan and of Cutter contributing to the exchanges. You will also fail to receive necessary information, and you will avoid much the depth within the game. So chat hard.
You can also ignore the myriad of requests for help or errands that they ask for, but again you will be well served if you don't. Some are side events, some more related to the bigger and central tasks at hand, but you may not always know which is which. More than that, if you help then the Talan will like you. Which is a good thing, because your reputation will determine exactly how helpful they are regarding your endeavours. If they like you enough, and you undertake the right tasks, you can even convince them to stop riis production, mining, and several other key production tasks which support Kroak's soldiers. This will in turn have a direct effect upon the soldiers. A lack of food makes them weaker, and no raw minerals makes their weapons degrade. All of which lead to easier foes when it comes to doing battle.
Helpfully, a notepad keeps track of all the quests and ticks them off as you go. Some tasks are straightforward, others have many components and a few need to be deciphered. Everything from finding the correct Talan to deliver a message to, restoring the economic equilibrium in the bazaar to get prices down, to figuring out the correct tune to play or how to move the big (theres that word again) rock.
You will have to battle in Outcast, and it is an ongoing aspect of the game, but it does not outweigh the adventuring. Plus every vanquished soldier is one less you have to deal with. Only rarely do new soldiers appear in areas which you have cleared, which makes stopping to chat far less hazardous.
In keeping with many such games, there is a major battle as the finale. Hopefully by that time you should have honed your fighting skills sufficiently to succeed.
You will have a small number of weapons at your disposal, with upgrades available, but how and where you acquire these is part of the gameplay. You will also be able to find gadgets to assist your efforts (eg hologram projector, invisibility device, explosives), some of which can be used to help avoid a confrontation. Sneaking around and steering clear of a fight is often a good strategy, particularly early in the game. A little map you toggle which is superimposed over the lower right corner of the game screen will help in this regard. It shows all the activity, friendly and otherwise, in the immediate vicinity. A voice over message will also alert you to an "energy source" close by, which usually means soldiers with weapons.
The AI which controls the enemy is not too bad. The soldiers will at times stand in one spot and let you take pot shots, and the AI seems less intelligent if you engage the soldiers from a distance, but they will get out of the road of a barrage, dodging and hiding behind rocks. Closer in they will try and outflank you. They are also generally reluctant to just dash out of a narrow opening into your waiting gun barrel, preferring to make you come and get them.
The fauna and even some of the flora can bite as well, and other animals can be used or exploited in helpful ways. Get yourself a Twon Ha if you want to cut down on some walking. (Or drop an F-Link transporter to be spirited back to that spot later on).
You will find all manner of items and elements as you go and collecting them is as easy as walking over them. Cutter's display will zero in on a collectable object which helps in finding things. Money can be used to purchase all sorts of items at markets, and the natural elements can be given to a Talan recreator who can use them to make you ammunition. Early on this will be essential, but later in the game you should have most things in abundance. Indeed, I thought that Outcast could have been a little less profligate in this area, making for a greater challenge. I stopped collecting things after a while, and didn't need to visit the recreators at all. It's always hard to find the right balance, and many adventurers will no doubt welcome the fact that they can focus more on adventuring and less on having to manage equipment, but less I think would have been more.
As combat is involved, you do lose health, gradually or all at once, depending upon the hit you take and from what. You will find health packs around the place and the Shamaz in each world can also heal you. So he is a very good person to be nice to.
The graphics engine in Outcast uses voxols instead of polygons to create the game world, and whilst I would not even pretend for a minute to be able to explain the techyness of that, what it meant in 1999 was that low end machines without hardware acceleration could still render very large and involved worlds. It is less important now, but you still get large 3D worlds with a minimum of fuss and absolutely no screen loads within each world. Instead, intermediate objects fade into view and sharpen in detail as you approach, sort of like emerging from a fog. Long distance backdrops are there all the time so it doesn't look like an unfinished canvass.
Objects do suffer from a lack of detail, particularly at a distance, and the soldiers end up looking like little columns of pixels when viewed from afar. The immediate environment is generally fairly elaborate, but again in close up the pixellation is apparent, and edges aren't smooth. There is almost a shimmer in some scenes as you move, and the forest world of Okaar is probably the weakest graphically given its abundance of trees. Character modelling is also a bit blocky and angular, but motion capture was used so movement is still good by today's loftier standards.
The interface is ok, although you have to engage in a fair bit of clicking to have a conversation, and a bit more to use items from the inventory, although many key items can be hotkeyed for easier access. Perhaps in combat some players will find the combination of mouse and keyboard less inviting, but you can configure it to suit yourself, and whilst both hands are needed to battle, you should be able to find a configuration to suit your preferences.
You can also switch between first and third person view although I stayed pretty much in third person, except for some close in work. Camera angles can frustrate occasionally, but are easily rectified, and I don't think an inopportune angle ever interfered at a critical moment.
The Talan get on with their lives and you won't always find them exactly where you left them. Most worlds are lively places, Okaar being the exception. Cut scenes punctuate your wanderings.
You will have to travel to 5 separate and distinct worlds to complete your mission, accessed by Daokas (think Stargates) you will find as you go. You can visit each world whenever you like, and will always have something to do shortly after you arrive. Some quests require you to retrieve items from one world and use them in another, and additional "rescue missions" will require a bit of world hopping. Load times for each world are extremely short.
One could complain that things in Outcast start to get a little repetitive before the end; arrive on a world, get some errands, shoot some soldiers, complete the tasks. But the worlds are all different, the challenges new in many of them, and the Talan themselves are different. The game did not create for me an impression that I was engaging in more of the same as I played.
To save you need to get the gamsaav from your backpack and activate it. How it works is explained to you early on; something about an imprint of your essence. But it takes a little while to do, so don't plan on saving right in the middle of a fire fight. Find a quiet spot behind a rock first. There are 8 save game slots which is plenty.
The acting and dialogue is, I think, particularly strong. I liked the Talan, and found many of them quite engaging, and Cutter himself has a good turn of phrase. Like any game, humour or the lack of it is a personal taste, and Outcast is no exception, but I liked the banter here a lot. Oh, and make sure you swim around the Darosham in Okasankaar.
There were a few little glitches, but nothing fatal. For instance I cleared one rock fall but despite that, the Talan involved kept collecting non-existent rocks and I couldn't trigger the dialogue to say I had completed the task. I just moved on.
The music score is another highpoint, performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The sound effects too are fine, if a bit limited in some areas.
I said Outcast was big in most ways, and 50 to 60 hours may well be what is required to see you through to the end. You may also not have completed every little quest or errand. So gaming value for your gaming dollar is also big.
It can be a dangerous thing going back and replaying a favourite game (indeed revisiting any favourite activity), you run the risk of it not living up to your recollection for a whole range of reasons. Outcast, though, did not disappoint and confirmed my opinion of it as a classic. It shows what can be done when adventuring aspects are fused with an action component, and it should truly satisfy most action/adventure fans. You don't need a pad and pen and puzzles aren't the name of the game, but I know people who have played in God Mode simply for the depth and level of questing and cultural exploration that is involved. High praise indeed and certainly a classic.
Note (April 2006): It has been drawn to my attention since replaying Outcast that modern processor speeds may interfere with Twon Ha riding. I played with an Athlon 64 3200+ 2.2GHz processor and had no troubles or speed issues, but didn't try and ride a Twon Ha, preferring to F-Link around. You will likely need a slow down program if you plan to ride and have a current day processor.
Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2006.
All rights reserved.
Windows 98, Pentium II 300 MHz processor, 64 MB RAM, 4 MB video card, 8x CD ROM, 600 MB disc space, Windows sound card