Have you ever had a vague memory of an old game from your childhood that you never knew the name of, just its concept? Outlaws was one such title for me and the first FPS I ever played. Years later, I was surprised to find out that it was a cult classic, made by LucasArts, and that it even used an enhanced version of the Jedi game engine found in Star Wars: Dark Forces. This held a lot of promises for me and seeing as it was readily available on GOG with the free expansion included, I could not say no to this western shooter. With this in mind, we will be looking at Outlaws version 2.0, since A Handful of Missions includes this update as well.
Why cliches can be a wonderful thing
Far out in the wild west, a railroad baron named Bob Graham has hired plenty of outlaws to “enlighten” the people of the countryside to sell their lands to him in order to expand his business. One of these lands belongs to a retired U.S. Marshal and the game’s protagonist; James Anderson, who declined their offer. One day when he is out shopping for his family, James returns home to find his house in flames, his wife struggling with her last breath, and their daughter kidnapped. After giving his wife a proper burial, James sets out to save his daughter and get revenge.
The plot is incredibly cheesy, but enthralling at being so. There are plenty of elements that highlight why being cliche and traditional works in this project, but the most noticeable one is through how it uses its style to tell a story. The best example comes from the protagonist himself. James has a great and dark voice that complements the subtle visual differences from when he goes from a peaceful citizen to an angry killer, providing an immersive way to relate to our hero and his emotions through a believable transition that is enhanced by beautiful presentation. It is all simple, but effectively done!
This gorgeous take on strengthening familiar tropes goes for the rest of the game’s setup, with varied areas to visit that all contain different forms of tensions. Be it a moving train with shootouts or a classic town where there are more bullets than civilians, there is always a lovely charm present that adds to the traditional western setting. The villains add to this style by being entertaining and diverse, such as the psychotic doctor who uses quotes from the bible for reasoning with his actions. Even the opening is clearly inspired by old western movies, with letters representing cacti on an open field at one point!
What also makes this journey hold up, is by what is being said. While I will be getting back to the quality of the voice actors later on in this review, the dialogues are fantastic with plenty of quotable lines that are either humorous or just cool. One favourite conversation of mine, is when a shopkeeper tells the retired marshal that he sees him as a good man who was respectful at his job, since he never shot an innocent man. James then simply replies with “I’ve never met an innocent man”. With the actors giving strong accents to make every sentence cheesy and charming, it is easy to get sucked into this dark world. The detailed touches are also brilliant, such as how everyone calls Mr. Anderson for marshal, showcasing that his past still lingers on with him.
In fact, all of the characters are easy to enjoy, with them either having subtle elements that relates to their pasts and contain interesting lore or being comical enough to provide some nice chuckles. Sadly, not all of the bad guys get to shine and give lasting appeals. These are some of the most engaging boss fights ever thanks to their fun concepts, and it is a shame that they do not get better buildups as dangerous forces to be reckoned with or more relevance to the plot than as colourful henchmen.
Even if this is unfortunate, it does not change the fact that I had a blast with Outlaws‘s simple story! It knows how far it needs to go with its plot and adds style and substance to the entire experience. With the impressive attention to details and clear understanding of how to use its traditional tropes to its benefits, this setup is truly more than meets the eye. Similar to a perfect slice of brie that just misses a complementary cracker; it is hard to not love it regardless.
Story Score: 9/10
More intimidating than Lucky Luke
Being a first person shooter, Outlaws fits both the western style and the engine it uses to the teeth. Before getting to the actual gameplay itself, I want to first complement the customisable controls and the options you have for it. You are able to either use a mouse and keyboard setup, the keyboard alone or even a joystick if you still have that laying around. Playing as the retired marshal, you got hotkeys for all the nine weapon types you can acquire, as well as the ability to run, interact with objects, jump, and crouch, which will all come in quite handy.
Despite that the shooting is the main aspect of this FPS, all of the nine stages included are outstanding by being focused and varied in their designs! You will be first exploring a small farm as a nice introduction to this title’s mechanics, then enter a village that gives you plenty of options for shootouts and finding secret entrances. After that, the diversity and structure of the areas enhance further on. There will be huge canyons where accurate aims will be demanded, a sawmill with a neat puzzle to solve, a mining labyrinth containing high and low altitudes, and a train that will test your reflexes to name a few.
Every single level is exhilarating by providing you with lots of options for exploration, while you are simultaneously taking on fierce gunfights. This subtle way of teaching the player how this game works, as well as offer them variety within its main concept, is simply fantastic. You also have a detailed map of each area you visit, so you should never become lost. Keys and crowbars are also a part of this journey for getting you further, but each stage only has a couple of them and they are never obscurely located, just hidden enough to make you look around in order to keep the campaign’s flow at a steady pace.
