Outlaws remained in my retro FPS backlog for quite a long time, afraid to say it took me a long time to get around to it because I had no real idea what it would be going in. The Store page just makes it seem like a generic cowboy/gunslinger take on the usual IdTech FPS fare, and since I had no knowledge of it as part of a series or from any nostalgia, unfortunately it went overlooked for far too long. Turns out, it’s actually one of the most well-optimised Steam releases of a 90s shooter, with some of the most fun and engaging FPS gameplay to be had in the genre.
As soon as you start playing, the controls and mechanics will be obvious – it’s the usual early IdTech and Build Engine control scheme and mechanics. Outlaws was developed and produced by LucasArts, using their super-up in-house version of the IdTech Doom build, ‘Jedi’ (as also used in their other major release from around this time, the original Dark Forces). On top of this engine tech, is a texture palette that really stands out from every other FPS from the time. Many of this game’s levels and environments are wide open, well-lit, American frontier settings (fittingly), and the immense contrast between most other 90s FPS games taking place in typically dark, dingy areas like abandoned sci-fi spaceships and grimy backstreets really sells Outlaws as a really unique implementation of the 90s FPS mechanical formula.
The gameplay flows very well, each level typically being a new location fit for cowboy posse shootouts – desert boomtowns, steam trains, deep rock canyons, and the like. Enemies need to be summarily killed in order to progress to a boss whose death finishes each level. All the enemies are admittedly fairly samey – just plain guys with guns, a few different sprite designs here and there, like a few different colours of shirt, but they’re mostly fairly disposable mooks. The bosses too aren’t particularly difficult or different, perhaps one of Outlaws’ few flaws, design-wise, but that is an unfortunate drawback of having a more realistically grounded setting where you can’t create twelve different types of alien or demon for your protagonist to encounter. Getting through the levels themselves does the other classic retro shooter thing of having you need to search for items to progress – typically these would be a collection of keys or access cards (like in Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Duke Nukem, Blood, and many, many others), Outlaws does this to a small extent too, but interestingly often makes the needed object be less arbitrary and more intuitive – like using crowbar to pry open a locked door or a shovel to tunnel under the walls of a barricaded building.
But for all that window dressing, what really sold me on Outlaws being a real gem was how the shooting mechanics work. Fast movement speeds, unlimited, recoilless, rates of fire, and excessive weapons tend to be all the vaunted hallmarks of the great 90s shooters. But, Outlaws, perhaps in a nod to its grounded setting, actually eschews all of that FPS tradition. Instead, the player character is handed a much more reserved selection of weapons, all of which fit the Western lawman mould, - little more than a Big Iron revolver, one longbarrel rifle (with arguably the first rudimentary scope in an FPS), and a close-range shotgun. There is admittedly a few more gimmicky pickup weapons – a few throwing knifes and some dynamite (both mostly naff), and a single entirely-lategame BFG, a gatling gun you realistically can’t even move while using. Also, all of your weapons require you to manually, and quite relatively slowly, reload spare rounds into your spent chambers as you can in between moment-to-moment shootouts. You could opt to do this as you go, slowly and methodically, and hope you don’t get flushed out and overwhelmed by more enemies as you do so, or you could prefer to alt-fire your revolver and fan the hammer until you’re completely out and hope you managed to clear the room and don’t get caught out of ammo. This sort of reloading mechanic seemed unintuitive and clunky at first, but becomes a very enjoyable part of the gameplay loop once you work out a rhythm of it all that works for you.
The last thing worth noting here is actually that while our hero, US Marshall James Anderson, does go around endlessly spouting pop culture one-liners like Duke Nukem or Blood’s Caleb, his game and his character is still completely saturated with a loving homage of Western gunfighter tropes, and Outlaws does actually have a narrative to tell, one that it mages to present both through gameplay, and through absolutely beautiful handdrawn animated cutscenes before and after every level. Not only do they hold up artistically, they look great. And it’s a reminded that most other shooters at the time attempted to tell stories through either a single splash screen of backstory on the F1 help page after the controls and production credits, or with the absolute abomination of animated movies Blood has.
All these simple little unique gameplay mechanics and story ideas really add up to a great game, one that I guess a lot of people skipped over back in the day for whatever reason, and even a lot of retro FPS enthusiasts don’t get around to today, but they really should give it a go, and since this Steam port runs wonderfully, they’ve now got the perfect time to try it.