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.