LucasArts was best at innovating inside rules defined by other companies and other titles. Sierra beat them to adventures, id to first-person shooters, Origin to the space opera. LucasArts would then take an emerging genre and twist it in interesting ways – self-referential humor in Monkey Island, first-person swordfighting in Jedi Knight, 3D adventuring in Grim Fandango, and so on. Thus, if Dark Forces and its mission-based system was their answer to Doom, then Outlaws’ Western-themed gunplay is their creative answer to Duke3D.
Unlike most shooters – when it was still standard procedure to drop you from the menu screen into the first level – there’s an actual story here. You play as retired Marshall James Anderson. You’ve traded your badge for a quiet life on the homestead with your wife and daughter. There’s some touching banter between Anderson and Mrs. Anderson before he rides off into a stylized sunrise toward town. From here, the clichés are lovingly piled on. A corrupt tycoon wants Anderson’s land to sell to the railroad. Anderson refuses, and his family pays the price. His wife is killed, and his daughter kidnapped for leverage. He responds by digging up his tin box of Marshall kit and setting out to cut a bloody swath of vengeance all the way to the top.
You’ll find an element of almost every spaghetti western in Outlaws, and the campiness seems intentional. There are times when it feels like Outlaws is trying to be a serious homage, usually when referencing serious subjects or scenes, but Outlaws never tries to muscle its way into the ranks of classic Western films. Its well aware it’s a game, and doesn’t try to buck conventions. There are key hunts. Health and ammo lay around as pickups. You’ll never stop for a standoff or duel, and you’ll still be gunning down a posse one hundred times the total size of the Jayhawkers Eastwood took on in The Outlaw Josey Wales. What’s important is that, for an FPS that follows almost all the traditional rules, giving your character a purpose and path is a commendable departure.
Outlaws also gets creative with its shootouts. You’ll have about nine period weapons to use, from knives to sawed-off shotguns, and will expand your arsenal throughout the game. However, instead of having weapons get generically “better” as you progress, the weapons here are specialized based on range. Your carbine is great for medium range work, and a rifle scope upgrade makes it excel at long range. Your default six-shooter is worth coming back to for its superior power at medium to short ranges, and its fast firing rate (you can even press a secondary fire key to fan the hammer for true rapid fire). The shotguns do wonders at close range, and upgrade from one to two barrels.
This gives you a rounded toolset to work with through the entire show, and a reason to switch around as you go from sniping at the walls of a fort, to creeping around its interiors and dropping defenders from within. About the only disappointments are the knives, for rarely-important silent kills, and the sticks of dynamite. They make suitable grenades, but you “throw” an awkward 3D tube into the world that has great difficulty slipping through windows or flying up to high ledges.
Ammo is plentiful, with boxes laying about and belts falling from slain enemies. Health, interestingly, is not. To further replicate the idea of a gunfight as seen in the films, you and your enemies fall in one or two good shots. Damage to you appears to primarily be calculated by range – getting shot point-blank will kill you right away – which makes keeping your distance and crouching behind cover imperative. It actually does tend to encourage filmic battles, as you and your enemies crouch and trade fire across the saloon’s bar while chickens or the occasional innocent run by with hands in air. Enemy AI isn’t stellar, but they will try to run for cover when bullets fly, and your auto-aim will miss more frequently when they’re crouched behind something or blocked by a pillar.
You also have to hold down a key to reload each bullet from your stockpile and into your gun. You do this at an impossibly enhanced speed, but it’s still too slow for standing in the open during a gunfight. It further encourages finding cover and rushing to replace your shells before the bad guys come around the corner. You can ease the danger with three difficulty levels, (labeled Good, Bad, and Ugly, ha ha) and Ugly difficulty will give you an accuracy bonus at the cost of being exceptionally, realistically, tender to bullets.
Even at the lower difficulties, you’d better be prepared to save your game often. I hate to be “that guy” who saves after every breath, but after having to repeat sections of the game ad nauseum, I quickly started saving obsessively. Outlaws almost demands it, especially when you can get your check cashed simply by walking through a door and missing the guy behind the box next to you. While the theory of quick and cheap death fits a Western like a worn-in saddle, it doesn’t always match the expectations and conventions of a first person shooter.
Boss battles are the best example of this frustration. At the end of most levels, you’ll encounter a boss character whose death will trigger a cutscene and give you the next piece of the plot. The trick is that these bosses have significantly higher hit points and absolutely exceptional aim. I didn’t know there even were bosses when playing the first level, and couldn’t understand why I kept getting smoked for simply opening the last door. There’s an unannounced boss waiting at the other end of the room, who domes you in one shot as soon as he sees you. That’s how good these guys are, and you’ll at least want to plant a save before you take them on.
