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After a worryingly dated hands-on with Star Wars Outlaws, Ubisoft's galactic open world feels less exciting than expected

A long time ago...

Star Wars Outlaws screenshot showing the silhouettes of Kay Vess and her pal Nix.
Image credit: Ubisoft

Last year, Ubisoft's unveiling of Star Wars Outlaws was one of my highlights of the not-E3 period. In a lengthy hands-off demo, we saw protagonist Kay Vess and her little helper Nix sneak through an enemy base, blast her way out into the open world, rip across it on a speeder and scrape her way through conversations with a crime lord.

It was about as close as we've been to a proper Han Solo video game, but it was also about the promise that comes with Ubisoft Massive, the team best known for The Division, applying the Ubisoft touch to a world that's always seemed a perfect fit for it. Yes, the "Ubi formula" for open worlds and their icon-littered maps has become tired to the point of parody, but there's a lovable simplicity to them too, the old cliché of certain games being "fast food" returning again - sometimes I want a burger, and if you stamp a little Republic logo on it my simple-minded inner child is still just about alive enough to crack a smile. A bit more simply: I'm not proud of it, but I do quite fancy the idea of a big, busywork-filled map of Star Wars activities, which is probably why EA's Star Wars Jedi games were, if not hugely inventive, at least very good fun.

Having played Star Wars Outlaws for a good hour or so ahead of the Ubisoft Forward show, however, I've come away with a renewed appreciation for Jedi Fallen Order and Jedi Survivor. In fact no, a bit more than that - in comparison to Outlaws' admittedly early, work-in-progress demo, they stand as singular pieces of revolutionary high art. Outlaws' early gameplay feels positively ancient - not only mechanically but in execution, in its near total lack of character, flair, invention, detail, or style. In trying to describe it, the closest comparison I can draw is with Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which launched in 2011 on the PS VIta.

Star Wars Outlaws gameplay overview trailer.Watch on YouTube

Admittedly, this feels spectacularly harsh for an early preview, so it's just worth hammering home the caveats a bit more firmly here. We're a few months from Outlaws' release in late August, and crucially this demo, while not short, was inevitably limited in context and scope. There's every chance things are far better when positioned among the full thing.

The demo I played was split into three separate missions from the main story. The first was a bit of environmental platforming and exploration; the second a stealth-action theft quest; the third a brief escape from an Empire star destroyer into a dogfight in space. The breadth of those three kinds of gameplay - and the almost seamless transition between them - is in part what makes Star Wars Outlaws so exciting. It's also likely at the heart of its potential problems.

In the first mission, Kay and Nix are exploring an old abandoned structure of some kind - picture "old abandoned Star Wars structure" and you've got it: big grey metal walls, some jagged edges and the Star Wars staple of the odd unexplained cavernous drop. The general setup is they need to power up an old reactor in order to escape, and so you're off, through a note-perfect checklist of triple-A action adventure staples. You'll climb yellow ledges. You'll press the button to throw a grapple hook when you see the throw-grapple-hook prompt. You'll quickly turn left to check a little nook before following the main path to the right, and find a chest with some crafting resources or cash.

Star Wars Outlaws screenshot showing Kay Vess walking outside at night.
Star Wars Outlaws screenshot showing Kay sneaking through a Star Destroyer hangar.
Image credit: Ubisoft

Occasionally you'll hop from a yellow ledge to one of the Star Wars universe's conveniently-placed wall grates, popularised in the Star Wars Jedi games, and slow scramble up them. You'll stop for less than three seconds wondering where to climb next and then see the gigantic chevron arrows painted on the wall next to the only ledge that isn't yellow. Then you'll jump towards a platform that half-collapses when you land on it, turning it into a slide, which you jump off of and onto your speeder bike outside a hurtle away (by far the coolest bit - seamless open world klaxon! - but also where the level ends).

