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Outlast / 28th of July 2014

Red Barrel Games’ highly acclaimed survival-horror debut, Outlast, is something that appears to have been the darling of the critics of recent months who have lauded it as being one of the most intense and atmospheric survival-horror games of recent years. Granted, there has been precious little in the way of competition, but how does how it stack up against the finest examples of the genre? Is it a classic in the making, or has it been the case that too much hype has spoiled this particular broth?

The game begins with the protagonist, a seemingly far too brave investigative journalist (Miles Upshur) arriving-at night-at the front gates of the Mount Massive Asylum to follow up on an anonymous tip-off that he received implying that some nefarious goings on were happening at the facility. Which, despite its charitable appearance, seems to be the scene for the Murkoff Corporation’s experiments into forces beyond their control.

One of the perceived strengths of Outlast’s setting also happens to a considerable weakness, the main character is not a soldier or a cop, he’s just an ordinary guy, and a particularly weak one at that, which means that at no point throughout the game’s campaign can he fight back against the outlandish denizens of the Mount Massive facility. Encounters with foes in the game must be dealt with through evasion, running and hiding in the various spots that the game provides as cover, namely lockers and beds. The trouble here is, that once you have guided Miles out of danger, it is almost impossible to watch out for enemies, to study their movement patterns and discern when an opportunity to progress presents itself. Likewise, attempting to listen out for footsteps as they grow or diminish in volume is an act of futility, drowned out, as they are, by the shrieking strings and incidental environmental noises intended to heighten the atmosphere, but sadly, in my experience, having the polar opposite effect.

Much of the game is spent running, now whilst the game presents the illusion of open space, it is actuality entirely linear, so this isn’t too bad a thing in general, and judging by the achievements and trophies, this was how they intended the game to be played, racing at a breakneck speed, rather than carefully stalking through the shadows, soaking up the setting. Though invariably, it is the chase sequences that bring out the best in the game, as far as atmosphere goes, though these can typically bring the whole experience apart at the seams as well. Mistakes made during such periods of the campaign result in Miles’ gruesome demise at the hands of the strongest foes in the game, some of whom inflict instant death, wearing the whole process down to little more than horrific trial and error, and immediately destroying any ounce of impact that they game might have had.

Given its independent status, there can be no denying that developer, Red Barrels, have managed to create a fairly attractive looking videogame, despite some comparatively primitive looking character models, the team has done some solid work in making the world of Outlast feel as authentic as possible. Built using Epic’s Unreal Engine, Outlast’s environs feel used, lived in, and part of a greater world, one which is lent even more credence by the movements of Miles himself. Reminiscing Dice’s Mirror’s Edge, there is a heightened sense of physicality to the proceedings, as Miles reaches out and touches walls that he is manoeuvred within close proximity to, or the manner in which he runs, clearly emphasising the use of his whole body as his arms swing to and from as he moves, granted it’s such a small addition, but it really does make a big impact, and it is something that more developers should implement.

In terms of its audio, Outlast was far from being a winner in my eyes, and this was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of all. The score is little more than an archetypal horror soundtrack, with screeching strings designed to add tension, a staple Hollywood trick now used for decades in film, and one that, personally, I now find myself having a very low tolerance for. Likewise, the environmental effects were typically brash, and far too loud, which for me, summed up the entire experience. Outlast felt as though Red Barrels were simply trying too hard to make the experience a “scary” one, and as a result any nuance of subtlety was thrown out of the window, everything feels far too “in your face” for its nouveau horror film style to have any impact, but then, the same can be said of the films it mimics, and dare I say that for a younger audience than myself, it might just work, but for someone of my age and experience, it certainly did not.

Most of the game is played out in pitch darkness, though thankfully, the intrepid reporter-who may not have been smart enough to equip himself with a flashlight-remembered to take along a video camera equipped with night vision, and it proves essential in navigating the asylum. This function requires the camera to be fed with batteries to power it, and in Outlast, players will find copious quantities of them scattered around the building, perhaps there are too many of them, as I for one never failed to have a spare battery or two at hand, so I never once had to go without my light, until of course, I lost the camera altogether. Thankfully this section was brief, yet it still had me scrambling to increase the brightness on my television after a while as I wandered around aimlessly in the dark, feeling nothing but frustration rather than fear or tension. So perhaps it’s a good thing after all that there are so many batteries…

The pacing of the game was well designed by the team at Red Barrels, slowing things down when needed to give the player some time for exploration, though these are typically at the “puzzle” solving elements wherein the protagonist is usually tasked with retrieving something or activating a switch. These elements, along with the enemy encounters, are recycled more than once throughout the campaign, but thanks to its relatively short length, they never feel too repetitive or stale. As the game begins to wind down to its, ultimately disappointing, finale the pace picks up immensely as players hurtle towards it conclusion at a breathless pace, though for some reason, it seemingly reminisced Monolith’s F.E.A.R. for me, which could ultimately be down to the final setting of the game as opposed to any it’s gameplay mechanics or cheap scare tricks.

Ultimately, I came away disappointed with Outlast, the weight of its hype machine having instilled in me the hope that it could be the saviour that the flagging survival-horror genre so desperately needs, but evidently that still resides on the shoulders of Shinji Mikami’s forthcoming The Evil Within. It is certainly not a bad game though, and I would definitely recommend to anyone, but just don’t expect it to cause you any sleepless nights, that’s all.

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