… as the intro kicks in we see the events of William Birkin’s confrontation with the Umbrella agents play out amid the unfolding imagery of the spreading infection. Outbreak is a game firmly seated in the lore and style of the original trilogy.
It’s no secret that I love the first trilogy of Resident Evil games; they were the reason I owned a PlayStation and consequently a big part in why I graduated on to a PS2 as soon as it was released. Unfortunately there weren’t any Resident Evil titles confirmed for PS2 at the point of release and through its life it would play a surprising second fiddle to its contemporary consoles in those tales of S.T.A.R.S. & Co. especially considering how the first games had been such prominent titles in its predecessor’s roster. The two big RE titles that would find their way there were both ‘exclusive’ to other consoles at launch: RE: Code Veronica being originally made for the Dreamcast and RE4 setting sail with the GameCube. PS2 didn’t even receive the fantastic REMake of the original or similarly styled RE: Zero. I did play and enjoy RE:CV at launch on the PS2 but had drifted further away from the series by the time I would have been able to play RE4 and when I finally did get around to sampling it in recent years I wasn’t a fan of the new, action-heavy, style of gameplay.
Between these two titles was dropped the PS2 exclusive RE:Outbreak subseries (Outbreak & Outbreak File #2) which could be considered some of the last Resident Evil games to feature the classic style of gameplay and shambling zombies. They shared the fully 3D backgrounds of RE:CV, but maintained the fixed camera angles (albeit with panning and tracking) that defined the feel and pacing of the early games. Given my own background I find it hard to believe that I owned both of these games and barely explored them at all before trading them in – I think I may even have sold ‘Outbreak: File #2’ with the cellophane still intact given that I didn’t finish Outbreak itself. A couple of weeks ago however I spotted Outbreak for £5 in a branch of popular-chain-of-used-games-stores-here-in-the-uk and decided that it was worth a revisiting.
… there are a few sellers regret titles that have passed through my hands over the years and although I never should have parted with the Outbreaks, I’m more annoyed with selling the fantastic, cell-shaded, Auto Modelista (PS2) and bizarre Street Fighter the Movie the Game for PS1.
Of course ‘Outbreak’ wasn’t just another trek through the streets of Raccoon City featuring convoluted puzzles and limited pockets. It’s famous because it was the first attempt to jam this type of gameplay into a multiplayer experience… sort of. Sadly it’s that “sort of” that turned this potential classic into something often overlooked in the series. I can only speak from a UK perspective, but the PlayStation network (requiring the PS2 network adaptor) was barely known about and utilised even less to the point that the PAL edition of Outbreak, a game almost entirely hyped on its multiplayer gameplay, released without multiplayer support. The NTSC and Japanese versions did have multiplayer and file #2 did have PAL multiplayer support but that didn’t alter the low numbers of players who would ever get to experience this game as intended.
I would love to see these games re-released, if only that I might be able to finally experience them with other human players as intended. Sadly my revisiting is single player only.
RE: Outbreak features five different scenarios, each taking 1-2 hours to complete (although the final one, “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions”, took me significantly longer) with the idea being that a single scenario can be completed in a ‘typical’ online gaming session. For those lucky enough to have played this online, up to 4-players could take on a scenario cooperatively with empty seats being filled by AI controlled characters. For those of us without a time machine and private jet to transport us to a point where this might have been possible, the single player game simply provides two AI companions to squawk the same few phrases at you over and over again… oh and they sometimes shoot at zombies. It’s these scenarios that provide a big draw for me personally. Raccoon City is one of my favourite ingame locations so the opportunity to explore more of the city is something I leap upon especially considering that it was levelled dramatically at the close of RE:3. Outbreak’s scenarios are almost certainly non-canon, but that doesn’t detract from their uniquely Resident Evil feel; two of them retread areas explored by Resident Evil 2 & 3 and there is an unsubtle homage to the Spencer Mansion, setting for the first game, in Raccoon University.
