History Lessons: Outcast

Outcast was released in 1999, which turned out to be very unfortunate timing. It was a time when graphics cards (known then as “3D Accelerator Cards”) had just taken off, and the games industry was running wild with crazy, high-resolution, detailed texture-mapped games that were miles ahead of what had been possible just a few years before. But Outcast took advantage of a different type of graphics, eschewing polygons (well, partly) in favor of voxels, which are in essence 3D pixels. Think Minecraft, but make all the blocks really tiny. The newfangled 3D cards did not support voxel graphics, so Outcast needed to be run entirely on your CPU. To make things worse, you needed pretty much the absolute best CPU available to play the game at any decent framerate. At a time when gamers were spending their money on shiny new 3D cards, Outcast was asking you to shell out for a new CPU instead. As a result, very few people played it.

I was one of the many who didn’t play it. I did try the demo, though, and it was very impressive at the time. I remember being floored by the water graphics… the realistic ripples and waves that I saw were unthinkable at the time; even the 3D accelerator cards couldn’t do graphics like that. The landscapes were also incredible, with believable rolling hills and soaring mountains. Curves, basically, which polygon-based graphics would be unable to accomplish for some time yet. Too bad the demo ran at about 5 FPS on my machine; all I was really able to do was admire the scenery and then quit. Outcast was some kind of dream game that I knew I would never be able to play because there was no way I could afford the dream machine I would need.

Until now, of course.

Having been reminded of the game somewhere online, I decided to try it out. I tracked down a used copy on eBay and then went through quite a lot of trouble to get it running. Ironically, today’s processors are too fast for the game, causing all sorts of glitches. I was eventually able to fix these, but fortunately for you, you won’t have to. The game has since been released on GOG.com, and they have apparently fixed the CPU speed issues, meaning you can run it on your modern system without any trouble.

And you should. Because Outcast is amazing. And more importantly, it’s amazing now. It was the best game I played that year, and indeed one of the best I’ve ever played. But the single most important reason to play it is because it is so completely unique. There are no Outcast clones, nor was Outcast cloning anything. Outcast is the only game of its type ever made, and it’s brilliant.

But, crtitically, it is also relevant. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be much of a History Lesson, would it? Outcast is crammed with great ideas, many of which have been adopted by newer games. Outcast is an action game, but it’s also a stealth game, and a game full of conversations, and it has an open world, and a fascinating plot, and, and, and. These are all touted features in our cutting-edge, modern games, emblazoned in bullet-point form on the back of the packaging. Outcast had them all, and it had them back in 1999.

The game begins before you start playing, with a backstory spelled out in the manual. This is essential reading because the game itself assumes you already know the plot’s central premise and who the major characters are. The backstory is also, unfortunately, rather terrible. Your protagonist is absurdly named Cutter Slade, and is a badass ex-Navy Seal who is recruited to work security for a crazy science project not long after his expulsion from the military, which was the result of an unfortunate incident involving the game’s female lead and was of course not actually Cutter’s fault. Despite the bad blood, the two of them are reunited as part of the scientific team working on a portal to a parallel universe, along with two brilliant scientists, the goody-two-shoes professor and the young genius who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and inherited a mean streak to match his ego. Naturally, something goes wrong when the portal is opened, and now Earth is threatened by a black hole. Cutter must venture through the portal and retrieve the probe that was sent through, for this will somehow stop said black hole from destroying Earth.

