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"Welcome to the sauna room, gentlemen,'' croaked one of the Infogrames henchmen as we shambled into the Outcast preview hutch at this year's E3 show.
He wasn't wrong. It was sweltering in there - perspiration city. Outside, the streets of Atlanta were bleached by the sizzling heat, but we hadn't witnessed so many sweaty foreheads in one place since watching Fire Station Jizz War IVon the hotel in-house cable channel the previous morning.
The henchman pointed at the screen. "What you're about to see is running without a 3D accelerator card," he announced. And within 30 seconds we'd forgotten all about the oppressive humidity of our surroundings. We just stood there and stared.
Outcast is a 3D science-fiction adventure game with a visual style that lingers somewhere between that of Roger Dean (the king of 70s record covers, best known for the Yes albums) and Carlos Ezquerra (Mr 2000AD).
The underlying engine is jaw-dropping: the game really does look like a playable 3D comic strip, with a roving camera following the lead character and occasionally framing the action for maximum dramatic effect.
The action follows the exploits of one Cutter Slade, a gung-ho hotshot who's been sent through a black hole into a parallel universe in order to rescue the members of an exploration party who've been ominously failing to report back to base. Success depends upon Cutter's ability to traverse, explore and survive in this bizarre alternate reality.
And what an alternate reality it is: we're talking about the reproduction of entire planets here. Cutter can literally walk his way around a globe - and then another, and another. The playing area is breathtaking in scale, stretching as far as the eye can see, with nary a drop in frame rate to speak of. Outcast makes the immense outdoor sections of Unreal look positively claustrophobic by comparison.
How is this graphical majesty achieved without the benefit of an accelerator card? One word: voxels (the 3D equivalent of a 2D pixel). They may make the game look a tad 'blocky', but when they produce visuals as gorgeous as these, we'll forgive them. Their use isn't merely confined to the scenery: each character is constructed from up to 20 voxels. To give you a sense of scale, there are 24 million voxels used per planet. This is a big game.
Interaction is also of great importance. A high-falutin' artificial intelligence routine known as GAIA is used to ensure that each character - and, by extrapolation, the entire society - behaves in as 'realisticI a manner as possible. And if you want to test it out, why not try going a bit bonkers with one of the game's 24 weapons (some of which would be rejected by Saddam Hussein for being "too destructive"), just to watch them start diving for cover?
Outcast has the potential to be almost unstoppably huge. If what we saw in that dank, sweaty room is anything to go by, PC games players with a hankering for adventure are in for a veritable orgy of sheer digital indulgence. Watch this space for further developments.
Outcasts A Pretty Risky Title, especially when you consider the perceived social standing of the average computer games fanatic. Yet despite its potentially upsetting moniker, Infogrames, one of the premier French software houses (alongside Delphine and urn... er...), seem confident that Outcast will be warmly welcomed by PC gamers worldwide.
See those screenshots - the ones that look like a cross between a Roger Dean album cover and a live action production of 2000ADs Rogue Trooper strip? Those are in-game grabs. No, really. Obviously, the designers have made full use of the spangly Top Of The Pops-style lighting effects (not to mention the polygon manhandling capabilities) of that increasingly ubiquitous piece of gaming kit - the 3D accelerator card. It's not all polygons, polygons, polygons, mind - Outcast also makes use of that other friend of the 3D games programmer, the 'voxel' (A voxel is a three-dimensional pixel - Education Ed).
The game itself is a cross between Tomb Raider and Alone in the Dark, which isn't surprising when you consider that the entire AITD series sprang from Infogrames' sweaty Gallic loins in the first place. Star of the show is a butch military dude with an unassuming name: Cutter Slade. Not Malcolm Jones, or David Smith, or Bob Tosscock. No: Cutter Slade. Anyway, Cutter is described as a "ruthless lone soldier", with brains as big as his biceps, and a love of classical music, especially when it's played by the Moscow Philharmonic (which is handy, because they've provided the soundtrack to the game).
Aside from having drop-dead-gorgeous visuals, Outcast also promises some eerily realistic enemy Al, courtesy of a coding concept Infogrames call "behavioural legibility". We've got a description of what that actually means right here in front of us, but to be honest, we can't make head nor tail of it. Still, it's probably ground-breaking, yeah? Either that or a load of old nonsense; you'll have to wait for the review to find out.
The game also contains plenty of achingly pleasant animation, and a novel control method available to owners of the 'twisty' Microsoft Sidewinder joystick, whereby rotations of the stick barrel cause our hero to swivel his arms around in a macho manner. It all looks and sounds absolutely swell: we'll be looking at this promising title in greater depth as soon as is humanly possible. Because we love you all so much, we can barely sit still. Now pucker up and let us kiss you silly.