Outernauts Beta: First Impressions

AJ reckons

I should start by saying that I’ve never played a Facebook game before; the experiences I had with Outernauts might be fairly standard for a game set up on a social network, but I wouldn’t know.

What I will say is that when I first heard of Outernauts I was immediately intrigued that Insomniac Games (Ratchet & Clank, Resistance: Fall of Man) were investing in a Social App. The art style was distinct and the premise (capture and level up creatures! Explore worlds!) seemed appealing.

You start by choosing a male or female avatar and a starting creature, much in the way you would in Pokémon, then begin adventuring. I chose an ice-based monkey as he looked the coolest and got stuck in.

Or at least I got as stuck in as you can get into a Facebook game; within minutes I hit the game’s limitations.

All actions cost energy be it fighting enemies, digging up shrubbery, extracting essence from a fuel depot or searching a chest. Occasionally taking an action will generate energy to reuse, and levelling up it replenishes fully. but otherwise if you want to replenish stocks you will either have to wait a few hours to restore it all or purchase more using Star Gems. Star Gems are one of several in-game currencies, in this case requiring real-world money (or Facebook dollars) to replenish. Unfortunately when you start you are given a small supply and it is never communicated that this is limited unless you spend actual money.

This is made worse by the fact that Star Gems can be spent on almost everything and using them is a way to cheat through the game. Anything from boosting your creatures to skipping missions you don’t want to do through to bypassing lacking the correct equipment or required number of friends to play parts of the game.

Outernauts goes out of its way to remind you of this last requirement; every milestone in the game – levelling up, mission completion, creature improvement – asks you to tell your friends.

I could put up with this if the interim gameplay was compelling but it really isn’t. Instead Outernauts exists in this unpleasant limbo wherein it never allows you to sink your teeth into the experience long enough to catch the urge to continue playing, and the short bursts that you can play do not scratch the itch of a good fifteen minute time waster.

Outernauts - caverns

Spawn here often?

There are also technical issues aplenty; this is something to be expected of a project beta but these issues are so detrimental to potential enjoyment that it becomes harder still to stick with the game. Load times are substantial meaning that you can’t just log in at lunch and use up your recharged energy supply, and performance on my laptop was abysmal meaning that I had to run it full screen – the antithesis of what I imagine social Facebook games to be about.

I think Outernauts‘ fundamental problem is that its audience, the pre-teen, teen and late teen crowd who like Pokémon, will most likely prefer to buy a 3DS and pay the extra money for a game that is complete from the outset.

I could try and go into some of the subtleties of Outernauts but it isn’t really worth it as they are outstandingly dull even when in play. Instead I’ll say that this experiment in social games has caused me to go scuttling back to the safety of my console as I have found that being involved in something social is far too intimidating.

Shaun

Reading AJ’s thoughts above reminds me of… just about every critique of social gaming since the traditional gaming press started writing about it. That’s not to be dismissive: the argument has been going back and forth for so long that it’s easy to lose track of the roots of why many aren’t interested in such experiences.

Where Outernauts most succeeds is in how much game the developers have included. That’s not too much surprise given that (1) Insomniac have plenty of experience as developers, and (2) what they’ve done here is fuse Pokemon and Farmville together into an ungodly union.

What might once have been described as the core gameplay involves the player exploring maps and fighting creatures along the way; this is all handled in a manner similar to anyone who’s played a Pokemon rip-off in the past (I say “rip-off” because I’ve never actually played an entry in the famous series, but I’ve occasionally poked the fly-ridden corpses of imitators with sticks). You own a cadre a range of creatures with a range of slotted attacks; creatures and many attacks have elemental characteristics and/or status affects. You apply these optimally and beat the crap out of the various cute critters that are apparently honour-bound to assault you. Kill, rinse, repeat. Occasionally you might capture a creature you like the look of and add it to your menagerie.

What’s wrapped around that involves levelling up your homeworldville with various buildings and pestering friends to send you gifts. The exact same shit that you see in most games of this type, in other words, and it’s every bit as tedious. But far more irritating to me than the energy limitation (which to me is a reminder to stop skiving and do something productive) are the huge range of item types. For example, an early quest asked me to build a training dojo and level a creature with it. Unfortunately this requires about six different item types each time, and four of those item types appear to be random drops bound to specific areas. As far as I can tell this means that I either have to reload areas and repeatedly dig up plants (these drop random items and cash, as one would obviously expect), pester my friends for help, or – yes! – use Insomniac’s monetisation strategy to skip that one item requirement.

Just so we’re all clear on this, it costs $5 to get 50 gems. Here’s an example of how many gems I might use for this one action:

Outernauts - monetisation

Needless over-complication of resources also helped drive me away from Dungeon Overlord, but 10,000 people play that every day so what do I know.

$5, incidentally, will buy you one or two games on GOG.com, although they don’t run on Facebook.

I think the idea is that people who aren’t willing to cough up the extra cash will just repeatedly load into the game, digging up plants and beating up wild creatures, until eventually they just happen to meet the requirements for their outstanding quests and they can clear the bloody things. They’re certainly not essential… at least not early on. The way of these games is usually to allow relatively unhindered progression early on and then steepen the curve once people are more invested.

Does Outernauts indulge in this cynicism? I couldn’t possibly say, because after a few hours spread over a few weeks I was pretty much done with the core gameplay. It’s a shame because there’s fun in here somewhere, over and above the numbers-go-up social-gaming-by-numbers fodder, and both the charming design and technical implementation are impressive. But as is so often the case the fun is lost somewhere deep in space, gasping for air as it drifts alone and forgotten.

And did you know that the other day I bought the latest Humble Indie Bundle for about $5? I mention this apropos of nothing in particular.

Outernauts - fight

Pumasear will invest his savings wisely.