Version tested: Xbox 360
Stubborn, stoic, jobsworth types in peaked caps might fold their arms, turn the corners of their mouth down and tell you that "rules are rules", but when it comes to videogames, rules are made to be bent, or even broken if you've got a better idea.
Relic evidently took this concept to audacious new extremes while making The Outfit, having decided to do the complete opposite of what everyone else has been doing for years - presumably on the basis that it would make its squad-based shooter more fun. Certainly, within the first few minutes of playing this World War II blaster you'll know you're in for 10 hours of Nazi-bashing that defies standard logical gaming convention.
But before we get onto all that, the setting and scenario are anything but fresh, interesting or audacious. Yes, it's another WWII death-fest, laughing in the face of thousands of jack booted Germans in a light-hearted send-up featuring a trio of lantern-jawed Yanks ready to 'kick butt', chase a particularly annoying Nazi all over France and save Europe's hide for the 400th time of asking.
Tears for fears
In this case you'll get to play the improbably muscular Tommy Mac, J.D. Tyler, and Deuce Williams, three guns-for-hire so buff, and so goddamned hard that bullets don't so much bounce off them, but 'tickle'. Each has their own speciality, with Tommy packing a grease (machine) gun, flamethrower and special 'tear gas' squad command, while J.D prefers to pack a rifle and shotgun and is useful against enemy vehicles, and Deuce is handy with a bazooka and pistol, and excels in melee skills. Each has his other various plusses and minuses, with varying degrees of health, recovery rate and speed making no one particular soldier excel over the other - it really does depend on the situation.
For example, Deuce's grease gun is great at dealing with clusters of enemies close up, and his tear gas attack is great at flushing out machine gun nests and anti-tank attacks, but rather weak against vehicles. On the flip side, J.D's bazooka is great for long range attacks against tanks and emplacements, but against a bunch of onrushing soldiers his accuracy isn't the best.
Throughout the game the basic premise remains the same: take out anything in your path, capture the next strategic outpost, move on, clear a path, capture the motor pool, move on, capture the armoury, defend your position, clear a path, capture the radio tower, and repeat until you reach your destination and your mission's complete. Playing like a rather more serious-looking Battalion Wars, the controls follow the standard two stick, third-person system you might expect, with movement mapped to the left, camera to the right, firing on the triggers, with squad commands on the d-pad.
Die repeatedly, today
But don't get hung up on the talk of The Outfit being a 'squad-based shooter', because it's extremely light on the strategic elements, and is about as far from the punishing attrition of Ghost Recon, Brothers In Arms or Full Spectrum Warrior as you could imagine. Here, drone units merely follow you around, providing reasonably adequate cover fire, manning emplacements by themselves and generally getting shot and killed rather a lot, but with none of the dire consequences you normally associate with the genre. In real terms, what we're dealing with is a fast-paced shooter, with a sprinkling of strategic elements and nothing more heavy duty than that.
Indeed, unlike almost every squad-based shooter ever, the death of your team-mates matters little in The Outfit. Thanks to a currency system, everything you kill swells your coffers with field units (FUs, amusingly), and every time your nameless squaddies pass away you can call for reinforcements by pressing the Y button to call up the Destruction on Demand menu, request more infantry units, hit confirm and watch as some more come parachuting into the fray within a few seconds. This constant refilling of your resources soon becomes the norm, and goes a long way to addressing the fact that your buddy AI is, actually, a bit useless. So what if they're dead? Let's buy some more!
This Destruction on Demand menu gradually fills up as you capture various outposts and facilities throughout the map. Fancy a machine gun nest? An anti-tank gun? 4x4 jeep? Tank? Air strike? No problem. As long as you've got the funds and, for example, have captured the motor pool, you simply call up the menu, make your vehicle selection, place them wherever you want within range with the left stick, confirm and await the air drop. Once in position you can man them and dish out the punishment yourself, but each has limited armour that you've also got to keep an eye on. Handily, though, you can also repair any unit (funds permitting), no matter how busted up it is.
Forget balancing! Here's another life...
Equally unrealistic, but fine within the mechanics of the game is the way The Outfit handles your own mortality. Essentially, the game operates on the assumption that it's a bit like a multiplayer game: you die, you respawn at one of several points on the map that you've captured and you get back to the action. It's extremely unfair on the enemy (which doesn't get to respawn), and as such you'll eventually win out by virtue of the fact that sheer weight of numbers will see you through. Thanks to this central design decision, there are no checkpoints, and no need to save the game until it's time to exit the game, so we're certainly not going to bleat about silly difficulty spikes and broken checkpointing this time.
The Outfit is utterly on its own in that respect, but it does raise a few pertinent issues as to whether it's a cheap way of avoiding the need to balance the game in the traditional sense. It seems like every time things get tough, you simply shrug, respawn, maybe choose a different member of The Outfit to lead the charge and squeak through that way. To all intents and purposes you're playing the game on infinite lives, with a guy whose health endless recharges so long as he's not being shot. As such, just charging your way through the game this way takes away any sense of achievement - literally anybody could finish The Outfit, no matter how rubbish they are.
None of these rule-bending shenanigans seem as bad when you're playing the game, but seeing them laid out it black and white, it makes for quite amusing reading. So, on top of infinite respawns (lives) and recharging health, you have unlimited ammo (including bazookas and the flamethrower), and the ability to endlessly pull off near-instant repairs to any items of equipment - that's anything from emplacements to jeeps and tanks. Oh, and all of the equipment comes via near-instant air drops, including air strikes that appear in seconds too - in 1944 - so pardon us for being slightly questioning of all this.
The point, though, isn't whether Relic broke the rules in silly and unrealistic ways, but whether all these design decisions actually make the game better to play and more fun. We are here to be entertained, let's not forget.
