Relic's first endeavor in the next-generation of consoles is like a bag of mixed candy: you might love the M&Ms, but you'll hate the candy corns. This simple analogy runs through the heart of the Vancouver, Canada-based developer's newest game, and it's kind of surprising. For a well-known PC developer whose Homeworld drew enormous praise and eyebrow-raising sales, The Outfit is a bit of an anomaly.
Right away you'll get a taste of the sweet and sour. The multiplayer game may be addictive, but the single-player campaign isn't. The concept is great, but the execution isn't. Calling up a Calliope is a quick thrill. Driving it isn't. The list of yin and yang-like qualities goes on and on, but the ultimate conclusion we drew is that the taste remaining in your mouth isn't all that good. We wish it were better, but it isn't.
Still, Relic's first next-generation effort is a unique title that plays like hyper Battlefield, and in that, it has its small charms. You can instantly call up a squad, air strikes, and vehicles of destruction at the snap of your fingers. The concept is a unique spin on DICE's 2002 PC title, Battlefield 1942, and the feeling you get from calling up those instant armies is definitely exciting. Relic's first games were real-time strategies, and The Outfit is an outgrowth of the company's love for that genre and online multiplayer games. Bringing a quick, arcade-like title with proactive squads and on-the-fly resources to the consoles seemed, and still seems, like a good idea. You can see what they're going after, and the team's palpable excitement for online multiplayer fun is written all over The Outfit. Logically, the game's obvious strength is its multiplayer component, and if you can withstand the clumsy controls, frustrating mechanics, lack of polish, and the dull, current-gen graphics, you'll really dig The Outfit. But that's a lot to ask.
The Xbox 360's 25th title is a World War II game starring three characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Tommy Mac, voiced by Ron Perlman, is the heavy weapons expert. He handles the heavy machine gun and the devastating close-range flame thrower. Performed by Terrance Carson whose voice was that of Kratos in God of War, J.D. Tyler is a close- and long-range scout. He wields a long-range rifle and a trench shotgun. Deuce Williams, voiced by Robert Patrick (Special Agent John Doggett in The X-Files and T2 in the Terminator 2: Judgment Day), is an anti-tank soldier whose bazooka can seriously devastate the enemy in a single shot. The characters are important because of their distinct play abilities, but even more telling are the weapons they wield. Like Halo, each soldier carries two weapons and grenades. Unlike Halo, those weapons aren't interchangeable with extra ones. So you need to quickly pick a favorite, because the action instantly starts and never stops.
Trying to explore the World War II theme differently than the barge-full of WWII first-person shooters on the market, Relic approached The Outfit with a lighter touch. This game has a story filled with comic fun, but also, surprisingly, heavy story elements. You'll never really grow attached to any of the characters in a heartfelt way, but the narrative does explore real plot devices: surprise, loss, betrayal, even love. The story begins in September 1944 when the famous attempt on Hitler's life failed because the bomb was accidentally placed on the wrong side of a heavy oak table. After Hitler manages to escape with his life, you're flashed back to a time where tensions rise in the ranks of the German military. High ranking officers Viktor Morder and Hans Von Beck eventually have a big falling out, and your characters engage with the French Resistance and a suspicious priest along the way. Ultimately, the characters have little impact and the story is forgettable. If it were a movie it would be a total flop, but as a videogame it's standard fare. Oh, and you'll love to hate the German Nina Diederich. She's a classic stereotype who, at one point, makes the funniest sour face stare you've ever seen.
The story serves as a workmanlike backdrop for the single-player campaign, which is decent at best. Players storm through 12 missions against a relatively well-balanced enemy AI in almost entirely linear levels. The single-player campaign preps gamers well with a real-time training session, and players can switch on or off the help menus at any time to acquire tips for getting past tough sections. The Outfit is based on FUs, field units, a currency earned through killing enemy soldiers, taking enemy outposts and destroying anything else of theirs. FUs earn players the ability to call in soldier replacements and fortifications, which come in the form of machine gun turrets, cannons, vehicles, and air strikes. The more enemy stuff you successfully wipe out, the more FUs you earn, rewarding you with more guns, fortifications, equipment and men. It's a variant on a good system we've seen work in other games.
The linear levels make sense at first; after all, introducing players to a new game requires lots of hand-holding. You're shown what to do and where to go, and it's up to your skill and on-the-fly resource management to make it all happen. The AI resistance can prove quite fierce at times, requiring gamers to take some risks and to constantly secure each new stronghold with armaments; it's that, or possibly face another battle to re-take old posts. However, at each stage you really are shown exactly what needs to be done and where to go, leaving little imagination to the player even in the last stretch of the game. The single-player maps aren't designed like the multiplayer maps, which are circular and open. So as players progress, Relic's insistence on obvious tips and linearity grows wearisome and bogs down the game.
