Revisiting Adelpha: Outcast 1.1

As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

A few months ago, I posted the news that Outcast: Second Contact — a high-resolution remaster of the 1999 game Outcast — had been released. This was exciting news, since the original Outcast was the subject of one of my first ever History Lessons posts; a game I played for the first time in 2009 and absolutely loved. Before trying the new version, however, I wanted to revisit the original, this time taking advantage of the 1.1 update that developers Appeal / Fresh3D released in 2014, which allows for modern resolutions (the original’s awkward 512×384 is difficult to display on today’s monitors), improved performance, and fixes issues relating to processor speed. It is, in theory, the ultimate way to play the original game, and I’m planning to directly compare it to the Second Contact remaster.

First I should say that getting 1.1 to run is much, much easier than trying to run the original game before the update (although the “true” original is also available as a bonus extra for players who buy the game from GOG, with many workarounds already incorporated). There’s a new launcher window, which lets players check and reassign controls as well as pick graphics and audio options. These options are more limited once in the game proper, so getting things configured requires some quitting and restarting, but it only took a few iterations to set it up the way I wanted. After that, I had virtually no problems when playing.

Since my monitor’s native resolution is 1920×1080, I started with that, but I discovered that the widescreen resolutions cut off some of the vertical image. The original ran in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and it seems the developers were unable to increase the horizontal field of view for widescreen displays, so they were forced to crop the image. Therefore I ended up selecting a resolution of 1360×1024, as the cloest 4:3 resolution to my monitor’s native resolution, and playing the game letterboxed. You can see a direct comparison of the two resolutions below:

Notice how in both images our protagonist’s feet are right at the bottom of the screen, but in the top image (1920×1080) a significant portion of the view at the top of the screen has been cut out, while the horizontal view is identical (as seen by the house on the left and the rocks and snowdrift on the right). The result is that the widescreen image appears zoomed in, since the same horizontal view is expanded to fit my screen, and it lost so much vertical view compared to the 4:3 aspect ratio 1360×1024 image shown at the bottom. It’s nice that widescreen resolutions are possible, but I strongly preferred the larger view provided by the 4:3 resolution.

I was pleased to learn, however, that in both resolutions I had no performance problems. I’d heard that the increased resolutions compared to the original game could put a strain on framerates, especially considering that the voxel engine used for terrain in the game must run entirely on the CPU and cannot take advantage of modern graphics cards. But I had no trouble reaching the 30 frames per second (FPS) cap (to avoid processor speed issues with the game that can cause certain systems to stop working properly). I worried that other, larger areas in the game would run slower, but surprisingly had very little trouble. I only noticed framerate drops in places with lots of vertical structure, like the city of Cyana in Okasankaar or the mining town in Motazaar, or when zooming the camera all the way out for a full view of my surroundings. This latter is not a view I used often when playing, so it did not bother me. Players who prefer it might need to drop the resolution a little to keep the framerate up. The cap of 30 FPS means the game never feels as smooth as some modern games, but it was totally acceptable and may have even been smoother than trying to run the original without CPU speed issues.

I can confidently say, then, that Oucast 1.1 is the best way to play the original game on a modern machine. Which is great, because it’s still a fantastic game that was years ahead of its time. I’ve already written about it at length, but I’d like to add some more thoughts here. Back then I wrote:

There are no Outcast clones, nor was Outcast cloning anything. Outcast is the only game of its type ever made, and it’s brilliant.

Playing it again now, I’m not sure that this claim of uniqueness still holds true. What struck me most about Outcast this time through is how many modern games are finally doing the things that Outcast was doing in 1999. To someone well versed in recent games but unfamiliar with the state of video games in the late 90s, Outcast might not even seem that remarkable.

