History Lessons: Outlaws

Other History Lessons posts can be found here. I’ve jumped straight in to talking about the game this time, but I’ve included notes about getting the game to run smoothly on modern machines at the end. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Outlaws was released in 1997. Back then, I only ever played the demo, bundled on a CD with a copy of PC Gamer magazine. I’m not certain, but I think I played the demo before the game was released, possibly a good while before. By 1997, Outlaws looked behind the times, using the aging Jedi Engine that had powered developers Lucasarts‘ 1995 Star Wars shooter Dark Forces. This engine simply couldn’t compete with the likes of Quake, which arrived in 1996 and sported impressive fully 3D environments and enemies. Outlaws fell into a category known today as “2.5D”, including games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, which featured 2D “sprite” enemies and all had various limitations on their third dimension.

But I don’t remember being bothered by that at all, which is why I think I may have played the demo early. Instead, I thought that a first-person shooter was a bad fit for a Western game. First-person shooter design had not yet reached the point where a game like Call of Juarez was possible. Games of the time, like Dark Forces and Duke Nukem 3D, were about running around, exchanging gunfire with enemies, collecting ammo and health pickups, all in environments that bore little resemblance to real locations (Duke Nukem made some effort there, but I hadn’t played it back then). Playing the Outlaws demo, I found myself running around a Western town, shooting at bandits and collecting ammo and health pickups, and it just felt wrong. Westerns should be slower, more considered, shots should be deadlier.

So, when Outlaws was re-released on GOG, I was surprised to hear so much excitement. The game has some ardent fans, enough to make me think I judged its demo too quickly. But the real reason I decided to play it now was all the praise for its soundtrack. I’ve been on a cowboy music kick recently — it involves a lot of Calexico — so a soundtrack inspired by Ennio Morricone’s classic Western film scores appealed. Plus I’d get to check out the game itself again and see what all the praise is about. It was a win-win.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the soundtrack really is excellent. Composed by Clint Bajakian, it sounds like a lost Morricone score. Well, actually, roughly half of it is hard to listen to on its own, consisting of tension-building percussive throbs or near-ambient mood pieces (although these work well while playing). But the rest of it is fantastic. Twangy guitars, flamenco guitars, whistling, mariachi trumpets, the occasional orchestral/choral swell — it’s all here. It was unusual, in 1997, for a game to feature live instruments and an orchestra on its soundtrack, and it demonstrates just how important the music was to the developers. Some pieces are even callouts to specific Morricone compositions, such as the suitably epic “The Last Gunfight”, a clear homage to Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

In fact, everything about Outlaws is an homage to the classic spaghetti Westerns. It opens with an animated cinematic sequence, in a style reminiscent of the excellent cinematics from Lucasarts’ 1995 adventure game Full Throttle (which deserves its own History Lessons post), introducing the villain and his band of outlaws, who are trying to strong-arm locals into selling their land. After establishing their nefariousness, the Outlaws main theme is given center stage, playing over a stylized credits sequence that would feel right at home in a film. When starting the game proper, players must choose a difficulty setting — Good, Bad, or Ugly — before being treated to another lengthy animated sequence introducing the protagonist, retired U.S. Marshall James Anderson, and his family. It’s as cliched as they come, with his wife and daughter serving little purpose besides motivating Anderson’s quest for revenge, but it nails the style and cinematography of Western films. The voice cast is excellent, the writing tight and even funny in places, and by the time Anderson unpacked his old guns, put on his hat, and rode off after the titular outlwas, I was fully immersed in the Western vibe and ready to shoot some varmints.

Starting the game’s first level, then, was something of a shock. It still felt as out of place as I remembered. Outlaws features the more modern “mouselook” control scheme, a significant improvement over Dark Forces’ keyboard-only controls, but otherwise it felt very similar to play. I was dropped inside a small walled compound, with a few buildings and a barn, and proceeded to run around at high speed and shoot a bunch of bandits, while chasing down health and ammo pickups scattered around. It just didn’t feel right.

I returned to the GOG forums to try to figure out what I was missing. Before playing, I’d read there that the “Ugly” difficulty setting was really tough and totally changed how one had to approach the game, which had given me pause. It sounded like it wouldn’t work well for someone playing the game for the first time, so I’d selected “Bad” instead. Now I was wondering if I’d made the wrong choice. I also looked at the strategy guide that comes included with the GOG release, which has a general tips section at the beginning. This opened by informing me that the guide is written with the “Ugly” setting in mind, considering it to be the only “true” way to play. It then went on to describe tactics like crouching behind cover, avoiding doorways in favor of windows or other less obvious points of entry, and sneaking around. None of that had come into play at all when I’d tried the game on the “Bad” setting. So, I switched to “Ugly” and had another go.

