Outreach hands-on impressions

Outreach is a zero-gravity game, described by the design team as a “first-person floater.” And I have just floated off into the vacuum of space for a third consecutive time.

“Oh,” said the terribly nice woman next to me, who had walked me through the controls earlier, “that’s a shame.”

To its credit, Outreach is doing everything it can to help me here: if I press down on the right analog stick, it orients me toward my next destination; if I get close enough to an interactable object, a thick yellow outline and button prompt appears. Without an on-screen reticle, though, I’ve been using a mote of dust stuck to the screen as my guide-point while climbing from one exterior ladder to the next. A few of the jumps require a fair amount of precision, and air control — the myth of videogame physics that it is — cannot help me here.

I line up my camera with the next rung on an adjacent space station module and tap the right trigger for a careful, controlled burst. My cosmonaut’s body propels itself forward with frictionless, constant speed, as before — but I’ve misjudged the railing I need to grab by about six inches. I collide with the surface of the module instead and twist around desperately, trying to grab onto the railing before it drops out of reach again. This time, I make it.

We don’t celebrate our victory. I know I suck. I’m also over time and starting to clench my teeth, and there’s a film crew a few feet away from us announcing some sort of giveaway contest to their followers. It is not the ideal setting in which to appreciate the quiet, austere beauty of Outreach or the unforgiving precision demanded of its microgravity navigation. When I finally finish the demo, I feel a wave of relief more than any actual enthusiasm.

Reader, I have a confession to make, though it should be obvious at this point: I don’t like playing games in public.

This puts me at odds with the entire concept of E3, where the only private game time you’re likely to get is when you duck into a bathroom stall to catch up on your 3DS Street Passes. The best you can usually hope for is some one-on-one time in a cubicle. If you’re trying to play something on the expo show floor, with dozens of people lining up behind you waiting for their turn, gods help you if you even start to suck.

Outreach provides a better setting than most: we’re on a nice, comfortable couch in a climate-controlled camping trailer in Devolver Digital’s so-called “Indie Picnic,” a converted parking lot technically held across the street from E3 proper. But I am playing about as poorly as I might in the super-crowded expo halls. People watching make me nervous, and developers watching me play their games, even moreso.

It’s very possible I’d suck just as much at controlling this game in the comfort of my own home. But I’d have more than 15 minutes to get the hang of it before having to come out here and tell you my professional opinion on it. How am I supposed to provide a fair assessment of a small team’s uncompromising vision of a technically-accurate period piece set in low Earth orbit when I spent most of it running into walls or dying in the vacuum of space?

What I mean to say is: E3 isn’t actually a very good setting in which to explore many of the games it has on display.

Once I got the hang of Outreach‘s controls, I found its challenges pretty inviting. It reminds me of Adrift, but in a more claustrophobic 1980s Soviet setting — and with fewer failsafes. Cassette tapes and 3.5″ floppy disks float by as my cosmonaut moves from one CRT terminal to another, working to restore power and trying to ascertain the location of the crew he’s been sent to check in on. I can’t read the Cyrillic script printed above all the terminals, but I assume based on the rest of the demo’s painstaking accuracy that these are authentic as well.

I’m very much looking forward to a scenario where I can play Outreach at my own pace, on my own PC with some noise-cancelling headphones. Everything here is undeniably top-notch (including the voice acting, though I laughed when lead performer Adam Harrington said he based his Russian accent on Boris and Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle). Because this, here, at a conference, is just not the way to experience the game.

Another way of putting this would be: when my cosmonaut drifts, flailing and screaming, into the great black maw of the endless night, I want to be able to fully contemplate my errors.

Outreach is currently scheduled to launch later this year on PC and Mac. You can follow the game’s development on its official website.