I've had meatballs with better bite
But no matter how many silly quips J.D., Tommy or Deuce utter to lighten the mood, the entire game's core reason for being - the combat - is never as gratifying as you feel it ought to be, and at least part of that is to do with the way Relic makes death a minor inconvenience. By removing the threat of death or of running out of ammo, you're constantly encouraged to be gung-ho, to take silly risks, to expose yourself to enemy fire, because it never matters. And even when you have been shot repeatedly, you can always retreat and recharge, or - at worst - respawn and mop up the stragglers with a full complement of drones in tow. There's no sense of tension, no feeling of achievement, just of having completed another linear romp where you get to do the same thing over and over.
Having said all that, even if The Outfit didn't adopt the utterly forgiving mechanics it does, the process of actually killing and destroying never feels that satisfying anyway, thanks to a combination of exceptionally dim-witted enemy AI (one behaviour mode: chaaaaaaarrrrrrge!) and the inability to approach the battle in a vaguely normal way. For example, you'd imagine that cover points would come into the equation, but they never do, and you'd also expect splash damage to be a useful ally, but no. Unless you're absolutely bang on with your bazooka or tank shells your enemies barely flinch.
And let's not even talk about the driving shall we? Oh ok then. So demented is the camera system when you're in control of a vehicle, you'd swear Relic was trying to annoy the hell out of you. It's not just vaguely broken; more often than not it's completely counter-intuitive to the point where you regularly find yourself driving up sheer rock faces, or doing ridiculous things that get you into all sorts of trouble - things that mainly involve not actually being able to see anything and not being able to do much about it. If it weren't for the ability to respawn, such issues would be magnified tenfold, but as it is, dying ten, 15, 30 times in a level (lasting less than an hour) just becomes the norm for The Outfit. You die, you respawn, you move on, but it just feels like a procession, and an utterly repetitive one that stays basically the same from the first level through to the last.
Even the Gamerscore achievements are daft, never rewarding careful play or genuine moments of skill, but dishing out 20 points for doing something completely arbitrary, like shooting 25 barrels or sinking 3 ships on the horizon - things that are incredibly easy in the wider context of your actions. Sometimes you'll even miss out on your achievement points because you weren't expecting the level to finish, which is a minor point, but an annoyance, nevertheless.
A Relic from the past
It doesn't help, either, that The Outfit is so unremarkably functional from a technical standpoint. Apart from the increase in resolution, there's little going on that Digital Anvil's Brute Force wasn't doing back in 2003 - a game that most of us have long forgotten about, but feels similar in many respects. Sure, the French countryside certainly looks pretty enough, the tanks and vehicles are nicely detailed and the ability to raze virtually everything to the ground is a nice touch, but the character models are entirely unremarkable, move unconvincingly (often lacking transitional animation), the standard of texture detail varies dramatically and the whole spectacle is totally let down by some noticeable pop-up, and shadows that literally draw on the screen as you're walking along - ten feet in front of you. It's certainly not a game you'll be showing off to your mates to convince them of the merits of the 360.
While we're talking technical merits, the audio's nothing to write a postcard home about either, with predictably dumb one-liners (that repeat endlessly), a generic, crunchy guitar-driven score replete with sweeping strings and parping brass in all the right places and standard sound effects. The game might have been rescued somewhat by an entertaining storyline, but as hard as it tries, all it does it ram home the point about how goddamn WARSOME the Americans were in their war effort. Sure, it's meant to be a spoof, but it's basically stereotype central, but without the script, voice or writing talent to endear you to these beefcakes and yet more by-the-numbers Nazi bad guys. Haven't we covered this subject 478 times already? Can we move on now? Good.
Predictably, things improve a notch in the multiplayer side of the game (be it split-screen, system link or online - the latter two for up to eight players), although we routinely had technical problems connecting to games and general issues finding many people playing it (even though the game launched in the US three days ahead). And when we did find people to play, most of them immediately added us to their friends list in desperation ("please stay!").
Co-op modes basically lets you play any of the game's 12 missions with one pal, meaning you have a theoretically easier ride getting through the various hot spots. With double the soldiers to take out the enemy it feels more like a proper army effort, but in truth it still feels largely identical to the single-player mode, albeit with someone else profiting from kills rather than you. This, in itself, makes it harder to clock up enough FUs to buy as much gear as you would normally, but overall it the greater numbers balance this issue out.
Elsewhere you've got basic deathmatch, Destruction (based around most FUs at the end of the round) and Strategic Victory, an assault variant that involve capturing your opponent's Command Point on the map before they do. Certainly the latter removes the stupidity of the computer AI from the equation, and with the whole premise of respawning fitting so much better within the boundaries of multiplayer, it's a far more coherent game because of it.
The 12 maps work well within the context of these modes, and with the right players with the right strategic sense, some really intense battles ensue. In fact, with all things considered the single-player campaign feels almost like an afterthought; perhaps it was, in which case, bad move, Relic, because as good fun as the multiplayer is for a while, it's by no means anything dramatically special, and not worth the entry fee on its own.
The Outfit never has any pretensions to be a serious war game, and that's fine. We're certainly not knocking it for being light-hearted or abandoning the basic rules and principles that constitute the really great games of the past. No, we can live with infinite lives, endless ammo and improbable resources, and for some of the time Relic's shooter feels fun in a mindless kind of way. But what we can't get past is how ordinary the combat feels, the distinct lack of tension throughout, the constant repetition and one-track lack of variety. And as much as the multiplayer is better, you're still hamstrung by uninspired combat, not to mention the game's all-round lack of technical impressiveness. The unavoidable bottom line is that The Outfit is one of the weakest games yet released on the 360, and we'd strongly suggest you try it for size before you go parading it around.
5 / 10