If there's one overlooked sci-fi shooter of the 90s, it's Outwars, SingleTrac's balls-to-the-wall action game from 1998. Published by none other than MicroSoft, it bears comparisons to a certain space-bug movie of the time. Want to know more?
The insects in Outwars are a little more advanced than those in Starship Troopers. For starters, they are the aggressors here, with a whole fleet of spacecraft equipped with devastating weapons. That's where you and your team of marines come in. You are a rookie in the CDF Marine Jump Corps or the Dreadnauts as some have come to call it. With the technically advanced battlesuits, the Dreadnauts are the only hope of defence to our interplanetary allies.
Played as a standard third-person-shooter, Outwars has a lot going for it, despite its ageing tech and control scheme. That last point can thankfully be fully customised to that of the now standard WASD and mouse controls, but age hasn't been so kind to the once-impressive visuals. The screen can sometimes look like a grainy mess of pixels, particularly if there's a lot going on in front of you. Enemies can often be visible through a hill or wall, occasionally clipping through for an unfair advantage. They might even randomly appear if you've discovered their supposedly hidden spawn points. While there is flair in the overall design, these points really bring the whole presentation down.
Choose your sex at the beginning. Only the voice and swagger is different (left)
Selecting your weapons, armour and teammates before each mission (right)
On the plus side, the draw distance is very impressive for a game from 1998 and there is no slowdown that I picked up on regardless of the carnage taking place. The solid design remains a high point, both in the environments and those that inhabit them. The expansive moon evacuation of the first level gives way to the lush locales of the Oasis planet and exploring them is a wonder. Many of the locales are based on nature, but when surrounded by flat structures, the graphics do look nicer.
While they vary in visual quality, the levels themselves are designed exceptionally well, with a variety to each that keeps you wanting more. Sometimes, all you need to do is head straight for your landing craft to escape. Other times a number of structures need destroying, people need saving or useful tech needs salvaging. Each mission is preceded by a brief mission statement, presented to you in that cheesy FMV way the 90s liked to do. It's worth listening to, as some of the goals are a little obtuse otherwise and this will give a little more detail.
Sometimes your squad can be incredibly helpful (left).
Other times they run into your line of fire (right).
If you're stuck, many objectives are marked by a blue reticle on the screen indicating where the next important thing is. Don't rely on them too much as they will disappear if the aim is to simply kill or defend. Usually, it's the landing craft that needs protecting, but there have been times where I didn't know where it was, at least on my first try. Failure means restarting the level from scratch which is often a pain. It's not unusual for some of the later missions to take quite some time to reach the end. Imagine spending half an hour locating and destroying some control towers only to do it all again because you couldn't defend the dropship randomly placed on the map in time. A mid-mission save feature would have helped but alas it is not present.
It's a shame saving is so limited as Outwars is not an easy game by any means. I mean, it's not unfair but without a difficulty setting, you're stuck with the meagre health and armour the game chooses to give you. I'm not exactly known for my prowess in the action genre, so I took it upon myself to cheat (don't judge) and got much more enjoyment out of it.
Keep an eye on your 'Jump' fuel when using your jet pack (left).
Although once you have the Glider, you won't necessarily need to (right).
One of the more unique aspects of the game is the 'jump' mechanic. The word doesn't mean 'jump' like you'd find in a platformer, but the name given to your jetpack. Hold the right mouse button and you will levitate upwards until you let go or run out of charge. It takes a while to get the hang of, and the timed tutorial level detailing it is one of the most difficult on your first play (though incredibly easy once your brain clicks). By the time you get to the dusty planet of Anubis, you'll be balletically blowing bug brains all over the place.
As you progress, you'll gain access to more tech. As well as the weapons (which are all variations of the blaster, mine or rocket launcher), you'll also get upgraded mech suits. Newer suits can withstand more hits evening out the difficulty as well as increasing the number of firearms you can hold. At some point, you'll be able to equip the use of the Glider-wing, a hang-glider that allows for longer air time without draining your power. For such a low-tech piece of kit, it's apparently still in 'Research and Development' so one of the Oasis missions is dedicating to collecting it.
You can select your teammates from a number of mercenaries, each with their own back story.
You're not alone in many of your missions. Sometimes, up to three allies - each with their own background and voice actor - will aid you on your mission. These guys and gals are a bit hit-and-miss (literally) as they can hinder just as much as help. They have the annoying habit of running directly in front of you in their apparent inability to keep still. Many have died by friendly fire. You can give them orders, which are more useful in the later levels, but I found letting them do their own thing was best. If they get themselves killed, there's no penalty beyond remorse for a fictionalised polygonal character.
So, while Starship Troopers does have its similarities with Outwars, there's enough different that I question my once held belief that the movie inspired the developers of the game (plus I could find no evidence of it online). It's another one of those games where I played and replayed the demo frequently in my youth, marvelling at the graphics and carnage going on onscreen. And the review score in the magazine that featured it on the cover disc echoed that opinion. It hasn't held up as much as I'd like but that's not to say it should become as irrelevant or forgotten as it has compared to something like MDK or Terra Nova. Outwars nevertheless remains an incredibly fun, incredibly difficult and incredibly memorable shooter to this day.
As of 31st July 2020, Outwars is now available to buy on GOG.
Buy on GOG
Outwars is © SingleTrac Studio
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me