Seriously? Yes, this is indeed the backstory to the game, but it soon becomes obvious why it was separated from the game itself. [EDIT: Turns out the game has an intro cinematic that introduces the characters and explains the backstory in a way that makes a lot more sense, and really isn’t that terrible at all. Not sure why it didn’t show when I played the game, but hopefully it works properly in the GOG release.] The game leaves all of that Earth-business behind, and starts you off immediately on the planet of Adelpha, presumed to be the counterpart to Earth in this parallel universe. Cutter awakes in a small alien village, to discover that the local aliens believe him to be some sort of Messiah who will deliver them from the rule of the evil Fae Rhan. This is the first hint that the plot is going to take some interesting turns, and indeed it does become an engaging, surprising and really quite fascinating story that is far better than the absurd and cliched premise would have you expect. Also pleasing is Cutter himself, who is not a gruff, gravelly-voiced soldier-man but rather a fairly laid-back, wisecracking guy who also happens to be good at shooting guns. He is actually likeable, which is something I can’t say of many modern game protagonists. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the voice acting in the game is really quite excellent. Cutter and Marion, the female lead, are especially impressive, lending authenticity to their many heated arguments.

The starting village acts as a tutorial area and is rather small, but it’s more than sufficient for showcasing the game’s visuals. Many people today will describe Outcast’s graphics charitably as “dated” and uncharitably as “ugly.” I do not understand these people. Outcast is beautiful. It’s low-res for sure, running at an odd 512×384, but the landscapes are gorgeous, the water beautiful, and the faces and lip-synching quite impressive. Plus there are tons of incidental graphical details. When Cutter pulls out a gun and aims it, an awesome-looking laser sight projects across the landscape and his foes. If you angle the camera to look at Cutter’s face as you activate his mini-map, you will see a fully-3D futuristic visor extend over his eyes. Cutter even gets some futuristic binoculars which are essentially the same ones Luke Skywalker uses in Star Wars, letting you zoom in and out (with exceedingly pleasing sound effects) across the landscape, and even activate an infra-red mode that lets you see enemies through walls, complete with a little readout telling you how many are in view. And don’t even get me started on the explosions. The explosions look awesome. They look better than in many modern games, hurling individual pieces of shrapnel that can damage enemies (or you). Fortunately, there’s plenty of opportunity to cause explosions with the game’s excellent arsenal. While even the lowly pistol feels great with its laser sight and fantastic firing noise, the true standouts are the rocket launcher and mortar launcher, which can take out packs of enemies while looking awesome. There’s even a convincing-looking flamethrower, which was essentially unheard of in 1999.

But while the visuals certainly impress in the starting area, it’s only after you leave that you will come to appreciate the environments not just for their beauty, but their openness. The game is separated into several “worlds” that are accessed through portal gates, but within each, you are free to wander wherever you like, including headlong into danger. The first area you visit contains a farming village and the surrounding riss paddocks, which unsurprisingly resemble rice paddocks. In the center of the area is a heavily-guarded enemy encampment, with several smaller encampments scattered around. It’s inadvisable to attempt to attack these places right away; it’s better to get more prepared by visiting some of the other areas and stocking up on equipment first. But if you want to storm them with just your starting pistol, you can. With very few exceptions, the whole world is open to you as soon as you leave the starting area. What’s more, the world is very well realized. The areas are varied and make sense within the context of the world; aside from the fields you find initially there is a giant desert city, a mountainous mining region, a forest wilderness and a forlorn swamp. NPC villages and towns dot these landscapes, and are packed with unique characters who will offer sidequests, hints, or simply interesting background on the world. The aliens, known as the Talan, have their own language and a fleshed-out culture, which they are often happy to talk to you about. Adelpha, for the most part, feels like alien planets often do in science fiction, but the parallel universe premise allows us to be more forgiving of certain tropes, like a breathable atmosphere and a humanoid alien race. Indeed, the game goes to great and often amusing lengths to offer explanations for little details or limitations. Why is it always daytime? Because there are multiple suns. Why are all of the Talan that Cutter meets adult males? Because the women all live on a separate island, which the men only visit during mating season, and all of the children are raised there as well. Even saving the game is explained within the world, involving the use of a special device called the “Gaamsaav” which saves your “essence”. It also takes a few seconds to activate, meaning you can’t just save in the middle of fight.