Due to being able to run around, you can get fast from one area to another, which mitigates tedious backtracking. While the marshal does have a stamina meter, it is lenient enough to never halt you from getting between places quickly or escaping a dangerous battle. Jumping in an FPS can be uncomfortable, but all of the gaps within the stages are never too broad, making any poor platforming in this adventure clearly your own fault. Lastly, crouching can be used for taking enemies off guard by hiding behind covers or discovering secrets on the ground. There is even oil to find for your lamp that illuminates caves or can be used to locate traps easier, turning this into an important tool instead of just a situational one.
Of course, you can also acquire healing items from fallen opponents or hidden areas, but these come in a varied manner. Canteens will heal you slightly on the spot, elixirs give you instantly full health, and medical bags can be taken with you for later use. These are standard for shooters without auto healing like Outlaws, but nicely implemented to always give you a fair chance should you be unlucky in combat. There is even the possibility to get temporary armour for frontal hits by finding boiler plates, which are incredibly rare and add to the engaging exploration.
What you also cannot find from dead bodies, are the special creams and the sheriff badges. The cream makes you invisible for a short period of time, and I swear is either beer or whiskey that got censored in the last minute. Meanwhile, the badge lets you shrug off a good amount of bullets and increases the damage your weapons deal. These secrets are obviously incredibly valuable, which will make the exploration even more rewarding and force you to search out for bizarre elements in the environments.
However, the focus of this FPS is certainly the shooting and it is excellent here. Enemies are placed in areas that feel fitting for shootouts and complement the levels’ designs without being overbearing or too easy. You will have to have a keen eye and quick reflexes at all times, but are never taken out from an unlikely position, adding to the tension that lurks around every corner. These fiends do not vary much beside what weapons they use and the amount of bullets they can take, but are a delight to fight against since they are as strong as you are.
In fact, if you are not careful, two shots can easily kill you! This makes it so you will have to be moving around and locate hiding spots, but you can rarely camp anywhere for long as the bad guys are aggressive and will be taking cover too. Although, they are unable to open doors, which is a silly implementation that at least makes sure cheap shots will not occur. You can save and load your game at any time, but since gunfights are fierce and will demand your attention, you can only do so before and after shootouts. This is a smart and subtle design to make sure you that you cannot abuse the save feature.
The bosses are a treat, but could have been better balanced. While they are deadly with their shots, they die quickly as well, making them almost feel like a quick draw competitions you would find in traditional western movies. The problem with these fights is just how short they last, as each opponent can be surprisingly taken care of with two or three accurate shots. The final villain will require more of a beating, but the rest can fall like flies if you use a more powerful firearm than your revolver.
Speaking of, the weapons are of a similar category: strong, but unbalanced. You will come across classics like a sturdy revolver and a rifle with a good range, which are both useful. However, you can also acquire three different types of shotguns that require the same ammo, but work nearly identical. They all thankfully pack a punch, with only the dynamites dealing more damage. None of these bullets or weapons are easy to come by either, so you will have to be careful with your shots.
What is really clever about every weapon, is that they all have a secondary function. For example, the revolver can shoot accurate shots or deal multiple quick ones, while the rifle can be used as a shotgun or zoom in on foes. All have similar features and whatever weapon you find, will be worth your time. The only exception to this, are the knives. Despite that you can stab or throw with them, neither felt like valid options for taking out fiends quickly or effectively compared to the guns. At least, they were better than using your bare fists.
While shooting with tons of different firearms makes you feel like an unstoppable gunslinger, there are also a great amount of neat ideas here to make this FPS stand tall. A favourite of mine, is that you have to hold in the reload key to actively load in every single ammo into your weapon, with the counter only showcasing the amount you have on standby. Another lovely inclusion, is how you can see and hear bullets being fired from different directions, actively helping you at planning on where you should hide and/or shoot. You can even toggle on and off crosshair, for some bizarre reason!
These small details are what make Outlaws strive above being just another solid shooter, with enemies testing your accuracy and reflexes constantly through excellent difficulty curve. Put in fun exploration and diversity to give each location its own flavour, not to mention the amount of ways to take on the shootouts, and it is hard to not be impressed with this old shooter. Aged in some parts, but still a phenomenal FPS that does earn its reputation.
Gameplay Score: 8.5/10
What will hit you first upon starting the game, are the gorgeous animated cutscenes. These were rendered with LucasArts’s animation engine INSANE, adding special filters to make them look hand drawn. All have marvellous and detailed backgrounds, be they the vast and uncertain deserts or an intimidating house with great attention to lighting. Every single location provides a fantastic atmosphere with beautiful camera angles. The character models complement these areas with their grim style that showcases weariness, giving them all iconic looks. Not to mention, their smooth movements, clear facial expressions, and impressive mouth animations make them truly come alive. These cutscenes always appear between levels, so there is a good amount to enjoy here.
