Outcast is a truly European game. Its developers are Belgian, its publisher French, and it was available here in Europe for over a month while the Americans sat and twiddled their thumbs waiting for it to be released State-side. Which makes a refreshing change...
So, what's all the fuss about?
We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto
A group of scientists have been working on a secret military experiment, seeking to break through into a parallel universe. Of course, as soon as they succeed things start to go pear shaped. Something damages the probe they sent through the rift, causing a black hole to open up on Earth. Oops.
Playing Cutter Slade, a former Navy SEAL and now a member of a top secret special forces unit, it's your job to escort three scientists to the parallel universe so that they can fix the probe and hopefully stop the black hole from swallowing the Earth and killing five billion people. Not that there's any pressure, you understand.
As you might expect, things don't go to plan. You wake up in a strange hut to find the rest of your team missing, along with most of your equipment. And as if that isn't bad enough, you're surrounded by aliens called Talan who think you're their messiah, the "Ulukai".
Momma said there would be days like this...
Each region of Adelpha is home to a number of major characters, ranging from just a few in Ranzaar or Okaar, to a couple of dozen or more in some of the more densely populated areas. These are the characters you will need to help to increase your standing amongst the Talan, or to find items that you need to accomplish your mission.
Amongst them are usually at least one Shamaaz, a local priest who can heal you and tell you how popular you are in their region, and a Recreator, a Talan who can build more ammunition for your weapons if you provide him with the right raw materials.
Although many of these Talan look alike, and often have confusingly similar names, each has his own unique character. Talan are just like humans - they can be friendly, angry, scared, depressed, stupid or greedy. Many of the characters are funny, but all of them are instantly recognisable once you start talking to them.
Of course not all Talan want to talk - the Fae Talan soldiers are determined to kill you, and they have a range of about half a dozen weapons to achieve this with. All of them look beautiful in action, but even the weakest can kill you after half a dozen or so hits, and the most powerful will send you reeling every time you are hit.
The soldiers' AI is generally excellent, and they often run for cover or try to circle behind you while their friends distract you. They do have momentary breakdowns though, for example when a heavy weapons soldier fires a mortar and takes out two or three of his own troops with it. But normally the AI is very challenging, and better than in many first person shooters, let alone adventure games.
As well as the Talan, you will also find other lifeforms in Adelpha - the domesticated Twon-Ha, shark-like Sannegtas, vicious fish, tiger-like Gamors, flying Ventilopes, and the primitive tribe of Oogoobars. There are also giant monsters in some of the regions, and these are genuinely scary when you first see them, and capable of eating Cutter whole if you're not careful.
Points of view
The world is normally seen from an adjustable third person view, allowing you to zoom in and out and swing the camera around Cutter to get the best view of whatever it is you're doing. Controlling the game with a mouse and keyboard this soon becomes second nature, and it's a much more flexible system than in most other third person games.
Unfortunately you can't look up though, which can be rather annoying. The camera also has a few clipping problems, occasionally ending up inside a wall. But it's still a lot better than Tomb Raider's camera, and of course you can adjust the camera's position yourself if the computer gets it wrong.
You can also switch to a first person view, though this can be disorientating, and it looks and feels .. wrong. Maybe it's just because your view is that much closer to everything, which tends to make the world look more pixellated. Certainly it's useful for sniping and for occasional use in confined areas where the camera can get a little clumsy, but the third person view is generally much better.
I don't like the way you say "mount"
The movement system can take a bit of getting used to, but once you've got the knack of it you can move around very easily, and even carry out more complex maneuvers like circle strafing, which can be very useful when you're facing a group of soldiers. And if you're feeling sneaky you can crawl around on your belly. This is slow but stealthy, allowing you to creep past soldiers without them seeing you.
Cutter can also swim (insert mandatory "breast stroke" joke here), though as most of the water in Adelpha is home to various types of violent fish you should be careful when going for a dip as you can't use any items or weapons while in the water.
Luckily your own two legs aren't the only way of getting around in Adelpha. A rather foul-smelling creature called the Twon-Ha can be ridden, but you need to find the right "gui" (I won't spoil the surprise by telling you what that is) to let you mount them. Given that the Twon-Ha looks like a cross between a camel and a featherless ostrich, you can imagine that you look pretty damn silly riding one, but they do move much faster than you can on foot.
There are also some technological shortcuts in Adelpha. A device called an "F-Link" is essentially a mobile teleporter. Simply drop one part of it on the ground and then you can teleport yourself back to that location by activating the other part, so long as you are still in the same region of Adelpha. This can be very handy for placing near a village that you will need to return to repeatedly, for example.
And each region contains several Daokas, which are big rings that you walk through to transport yourself to another region. Imagine a miniature Stargate and you've got the idea. Each Daoka has a single preset destination, but there is a whole network of them allowing you to move between regions fairly easily once you've worked out where they all are.
Outcast features a very simple inventory system. Unlike most RPGs, there's no annoying limit on how many items you can carry and no messing around with inventory slots. Instead you have a backpack which miniaturises anything that you put into it, enabling you to carry as much as you like. Which is lucky, because equipment, ammunition, and other useful items can be found lying around on the ground all over Adelpha...