The gameplay itself is as varied as the world. As mentioned earlier, gunplay is important, and is made all the more appealing by excellent enemy AI that has foes calling for help, running for cover and trying to flank you. But you can also sneak up on enemy camps and make (relatively) silent hand-to-hand kills. Or snipe the most dangerous enemies with a tranquilizer before storming in. Or use one of your high-tech gadgets to turn invisible, enter the camp, drop some dynamite, and then retreat before detonating it remotely and taking out all the enemies in one of those gorgeous explosions. And it’s not all fighting either; there’s plenty of conversation with a varied cast of Talan. In the desert city especially you spend most of your time talking to people, in between hiding from enemy patrols by weaving between buildings and occasionally climbing onto the rooftops for a quick escape (or just to find hidden item stashes). Then there are several puzzles to sort out and sidequests to perform. There’s even elements of moral choice present, in that you can either spend some time gaining the trust of the populace or you can focus solely on your mission and ignore their plight.

With all these ideas crammed into the game, it’s surprising that it works so well. But it does. The developers were not simply trying to put a laundry list of features into the game; rather, they conceived the world and then put in the systems that made sense. Of course you can wander wherever you want, why wouldn’t you be able to? Of course you can talk to people and decide whether or not to help them. Of course the enemies will call for backup and work in teams to fight you, because that’s what real soldiers would do. And there are other strokes of genius which are so obvious, it seems silly that other games don’t include them. For example, if you’re looking for a location or a specific Talan, simply stop a passerby and ask for directions. If you’re far away, you’ll get some general directions, like “he’s at the northern end of the city” but when you get close, the passerby will literally point out what you’re looking for. Sure, sometimes they will point through a wall, but still, it’s cool. Also cool is the way in which your actions actually affect the game world in ways that are meaningful to the gameplay. If for instance you help the locals cut off the enemy soldiers’ food supply, then the soldiers in the game will weaken and will take less damage before they go down. This result makes sense in the game world and has a real gameplay benefit. Brilliant. I would be remiss if I did not also point out the game’s stunning soundtrack, which really adds to the character of the world. Performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Choir, pieces like this one, which accompanies your travels through the desert city of Talanzaar, or this one which you hear while exploring the swamps of Okasankaar, are simply beautiful, and serve to make the various places on Adelpha that much more memorable.

It’s this strong sense of identity that makes Outcast so unique. Sure, it has elements from games that came before, and many elements that we’ve seen in games since, but the whole of Outcast is more than the sum of its parts. It is one of the elite caste of games that display true vision. I highly recommend it, not just to see how a game from 1999 could have so much innovation and feature so many things that have become staples of modern games, but simply because it’s a great game. Even now, it’s a joy to play, and I guarantee that it will be an experience unlike any other.

If you want to give Outcast a go, you can grab it from GOG.com for $5.99, with processor speed issues fixed, so it should run without any problems. Plus you get the soundtrack (among other things) as a bonus. Also check the GOG forums for a fan-made patch that allows higher resolutions… these look even better and can help with some systems that have trouble displaying resolutions as low as the original 512×384.

[EDIT: Since this piece was written, the original development team, now known as Fresh3D, bought the rights to the game and have updated it to run better on modern machines and support higher graphics resolutions. Outcast 1.1 is now available on Steam or GOG, and the GOG version comes with the original, unaltered game as a bonus. At the time of this edit, patches are still being regularly released to address bugs.]

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3 Responses to History Lessons: Outcast

  1. Cambrey says:

    Pheww, for a moment I thought you wouldn’t talk about the music!
    I enjoyed reading your “ramblings”.

  2. I just bought this game a few weeks ago, and have been loving it. As you said, the game just has so many things about it that work perfectly. And the music… is fantastic.

    games like ‘Outcast’ are the reason that I love GoG, and are perfect proof (if proof were needed) that truly good games stand the test of time.

  3. Don Drisdell says:

    Great piece.

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