STAR WARS OUTLAWS

Star Wars Outlaws Is A Rebel Without A Cause

After spending two days with MASSIVE Entertainment, Outlaws feels more elusive than ever.

Ubisoft has a type and it’s probably not the one that just came to mind for you. While the proliferation of open-world tropes and checklists can be, loosely, laid at the feet of the global mega-publisher, Ubisoft’s actual type is far loftier. I’ve spent a lot of time with developers working under the Ubi banner, in different corners of the globe developing wildly different projects, but the one consistent thing among all of them is a raw, unbridled passion for the idea of the next Ubisoft game. No matter the genre, there’s a consistency of enthusiasm and idealism around whatever Ubisoft project is up next. MASSIVE Entertainment, operating out of Malmö Sweden with a network of support studios at their back, has an idea of an idea.

It’s often said that working on the Star Wars IP is a dream come true. The people who were kids wearing out a VHS of Empire Strikes Back; the (now despondent) millennial who thinks the prequels are fine but, really, it’s The Clone Wars that did it right; even the new kids on the block sporting cheesy canon novels and calling their dogs Kylo. Cast your net as wide as you want and you still couldn’t possibly encapsulate every flavour of Star Wars fan and MASSIVE has thrown their net with evident gusto.

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This has manifested as Star Wars Outlaws, a new story set between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi that follows a young woman, Kay Vess, and her axolotl-bird-dog Nix as the two navigate the thorny underbelly of the galaxy. Pitched, extensively, as the “scoundrel” experience that fans of Star Wars’ roguish bounty hunters and Spice runners archetypes have always craved, ratcheted up to eleven through the first truly open-world Star Wars game to hit the market.

Across two full days spent with the team, we sat through hours’ worth of presentations and talks about the vision for Outlaws. Breaking bread and cracking cold ones over talks of favourite films and franchise fatigue. Roaming offices adorned with collages of Nix and a stray BB8 unit guarding a whiteboard full of secrets (doodles of aliens and printed memes). Everywhere you went, you got the impression this is a game being made by people with a deep reverence for Star Wars. By the fans, for the fans. Six words that will give you a feeling about this, one way or another.

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Criminal Minds

Kay Vess is on top of the world. Perched atop her speeder bike, skidding against nothing in an anti-gravity BMX without the wheels kind of way, she surveys a sweeping vista that nestles comfortably between Americana frontier and fantastical alien plain. An unknown species of bird flocks overhead, the sun is low but in just the right way to bathe the land in a golden, picturesque glow. The world is opening up before her, all Kay needs to do is…go.

“I go back to the idea of Kay being one of us. I think there’s something to someone who’s on the ground, not part of that larger galactic battle, that just felt very universal” Outlaws Narrative Director Navid Khavari tells me as we reflect on the described image above, a sprawl the team uses as a tonal genesis for Outlaws. It preceded hours of information about Kay and the world around her, but the core idea the team keeps hitting is that of the scoundrel fantasy, a role in the Star Wars universe almost exclusively filled by high-profile men, until now. For Khavari and the team though, designing Kay was primarily focused on the universal power fantasy.

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“I think we really just approach it from the perspective of who Kay is. It’s about keeping focus. What are we trying to tell here? This is a story of someone who’s grown up with nothing, is scraping by to survive, who is taking on jobs and maybe not doing so well with them…and essentially ends up with this bounty on her back,” he explains, Outlaws primarily about Kay’s volatile relationship with the crime syndicates leading up to one last job that is going to set her up to finally live free of the galaxy’s push and pull. “That’s what we were focused on, is how does a character like this grow and change? How do we keep them relatable as well?”

­A big part of that relatability seems to have emerged from Kay’s actress, Humberly González. “You write the game throughout the whole development process, really. You have multiple recording sessions, and you get to hear things in-game with the character and really hear the character’s voice as you’re writing it,” Khavari continues, “…that really makes it come to life and find its own little place and Humberly brought so much character. I think it helped a lot.”