The linear construction of the single-player maps are Relic's way of controlling enemy AI and ultimately, the game's scripts, balance and flow. But a few instances show where Relic could have expanded and improved on the game's real fun, instead of relying on the repetitive slog-fest we get. You're occasionally placed in a defend-the-base situation, which better emulates the multiplayer experience. There also are occasions when the game's linearity is warranted, such as the final level, which tricks you into thinking there is no need to fortify your path (but you'll want to). Relic also occasionally hands you secondary objectives, such as knocking out search lights (like those in StarFox 64), destroying Nazi statues, or blowing up distant trains. The single-player game would have benefited greatly from more secondary and tertiary objectives, but also an enemy with at least some kind of varying strategy. As it is, you know exactly what the enemy will do and how he's going to do it. All that said, there are a handful of Achievements that are definitely worth your while and which add to the game's slim replay value (in the single-player campaign).
Luckily, Relic's multiplayer game isn't as simplistic or as shallow as its single-player game. The multiplayer options save the title from complete catastrophe with options such as two-player cooperative offline (split-screen), SystemLink and Xbox Live support. I played through the game twice, first by myself and then again with a friend. The co-op option is definitely the way to go. It's a vertical split screen and the action rarely slows down to accommodate the extra action. Two-player co-op is also available in System Link and across Xbox Live, so diehard Xbox 360 fans should be happy, if they happen to like The Outfit.
The multiplayer modes, however, lie at the heart of the game. There are three modes of play, Deathmatch, Destruction, and Strategic Victory. Deathmatch is exactly what it sounds like, a match to the death over a time period. Destruction is a variant of deathmatch; the goal is to destroy as much of the enemy's stuff as possible within a time limit. This is the second most fun multiplayer mode. The best multiplayer mode is Strategic Victory, which pits your wits against the enemy's in a competition to see who can gain and hold the most vantage points in a timed period. This works similar to Battlefield. All of these modes will instantly bring out the competitor in you, and anybody who's played Battlefield before will enjoy the game in this hyper Army Men form, with a few major caveats.
Relic's main goal, to make a fast, engaging and fun multiplayer game, works in principle but not always in execution. If you can get past the primitive character controls and generally poor mechanics, the frustrating and deal-breaking vehicle controls, and see past the base-level animation and shoddy graphics, you may enjoy the multiplayer game. But really, that's a lot to ask. And it's not just graphics that make one wince, it's the fundamental gameplay -- and not just picky little obscure things, either. These are real issues that will have you throwing the controller on the floor and storming off.
First, the character controls are primitive and panhandle-like. You may aim at an enemy and think you have him in your sights -- this is indicated by the reticule turning red -- but you can seemingly unload 100 bullets into an enemy and he may not go down. Likewise, grenades and tank cannon shells that land near enemies do little, if any, damage. There is almost no collateral damage in The Outfit. Finally, if you want to command a soldier to control a weapon -- good luck doing that quickly. The detection on armaments -- the spot you aim a gun toward to command a soldier to control it -- is small and badly placed. You regularly have to search for the spot or even walk around a cannon or machine gun nest to pop up the command icon. That's ridiculous. Try doing that in a field filled with enemy bullets whizzing past your head, air strikes coming down, and 10 seconds left on the clock.
Second, the vehicle controls are slow, frustrating, and perhaps ironically too realistic for a high-level action game that, in contrast, enables you to call in a tank drop in five fantasy seconds. The controls for all the vehicles are stiff and cumbersome and completely work against the fast-paced nature of the game. Even getting in and out of a vehicle isn't instant. For a game that relies so heavily on vehicles, the poor vehicle controls and awkward mechanics in The Outfit are stunningly bad. The vehicles themselves are cool -- especially the cannon-jeep and the menacing Calliope, but they control poorly.
The online options are hearty, if you're still around to enjoy them. You can switch up the FU quantities, re-spawn times, time limits for each sessions, invert axis on controls, and pick game mode, location, and what kinds of weapons you prefer. The lobbies are decent, too, though they're boxy in design and seem to have an unseemly small font size and lots of wasted space.
For what it's worth, the game only supports up to eight people. The reasoning behind the smaller number of people, from say the standard size of 16, is due to the amount of AI on screen simultaneously. If there are eight humans on screen with four soldiers each to command, that's 40 units on screen simultaneously. If you command a handful of soldiers at each vantage point to man a gun, the numbers all of a sudden add up quickly. Relic said as many as 200 characters can appear on screen at once across the entire map. Relic went for functionality and numbers instead of shiny graphics; that's the theory anyway.
The visuals in The Outfit are purposely cartoon-like in design, but if they were better animated, their models were better designed, and they were less obvious caricatures, then they might actually be likeable -- and less harsh on the eyes. As it is, they're cartoon characters from a bad Saturday morning TV show. The game's other visuals are plain to see: The environments are dull and unimpressive, and the canned animations of buildings being destroyed look hokey.
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