An early look at the tech powering People Can Fly’s upcoming looter shooter.
Another looter shooter? Between The Division 2, Anthem, Destiny, and the juggernaut that is Borderlands, that’s an increasingly constricted space. However, People Can Fly of Bulletstorm fame are set to release Outriders in just a couple months to compete in that exact space. The Unreal 4-powered sci-fi romp might not be doing too much from a gameplay perspective. It is interesting, however, as one of the first looter-shooters built to scale with next-gen consoles in mind. Yes, Godfall technically falls in this category, but we’re going to pretend that launch-day disaster didn’t exist. So how does Outriders stack up visually? Does it leverage the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X’s capable GPU/CPU setups? Or are we looking at an enhanced eighth-gen port essentially? Let’s dive in and find out.
At this point of time, Unreal 4 is familiar, well-trodden territory. While it hasn’t seen the kind of third-party licensing success as Unreal 3, this is an engine of choice for AA efforts from studios like People Can Fly. You have an accomplished deferred rendering setup in place, allowing for a large number of dynamic light sources at a time. Both DirectX 12 and DirectX 11 code paths exist. What’s interesting is that it’s the same core technology that Borderlands 3 is built on. It’ll be interesting to see what directions People Can Fly tale things compared to Gearbox. People Can Fly have outed a positively massive amount of gameplay content for Outriders over the past couple months.
This is great since it offers a solid basis for analysis. Based on what we’ve seen so far, however, People Can Fly hasn’t exactly pushed the envelope. When the initial trailer was outed last May, some outlets described the game as appearing like something that “came out of 2008.” While the brownish palette and sci-fi militarism are a nice throwback, many of People Can Fly’s technical decisions seem retrograde too, which is much less of a good thing. All in all, this is much more of a cross-gen title than we expected. And, arguably, even if it had released exclusively on eighth gen a year ago, Outriders wouldn’t exactly have won any awards for its visuals. What does it get right? And what could have been improved? Let’s take a look
Lighting and shadow rendering
Gameplay scenes in Outriders feel strangely flat. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what’s wrong until focusing more closely on the game’s lighting setup. Between Lightmass global illumination and a scalable deferred rendering solution that allows for a large number of shadow-casting light sources on-scene at once without too much of a performance hit, Unreal 4 has the potential to deliver great lighting. Unfortunately, Outriders isn’t exactly a shining example of this. In interior scenes such as caves, we saw a disappointingly limited number of shadow-casting lights. While sky lighting (from the sun) casts player and NPC shadows in exteriors, interior details like an animal carcass hanging over a fire don’t seem to cast dynamic shadows. This is puzzling since this is something even old games managed to do. Presumably, this is a performance-oriented optimization to ensure that the game runs at a steady 60 FPS clip across the next-gen platforms. But as a result of this, there are plenty of areas in the game that, at first inspection, wouldn’t hold up even in a standard eighth-gen title.
We do see a reasonable number of dynamic light sources (albeit not shadow-casting ones), including muzzle flash and explosions. Puzzlingly, even certain explosion effects used unlit particles, resulting in some very flat-looking scenes.
Ray-tracing and DLSS? Nope!
Outriders will not feature ray-tracing. Considering its relatively less ambitious asset quality, ray-traced reflections and shadowing could have been implemented without too much of a performance hit. After all, this is a game where the recommended GPU for 1080p/60 FPS is the GeForce GTX 1060. There is definitely enough performance headroom for RTX graphics cards to run ray-tracing effects and even to make that an option on the console outings.
While ray-tracing is absent, People Can Fly have opted to include NVIDIA’s DLSS 2.0 technology. This is a fantastic addition and could potentially make 4K/144 Hz gaming a possibility on cards like the GeForce RTX 3080 and GeForce RTX 3090. DLSS 2.0 reconstructs the frame leveraging deep learning and, in cases like Control, the results are nothing short of phenomenal: near-native or better than native image quality with a massive boost to performance. Since Outriders doesn’t feature RTX effects, baseline performance is expected to be high and DLSS will only push things further.
Asset quality and material rendering
We’d say Outriders features decent character and environmental models – if it were an eighth-gen exclusive title. As it stands, however, asset quality is disappointing. People Can Fly make use of relatively low-polygon character models during gameplay. While substantially higher quality assets do make their appearance in cutscenes, much of the time, the game brings to mind earlier Gears of War titles, and not necessarily in a good way. Material rendering is par for the course, with a physically based material rendering pipeline. Certain assets like rocks and exterior surfaces look good enough. However, material quality really isn’t where it ought to be at, even in cutscenes.
Outriders makes full use of Unreal 4’s post-process suite and in this area, at least, the visual takeaway is decent. We see a high sample count motion blur implementation, both per-object and for the camera. Screen-space reflections are in place, fleshing out puddles and other highly-reflective surfaces. We were also pleasantly surprised by the ambient occlusion quality: Outriders is a bit heavy-handed with AO, but AO adds considerably to scenes that would be otherwise flat due to the lack of dynamic shadowing. Bokeh depth of field is also in play, though it’s considerably more noticeable in cutscenes.
Outriders isn’t going to win any awards for its visuals. It wouldn’t exactly have impressed if it came out in 2016. But while the visuals are a disappointment, gameplay looks to be Outriders’ strong suit, with Gears of War-style snap cover and more than a little Bulletstorm DNA in the mix. Even if the graphics don’t impress, we expect performance to be Outriders’ real savior. The game’s minimum specs indicate that even the ancient GeForce GTX 750 Ti will be able to deliver a 60 FPS experience, albeit at 1080. The min specs are actually a shade lower than Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, remarkable considering that the latter is a 7th gen remaster. Whether or not it looks good in the process, Outriders looks set to be one of the most performance-friendly titles we’ve seen in a while.