Platform: XBLA (800 Microsoft Points)
Developer: Tragnarion Studios
Publisher: UFO Interactive
There's a lot to like about Scourge: Outbreak on paper. Tragnarion Studios may sound like a Game Of Thrones dynasty, but this small studio has spent months haranguing Microsoft to beat their shooter down from 1200 to 800 Microsoft points so that four friends can buy it for much less than a budget retail game. For just shy of £7 each, your quartet will get a 5-6 hour cooperative campaign with persistent progression, all of which trains you up for team-based PvP in a selection of maps. Buy together on the cheap, play together as a team. We love everything about this concept.
So it's such a shame that the game itself is a hopelessly derivative focus-tested mess of browns and greys, of hackneyed mechanics and decade-old design. You'll rarely see a game bring literally no ideas of its own to the table while obviously cribbing off so many other songsheets, both in terms of gameplay, art direction and tone. It's a generic singularity so powerful that no shred of originality or individuality can escape. Scourge Outbreak isn't just reminiscent of every third-person shooter you've ever played, it is every third-person shooter you've ever played.
Only cheaper. And worse.
The premise, such as it is, presents us with a po-faced mess of clichés. The monolithically evil Nogari corporation has managed to achieve world dominance by exploiting a mysterious meteorite and an army of clone soldiers, meaning that it's up to a hard-bitten team of mercenaries to extract a whistleblower and bring their machinations to an end. In steps Echo Squad (Delta Squad was already taken): a shaven-haired goon, masked assassin, icy female soldier and a woad-clad Scotsman to save the day. A grimly conventional plot unfolds over the four long levels with some twists you'll see coming hours in advance, forced down your throat in some thankfully skippable cutscenes, acting as little more than an overblown excuse for some carnage set in a prefabricated military facility.
Which is probably okay if the shooting holds up, and there's no excuse for it not to here. Drawing on Gears Of War and Mass Effect to an almost embarrassing degree, Scourge: Outbreak's mechanics are lifted straight out of practically every third person shooter on the market. You've got a small selection of assault rifles, shotguns, pistols and grenades. Cover to hide behind. Dodge rolls. Blind fire. Revives. Armed with this immediately-familiar framework, you'll blast your way through a selection of dull brown backtrack heavy stages in the search of switches to press, defence sections to hunker down in, turrets to man and an army of practically-identical masked soldiers to point your guns at. All the while following an omnipresent green objective diamond to your next switch. It's staggeringly generic stuff, if fun and intense in parts, with no attempt to add new encounters or ideas to the Gears formula. At best, Scourge: Outbreak works as you'd expect, but everything feels a little off.
Each Echo operative ostensibly boasts different stats, but regardless of who you choose (the loadout selection is identical), weapon handling is floaty, imprecise and lacks any hint of real impact when bullets connect. Taking cover is always a gamble, since some cover can't be mantled over despite being the perfect size, while you'll sometimes be unable to shoot over it for no apparent reason. Grenade throwing requires manual selection and release of both triggers, often leading to you accidentally cooking it in your hands. Worse still, reloading or melee attacking automatically takes you out of ironsights even if you're still holding down the trigger, meaning that you'll need to release and pull it again to resume your attack. These problems could have been ignored if Scourge: Outbreak did something - anything - new or original, but we're forced to compare it to its source material. And find it wanting.
Much has been made of character-specific special abilities, but unlike Borderlands, Fuse and other cooperative shooters, the term 'character-specific' is somewhat misleading. There are two abilities, which all four Echo squaddies possess: an AoE shockwave and limited shield that draw upon a laboriously-generated power supply. Both skills come in two separate flavours: dynamic (move while activated) and static (obvious), meaning that there are four different combinations in all. And four characters. Do the math. You'll also earn persistent passive buffs as you play by killing foes and reviving allies, but they seem to make little difference to the overall gameplay experience and seem a little inappropriate for a game that lasts 5-6 hours.
AI manages to be a major sticking point. Nogari grunts lack basic self-preservation, often randomly hopping in and out of cover or charging your defensible position. They're risibly stupid in the main, but feel like well-drilled marines compared to a menagerie of spideresque horrors who hang up on the scenery and make your life a misery with almost-invisible streams of toxic goo. On the flipside, friendly squad AI is intriguingly inconsistent, in that they're capable of feats of insane brilliance and utter stupidity within the same firefight. Sometimes you'll see a squad member activate their shield to protect themselves while reviving you (awesome!), but a minute later they'll ignore an enemy in front of their face or refuse to get into a lift and force a checkpoint restart (boo!).