It clicked. Outlaws on “Ugly” is remarkable. It only takes a few shots — sometimes just one — for Anderson to fall, so I couldn’t just run around guns blazing. I had to think about my approach. I hid behind corners, crouched down to make myself harder to hit, spotted enemy locations and planned the best way to eliminate them, one by one. And yes, I even sneaked around. I found I would shoot down a few enemies before finding a place to hide in safety, and then carefully creep through levels, checking doorways and windows, making sure I always had cover to get behind if the bullets started flying. When the hintbook claims this is how Outlaws is meant to be played, it’s absolutely correct. It’s evident in one of the most common barks that my opponents would shout: “Where are you, Marhsall?” They knew that Anderson was there, somewhere, planning a way to get a drop on them.

This is remarkable because it’s so far ahead of its time. Stealth games, as we know them today, did not exist then. They wouldn’t be invented until the following year, with Thief (long overdue for its own History Lessons post). And the idea of taking cover in a shooter wouldn’t be popularized until Kill Switch in 2003 and Gears of War in 2006. That’s a six-year period before other games were focusing on cover, although there were a few experiments in that time. When Outlaws was released, most first-person shooters had enemies that chased after the player, blasting away. But the bandits in Outlaws don’t do that, as I found when I started storming the buildings in the first level. Just as the strategy guide claimed, opening the front door was suicide. The men inside were hiding behind the bar, counters, and tables, just waiting to pop up and blast me. They were keeping an open line of fire on the door, but they weren’t always watching the windows. I circled the building, keeping low to prevent anyone from spotting me, and popping up occasionally to peek through the windows and see where the baddies were. If I had a good line of fire, I could take some out by firing in through the window. I kept moving around so they wouldn’t know where I was going to show up next. “Where are you, Marshall?” indeed.

Once I started playing like this, everything made sense. It no longer felt wrong. The Western vibe crept back in, and soon I was immersed, despite the dated graphics. In fact, the 2D sprite enemies didn’t look out of place, because they matched how characters appear in the animated cinematic sequences. Even Anderson’s hands as he holds his gun retain this style, keeping the visuals surprisingly consistent throughout. And speaking of guns, these also fit the Western theme perfectly. Every weapon in Anderon’s arsenal is useful in the right situation, and even the early guns — he starts with two, his six shooter and a Henry rifle — are suitably deadly. The rifle fires slowly but is accurate at long range, great for outdoor areas. The pistol is decent at medium range, and has an alternate fire mode that has Anderson fan the hammer for less accurate but rapid fire shots, perfect for close range shootouts inside buildings. But of course, it only has six shots. Outlaws is one of the first games to feature a reloading system for guns, with most first-person shooters of the time letting players blow through their entire stock of ammo in one go. Having to manually reload Anderson’s revolver after six shots forces players to frequently take cover, slowing down fights and making them feel more like real Western gunplay. Later, Anderson will find a variety of shotguns that can reliably take out baddies (sometimes more than one) at close range, but must be reloaded after only one or two shots. I tended to favor these for close range fights later in the game, but the pistol was still perfectly viable.

Anderson’s Henry rifle, however, was probably my most used weapon, due to the sniper scope he finds early on. Outlaws is often credited as the first game to feature a zoomed sniper scope, and its implementation is different than in more modern games. It doesn’t fill the screen, instead only showing a very small zoomed area on the scope itself. This is actually a brilliant bit of design, because it drastically reduces peripheral vision away from the current target, making use of the sniper scope a trade off. It lets players pick off enemies from far away, before they’ve even spotted Anderson, but if nearby enemies are alerted, players can’t see them. In practice, it’s prudent to frequently switch between the scope and regular view, to maintain better situational awareness. Again, this is perfect; it’s exactly how I’d expect the hero of a Western film to approach the situation.

Using the scope only reinforces a careful approach to the levels. The first level is perhaps too simple, afraid to go all in on what was at the time an unconventional style of play. But what follows is fantastic. A full frontier town, and this time Anderson starts outside the walls, with nothing forcing him to go in through the front gate. He can circle the town and climb that wall at any point, and the entire town can be freely explored in any order. It’s up to the player to decide which buildings to tackle, to guess which windows might conceal snipers, to determine the best points of entry. This level was probably the highlight, but the rest are great as well. Outdoor canyons, walled forts, a mine, and even a moving train all feature, and manage to feel surprisingly authentic. There are exceptions — the sawmill is overly maze-like and doesn’t make sense as a real place — but I was mostly impressed, and had a blast. With all this, it was somewhat jarring to find that Outlaws still uses the “color coded key” mechanic, whereby certain doors are locked until players can find the matching key (brass, iron, and steel here, rather than Dark Forces’ simple red, blue and yellow). When so much else felt fresh, this was a clear callback to the first-person shooters of its day. But even the its first level, Outlaws finds a way to subvert convention here, revealing that sometimes these locked doors can — and must — be circumvented in other ways.