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It isn’t hard to see why González made such an impression on the team; born in Venezuela, the actor/director got her start in the critically acclaimed Orphan Black but has since worked with Ubisoft on multiple projects including last year’s Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. Watching her work in behind-the-scenes footage for Outlaws, her energy and presence is infectious, and playing the game, she has the exact kind of charisma required to fill the fabled shoes of Star Wars’ outlaw archetype.

F*** The Empire

But my mind caught on a detail in Kay’s backstory, her home planet of Canto Bight, one of the newer additions to Star Wars canon introduced in the divisive second instalment of the Sequel Trilogy, The Last Jedi. In the film, and indeed in Outlaws, Canto Bight is a world defined by decadence– an Outer Rim haven for wealth, gambling, and excess, the planet is a breeding ground for scum and villainy the likes of which Star Wars rarely bothers tackling. It is a deeply political component of the film and Kay’s scoundrel fantasy is, at least so far, being pitched as coyly apolitical.

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“I think our focus was what’s organic when you think of where Kay comes from and what she’s experienced,” Khavari explains when asked about how growing up in such an environment will impact Kay’s views, “This is a moon in the middle of nowhere. She doesn’t know about the Jedi. She doesn’t know much even about the Empire. She just knows that they’re in charge. That evolution is more about, ‘wow, okay, their reach goes quite far’”. The reach in question seems to be largely focused on the game’s Wanted system, a riff on the escalating levels of chaos associated with violent or disruptive actions done by the player in any given location. Each raised level will bring more of the Empire’s goons down on your head, resulting in iconic foes for Kay to run and gun with.

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It’s a cool system but not the kind of implementation of the galaxy’s wider ideologies I was hoping for and Khavari, considered and evidently passionate, seems to clock this. “We definitely want to leave some room for players to find out some more when they play on August 30th. But I think especially that perspective, and that’s what I’d really hammer home, that perspective of, ‘I’m not a rebel. I’m not one of them. I’m definitely not one of the Empire. How do I find my place in the galaxy?’ was crucial to her story, and that’s something she’s going to be discovering as she goes.”

“It’s really that thing of Kay representing all of these people and beings across the galaxy who are just trying to survive. They can’t afford to worry about the fate of the galaxy and whoever is in control because that doesn’t really matter to them,” he continues, “They’re so busy with their own personal life and so on. That’s what has shaped Kay a lot and why she doesn’t really have aspirations to do something greater or anything like that. It’s a cutthroat galaxy, and she’s just looking out for herself in it. Kay is not a political operator, she’s a scoundrel” he concludes.

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There’s something to this, the idea of following a character throughout the Star Wars galaxy whose apathy toward its wider machinations is fuelled by the harshness of her upbringing on such a place as Canto Bight. The Last Jedi itself dabbled in this concept, leaning harder into a nihilistic take on it, but rarely has a Star War seemingly declared itself so uninterested in a perspective on the galaxy’s issues. Outlaws, with its hyperfocus on the rollicking power fantasy of being a scoundrel, may or may not find room to expand on this choice throughout its runtime. But when working with elements of Star Wars that pivot around the galaxy’s nastier edges, it’s at least interesting to note how avoidant the marketing material has been to acknowledge the dissonance. 

“It All Comes Back To Lucas”

It isn’t fair to say that this lack of perspective is something that the rest of Outlaws exhibits, but between the impressive technical achievements of the Snowdrop engine and the clear and present love for all things Star Wars within the team, you start to notice things. MASSIVE have moved mountains to best emulate the visual language of the films, or more specifically, some of them. Working their way from George Lucas’ original works all the way to the fan favourite 2016 Rogue One (itself an emulation of a fabled house style), MASSIVE’s vision for Outlaws is evidently one of comforting familiarity, down to the finest detail.

