Outreach, a story-driven historical thriller, was the best game I saw at E3 2017

All’s fair in love and cold war

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Outreach got lucky. It’s a Gone Home-like on a Russian space station set during the Cold War, and features no science fiction elements. I like Gone Home quite a bit, I love alternate history fiction, and I just started watching The Americans, which is just as good as everybody said it was. So you’ve got a narrative-driven historical thriller that reminds me of my new favorite TV show, and it’s being shown away from the crowded E3 show floor. Of course I would be all about that. Of course I have a mountain of personal preference to overcome. Of course this game looks fantastic despite my own inclinations.

Much like the Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion, the execution is just as good as the core idea. The space station feels as lived-in as you could expect from a game that has to work within the constraints of period technology, the dialogue flows well between protagonist Dimitri and the voice of Mission Control, and the space sequence where Dimitri leaps from handrail to handrail unmoored on the outside of the station was ass-clenchingly thrilling.

In Outreach, a Russian space station goes dark, so they send up a cosmonaut (you) to find out what’s going on. Producer James Booth insisted – multiple times – that Outreach was not a science fiction game; it’s a “historical fiction” game. I like the idea that good old human error is at fault here, so if any aliens or Mars ghosts show up, thanks for making a fool of me in public, Booth.

One of the biggest inspirations for Outreach came from people like Vasili Arkhypov, a Russian submarine commander who kept the Cold War from escalating when he refused to launch nuclear missiles from his sub. “[Arkhypov was] an individual who had a defining moment in the cold war, but isn’t known to the general public,” Booth said. “Those kind of people are fascinating to me.” Outreach takes place during one such scenario, but the fictionalized incident was covered up by the Russian government. I love historical fiction that pulls from historical inspiration, rather than the kind of speculative works that apply fictional concepts to history. “What if the Nazis/Communists won???” is boring as hell. Give me the smaller moments that plug the holes in historical record.

If Outreach has a weakness, it’s the movement system. It’s a lot of launching yourself off walls and bouncing around the space station, which usually makes the camera spin like crazy. Motion sickness doesn’t come easily to me (unless we’re talking VR), so it was more disorientating than disquieting, but I can see how other people might have trouble with it.

I threw out many, many comparisons during my time with the game – GravityAdr1ftGone HomeThe AmericansTacoma, Event Horizon, Apollo 13, Apollo 18 – but after distilling my Rolodex of pop culture references, Outreach reminds me of Firewatch more than anything. It’s a conspiracy thriller where you play a low-level grunt taking orders from a friendly but sardonic voice in your head. We’ll have to see if Outreach sticks the landing better than Firewatch, but I’m optimistic.

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Mike Cosimano
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