Every level ends with Anderson taking down a key member of the main villain’s outlaw posse, and more excellent animated cinematics link the levels together. There’s barely any nuance to the story, but these scenes are opportunities for Anderson to act the part of the stoic Clint Eastwood type, offering harsh justice to the bandit leaders before moving on. The inevitable final encounter is well designed and satisfying, and when players have finished the story, there are some historical missions to play. These feature Anderson as a young man, as he first sets out to capture the main bandit leaders from the game, and are designed as score challenges, with extra points for taking out the opposition without getting shot, and for capturing the leaders alive instead of killing them. The missions don’t make that much sense, because Anderson has no problem shooting through dozens of henchmen, and capturing the leaders just means punching or stabbing them instead of shooting them. But these missions are just as fun as the main story missions. In fact, it was during one of these historical missions that I found a moment that perfectly encapsulated the game for me. I’d sneaked into a fort through a tunnel under the wall, emerging amidst a pile of boxes and crates in the middle of an outdoor plaza. There were several men on the ground and a few in some second story windows who spotted me in short order. I took them out one by one, ducking in and out of the cover of the boxes as they fired back. Finally, when all was quiet, I left my hiding spot, only to hear gunshots from somewhere and see bullets whiz past, kicking up dust as they hit the ground near my feet. I quickly ducked back behind the boxes, cursing under my breath.

In that moment, I felt exactly like a Western hero, and it had all happened organically. There was no specially designed cover system, like in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood; no switching to third-person while in cover to aid in visibility, like in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I just took cover, by actually ducking behind things, using the standard controls for navigating the game’s world. The deadliness of the guns, the enemies’ behavior, and the level design all combined to enable situations like that, funneling players into a style of play that evokes Outlaws’ Western film inspirations, and feels completely different from other first-person shooters of the time.

There are a few more things I haven’t covered in detail. The free 1998 expansion, Handful of Missions, is included, offering a few more missions that don’t feature Anderson and which play more loosely with the Western theme (one is set in some ice caves, for example). These are fun, but not as tightly designed; I managed to skip most of one of them by accident, getting very confused in the process. There’s also multiplayer, which I didn’t try but which still has fans today. But the main story and the historical missions were the big draws for me, and they left me surprised and very impressed. Outlaws reviewed well on release but wasn’t a huge financial success, and is not often discussed today. I wonder if this may be in part because players didn’t try the “Ugly” difficulty, instead opting for an easier game that could be played like a traditional run and gun shooter. If so, it’s a shame, because Outlaws on “Ugly” is great fun even today, and features a lot of ideas that wouldn’t get picked up by other games until much later. In some ways it captures the feel of a Western better than the more recent Call of Juarez series (although I haven’t played Gunslinger yet). It’s definitely worth a look.

Oh, and the soundtrack is amazing. It’s not included separately, but the .ogg files are in the Outlaws\Music folder, so I was able to add them to my music collection with little hassle.

Getting it to run:

Outlaws originally ran on Windows 95 and Windows 98, which places it in an awkward era of games to run on modern machines. Earlier DOS games can be run through emulation, and later Windows games have better compatibility with modern systems. So I was happy to find that Outlaws, as provided by GOG, runs nearly perfectly without any tweaks. It’s packaged with the nGlide Glide wrapper, which emulates the API of early 3dfx graphics cards, and the only problem is that the game changes screen resolution every time it switches between playable sections and animated cinematic scenes. This means the first few seconds of each level and each cinematic sequence are not displayed, while the monitor executes the resolution change, causing players to miss some things. It also prevented me from taking screenshots of the animated scenes, which was a problem for this post.

I asked around on the GOG forums and eventually found a way to fix this. It’s detailed there but I’ll also describe it here. First, I updated to newer version of nGlide for good measure. To install this properly, I had to delete the three glide.dll files from the Outlaws directory, as well as the nglide_config.exe file included there. I copied the newer nglide_config.exe from my new nGlide install (which went to C:\Windows\SysWOW64 on my system, without asking or telling me) into the Outlaws directory and used that to choose my monitor’s native resolution (1920×1080 in my case), aspect ratio to “preserve original” and refresh rate to 60 Hz (my monitor’s native refresh rate). Next, I installed DXGL, and added olwin.exe to its configuration list. I also set DXGL’s video mode to “Aspect corrected stretch” and its aspect ratio to “4:3”.

This worked for a long time, and then suddenly stopped working. I spent a while trying to figure out the problem, and eventually found that some compatibility settings did the trick. Strangely, the setting that worked was compatibility for Windows 7, even though I”m actually running Windows 7. To set compatibility, I right-clicked the desktop shortcut to the game, chose Properties from the menu, clicked the compatibility tab, and then checked the box reading “run this program in compatbility mode for:” and selected “Windows 7” from the drop-down menu.

An important note is that with these settings, I could no longer access game options like key rebindings or mouse sensitivity settings from the main menu. To adjust those, I had to take Outlaws off of the DXGL list, run normally (with short black screens at the start of scenes), set all the keys and mouse settings, then exit, re-add the game to DXGL, and run. At that point, I had no need to access the settings again.
Through DXGL, there are no longer any resolution changes, so no brief black screens, and screenshots worked in playable sections and animated scenes alike.

Outlaws + Handfull of Missions is available from GOG.com.

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One Response to History Lessons: Outlaws

  1. Simo Vihinen says:

    Thanks for the tips about playing on Ugly and so… not that I could have chosen any other setting anyway đŸ˜€

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