OUTCAST: SECOND CONTACT Review
If you happened to be playing videogames on a PC in the late 90’s, chances are you may have heard of or seen Outcast, a unique 3rd-person action/adventure game that was initially released in the summer of 1999 and grew to become a milestone in gaming for many people that had the opportunity to play it at the time. The game’s development was handled by Appeal and the publisher was Infogrames.
Established in 1995, the Belgian Appeal consisted of people that worked together at Arts & Magic, which die-hard Amiga fans might recall as the creators of Unreal and Agony, two spectacular looking and sounding games for the time. However, the then young developers wanted to experiment with more powerful hardware and to create a truly groundbreaking game, so they set their goals high right from the get-go and after a few years of developing, they managed to release Outcast. If you’re interested in learning more about how this game came to be, I suggest taking a look at this website. At the time of its release, Outcast received critical acclaim from the majority of the gaming press and gamers that had the chance to experience it.
Despite the above, the game was not a smashing success commercially. It is arguable as to what happened, but one could surmise that Infogrames’ poor financial state at the time, the long and difficult development of the game, its unrealistically high system requirements and somewhat weak marketing campaign, all contributed towards the situation. Appeal started work on Outcast 2, but unfortunately the studio was shut down in 2003 with no other finished product. As is usual with cult hits, small groups of fans took it upon themselves to preserve the game’s legacy and share their experience with Outcast with as many people as possible.
With the emergence of many crowdfunded projects in the last few years, the people behind the now defunct Appeal started a Kickstarter campaign for an Outcast remake, which was unsuccessful. Despite this, they did not give up and went on to release Outcast 1.1, a rather confusingly named re-release of the original game with support for modern resolutions, controllers and operating systems, among other things. While Outcast had been picked up by GOG in the years prior, this new release was nevertheless welcome as it solved a lot of the technical issues associated with running a game from the late 90’s on modern OSes.
The reborn Appeal however was not content with a simple rerelease and had further plans for the franchise. In the last couple of years they were working hard on a true remake of the game, with updated visuals and mechanics that would attract both fans of the original, as well as newcomers.
This is none other than the game we are examining today; Outcast: Second Contact!
In this review we will first examine the reasons for which Outcast remains an fantastic game even to this day, as well as whether or not the remake was worth the wait. Follow me to an amazing journey…
Plot and world building
The original Outcast begins with a rather impressive and long pre-rendered cinematic, the likes of which only Blizzard could compete with at the time. In it, we learn that in 2007 the USA successfully launch a probe to a parallel universe. The probe lands on an alien world and for a few minutes manages to send pictures and video back to earth, until it is shot and damaged by an anthropomorphic alien being, resulting in an energy backlash being sent back to earth, which in turn creates a black hole that threatens to suck the entire planet! We take control of Cutter Slade, an ex Navy Seals marine, as we are briefed to guide and protect a team of 3 scientists in this alien world in order to find the probe and repair it before it is too late.
Things won’t turn out to be so easy however, as at the time of our arrival we quickly learn that Adelpha, the world which we were teleported to, is under the rule of a powerful and ruthless dictator called Fae Rhan, who doesn’t seem to care about the well-being of his people one bit! On top of this, we were separated from our missing team and the Talans, which are the natives of this planet, insist on calling us Ulukai, some sort of Messiah that will supposedly bring peace once again to Adelpha, as it was foretold by one of their prophets!
I know this all seems way too cheesy, but the great writing and plot twists that take place in the game more than make up for it. The plot manages to grab the player’s attention and explain most if not all of the possible questions in rather ingenious ways.
Talans have their own mythology, ways of life and vocabulary which you will have to figure out in order to succeed in your mission. In terms of technological advancements, the Talans seem to be at a level comparable to those of medieval Europe with the difference that they also seem to wield weapons, tools and even the ability to cast spells, all of which rely in each Talan’s essence. Appeal’s commendable work contributes greatly to making the people and culture of Adelpha seem unique and not lost in a sea of other science fiction worlds.
Cutter Slade however has got to be one of the most 90’s things you could ever name your main character!
The creators of Outcast seem to have had a very clear idea of what they wanted to do with the story of the game and so they made sure that it followed the structure and tropes of the big blockbuster adventure movie hits of that decade. Their love for Hollywood is revealed even further by taking a look at the game’s cover which closely mimics the look of theatrical posters, complete with the “main cast’s” names at the top and even the production company’s and other info that you would normally find on a strip at the bottom. The game’s world appears to have been greatly inspired by the art design of “Stargate”, with very clear Eastern vibes and, obviously, the Daoka, gates that allow anyone to travel between Adelpha’s different regions, which seem to be carbon copies of that movie’s own… stargates!
