Pay or delay?
I had to crack eventually, I suppose. I can hardly deny the significance of browser-based social gaming as an industry-changing trend, nor do I begrudge the tens of millions their fun as they mainline anything Zynga and its scheming ilk deal out on a daily basis. I've just never had the slightest interest in actually, properly playing any of these titles until now.
I suspect, then, I may not be alone amongst gamers in seizing upon Outernauts as my first, fully-fledged Facebook adventure. It is, after all, made by Insomniac, the creator of such smart console fare as Spyro, Ratchet & Clank and Resistance. And, more to the point, Outernauts is basically Pokémon in space: OK, I'm in.
It's a big departure for Ted Price's studio and a sign o' the times. PS3-exclusive additions to the Ratchet and Resistance series have dominated its output in the current console cycle. But with Resistance on its last legs commercially (Sony has effectively binned it after the Vita version flopped) and a new publishing deal inked with EA (co-op shooter Overstrike will be its first multi-format title), the US studio has partnered with the latter to plunge into the murky world of freemium.
In the week I've spent with Outernauts, I've become ever-so-slightly obsessed with it. This is typically a good sign with games, but I can't honestly tell you whether I'm continuing to play it out of genuine enjoyment or obsessive habit. And as conscious as I am of every single cheap trick it conjures to retain my interest, I've fallen for the lot of them.
In essence, Outernauts is an utterly shameless, if accomplished, Pokémon clone in which you traipse around a galaxy capturing, training and fighting various monsters, ticking off myriad tasks, amassing loot, levelling up and desperately trying to resist the ceaseless attempts to persuade you to shell out real money to aid your progress.
Insomniac's experience and talent comes to bear beautifully in the design, with its classy cartoon visuals, slick orchestral soundtrack and finely-tuned UI. There's a surprising amount of depth to the game, from monster-training and homeworld-building to social interactions and resource management, accessed via an initially dizzying range of controls. But everything is concisely highlighted and explained through, in the first instance, step-by-step tutorials, then text descriptions revealed whenever you hover the pointer over a clickable icon.
All the relevant info is elegantly laid out, with personal stats (energy, level, cash, fuel etc.) across the top of the screen, active challenges down the left side and everything else neatly packaged along the bottom with sub-menus to dive into as and when required.
There's a wafer-thin narrative that does just about enough to keep you ticking over from one mission to the next with longer-term goals to aim for: a ruse, as much as anything, to disguise the nature of the core experience. The bulk of my playtime so far has been spent grinding, travelling back and forth between planets to hoover up loot, smash up monsters, satisfy various arbitrary criteria - and, above all, waiting.
Every significant action in Outernauts consumes energy, and energy takes time to build (at a rate of five minutes per unit) and produce. Run out of energy and you can either grab some from a friend, quit out and come back later after a recharge, or crumble, pull out the credit card and purchase premium currency (known as Star Gems) to expedite progress.
The beast-fighting foundation of the action is commendably detailed. While the catalogue of creatures is some way short of a fully-stocked Pokédex, it expands meaningfully over time and there are oodles of attacks to unlock and learn, evolutions to set in motion, and monster types to consider when going into battle.
It's outrageously similar to Game Freak's concept, right down to the way the fights are presented and monsters are captured (using a Gravity Orb instead of a Pokéball). But in the absence of a browser-based Pokémon, better a studio of Insomniac's calibre knocks out a compelling "homage" than some grasping, copycat-peddling app sweatshop.
The social aspects, meanwhile, feel a little under-cooked. The game effectively demands you sign up chums to join in - indeed you cannot progress past certain early missions without their help (unless you cough up) - which is fair enough, but the subsequent level of interaction is fairly weak.
Each day you get a small chunk of 'Friend energy' to use when you visit their homeworld to stock up on items and fuel. Similarly, you can duel with them at any time (asynchronously) - but this is only engaging if your friend is at a similar level. Rope in mates, as I did, after you've been levelling up for a while, and each one-sided encounter is reduced to an unrewarding grind, with zero incentive for the other player to return the gesture, knowing as they will that certain KOs will set them back hours as health and stamina need to recharge.
The full game world appears to be sizeable - Insomniac claims it's the biggest experience it's ever created. After a week's play I've yet to unlock most of the galaxy map, have barely started expanding my homeworld and I'm still happily chipping away every couple of hours, gently widening the scope as I go of what I can do.
But am I really enjoying it? That's a surprisingly tricky question to answer. It is, in many respects, a fiendishly well-designed product that has ruthlessly enslaved me with its exploitative mechanics. But whenever I've threatened to recoil at its cheap delaying tactics, it's levelled me up or added a new quest just at the right moment.
The in-your-face, salesman-like attempts to get me to 'share' every stupid little thing I do and buy, buy, buy more Star Gems are an ever-present irritation. Of course I appreciate that this is the norm for Facebook and that Insomniac isn't running a charity, but for a studio with a fine console heritage, I'd like to believe there's a classier way of managing it that will encourage me to want to pay to play rather than turn me off the idea to the point of sheer bloody-minded refusal.
Clearly there's a balance to strike, and with the project still in beta, these are creases the team will be looking to smooth out over time, I'm sure - assuming Outernauts gains the critical mass of players to sustain it.
But considering I've managed a week of short-burst, mostly-satisfying play, barely scratching the surface of the experience and without spending a penny, it would be churlish to moan too loudly. Either way, if you fancy the idea of Pokémon-lite to kill a lunch hour with, or just want to see what Insomniac did next, it's well worth a click. Just be careful with that credit card, friend.