RELATED:  Star Wars Outlaws' Teams Created Whole Bibles Of Research To Build Its Worlds

Over the next month, we’ll be taking a deep dive into some of the ways this was achieved but even at a glance, you can clock the level of care. The game sports a slick 21:9 cinematic ratio, which is entirely optional but having played with it both on and off, feels essential to moment-to-moment framing and shot composition. Elsewhere, Outlaws is using real-time colour grading and a small army of lens effects to keep the image perfectly balanced between modern fidelity and nostalgic glow. Likewise, the game’s sound has been kept as authentic as possible, the team going so far as to record using a Nagra 4.2 recorder, the same type used back in the 80s, for analogue warmth.

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These efforts sprawl across Outlaws’ impressive scope in myriad ways. Nearly sixty-two thousand lines of recorded dialogue, half that again in specifically alien dialects. MASSIVE’s pedigree with shooters (the team’s work on The Division series certainly a different beast to Outlaws, a change they described as a pointed shift in power fantasy tone) layered with their desire to have Kay’s arsenal feel narratively appropriate and humble. Dozens of real-world locations scouted and referenced to craft the game’s half-dozen explorable planets including a wholly new creation, the rustic moon of Toshara.

“Toshaal is like a large gas giant that Toshara circles around and that creates a very turbulent atmosphere in the space region. Whenever a ship jumps in, if you don’t know how to navigate this very scientific gravitation current, you would have a hard time. So you see that in space there are a lot of shipwrecks, a lot of broken down ships that are fairly old. It gives us the freedom to do a lot with the elements on the surface.” Outlaws’ art and world director Benedikt Podlesnigg excitedly explains as we unpack what MASSIVE could do with an original planet in the Star Wars galaxy, “So we created this whole culture around the Toshari where you see all these connections to the space debris in the sky. They use that as building material. They repurposed these materials because there’s very little raw materials that are useful on Toshara because of the Amberien.”

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It’s one of MASSIVE’s cooler choices, heavily modelling Toshara after the windswept plains of Tanzania, right down to foliage dispersion and raw geography. The Star Wars of it all comes from the Amberien, a striking substance the colour of a sunset that ripples through the rockface of the planet and will undoubtedly play a role in things to come. Along with an expansive Tatooine map, the exotic rainforests of Akiva (shoutout to the Aftermath books, what a deep cut), and the snow-covered city streets of Kijimi (Rise of Skywalker jumpscare), Outlaws won’t be short of frontier fantasies to roam and sketchy underworld locations to skulk through.

Out Gun, Out Run, Outlaws

What Outlaws isn’t though, is overwhelmingly big. Ubisoft’s feature and size creep has reached untold levels in recent franchise material like the Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, but MASSIVE says they’ve learnt the right lessons from fan reactions. In a conscious counterpoint to the expected, Outlaws has been crafted with intentionality and focus as guiding principles, giving the player something of a goldilocks situation with explorable locations, craftables, outfits, and collectables but without succumbing to bloat, allowing the team to streamline the narrative and overall pacing. Likewise, while Kay’s relationship with the different crime organisations can be somewhat pushed and pulled through your choices to help or hinder, the story won’t deviate from its intended endpoint.  

We’ve already had a chance to go hands-on with Outlaws at Summer Games Fest and running through these missions again with the MASSIVE team offered some interesting insight. There’s a lot of talk around the action verbs of the game (pointedly “climb” and explore”) and the kind of emotional co-op provided by running missions with Nix at your side (the little goober can distract guards, scan for them, be fucking adorable etc), but the actual act of playing Outlaws is disarmingly familiar. A distant cousin of the Uncharted clamber and shoot experience, Outlaws is a cinematic vibe piece first and foremost in these early missions, the team’s aesthetic efforts on full display while the gameplay takes a relaxed, backseat approach.