Game Design – Mechanics
As I mentioned in the prologue, Outcast is a 3rd-person action/adventure game with a clear emphasis on adventure. Action often takes the backseat in comparison to the exploration that you’ll have to do. Without wanting to reveal too much about the game world, Outcast’s gameplay takes place in 6 regions which act as hub worlds filled with quests, main or secondary. Each regions features its own theme, with the very first one for example, Ranzaar, dropping our hero in a valley covered with snow, completely cut off from the rest of the planet. Personally, my favorite area in the game would probably be Okrianna, a long, mid-eastern like town, with a gigantic marketplace running its length and surrounded by a vast desert. The attention to detail given to each region is nothing short of phenomenal, lending each world uniqueness and even a bit of realism.
What was it about Outcast that made it a ground-breaking game at the time however? Why of course the scope of its gameplay which gave the sense of an open world that reacted to your actions. The games regions are vast and open in the sense that they allow you, the player, to navigate them freely, talk to various NPCs that will give you tips and quests or items that will help you on your journey. In fact, a lot of the quests require you to travel to another region and gather specific items or talk to specific individuals. Thankfully, backtracking is not really an issue here, apart from maybe 2-3 cases. It is however not something that breaks the experience, as you can easily wait until you have more quests to finish in another region and then move on.
At the time of Outcast’s release, such mechanics were novelty and only really found in RPG games and perhaps a few sandbox games such as the first two Grand Theft Auto titles, certainly not in a fully fledged 3D adventure. In the following couple of years quite a few games approached open-ended designs in a similar fashion, however there are two titles in particular that I’d like to mention. One is Shenmue on the Dreamcast released in 2000 and the other is of course Grand Theft Auto 3, released initially on the Playstation 2 in 2001 and then later for PC. When it comes to GTA3, I believe that game’s influence changed the game industry for many years to come, as in the years following its release many titles sought to mimic its successful model. And yet Outcast tackled a lot of the same issues and ideas some years prior, which why I think it deserves special mention.
Earlier in the review I mentioned the attention to detail within the game and it is this attention that truly captures the sense of “breathing” world. Within the duration of your adventure you will need to locate specific Talans and the way to tackle this issue is… to ask for directions to their location from other Talans! Indeed, you can ask most of the NPCs populating the world for the location of a Talan you are looking for. Their answer will be in the style of “I saw him to the north-west today, walk many steps towards that way and you will find him”, however if the individual you are looking for is within a certain radius then the Talan may instead raise his finger and point you towards them!
In your journey you will meet many different creatures, one of which is called Twon-Ha, a camel or lama like creature that is mostly used as a means to transport loads, but you can also ride it to traverse the world faster. Of note is also the fact that the game makes use of a reputation system which is influenced by your actions in Adelpha. Although you shouldn’t expect any TellTale-ean moments such as “Clementine will remember that”, the willingness of other Talan to help you will depend on how you treat them and on whether or not you’ve been helping them out with side quests! At its heart, it is a pretty simple system but it does wonders in terms of world building.
What is more, in my opinion Outcast is not only ground-breaking, but also a clearly great game with well-designed mechanics and fun gameplay all-round. Unfortunately, originality does not necessarily equal a good game, which we have witnessed with many problematic games that remained merely interesting experiments, as was the case with Trespasser a year prior to Outcast for example.
I’ve known about Outcast’s existence since around the time it was released, however I only truly gave it a proper chance just a few years ago, after the insistence of a good friend. For me it proved to be a magical experience as the hours went on by without me even realizing it as I was exploring Adelpha.
However, it would not be fair of me to solely praise the games since there are aspects of its design that are problematic. To start with, despite the fact that the designers give the player a lot of weapons and tools with which to experiment and even a crude stealth system, the game’s battles are in general quite easy and rather dull.
If someone decides to take on most of the side quests especially, the enemy soldiers will gradually grow weaker and the battles will cease to provide any challenge at all and become a mere nuisance. Perhaps raising the difficulty from the game menu will alleviate some of this and make things more interesting, but I haven’t personally tested anything other than the defaults.
Additionally, there are some moments in the game where the designers decided to add some platforming elements and puzzles, which unfortunately don’t work especially well with the game’s overall pace. Cutter’s somewhat awkward jump animation also plays a big factor in this.