In the second, it's infiltration time. The setup here is you need to steal a doohickey from the middle of a room, which has two floors and a balcony in a ring around it, plus barely half a dozen guards. Sneaking means pressing the crouch button, and pressing up on the D-pad to send Nix off to perform a silly (and admittedly extremely cute) dance at a given location to distract a guard. Inevitably, that guard says something deliberately objectionable, like "damn animals, we should skin them all!" to make you feel a bit better about 'sneaking' up to them, in obvious eyesight, and conking them over the head.

There doesn't seem to be much in the way of any real detection mechanic here - you knock guards out in near proximity to another on patrol, but they don't seem to discover bodies and react to them. When I did trigger the alarm, more out of boredom (and slight second-hand cramp from watching Kay crouching for an extended period), than anything else, the consequences were minimal. The few remaining guards in the room run at you shooting, go down in a couple of simple shots from your ammo-less blaster, and the MacGuffin's free for the taking.

Outside, there's a quick and simple shooting gallery moment involving crouching behind cover and using the temporary weapon system for help. Kay isn't a combat specialist by design, with just a blaster and its two settings - damage and ion damage, for disabling droids and enemies with shields - but she can pick up the dropped weapons of defeated foes. When their clip's empty, you drop them and go back to the pistol, but by that point the enemies are gone. There's a brief walk into a local town, where it didn't appear to be possible to interact with any of the handful of shops and stalls. So there's a brief pause to look around at the scenery of Kijmi, the snowy planet that plays home to the Ashiga clan, whose Queen you meet for a quick discussion via cutscene before this second mission ends.

Last and probably least was the dogfighting mission. After a basic escape via Wordle-like hacking minigame (you make an initial random guess of putting symbols into three columns, which turn yellow if they're in the right row but wrong column, and green if right for both) and unnecessary stealth, there's a short gunfight with infinitely-spawning enemies until your ship's ready for takeoff. Then another nice almost-seamless transition - these really are the highlights, a kind of disguised cutscene that's not as fully seamless as No Man's Sky but also far more immersive and fluid than Starfield - and you're out into open space for another brief and simple escape.

A couple of TIE fighters follow you, which are dispatched by using something very close to an auto-aim system, whereby you hold the left trigger to automatically zoom in on a target and get 90 percent of the way to leading it perfectly, so it's just a nudge of the analog stick and a hold of the right trigger to finish it off. After two or three rounds of that, I pointed the ship at a waypoint and pressed the boost button for a short while until a prompt appeared to head down to the planet, triggering a brief cutscene as the ship landed. Out into the world we go - transition! - and there's a relatively interesting smuggler town to explore, complete with trademark neon signs and wary gazes, but carved uniquely into an arid mountainside. Another chat with another crime boss, and that's that.

Star Wars Outlaws screenshot showing a spaceship passing several planets.
Star Wars Outlaws screenshot showing Kay Vess walking on a grassy, dusty path.
Image credit: Ubisoft

The sense, above all, is that Star Wars Outlaws is a game that is intentionally aiming for a mechanical light touch - which is absolutely fine. There is room for games that are more approachable and set themselves up for broad appeal, and its fitting for Star Wars’ family audience. But in Outlaws' case it feels like a clear step beyond approachable and into something potentially bland. Come back to Jedi, the inevitable comparison given the similarities, it's a painful contrast. Even down to the finer points the level of detail and attention feels lightyears apart.

Where Cal snaps his fingers for BD-1 to pop up onto his shoulder and flip a health stim over for him to catch, Kay's animation was hard to even notice. Where the grate-climbing moments of Jedi may not be the most inventive, they're still gloriously fluid and acrobatic, rigged with rhythm and momentum and, in many cases, genuine environmental puzzles in themselves, while the showcase platforming here harkened back to simple prompt-following of the early 2010s. And where Cal, beloved or not by Star Wars fans, had a distinctly puckish charm, Kay's character doesn't get much beyond a shoulder shrug and blank smile. Like almost anyone cast in this kind of role, she's not so much overshadowed by Han Solo as totally eclipsed by his charm.

Again though: it's a demo without context, without anything being final, and there is still time. But if I said I wasn't a little worried for this one, I would be lying.

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