Outcast: Something Different

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Jan 23, 2007

Filed under: Game Reviews 19 comments

Eloj had this to say in the Neverwinter Nights Nitpick post:

I think that, somewhat ironically, we might be seeing engines going back to “software” renderers. CPU core numbers are creeping up, and raytracing for instance can be rather easily parallelized (well…).

The only “problem” is the enormous inertia built into the industry when it comes to knowledge and technology (do you think nVidia and AMD/ATI would like to see their precious IP and know-how going down the drain?) about polygonial engines. All this stuff with shadows and “dumb” lightning models is because of the polygon based (or maybe rather “raster based”) roots of current 3D tech, that all goes away if you change the basics. Raytracing gives perfect shadows, and as good lighting as you can spend cycles on, every time.

I thought I’d mention a game where this did happen – where a developer just ignored all current 3d trends and struck out on their own. Outcast came out in 1999, so the game is about eight years old now. Keep that in mind when looking at the screenshots below.

The game uses voxels for rendering instead of polygons. (Actually, I think it uses voxels for scenery, and polygons for characters.) Voxels are sort of a strange technology that never really caught on. Voxels are really, really good at making nice, round terrain that doesn’t have the pixelization or tiling you get with polygon-based terrain. However, voxels kind of suck for making square objects or things with hard edges.

If you look at the screenshot below, you’ll see a lot of what I’m talking about. The line of grey jaggies to the left of the main character (the guy in the orange shirt) is the top of a set of stairs. This hard, square edge looks like terrible from this angle. This is the drawback of using voxels.


The game was software-only – it couldn’t make use of a 3d card. It didn’t have the advantages of 3d acceleration, but it didn’t have any of the limitations, either. This means that a lot of the rendering effects in the game were well ahead of their time. It had normal-mapping – then called bump-mapping – which takes a flat textured surface and alters the way light strikes it to make it look like it is “bumpy”.

You can see how the folds of clothing really look like creased surfaces and not like a flat texture with areas of light and dark on it. The folds of clothing on the different characters all agree on which way the light source is aiming. Without bump / normal mapping, different characters (or different parts of the same character) will all be doing their own thing, each one suggesting that the light is coming from a different direction. The result is the the eye stops falling for the faux-bumpyness and recognizes them all as flat surfaces.

Note also that your character casts a real shadow, instead of just projecting a blob of circular darkness onto the ground at his feet, which is how other games were doing shadows in 1999.

It had depth-of-field, which even today is one of those features that is usually only available for people with high-end graphics hardware. I forgot to enable it for this screenshot, but the effect is a bit subtle. It just made stuff in the distance look blurry. This is great for simulating the way movies look (stuff in the foreground is sharp, stuff in the background is out of focus) as well as covering the voxel jaggies on buildings in the distance.


The game had other breakthroughs as well, such as expansive outdoor areas without walls or load screens.


It had bump-mapped water with environment mapping, which even today looks fantastic.

The fact that the game depended on the CPU for rendering meant that it was very fill-rate sensitive. The screenshots you see here are taken from the game in the super-extra-high resolution of 512×384, which is as high as it will go. In 1999, that was about the size of “low resolution mode” in other games, and today most games can’t go that low. Still, I’ve always believed that making better pixels is more important than making more pixels.

Quite an interesting game, technology-wise. I never saw anything else like it, and indeed a lot of the effects – like bump-mapping on characters – I didn’t see again until Thief 3.


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19 thoughts on “Outcast: Something Different

  1. bkw says:

    I've always believed that making better pixels is more important than making more pixels.

    Obviously you are a heretic, and must be burned at the stake.

  2. Presence says:

    Outcast is without question one of the most vibrant games from that time period, and is indeed a great example of what an underused technology is capable of.

    Those screen shots look to be from the initial world (Shamazaar I think), which I honestly thought was by far the worst looking. I remember Shamazaar as a pea soup green collection of tiered rice fields. The forest world (Okaar) and water world (Okasankaar), were superior examples of the capacity voxels had for creating colorful and irregularly shaped objects. The forest world had a huge variety of colors and nicely done objects, and the water world’s use of color really lent a profound feeling of the islands’ remoteness in a vast sea.