Visual and Audio Design
During the early days of the game’s development, graphics cards did not work in the same way as we are accustomed to these days. In contrast, rarely were these cards anything more than display adapters, apart from some unique examples (such as the Matrox Millennium) that offered 3D acceleration capabilities for specific programs such as AutoCAD.
Because of this, the entirety of the rendering and various calculations that took place in a 3D game was handled exclusively by the system’s main processor, which is a very intensive task as you can easily surmise. This is around the time voxels were introduced, a rather ingenious 3D rendering technique that ended up getting used quite a bit in games, among other things, with some of its more well-known proponents being NovaLogic’s Comanche series, Westwood’s Blade Runner and Outcast obviously! In laymen’s terms, voxels are volumetric pixels which one can stack and manage in such a way that they give the illusion of terrain, which is how they were mostly used in games. I believe Blade Runner actually used them to make up the many characters in the game world, but I am unaware if it used them in any other extent. The reason that this rendering method was adopted and sometimes preferred over traditional techniques was the fact that it didn’t hit performance quite as hard. It also looked pretty damn impressive!
It is almost impossible to talk about Outcast and not mention its rather impressive graphics engine, so impressive in fact that two years prior to its release, Appeal had the idea to release a short, arcade racing combat game titled “No Respect” using the same engine and take that game’s earnings to further fund the development of Outcast.
By the late 90’s however the landscape began to shift, as many popular 3D accelerators started to gain ground especially with the arrival of the Voodoo Graphics and Voodoo 2 (3Dfx), as well as the Riva 128 and later Riva TNT (Nvidia). Additionally, Microsoft’s Direct3D API and OpenGL slowly gained widespread usage and most 3D accelerators of the time supported them in one way or another which led to uniformity and assurance that you could run the latest software and games with the purchase of a new card. This wasn’t really the case in the earlier days because every vendor only supported their own API and card and software had to be written to take advantage of said cards, sometimes with a patch.
3D accelerators took a lot of the load off of the processor when it came to rendering, which meant that the processor now had more cycles or time to spend doing other things. The impact of such cards on a system, even a low-end or mid-range spec’d one, was mind-blowing when it came to 3D games. One could go from running games at a 320×200 resolution and ~20FPS to resolutions of 640×480, 800×600 or even 1024×768(!) with over 30-40FPS by simply installing a 3D accelerator! If you do the math this is a greater leap than going from 1080p to 4K while simultaneously doubling the framerate!
In the grand scheme of things, this meant that Outcast’s software rendered visuals, that means rendered solely by the CPU, were a double edged sword. In the years of the consolidation of 3D accelerators, a specific reasoning that stands to this day was formed and has to do with how we PC gamers pick our hardware. Given a choice between a combination of a high-end CPU with a mid-range GPU and another with a mid-range CPU, but a high-end GPU, it is likely that most people will choose the latter, since it is accepted that a graphics card has a greater impact on performance in games! This however meant that when Outcast was released in 1999, it had the honor of being both a greatly unique and ground-breaking title, but at the same time somewhat outdated in its technology. The game was unable to take advantage of 3D cards and required a very powerful processor for an enjoyable experience, so many gamers saw their expensive Voodoo 3 and TNT2 cards go to waste in this title.
What is more, at a time when 800×600 and 1024×768 were considered the high-end resolutions, Outcast only offered a selection of 3 resolutions, 320×240, 400×300 and 512×384, with the latter running quite slow with all the effects enabled, even on an Athlon 600 and Pentium III 600 both of which were the most powerful processors at the time.
There was however one advantage to this approach, as the GPUs of these early years were quite simplistic in terms of what they could do, where as a processor can do anything you instruct it to, albeit at a much slower pace. As a result, Outcast showcased a few really impressive visual effects at the time, such as water reflections and ripples, detailed character shadows, anti-aliasing and even Depth of Field! It should be noted however that in order to enjoy all of the above you had to own a very beefy system…
In addition to the visuals, the music is also of special mention. The sound design in general is great, however the orchestrated soundtrack truly steals the show. While it may not be the first video game with a real orchestrated soundtrack (this first belongs to Eric Chahi’s “Heart of Darkness”), this was still quite novel at the time! The game’s composer, Lenny Moore, aimed to closely mimic the feel of a Hollywood movie soundtrack and selected the “Moscow Symphony Orchestra” to perform the orchestration. While the tracks are not many, each one of them feels distinctive and I wholly recommend giving the entire soundtrack a listen even if you don’t plan to play the game. My favorite track is probably the one that plays during your stay at the snow-covered Ranzaar during the first minutes of the game.