There are six weapons you can find or buy during the game, ranging from the underpowered pistol you start with to a grenade launcher and flamethrower. Each of these weapons can also be upgraded twice, though to be honest I never even found the flamethrower and only managed to upgrade one of my five weapons before reaching the end of the game.
There's also a wide range of equipment, including explosives and detonators, a holographic decoy (a little like the holo-Duke from Duke Nukem 3D), a gizmo that makes you invisible, a pair of high powered binoculars, and medikits and healing berries.
When you need something you just press a key to select your backpack and the game pauses while you scan through it to find what you're looking for. To make things easier, items that can be used appear a brighter shade of green to make them stand out.
Guns and other important items such as medkits and your binoculars are all available at a single keypress. Once you have the item you want in your hand you just press the primary action key to activate it. There's also a secondary action key that activates your weapon if you have one in your hands, or allows you to engage in fisticuffs if you don't have a weapon.
Again, it can take a few minutes to get used to, but it all becomes second nature as you play the game.
Voxel and I
Adelpha, the alien world you find yourself in, is lovingly hand-crafted from voxels. I'm not going to get into a deep scientific explanation of what a voxel is, but essentially it's the three dimensional equivalent of a pixel.
The good news is that the voxel-based graphics engine can handle huge outdoors areas with minimal fogging, and creates an intricate and truly alien world unlike anything you'll have seen before, all in real time. Even the cutscenes are all done by the game engine, apart from the intro movie.
The bad news is that your shiny new 3D accelerator won't do you any good with this game, and the voxels can get a bit blocky up close. There are also visible seams in some places. Presumably each region is split up into several smaller areas, and unfortunately these don't quite meet properly, with the land on one side of the seam often a slightly different height or colour to the land on the other side.
The other main problem with the graphics engine is that it can only handle low resolutions - 320x200, 400x300, or 512x384. Compared to most games this is pretty pathetic, but luckily the voxels actually look pretty good at low resolution compared to a polygon-based engine, especially with some of the advanced graphic options switched on to smooth things out a bit.
Although the world is made of voxels, the characters that populate it are made up of textured polygons, just like in Quake or Grim Fandango. The quality of the modelling and animation is good, and the level of detail is impressive, especially when you switch on bump mapping.
Water is another strong point of the graphics engine, with such beautiful ripples and reflections that you could spend all day just swimming around admiring the water if it wasn't for the vicious fish that inhabit it.
Another impressive feature is full-screen anti-aliasing. This effectively smooths out the picture, removing jagged lines and reducing pixellation. Outcast also has a depth of vision option, which imitates the way that the eye focuses on a certain object, with anything much closer or further away appearing slightly blurry.
Which is funny, because 3dfx are hyping these as two of the big features for their next generation of graphics card, apparently blissfully unaware that Appeal have them working beautifully on a lowly Pentium II without any hardware acceleration at all.
Outcast was generally pretty solid on my system. The game occasionally gets stuck when entering a cut-scene if obstructions stop the characters from getting an appropriate distance apart, and usually the only way to escape this is to exit to windows and kill the game. But luckily this doesn't happen very often.
There are also some clipping problems. Talan often walk through each other, and parts of your body sometimes poke through walls, which ruins your immersion in the game. Even worse, you sometimes find yourself suddenly standing on top of a wall that you were walking along the bottom of a second earlier.
The only other major problem though is performance. Because the game isn't 3D accelerated, all those beautiful visuals have to be powered entirely by your CPU. Although the game should run on a P166, you really need a high end Pentium II or even a Pentium III to make the most of it - with all the detail settings on maximum the game is barely playable on my P2-300.
Luckily there are plenty of options you can play with to increase your performance if you have a slower computer. The level of fogging can be increased, bump mapping can be switched off, the quality of the anti-aliasing can be reduced, detailing can be reduced, and you can even make the world less crowded, giving the game less characters to render.
There's even a cinemascope option which allows you to play the game in wide-screen format (as you'll have no doubt noticed from the screenshots in this revew). This not only makes the game feel even more like a movie, it also increases your frame rate because the game is drawing over less of the screen.
Outcast is a work of art. It looks beautiful and has an emotionally charged storyline filled with all kinds of twists and turns, a wide range of interesting and believable characters to interact with, and tons of atmosphere.
Of course, it's not perfect. The voxel graphics allow for a uniquely organic alien world that simply wouldn't be possible using a more conventional polygon-based engine, but it does look rather blocky up close at times, and you need a high powered system to see it at its best. It's also a little disappointing that Outcast falls back on the old cliche of finding items lying around on the ground all over the place.
Combat can be a bit clumsy at times, and it's often hard to hit anything at long range, especially as all the projectiles in the game move very slowly. The conversation system is a little basic as well - you can (and usually should) just ask everybody every question you can. Selecting which subject to talk about is a little redundant when you end up just going through the whole list...
But despite these few flaws, Outcast is still one of the best games I've played this year. It's innovative, immersive, and ambitious, and that's more than you can say for most games these days. Release date - Available now