Both Raccoon University and Raccoon Hospital feature and once again I’m disappointed that they’re nowhere near as cute as they sound from their names.
Players also get the choice to take control of one of the eight possible characters and there’s something about this mixed group that screams B-team. Take default RPD cop character, Kevin, for example; his backstory tells us that he’s failed to get in to S.T.A.R.S. several times and, with Outbreak’s more melee heavy combat, seeing this average achiever swinging away at the undead with a broom somehow makes the whole thing more relatable. These characters aren’t the highly trained specialists or clean cut heroes of the other games, they’re just a group of unlikely survivors who happened to be hanging out in the same seedy bar when the T-Virus came stumbling in through the door and I like that. Each of the eight has a “special” ability which is also somewhat unremarkable; Yoko for example happens to be wearing a backpack so can carry more items (also she is the character I recommend picking in single player as the standard inventory is only 4 slots big), I wouldn’t call that a special ability, more like a lucky wardrobe choice.
Gameplay is the usual mix of archaic tank controls (that baffle gamers who weren’t raised on them), picking up herbs, unlocking doors, and solving convoluted puzzles. It’s classic Resident Evil all the way with backtracking galore, a smattering of familiar enemies along with the usual shuffling undead residents of the city and I’d be lying if I were to say that it offers anything other than more of what fans of the series are going to enjoy.
The inclusion of other players (AI or human) does bring in a few new elements. Gone are the door opening animations (I remember a publication at the time of release making a big deal about this) instead you see the character open the door and walk through… great huh? But it doesn’t eliminate a lengthy blank screen once this has happened whilst the next area loads. The only real advantage is that the door stays open for a few seconds so you can tailgate others through the door which is a little quicker than having to open it yourself. Accessing the inventory no longer pauses the action and the screen is translucent allowing you to see your character get mauled as you try and fail for the fifth time to heal. Players can also offer items to others and request them (which the AI does faithfully) which does at least help with the tiny carry space and emphasises that the game is aimed at cooperation rather than a single player marching off to take care of everything. The biggest ‘new-feature’ is the infection rate; all players start infected and the level of infection increases slowly during the scenario. Infection is accelerated by taking damage and can be slowed by finding anti-viral tablets. If a player reaches 100% infected then they die instantly so the mechanic essentially acts as a way to keep everyone moving.
Going back and replaying Outbreak now has been good fun; it’s like bitesized parcels of classic Resident Evil but the multiplayer aspect of the game still feels slightly odd. I think much of that is the mechanical way that the characters move around in this original style of game; it’s a cacophony of door opening & closing, people picking things up, suddenly running past down a corridor, and the odd pop of gunfire as one of you comrades finally decides to shoot a zombie. In short it feels like lots of people playing a Resident Evil game at the same time rather than a team effort, but then much of that could be teaming up with AI rather than humans. Not that the AI are terrible (I’ve seen games with worse), but they not super helpful either, and I opted to play through on ‘easy’ having a vague memory of how difficult it gets trying to coordinate everything yourself. They ‘sort of’ help you fight enemies and they do act as moving storage chests, but rarely carry items sensibly; I saw AI players carrying several versions of identical weapons many times. They also don’t seem to want to take the anti-viral tablets and, as there is no way to force them to take them, I saw a few suddenly drop dead without warning as they were merrily strolling down a corridor. It’s also strange how they move through the level, sometimes they diligently follow you but other times they seem to just stay in one location in the map and occasionally seem to show up in rooms that you’ve only just unlocked – presumably teleported in by forces unknown.
Overall though, I’m happy that I gave it another chance and for anyone who, like me, loves that classic formula then it is a game to check out if you get the opportunity. I personally think a single romp through the scenarios has satisfied my curiosity, but with different cutscenes (and story elements) for each character, shedloads of unlockables, and different events to see depending on which ‘bits’ of the level you play there’s more than enough to justify its status as a full game.
… just don’t expect to be able to play it with real people any time soon…