Since I mentioned sound design, another impressive aspect of the game is that every dialogue is recorded! David Gasman lends his voice to the protagonist and he does a great job with the material. In case you haven’t heard of him, Mr. Gasman has lent his voice to dozens of characters in video games and TV series throughout the years. If you ever had the chance to play any Quantic Dream game (Omikron, Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain) then you have surely heard his performances, since he has played a role in most if not all of their games. Some other notable works include the English voice for Rayman (!), Twinsen from “LBA2”, Seth from “Atlantis : The Lost Tales” and many others.
The rest of the cast is less memorable, however the amount of recorded dialogue for every character in the game was staggering at the time, many years prior to Bethesda’s “TES: Oblivion”.
Remake or Remaster;
We’ve finally reached the point where I have to talk about the remake and just how much it succeeds in what it sets out to do. I should mention that when it was first announced, I was not expecting a mere graphical up-lift, instead I feared that the developers of Second Contact would attempt to alter significant portions of the gameplay and in turn would create a total mess.
I am of the opinion that, for a remake to really be warrantied, the original execution has to be faulty but the idea interesting or the game’s mechanics or visual department has to be obsolete in such a way that a remake is necessary. Outcast doesn’t really fall in either category and thankfully its developers decided not to alter many things. Perhaps it would be wise to use the term “remaster” to describe the game, since Appeal informs us that the game has been built upon the established source code. As a result, all in-game cinematics use the same camera angles, the NPCs react in the exact same way they did in the original, with similar animation and pauses during dialogue etc
So what has been altered, you may ask? The first visible change resides with the visuals of the title which have been given a huge overhaul. From my own perspective, I think Appeal did an amazing job in this area, as every region has been visually enriched with more detail and with great care so as not to take away from the original look. Although the new graphics can’t compete with similar productions from big AAA studios, the excellent art design of the original game in conjunction with the skills of the designers at Appeal make up for it; Outcast is now updated and brought into the era of 4K and graphics cards with more VRAM than hard disk options available at the time of the original’s release!
My main issue however is that the updated visuals don’t always quite match up with the old animations that still remain in the game. Aside from Cutter Slade, whose animation cycles have been completely reworked, most if not all other characters in the game retain their old animation which can prove jarring. The situation is probably worse during conversations with awkward pauses and pretty bad lip syncing.
Additionally, I would prefer that the system requirements were somewhat lower, since I couldn’t match the much desired 60fps lock at all times. I don’t know if the fact that my CPU was holding me back was just a coincidence or some sort of poetic irony! In terms of sound things are also kind of a mixed bag. The soundtrack has indeed been remastered and we can now enjoy it to its fullest. Appeal was not content with a simple replacement of the 22KHz files of the original with lossless ones, instead they went the extra mile and enhanced the audio tracks with what seems like … a remastering of the original audio files. I have listened to the soundtrack of the game quite a few times over the years and I was able to pick up the difference almost instantly, it’s as if individual parts of the music tracks have been tweaked in terms of volume levels and sometimes greater fidelity is apparent. In any case, the experience is phenomenal; they deserve massive props for the effort!
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the voice overs, with the work that’s been done (or rather not been done) being a letdown. As far as I could tell, the voice over quality remains the same which is to say quite low for today’s standards. The reason for this is because originally the game had to fit in 2 CDs way back in 1999, in addition to the fact that more processor load was something that they wanted to avoid, which led to the files having to be compressed significantly. I can only speculate, but I think the reason they did not touch the voice overs is unfortunately because the original masters from which they were produced are now lost forever, so in essence no remaster can be performed. An alternative solution would have been to record all new voice overs, something that would be prohibitive with Second Contact’s budget, but also quite blasphemous in the eyes of many of the fans.
What really put me off in the first few minutes of the game was just how amateurish and plain the menus for the game were, with the bare minimum of available options for the player to tweak. For example, there are no sliders for audio, be it sound effects or music and the available video options are 3-4 including the resolution selection and V-Sync toggle (or rather V-Synch as the game calls it…). Thankfully, there are many important game options that you can toggle or change.