    The game itself was fairly fun, albeit a little trite and with some severe pacing issues. (It was VERY easy to fulfill plot points out of order)

  3. Vegedus says:

    Nice indeed. You have a point. I always was anit-aliasing > resolution, so you have a point about “better” pixels. But how would you solve that voxel weakness?

  4. Rich says:

    I loved the look of the (voxel) terrain in the Comanche attack chopper sims. Hmmm. Think I’ll check HOTU…

  5. Tom Zunder says:

    How does it run on a modern processor then?

  6. Shamus says:

    The framerate is excellent on a modern systems. I did discover there is a bug where your Twon-ha (the two-legged beasts you see in the screencaps) won’t move when you try to ride them unless you slow down your CPU.

  7. John says:

    One of the best adventure action games of the last 20 years – yes, I did say ‘adventure action’ as this definitely had adventure first unlike today’s ACTION adventures! The worlds and characters were some of the most immersive and the back story absolutely immense with a ton of information to find about – not like today’s shallow stories in linear games!

    Also, for those trying this and having the riding the Twon-Ha and wading through the reece problems, download a laptop energy saving program(!) called SpeedSwitchXP. It’s freeware, and when set to ‘battery saving’ it makes you PC act like a 1ghz single core PC!!! This solves all the above problems with the game! :)

  8. David says:

    I’m a landscape painter by training and for me even relatively current games like Crysis lack the specific atmospheric quality that Outcast brought to the table. It works because like all good art it is true to its medium which is the pixel. The bugs were obscene but the score and voxels overcame all. Thanks for the memories

  9. Andreas says:

    This game is awesome !

    But if you have the Twon-ha problem, Then you can download a program called: CPU grabber that will slowdown your cpu so you can ride Twon-ha`s !

  10. ar4ever says:

    The fact that the game depended on the CPU

  11. fefe says:

    Just wanted to drop by to say that “good old games” has a version with patches for the cpu-speed related bugs. Also there’s a high resolution patch which works strikingly well. Too bad there’s none of that beautiful water on this screenshot:
    Ah no matter, nobody’s gonna read this anyway.

  12. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

    Probably doesn’t work with Windows 8.1 though :( sounded like a neat game

    1. Tsi says:

      It should. The recently released 1.1 patch by the original devs now called Fresh3D makes the game run perfectly on our modern hardware in FullHD and corrects a few bugs.

  13. Zak McKracken says:

    I’m fairly sure that Delta Force (I think number two in the franchise but possibly the first) used Voxels for terrain and grass(!) and polygons for everything else, and that was after 1999 (as far as I remember at least…)

  14. Vorpal Smilodon says:

    “However, voxels kind of suck for making square objects or things with hard edges.”

    This sounds kind of funny what with Minecraft.

    1. Tsi says:

      Minecraft uses a tiny voxel density to represent it’s world. In that first screenshot, the staircase would take 30 or 40 minecraft cubes for it’s width.

      Or in other words, Minecraft guy would be the size of Cutter Slade’s thumb.

      Note : Minecraft uses polygons to represent each voxel (which is not the case here). So minecraft would probably put a pentium 2-3 processor on it’s knees without a gpu…

      Check VoxelQuest for nice looking voxels (non polygonal representation) that take on this legacy.

  15. I love how those clouds and the sun peeking out between them looks. They are like mountains in the sky (2nd picture).

  16. Vivi says:

    Oh, the nostalgia. I’d just bought a new PC when this game came out, so I got to take full advantage of the high (for its time) CPU requirements.

    I’ve seen there’s a remake in the works. I’m guessing it will flop, because it won’t have this special effect of way advanced and fancy graphics and music for its time – these days, AAA graphics and orchestral music are a dime a dozen. And the story / gameplay really wasn’t anything special to write home about, so a remake really just has the alien setting and maybe the snarky humor to make it stand out from other action-adventure games. That probably won’t be enough.

    Another thing that made the original game particularly memorable for me was that, in the version I played (German), they had the main character dubbed by the fairly recognizable standard dubbing actor for Bruce Willis (also, the translation was actually pretty good for once). Which not only made the voice acting sound professional, but together with the character model and the 90s-action-movie plot (complete with useless / shrill damsel-in-distress love interest), it really made this feel like an interactive blockbuster movie. Kind of like a sibling project to “The Fifth Element”.

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