Levels are generally designed well, though the Western setting limits the number of logical locations. Ranches, towns, and a moving train make the most interesting experiences. They’re detailed, relatively non-linear, and have plenty of cover and objects to fight around. Meanwhile the middle levels of canyons, a lumber mill, and a mine are considerably more bland. These levels are some variant of a maze, with some introducing mechanical puzzles as part of the factory setting or highly advanced, ancient Native American technology you must decipher (don’t ask). There’s even a level similar to the sewer level in Dark Forces, requiring identical lever-pushing to ride different water flows and add to a central spillway to proceed. Expect to do more than just shoot banditios.
The plot comes at you through cutscenes between missions. Their style is interesting, with a mix of relatively realistic, brightly colored locations with highly exaggerated characters. Marshall Anderson is almost skeletal inside his long duster, with fingers about twice the length of any normal hand. Others characters follow suit, including goons with right-angle chins and masterminds so squat and stocky they’re almost square. No reason for this style is readily apparent, but it works. Scenes are expertly set, some backstory to Anderson is wisely rationed out, and the search for his daughter is kept tense as she continually gets close, only to slip from his fingers again.
Game graphics try to maintain a similar cartoon or animated style, and accomplish this as best it can. It’s an engine roughly comparable to Build, and its watercolor textures just don’t look like a seamless animated world when stitched to a 3D polygon structures. As a result, it looks a bit more like a colorful Duke 3D than its likely intent, but it still works. 2D weapon art looks much more the part, with Anderson’s lanky hands feeding in new shells, and the occasional stylized animation (like lighting a stick of dynamite with your cigar).
Voice acting for these scenes is a high point. Jeff Osterhage as Marshall Anderson doesn’t get to say much, probably to follow the stoic characters of Eastwood, but his voice matches the character perfectly when he does. Anderson isn’t a gravel-chewing anti-social mercenary, instead he comes off like a gentle, just man doing what he knows he has to do. Richard Moll in the head boss role sounded so much like Tommy Lee Jones that I had to check the credits to see it wasn’t. You don’t see him much, but he’s excellent when you do. Finally, a majority of the screen time is parceled out to the main henchman, a Bible-quoting, psychopathic doctor played with usual glee by John de Lancie. His vile actions, sarcastic words, and unapologetic demeanor make him the perfect impish villain.
I’m not sure I’ve ever used this description for sound before, but Outlaws earns it – beautiful. Clint Bajakian’s score arguably rivals the work of Ennio Morricone, and at the very least is a masterful following of it. Similar layouts and instruments are used, from horns to Spanish guitars, and even a harmonica. The “Outlaws theme” brilliantly appears in varying moods in most of the tracks and epitomizes the heroic, but quietly sorrowful Anderson. About the only disappointment is that the nature of this videogame prevents the tracks from being used to stronger effect. There’s nothing comparable to the iMuse system to allow music to react to the situation – they’re all just background themes played off the CD. At the very least, each level appears to have its own playlist, allowing appropriate music to play during that level and match the mood set up by the opening cutscene.
One expansion was released, titled “Outlaws: Handful of Missions.” These add a selection of “Historical Missions” along with a “Marshall Training” sub-game (plus the usual smattering of multiplayer maps). I’ll likely cover the expansion at a later date, but it’s important here because all this content comes free with the 2.0 patch for the main game. If you’re all patched up, you’ve likely got the extra content without even realizing it.
For a long time, Outlaws was the only Western-themed shooter, and the only one there needed to be. Its gameplay, while not too dissimilar to its competition, was sharp and enjoyable. It didn’t cover all the classic Western moments, but enough to be respectable. It had LucasArts’ traditionally high production values and a fantastic score. Its only real mistake was entering a saturated genre at a time when there were simply too many options to be noticed, and arguably not doing enough to be more than a standard FPS with a Western theme. In true LucasArts fashion, it offers creative differences, but not a radical reinvention of the genre. If you think you might be interested in Outlaws, it’s absolutely worth playing. If neither Westerns nor the first-person shooter interest you, this is an extremely well-made example of more of the same.
One of the finest Old West videogames ever made.
Still just another FPS with appropriate, but marginal, changes to the formula.
“You afraid of dyin’? Good. Hold on to that.”