In addition to the above, the introductory CGI cutscene that I mentioned earlier has been replaced with a 2D one, with what is, in my opinion, a pretty bad choice for an art style, as well as animations that almost compete with the likes of South Park. I guess the only reason they had to redo that awesome cutscene is because Cutter Slade has been redesigned and now looks quite younger than before.
While I agree that the character feels more appropriate to be around 35 years old instead of around 45 years in the original, I believe that the introductory cinematic should have been handled very differently and with much more care. It is quite sad for the first impressions of any game to be so disappointing; I can’t even imagine what the reaction of a newcomer will be.
During the first hour of the game we are also introduced to the new camera system and control scheme for the game. Using a mouse and keyboard, I had to tackle quite a few issues, especially regarding the controls and even using an XBOX One controller couldn’t remedy them fully.
The camera system is quite smart, meaning that its distance from Cutter shifts dynamically depending on the environment and whether or not you are indoors or outdoors. As long as you are outdoors, everything’s peachy, but as soon as you decide to move inside a building, then the Field of View becomes extremely narrow and movement starts becoming prohibitive, with weird camera glitches in certain spots. Things are even worse as regards the controls with inexplicable changes to the point of reference for movement. To give you an example, there were times when pressing the right movement key would result in Cutter strafing towards that direction, where as other times he would start moving towards that direction! I didn’t really manage to figure out why this was really happening.
Building upon the original source code does wonders for Outcast: Second Contact in terms of faithfulness to the original, but it also carries many of the issues that plagued it. Namely the spotty collision detection that will mess you up in a few instances for which not much work seems to have been done to alleviate the issues. The icing on the cake has got to be the hero’s jump animation, which just as the rest of Cutter’s animation has been “tweaked”. I have no clue how they managed it, but somehow Appeal has made it even more awkward than it was before, with a perceptible delay between pressing the jump button and actually seeing the character jump on screen. Mid-air control also feels less of a thing than before, so actually landing the character can get tricky.
Not only that, but for some reason some of the functions available in the original game seem to have been removed, such as the option to use a 1stperson perspective or the ability to jump while riding a Twon-Ha. On the other hand, a few of the changes are very much welcome, especially the addition of a Run button not only when on foot but also when riding a Twon-Ha. I also noticed that sneaking has been altered somewhat with Cutter no longer going prone, but instead crouching when the appropriate button is pressed. I can’t say I particularly cared about this, since it is arguable if I used stealth more than once or twice in the entirety of the game, but it is welcome nonetheless.
Of note is also the updated interface, which gives you all the required information with the press of a single button. The character’s inventory is now far more readable, the objectives are categorized in columns depending on the region they take place in and the map has also been upgraded to include the names of various Talan and where you can find them. Finally, dialogues now include explanations for unknown vocabulary inside parenthesis’, so that the dialogue flows smoothly and the player isn’t required to go back and forth to their lexicon. The Autosave mechanic is another welcome addition, which saved my hide quite often as we’ll see later. If you don’t care about these changes and would like to have a pure experience you should know that you can disable many of them from the menu options.
One of the remake’s rough spots is the amount of bugs it contains, which are thankfully not game breaking. They mostly had to do with issues and glitches in the animation system, with enemies sometimes not appearing in certain cutscenes, in which I was forced to reload using the Autosave. Sadly, I also encountered a large amount of crashes to the desktop, one of which even corrupted my Autosave! It is a fortunate thing that I had manually saved recently! I am hopeful that most of these issues will be resolved in the first couple of weeks of the game’s release.
In conclusion, Outcast: Second Contact succeeds in bringing the experience of the original game over to the modern era, despite some of its issues. The work done in the visual and music department is worthy of applause and I would surmise that most of the design changes are spot-on. If some of the missteps regarding the controls and camera system, as well as the bugs that are present, were avoided then the overall score would have been quite a bit higher. As it stands, if you have fond memories of the original and want to relive that experience, Outcast: Second Contact is a very faithful adaptation that will take you upwards of 18-20 hours to finish.
- Excellent graphical uplift that enhances the game for the modern era
- Genuine sense of exploring an alien world
- Remarkable remastering of Lenny Moore’s haunting soundtrack
- Some very spot-on gameplay additions and quality of life tweaks that don’t mess with the original’s design…
- … but unfortunately omit 2-3 more additions that would truly revamp the experience
- Problematic stealth and combat system
- Many bugs, including crashes and issues with collision detection
- Wooden animation, somewhat awkward camera and controls
- Voice-overs remain untouched
- System requirements are a tad on the high-end spectrum