So earlier this week, I mentioned something that to some of you, probably came off as unusual (har-de-har-har, right?). I was talking about E3, and mentioned that my hopes for an Outpost 2 successor hadn’t been met. Now, I should mention that I didn’t expect any sort of successor to Outpost 2 to be announced—after all, the original game was never that popular, and the developer that produced it is long since gone. That’s why you can freely grab a copy of Outpost 2 and play it: it’s abandonware. Abandonware that, while fun, does display a game that’s rough around the edges.
But I’m still playing it from time to time, despite the sheer brutality and often random cruelty the game deposits on me. I’m not kidding about that difficulty, btw, this game sometimes feels like a roguelike in that it just decides to randomly crush you for no reason other than you finally got a break. I had one game where after several attempts to dodge a lava flow, I successfully relocated my base to a mineral rich area, started to fend off attackers from a rival colony … and then watched as everything I’d ever built was leveled by an earthquake. Should have built more disaster relief centers, I guess.
And yet, every so often I go back to it, for one simple, strange reason: there is nothing like it, nor has been, since the game was released.
Which is why I found myself hoping for something close to it this year during E3. I knew it was a forlorn hope from the start; unless some team of indie developers all discover Outpost 2 or a team of old developers makes a successful kickstarter, the odds are against there ever being anything like, but I hoped all the same. I want to see another game like this, a game that meshes the management of a space colony struggling to survive with the military aspects of an RTS game. It’s a brilliant fusion, though it must be said that it stands against nearly everything the RTS genre has become in the last fifteen or so years since its release.
It’s also old, which is one of the reasons I’d like to see a new game tackle the concept. Outpost 2 is serviceable, and its unique mechanics are still fun, but at the same time there are a multitude of parts to the game now that feel clunky and outdated, or just not nearly as explored in-depth as they could be. Training of new workers, for example, is an early requirement that can only be fulfilled by a single structure and research path. If you don’t get this structure and the associated research completed in the first five or so minutes, you will die in the next ten. So every game becomes a rush to get this one thing that seems otherwise unimportant done. Clunky.
But I probably shouldn’t talk about where the game could improve. At least, not without explaining what the game does well that makes it so refreshing.
First of all, it’s a game about survival. Not in the traditional sense of survival against your fellow players, but survival against the elements. Your colonists need food. They need living space. They need medical attention. Morale needs to be managed and cared for. The post above? All those greenhouse-looking buildings in the middle of that colony are greenhouses. Agricultural domes, to use the game’s term. Each one provides a steady amount of food that in turn is consumed by the people living in the residences in the upper-right and lower-left corners of the screen.
Of course, meeting these needs means you need workers. Someone has to grow that food. And there need to be doctors in the hospitals, nurses in the nursery, scientists in your labs … and while the tools for dealing with these needs are simple (the game itself determines automatically where to distribute people until you step in and manually tell a building to go idle, which you should do because the game automatically will pick the worst buildings to go offline), you still need to deal with them. And of course you’ll need to make sure everyone has power, too. The game doesn’t require you to keep track of everything (water, for example, or air, though some research projects mention it), but most of the time when dealing with your colony you’re playing an administrator of sorts, trying to keep it all running smoothly.
Then there’s the environment. Nothing on the planet is static. Volcanoes erupt (as you can see above). Electrical storms brew, knocking out buildings. Meteors strike from time to time. Earthquakes. Tornadoes. The wrong strike at the wrong moment means bad things for your people, the loss of skilled scientists or even failure. You can’t rest easy most of the time.
Again, there’s a sense of clunk to it. The game certainly isn’t handling many of these things as adroitly as a modern game could. There need to be more options for dealing with many of the games problems, both in what those problems do and how you fix them. Most of them just boil down to time, metal, or instant-death/reload from save, which isn’t the greatest solution set. After a few games, you get a sense of “solve X problem by doing Y” and it’s always Y, which lowers the fun a bit.
But the game still captures, even in a simple way, that sense of survival. The momentary sense of panic when the alert comes up that “A scientist has died” and … oh no … they were the one keeping the hospital running can be pretty inspiring. Or the slow sense of creeping dread as a wall of lava slowly presses closer to you and your colony. Even with the limited tools, you fell better for conquering the challenges thrown your way.
Of course, a modern game could really help this out.
A lot of games these days make research either a fairly easy process (click some buttons and go in a straight line) or a very telling, straightforward one (here’s everything, so just pick the path you want to get what you need). Outpost 2 does neither.
First, it makes research a question of resources: time and scientists. You need to assign scientists to each research project … but that means pulling scientists away from somewhere else where they’re probably needed. Except sometimes you know you really need that research, and suddenly pulling a researcher away to keep the hospital running becomes a tall order.
It gets even riskier when you realize that rather than a tech-tree, you have a tech web … one that despite the small size compared to what it could be … can require some elements of risk. Sometimes research projects are fairly straightforward—such as a suggested engine research project that states outright its goal is to provide better engines for some of the cargo vehicles you’ll be using. Of course, as with in real science, often the researchers discover other things as well … so you may decide your cargo trucks don’t need better engines and then not realize until later that this research will also trigger a breakthrough in heavy vehicle frames you’ll need for tougher war machine production.
A lot of the research is like this. Quite a few of them even include the words “may” in them, as in “we may be able to do this.” And while you always get something—more research options for a start—sometimes what you get isn’t what you expected, or even what you need at the moment.