For example, in Outcast, our protagonist — who has the terrible name Cutter Slade — will often need to attack an enemy encampment. There are a few ways he can accomplish this. The simplest is to go in guns blazing, which can be extremely satisfying due to his excellent arsenal. There are only six weapons, but they all feel great to use and can be upgraded to alter their behavior. Firing mortar-style bombs over the walls, or letting fly with a sweet sci-fi rocket launcher or rapid-fire pistol, is great fun, and the enemy soldiers will respond by sounding an alarm and trying to mount an intelligent counter-attack, taking cover and flanking Cutter’s position. But if players want a quieter solution, that’s possible too. Cutter can move silently by crawling, sneaking up on enemies and taking them out in hand-to-hand combat. Or he can use some of his cool gadgets to turn invisible briefly and infiltrate his objective without fighting. He could observe the enemy before heading inside, watching them through his zooming goggles with optional X-ray vision to see through walls. Soldiers follow routines, and may periodically gather together in a single location, granting the opportunity to ambush them or lay traps (usually involving dynamite). Or Cutter might use his tranquilizer rifle to snipe at enemies from afar, letting him waltz right in and dispatch them with just a single shot each.

Those options probably reminded you of recent games you know. Games like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, or recent entries in the Far Cry series, or indeed any number of imitators in the open-world action game genre (amusingly, I haven’t actually played these recent games myself yet, but I’ve read enough about them to see the resemblance). But in 1999, nearly everything about that last paragraph was revolutionary. Enemies that moved according to their own schedules and reacted smartly to an attack, organizing themselves against the player, were unthinkable. The concept of using stealth in an action game had only just started to be popularized, with games like Thief: The Dark Project or the original Metal Gear Solid appearing in 1998. Even the idea of an open world, explored freely and with battles occurring dynamically, was virtually unknown at the time.

Couple this with the voxel engine used for the landscapes in Outcast, and you have a package that was strikingly beautiful and hugely imaginative, playing like nothing else on the market at the time. I wrote about the game’s beautiful visuals before, but they look even better rendered in high resolution in 1.1. The rolling landscapes of the planet of Adelpha are still remarkable to behold, with even ostensibly “flat” ground displaying rocks, dirt mounds and ditches with genuine depth, not just painted on with texture- and normal-maps. There are some limitations, with many places clearly “terraced” to avoid extended slopes, but by and large it looks great, and was far beyond what primitive polygonal graphics were doing in 1999. Even today it looks distinct from the modern high-polygon graphics seen in nearly every 3D game, lending Outcast its own identity even among the games that now incorporate its ideas.

Outcast stands out in other ways too. It sounds fantastic, for example. While orchestral scores for games are a lot more common today than they were in 1999, Outcast’s score still sounds distinctive. Performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and choir, its prominent vocal parts and often melancholy melodic themes combine with the striking landscapes to grant the planet of Adelpha a strong identity. There’s also a surprising amount of conversation in the game, far more than is typical for a modern action game. In this sense, Outcast is closer to an adventure game or a role-playing game. Visits to the desert city of Okriana mostly involve talking to the locals, rather than getting into fights, and in many ways felt like visiting a town in Skyrim. Except the conversations in Outcast are more interesting; it’s a well-written game, and while I’ve heard others complain about the voice acting, I love it. Cutter himself is great, displaying far more humor and heart than most modern action game protagonists, and I enjoyed listening to the alien Talan that he meets as well. Here’s where I expect criticisms were leveled, as the Talans’ voices sound a bit odd across the board. But I found this to be a great touch. They are speaking a second language, after all, and their hard-to-pinpoint accents simply highlight their alien origins.

Outcast’s broader story is as well-written as its dialogue. Clearly inspired by Stargate, the science fiction tale manages to include genuinely surprising twists and turns, and made me care about the fate of Adelpha and its inhabitants. There are numerous funny and memorable moments along the way, but it’s the air of tragedy that hangs over the story as a whole which most impressed me. I think back on the events of Outcast far more than most games I’ve played.

Outcast certainly shows its age in places, such as the general interface design or the slow and measured pace of movement and combat, and it takes a while before the best ideas in the story are revealed. As such, it may not seem quite so special to first time players who have already played modern games with similar designs. But if they stick with it they’ll find an inspired game that pushed nearly every boundary in its time, and tells an excellent story to boot. With the Outcast: Second Contact remastered version released a few months ago, here’s hoping we’ll see more from the developers soon.

Speaking of which, I’m planning to play through Outcast: Second Contact and report back on exactly how it compares to 1.1. But at the moment I need a break to play some other games, so that may take a little while. Stay tuned.

Outcast 1.1 is available from GOG and Steam. The GOG version also includes the “true” original, with processor speed fixes already incorporated. The Second Contact remastered version was recently released on both Steam and GOG.

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