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Across space battles, wrecked ship exploration, and stealthy heists, Kay and Nix broadly control smoothly and without much (intended) friction. There’s a lot of nuance to unpack around these instances in the weeks to come but there is an undeniable level of enjoyment raised by simply being in a Star War. Planets will each house established settlements to ensure no matter where you are, you can play in-universe mini-games, bet on Fathier races, or try your hand at Sabacc. These spaces have been painstakingly considered by Associate World Director Cloe Hammoud, who tells me of entire design bibles for each planet that she got to develop with Lucasfilm. “We push a lot the world-building and we create a lot of documentation, not only for the team to understand how to realise and execute things, but also making sure Lucasfilm understand our intentions,” she explains, “We create a whole backstory for the planet, for the people that live there, for all of these different ingredients, natural materials, but also architecture-wise, to make sure we create something that feels very consistent.” 

Having spent some time aimlessly wandering the streets of Toshara’s main settlement, this approach has paid off for the team. Most corners house a neat little thing to smile at, a reference or point of intrigue to be followed. At one point I accidentally roamed beyond the bounds of the demo and while I can’t talk to what I saw, I can say it made me genuinely feel something. The lights and sounds of that mythical galaxy far, far away are inherently magical for countless people and seeing it realised with such precision and care here is captivating, if not always mechanically compelling.

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Fans will be eating good, basically. As MASSIVE walked us through the overarching design principles of Outlaws, touchstones of Star Wars productions were hit with the expected reverence. A world that feels lived in and tactile? Bringing everything they do back to Lucas? Characters and locations from across the pantheon of Star Wars movies, comics, books and more? It’s all here, and all smoothed into the mould of an approachable, open-world action adventure. Imagine the warm charm of Lucas’ original films with the refined cleanliness of The Mandalorian and you’re at the doorstep of Outlaws.

A Long Time Ago, And Even Further Away

And what a familiar stoop it is. While Outlaws has the makings of a potentially unique take on the Star Wars galaxy, with its female-led exploration of the underworld and freeform take on spaces typically reserved for linear design schools, the vibe around the game is oddly bullish. Draped in reverence for a vision of the galaxy crafted decades ago by a goofball with a love of matinee cinema, ten bucks, and a dream, MASSIVE’s massive development apparatus bent around this specific creative reference point feels like a calculated effort to rock the boat as little as possible.

In a sense I sympathise; Star Wars fans are vocally resistant to change, the comfort zone established by Lucas in the 70s and bottled, to varying degrees of success, by Disney is potent and bountiful. There’s a reason efforts like The Last Jedi draw ire while Rogue One flourishes. When crafting a new tale in the galaxy, especially one with a woman of colour at its centre, the choice to pamper audiences as much as possible is tactile but undeniably valid. Two days with MASSIVE was enough to feel the genuine Fan vibes in the building and Outlaws reflects this shared perspective between developer and player.

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But Star Wars also thrives with change. Lucas’ blueprint is hallowed, yes, but it’s only a part of a wider cultural tapestry the franchise has since grown to reflect. The best part of the Disney expansion era has been the varied stories we’ve gotten to see told in these stars; Jedi Survivor’s examination of the Jedi Order, Andor’s hardline rebuttal to apolitical indifference, The Mandalorian’s (initially) streamlined Western romp, Visions finally giving creative license back to cultures Star Wars has liberally “lifted” from for decades. There’s palpable excitement to be mined when Star Wars is allowed to grow, to have a perspective.

There’s a metric freighter load of talent in the halls of MASSIVE, and across the globe running support, but we’ll have to wait until next month to find out if Outlaws has more on its mind than a scoundrel fantasy. It will undoubtedly be fun, there’s joy and comfort in a chill romp between a plucky kid and her weird space dog, and the craft is genuinely quite impressive. But while Kay Vess might be speeding toward that golden horizon, Outlaws seems largely unconcerned with what could actually lie beyond it.

Star Wars Outlaws launches on August 30th for PS5, Xbox Series X|S and PC. Amazon has pre-orders available for $89 with free release day delivery for Prime members.


James was a guest of Ubisoft with travel and accommodation covered for the purpose of this preview.