Then again, sometimes it is. Weapons research usually pays off.
The point is, this is a game where you are, at least until you know the general shape of the web, taking risks with every research project you assign. You’re hoping that each research project will give you the edge you need to survive a little longer, to beat back a storm, or a power shortage, or a food shortage, a housing shortage, mental health problems … and since scientists are (until late game) a very limited resource, you’re usually waiting ten-fifteen minutes or longer on these projects, hoping that they’ll pay off with what you hope. Worse—and this has happened to me—sometimes your desperately working to develop a counter of some kind to an attacker and you only have one or two scientists left researching it when—disaster! A scientists elsewhere on your base has died in an accident! Do you cancel your research and get the building they were running back up? Or do you push for the hope that you won’t need that archive until later?
Again, it’s not perfect. A modern game could do better. Much better. Make the research more spontaneous. Give players more options, more paths to follow. Have research show up in reaction to some of the goings on around the players colony. To be fair, some research only appears long after you’ve solved said problem with lower-tech means—like lava barriers. Good luck ever using those for their intended purpose.
But as clunky as it is, there’s a sense of satisfaction about it.
Every RTS these days (well, almost every one) has combat. That’s usually the goal. And to be fair, combat is one area where Outpost 2 doesn’t shine, but drag. The units are uncreative, the control is lackluster, and the units you control move in jerky, awkward lines that are bad enough to be Dune II on the Sega Genesis. And this is after building the robotics control structure that actually improves unit pathfinding, though interestingly enough that structure does as advertised. But the combat is pretty bad.
Save for one aspect that makes Outpost 2 so different: Morale. You see, in RTS games today, victory is easy. Build a base to pump out an army of hard-counters, then rush your opponent and win!
You can’t do that here. First, the game is a little early to the counter game. So you just need a mass of enough units. But there’s another factor. See, your colonists may not like you opponent … but they definitely don’t like the idea of humanity going extinct. And your opponents represent some of the last humans alive. So you can break their war-mongering power … but blow up a hospital? Their nursery? Their food production, starving them? Your people start to get uneasy. And while this means you can keep right on steamrolling your opponent, it also means everything back at your colony slows to a near halt as colonists, upset by your war crimes, get sloppy and inefficient.
Whoa. Can you imagine what a game of Starcraft would look like if killing your opponents workers made your own forces depressed? That’s what Outpost 2 is trying to do. And granted, it doesn’t do it great. Again, a modern game could do far better at making this a real, heavily impactful part of the system, making the warfare aspect of the game something that has to be carefully weighed as as a risk-reward system … but still, it’s a great idea. Not only that, but it’s a fairly real idea—do you think your people would really be happy to see you blow up the other sides nursery?
Heck, build a new game right, and you could have all sorts of scenarios for careful action—is the risk of losing productivity and morale among your colonists worth blowing up a minor outpost to get a resource you’ll soon need?
All of this is wrapped up in a design that is, sadly, counter to most RTS games these days. RTS games these days want to be fast. Fast so that players can quickly feel like a winner or quickly back away from the sting of losing. So fast they can throw everything into a make or break strategy and then see the results in less time than it takes to get a base up in old RTS games. And they keep going farther to compete with the lackluster attention span of the average RTS player—Blizzard has bragged that the match time in the newest iteration of Starcraft II will be under ten minutes per game. That’s not a game of strategy, that’s a game of dice. Halo matches last longer than that on a regular basis.
Outpost 2 is not a blink and you’ll miss it game. It’s a game that adds weight to your decisions. Research takes time. Construction takes time. Training takes time. Food-production takes time. Even getting your slow, heavy-duty cargo trucks back to base takes time.
And with that time comes anticipation. Fear. Worry that maybe you’ve made the wrong choice. Second-guessing yourself. We don’t see a lot of that in modern RTS games anymore—at least not any second-guessing that comes right before a player either concedes a match or the game ends.
Again, there’s things that could be improved here. Near the end of a game, a colony’s growth can outstrip the players ability to keep up with it, growing on an exponential curve and leading to overpopulation and crowding. Resource distribution and collection is grossly disproportionate to the rate you need it (there needs to be some sort of cumulative cost to things, an upkeep as well as a sliding scale of efficiency).
So … in the end, what do we have? We have a game that’s different, a game that blends two different genres of games into one fairly cohesive whole. The thing is, though, it’s not complete. Like I said, the game has problems. Balance issues. It’s playable, and it’s fun, but it’s hard not to see where it would benefit from a modern touch on all respects.
Am I dreaming? Sure. But this is my blog, and once and a while I think I’m allowed to indulge myself here. And right now, I’m indulging my brain in thinking I’d love to see a game in the direct style of Outpost 2 make a comeback. Forlorn? Sure. But hey, dreams are dreams. Maybe someday someone else who’s played this old gem will get a small train of thought that eventually pulls into the creative station, leading to a modern attempt on the genre itself. Probably one involving Kickstarter, given the game’s niche audience.
But hey, until then, Outpost 2 and its like may be abandoned by the industry, but they’re also abandoned by license, so if anything mentioned here caught your interest, you can grab a legal, fan-patched version of the game for modern systems here. Go ahead and give it a spin.
Just trust me and research “Training Programs” first thing. Then build the university and keep it running. After that, you’re on your own, but at least you won’t have a worker shortage (well, not too bad of one).