Square Enix

In the later stages of life in quarantine, I found myself unconsciously doing my best to optimize my life. This happened in all kinds of ways, and none of them really got me anywhere. I tried in vain to pare down things in my Netflix queue, for example, until I was mostly left with a few dozen multi-season hour-long dramas and documentaries I couldn’t leave on in the background while I cleaned or cooked.

I made a feeble attempt to finally read some of the books with too-stiff bindings I had on neglected shelves, dove into learning a language to use traveling overseas when all this is over (merci, chouette verte), and finally used up all those toiletries collected in drawers from work trips. Nothing ever quite felt finished, though, which left me with an unsatisfied feeling that hasn’t really gone away. By the winter months in Boston, I found myself trying to best optimize trips from one room in my apartment to another, as if there wasn’t time to just go back and walk 10 feet to the thing I forgot in the bedroom the first time.

There’s something to be said for efficiency, sure, but even through all of that I wouldn’t really say I got very much done. All that optimizing felt like preparation for something that never really came, not that the preparing ever felt like progress in the first place. For all the time spent in relative isolation, on the other side of two jabs of Pfizer and a return of warmer months and I honestly can’t say much felt accomplished in the long year or so that came before. That includes with video games, a thing I get paid to write about and found myself struggling to enjoy for nearly all of 2020 and beyond.

While games like Animal Crossing were soothing escapes from the reality of lockdown for millions, like many of the games I’ve written about, my time playing them ended almost immediately after the post went live. It’s not the games were bad, but that they were far from the comforting time-wasters many found them to be. And while my backlog of games to play and write about only grew, so too did the dread of trying to get through those titles and have something worthwhile to say about them. Unless they were about death, I probably didn’t get very far into them.

Square Enix

And then there’s Outriders, a game that is very much not my typical play and has very much helped me undo many of the bad habits I picked up over the last year. I’ve played a lot of games throughout the pandemic, but there hasn’t been one that’s quite grabbed me the way Outriders has in recent weeks. And I think part of it is because the game lets me lean into my worst pandemic instincts in a way that’s ultimately as harmless as it is disposable. Which is, you know, a feature of playing video games in the first place.

Loot shooters are all about optimizing, either in your builds or finding the best guns and mods tailored to your gameplay and using them as best you can. It’s the digital version of what I’ve spent my days off doing, but somehow, Outriders makes it feel less like work and more like the escape gaming is supposed to be for so many. After a bit of contemplation about which class to pick, I leapt at the Trickster, stumbled into one of the better solo builds out there, and started working my way through the game’s plot and building up my world tier.

One of the interesting feats the game manages is not being too depressing despite its storyline. Set after the complete collapse of Earth and the death of untold billions of humans, the last refugees of Earth are put in cryosleep and travel to an apparently habitable planet that is far from what it seems. There’s a lot of death, a dwindling human population pitted against itself due to tragic circumstances, and of course, space aliens. Or maybe humans are the aliens, come to think of it.

The lore the game builds amid all of that, however, is really interesting and well-planned. Sidequests aren’t necessarily essential but offer more chances to build out the story, eschewing simple fetch quests to introduce new characters and creatures in a way that actually scales well when playing with others or at a higher difficulty level. Playing through the surprisingly substantial main story, simply put, was a joy.

That joy has come with some considerable issues, though none that completely broke the experience on an Xbox Series X. I managed to avoid the glitch that robbed you of all your armor and left you naked, for example. And server and connectivity issues made linking up with a friend to play something of an obstacle at the beginning of sessions. The game is best played with friends, though, and even dropping into strangers’ games to finish a mission and get some gear felt extremely productive when it all worked like it should.

But as I got through the game, maxed out my level, and started tweaking the way loot shooters tend to make you tweak, I realized I had stopped worrying about all of the other things I wasn’t doing while working on the task at hand. While Outriders had a launch that disappointed many and is still drawing frustration online, those bumps in its first few months have been far from deal-breakers for me. In fact, I kept coming back to sink more time into its world knowing that it may all be incredibly temporary. Fixing a game is hard, and there’s no guarantee that people playing games that initially disappoint
will ever see a title’s potential realized. But that equation never really needed to be computed for me here, another thing that rarely happens with games these days.

I’m in the grinding phase of Outriders now. The main story is done, I’m replaying side quests to farm materials to incrementally upgrade my gear and hopefully find legendary drops to tweak my abilities. After all this time, I’m honestly not even sure if I’m very good at the game. And there are still bugs and glitches to deal with and no real long-term content roadmap in place.

But I really hope there’s more in store for a universe that still feels full of potential. So many titles these days feel half-baked on launch day, but the story and gameplay of Outriders makes me optimistic there’s more to work with here. It could have been any loot shooter that did it for me but after finally finding a game that helped me put my brain back to (mostly) normal again, I wouldn’t mind a few more new things to do on Enoch.