Despite the weak AI, Scourge: Outbreak is not an easy game. Nogari's goons have clearly spent more time in the firing range than in the classroom, boasting pinpoint accuracy at long range and a propensity for spamming grenades. The aforementioned arachnid horrors attack en masse and can easily overrun your position. Every enemy takes at least one more shotgun blast, melee attack or assault rifle burst to kill than you'd expect, acting as tough damage sponges. It's all too easy to get taken down if you don't carefully advance as a team, leading to replaying enormous swathes of level over again thanks to punitive checkpoint locations. In singleplayer, this can make Scourge: Outbreak an exercise in frustration... but we have to note that Tragnarion designed the game to be played cooperatively.
With a friend or three involved - Tragnarion provided us with two codes for this purpose - Scourge: Outbreak becomes much more engaging. The tough enemies encourage you to use your shield effectively and provide cover for your squadmates, all while flanking your opponents and downing priority targets. Many games are simply just more fun in co-op due to the company of friends, but here, the game starts to show its true colours, and helps to even out the low points with some much-needed teamwork. Some levels open out into wider arenas to offer you some tactical breadth, or opportunities to get the drop on enemy spawns. Though still shonky and gutlessly derivative, Scourge: Outbreak is eminently superior with some buddies at your back.* Play as a team or don't show up.
Sadly, the visual side of things knocks Scourge: Outbreak back down again. It's a game without any artistic merit whatsoever; a grab bag of overplayed design elements thrown together in a recklessly haphazard way. Your over-designed squad members resemble a bizarre mash-up of Crysis nanosuits with Mass Effect and Too Human motifs chucked in for good measure, while most of the guns might as well carry an N7 logo. Levels rarely break out of rusty military trappings; a sea of murky brown and gunmetal grey without end. Foes resemble every gas-masked soldier you've ever encountered, barring the more animalistic combatants who channel Aliens and Necromorphs in equal measure. Add in some underwhelming texture work, stiff animations and clipping glitches and you've got a recipe for retinal atrophy.
Once you've completed the campaign, you'll discover a well-featured set of PvP modes to indulge in. Scourge: Outbreak is designed so that your four-man team can segue straight from the campaign into the online arena, favouring 4-on-4 deathmatches and capture the flag in some intimate maps. Though basic, the shield and shockwave mechanics do add some welcome depth to the proceedings, and make teamwork feel much more rewarding than it does in the campaign. There's definitely some fun to be had here, despite yet another lack of genuinely new ideas.
Unfortunately, I can only tell you this because I managed to get hands-on at a recent preview event, since it's currently very difficult to get a game online. Ranked and unranked matchmaking takes an eternity and yields little results, meaning that I eventually had to host a private game just to test it out. Though this could well be down to broken matchmaking netcode, I strongly suspect that there's simply no-one online.
Ultimately we have to come back to that price, and Tragnarion's effort to keep it as low as possible. Scourge: Outbreak doesn't cost £39.99, it's just £6.80, offering some flawed if functional co-op and PvP shooting for its budget RRP. We have to give credit where credit's due, but in the end, Scourge: Outbreak does nothing new or original to distinguish it from any number of games you already own. You won't have to spend a lot of money, but it's still money for old rope.
- 5-6 hours of cooperative campaign and online PvP
- Genuinely better in co-op, can be tough and intense
- 800 MSP for a functional co-op and PvE shooter
- Hopelessly derivative and generic; bereft of any new ideas whatsoever
- Gunplay and shooting mechanics feel floaty and unsatisfying
- Cookie-cutter campaign seemingly lifted from other shooters; weak AI, frustrating in singleplayer
- Bland and brown art direction; hackneyed po-faced script and sound design
- Difficult to find games online - either matchmaking is broken or no-one's playing
The Short Version: Average at best and abysmal at worst, Scourge: Outbreak lacks even the tiniest shred of originality to lift its gutlessly derivative gameplay above the crowd. 800 Microsoft Points may be a generous price for the amount of raw campaign and PvP content, but ultimately, it's still money for old rope, and a game that you probably already own several times over.
*On co-op: Despite being ostensibly designed and priced for four players to buy and instantly start playing together, there's an odd barrier to entry. The first tutorial mission can only be played solo and cannot be skipped, blocking any friend invites during setup and the duration. Bizarrely, you'll all need to choose a character, complete the first mission in singleplayer... then quit... then start a cooperative session... then choose characters again... before finally starting to play as a team. For the life of me, I can't work out why the tutorial wasn't completely optional and accessible via a separate menu.