Star Wars Outlaws feels about as Han Solo-ish as, well, an Ubisoft open world game

I’ve been trying to figure out what “scoundrelly” means in a videogame context. Whatever it means, Han Solo homage Star Wars Outlaws ain’t it. Here are some basically non-scoundrelly, very Ubisofty things I did during my 60 minute with Massive Entertainment’s open world adaptation at Summer Game Fest this week: climbed around rectangular arrangements of yellow handholds. Shot at baddies over rectangular cover layouts. Collected 7/10 pieces of scrap with some Star Wars flavour text that unlocked an item recipe of some kind. Deployed my chibi Chewbacca sidekick Nix to distract Imperials with cute wiggles and belly boops so I could sneak behind them. Got discovered sneaking behind them and murdered them all before one could run to a terminal and summon reinforcements. OK, maybe that last one is getting there.

Crept through vents, shot at slightly out-of-view power nodes to switch on doors and elevators, abseiled from precisely placed grappling icons, hurried through collapsing derelicts that blew up according to an obvious script. Hacked a door using a rhythm-matching minigame and hacked a terminal by figuring out the right sequence of glyphs. Pecked a few Tie Fighters to shrapnel in my Trailblazer starship, and zipped around a chunk of desert on my speeder. Watched a few cutscenes in which protagonist Kay, a plucky young smuggler who has double-crossed a galactic crime syndicate, attempts to bluff her way past former associates. Kay talks a lot – every mission is a litany of notes to self about your next waypoint – but she’s got minimal stage presence. Watching her stall for time feels less like Han vs Greedo than somebody complaining her way out of a parking ticket.

Kay, the star of Star Wars Outlaws, exploring a derelict ship
Image credit: Ubisoft

Star Wars Outlaws is probably a fun weekend in with a family-sized bag of chips, but it’s no scoundrel. There’s nothing really flamboyant or roguish or improvisational about the experience so far, and while it has a couple more sides to it than the average Ubisoft blockbuster – not least an open world broken across multiple planets, each ruled by different gangster families – it also doesn’t really have a standout feature, beyond the fact that it’s a Star War.

It does a fairly good job of being a Star War, mind you. Developer Massive seem a great fit for the Lucasverse inasmuch as their previous Division games are object-worlds as exotic and scattered and greebly as any Mos Eisley cantina – fallen cityscapes with an obsessively recreated minutiae of bodybags and graffiti and crates of rations in all the colours of the rainbow. You feel that knack for location design the second you set foot in one of Outlaws’ cities. There are skeevy locals lounging against walls or bars, gossiping about sabaac or the ruling crims. There are glitchy holographic ads and ship traffic overhead and gusts of industrial vapour and a rich stew of noise from heaving drug dens and marketplaces.

I don’t think it’s as mesmerising as, say, that first step out into Night City, but it’s got enough ambience to lure you away from your waypoint. It’s just that everything you do within and around these places is at best formulaic and at worst, undecided.

Your ship in Star Wars Outlaws, fighting Tie Fighters near a planet
Image credit: Ubisoft

The game’s combat feels unsure about whether Kay is a Hannah Solo or a sneaky escape artist or a Thomasina Clancy. Your dashing, modestly upgradeable pistol aside, you can make temporary use of chunkier, on-map weapons such as forceshielded heavy blasters and charge-to-fire sniper rifles, sending your Ewoky cat acquaintance to scoop them up while you cower behind the shrubbery. You can also have Nix yank the pin from an enemy’s thermal detonator (they never seem to notice in time), or pounce on a foe’s head to tie them up for a few seconds.

In general, Nix is the MVP, because he is secretly a Division drone in axolotl’s clothing. Between his tactical assists, and your ability to do headshoots and overload personal shields with ion ammo, you can mow down battalions of Stormtroopers with relative ease. But I’m not sure Outlaws wants you to do that. The vaunted gunfeel is hesitant and, I think, deliberately short on flair: it’s just pouring blaster bolts into health bars, with opponents blowing about the layout doing combat barks without much ceremony or style.

The stealth is similarly dutiful: Nix remains the MVP, luring Stormtroopers out of position with a reliability which seems forced even by Stormtrooper standards, while you scurry towards terminals and hatchways. The corridor platforming bits are uninspired pieces of stagecraft in which you can often predict the cadence of rubble falling off the ceiling or walkways crumbling beneath you. And the spaceship combat feels, at times, like driving Dodgems underwater, with stop-start acceleration and open world contrivances such as Imperial arrays you can hack to make all the pursuing Imperial pilots forget your existence.

Kay, the star of Star Wars Outlaws, walking through a desert canyon
Image credit: Ubisoft

Again, I think all of this will probably add up into somebody’s idea of a good time, specifically a Star Warrior who’s not played any Ubisoft games for a while. Bland and unwilling as the mechanics can be, they’re an adequate delivery mechanism for the setting. I’m just not sure it’s possible to recreate the specific energy of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in an open world shooter such as this. Han Solo is a mix of clown and cowboy: he’s courageous and crafty with a good eye, but he’s fundamentally a faker who relies on a mixture of luck and charisma and Chewbacca. I don’t think you can plot that kind of thing out as a cover-hugging tactics-me-do – the closest anyone has ever gotten is Uncharted. Let’s hope MachineGames fare better with Solo’s brother-from-another-genre Indiana Jones.

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