As for the in-game visuals, they use a mix of 3D environments and constructions with 2D sprites of characters and items that you can gather, except for the dynamites and knives which are also in three dimensions. It was common for early FPSs to have such a technical style, though it holds up nicely in this title due to well implemented textures that still look lovely today. Unfortunately, the variety in enemy design is not grand and consists of only a couple of different types with recoloured skins. While the bosses are quite diverse visually, they are barely present due to being quickly taken care of.
They all do look decent with nice animations that even include unique ones depending on the situation they are in, such as if they fall off cliffs. I also adore how they overact from harsh gunshots or explosions, giving a cute callback to old western shows. Outlaws was heavily inspired by Clint Eastwood movies like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and it shows especially in the environments as they are the best part of the visuals. They are all varied in themes and tones, such as inside a speeding train, a deserted stronghold, vast canyons with waterfalls, and a sawmill at night. Every single location provides a different atmosphere to be intrigued by, yet are always tense due to none feeling safe.
Despite that I do miss more naturalistic environments in the original version, such as snowy mountains or greener fields, the extra missions from the expansion pack fix this minor issue by including even more diverse areas. Furniture like decorations, old fireplaces, destructible bottles, and animals running around, add to the immersion and I admire how authentic it all feels to the wild west. Even a spit bucket is in every household and it is incredibly neat how the interface is represented by cashier cards for some stylistic implementation!
The sound effects strengthen the terrific atmosphere, with the shots from all of the weapons offering different and wonderful punches. This is certainly important, as any action game needs solid audio to make you feel powerful and mortal, especially one involving different firearms to use. This is further enhanced by moments where subtle ambient sounds can be heard, making it all the more uncomfortable when it feels too quiet. Which makes it even more terrifying when you suddenly hear bad guys taunting you fiercely or screaming in agony after being killed.
The voice acting is overall fantastic, with plenty of veteran actors from other western movies joining in as well. Jack Angel, Richard Moll, and John de Lancie offer amazing voices to the characters, with Jeff Osterhage stealing the show as James Anderson with his gritty and dark tone. Everyone brings personalities to their deliveries with top notch quality and directions. I honestly have only praises for their cheesy, yet confident and impressive performances.
Then we have the gorgeous soundtrack by Clint Bajakian. He had previously made scores for Monkey Island 2, Sam and Max: Hit the Road and Star Wars: Dark Forces, but here he goes all out with an orchestra and authentic instruments that fit this setting, like guitars, trumpets, violins, and pan flutes, depending on where you are. All the tracks have varied use of notes, clear highlights, and extraordinary buildups that make them diverse and excellent for this adventure.
Although, my favourite detail is whenever a rendition of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s showdown theme is being played, and it is perfectly placed right before you meet your next boss. This adds so much to the tension by being a beautiful reminder that you have to be ready for anything. Each stage has an unique track and it is astonishing how much love went into the quality of both the audio and visuals, as well as their combinations. It is all simply outstanding.
Presentation Score: 9.5/10
A handful of missions and multiplayer maps
A short time after Outlaws came out, the team released a free expansion for it called A Handful of Missions, and it is exactly what it sounds like. This one includes nine historical missions that are all exciting and about as long as the main campaign, which is impressive. They even rank you depending on how well you did it and you can this time try to capture the enemies for better results, providing fun replay value and a clever difficulty option.
The main campaign also holds many neat secrets to discover, with some bizarre references that are hilarious, as well as a strong amount of cheats for your own enjoyment. Besides the singleplayer aspects, there is also multiplayer included. It features all the bigger maps for some good shootouts, with deathmatch and team deathmatch being available. This setup is quite engaging and you can easily add in rules to make sure that no player becomes too powerful or weak. The different characters to play as in this mode have varied stats and weapons to use, and are all decently balanced.
Unfortunately, there might not be much to come back to despite how solid the roster and the maps are, as the two takes on deathmatch can only hold the interest for so long. Luckily, there is capture the flag and a mode called “kill the fool with the chicken”, which are nice alternatives from the normal gunfights. Capture the flag still has you stealing the opposing team’s flag to your base in order to get points, while the chicken option makes it so the one holding the chicken can shoot anyone and get points, with everyone else being able to only shot that person alone. Sadly, the multiplayer overall is clearly an intriguing extra rather than a focus, even if it has tons to offer besides its four versus modes.
Extra Score: 8.5/10
This is a fantastic western game that has outstanding level designs which complement the varied forms of traversing, includes engaging gunfights with plenty of firearms and dangerous enemies to encounter, offers fun exploration and secrets to discover, and contains a magnificent style that is enhanced by a charming story, great visuals, and a gorgeous soundtrack. This is really one of the best games to make you feel like Clint Eastwood or Lucky Luke.