Version tested: Xbox 360
Code Veronica is the lost Resident Evil, a game caught in the awkward evolutionary transition between the series' shuffling, B-movie beginnings on PlayStation and its transformation into the most important action game of the past decade with the fourth core entry in the series.
Released for the Dreamcast in 2000 (and later for the PS2 and GameCube, upon which this HD port for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network is based), it was the first game in the series to abandon the pre-rendered backgrounds that had defined Racoon City in favour of dimly lit polygons. But this was the only evolutionary step for a game that held fast to the semi-fixed camera angles, agonizing control scheme, camp dialogue and protracted loading transitions that were as much a part of the Resident Evil aesthetic in its formative days as the groaning zombies and rabid Doberman. It was, even upon release, a game stuck somewhere between the past and the future of video games.
As such, this reissue (and make no mistake, this is a reissue rather than a remake, the HD tagline justifiable only in regard to the crisp new menu screens) is a wholly different creature to last week's Resident Evil 4 HD. Where the fourth game in Shinji Mikami's series is a prominent feature within the gaming canon, Code Veronica is a less familiar quantity, boasting none of that cultural cachet or legacy.
But familiarity isn't the only distinction between the reissues of Code Veronica and Resident Evil 4. The latter is an unapologetic action horror game, a game that allows players to counter the frights with a fearsome power of their own. Code Veronica, meanwhile, is survival horror in the classic sense, a game that achieves its atmosphere of dread through unflinching disempowerment. It allows us to experience that nightmarish feeling of being preyed upon with little more than a knife and a lighter to hold back the onslaught.
The earliest survival horror titles owed their success to technical limitations as much as poised design. Poor cameras, bewildering controls and a complicated interface all contributed to a sense of powerlessness, making players feel weak and confused. The best examples of the genre from this era are those that used the limitations of their host console to great effect, such as Silent Hill's draw-distance-obscuring fog.
But in the context of its turn-of-the-millennium release, Code Veronica was an electric proposition. Here was a game no longer constrained by technology like its forebears, finally able to elicit fear through in-context design. However, returning to the game today, it's clear that Capcom was yet to expand its vision to fill the spaces widened by the arrival of the Dreamcast.
The control scheme makes even the most spatially aware player feel like they've lost all motor skills. You swivel your character on the spot, the relative up, down, left and right directions shifting depending on the viewpoint the fixed camera has on your position, making it likely you'll run into the open arms of a zombie for a death cuddle when you meant to flee. Neither can you walk and shoot, instead forced to remain rooted to the spot to line up an attack.
Likewise, you must click a button to climb stairs (a decision intended to slow you down and induce panic when fleeing). The click-X-on-everything interaction with game worlds that defined so many PlayStation-era adventure games remains here, a design that makes your character feel superimposed onto the backgrounds rather than an embedded part of the world.
Every few seconds, key objects in the environment glint to draw your attention, an unimaginative and lazy design trope now largely consigned to history. You save your progress at typewriters that require ink ribbons before they'll record your progress: an artificial limitation of your ability to step out of the game that feels wholly anachronistic.
The lengthy load times between rooms were originally placed to increase the sense of tension as you move through the game while simultaneously covering the disc access. In 2011, the load time consideration has no relevance, leaving the ponderous door opening animations an aesthetic choice that has lost its impact.
While players who enjoyed the game in 2000 will view these limitations as part of the authentic survival horror experience of the time, few newcomers will see them as anything other than obsolete annoyances. Indeed, in terms of raw interactions, the Famicom's Sweet Home (the first survival horror game, from which Mikami drew inspiration when planning the first Resident Evil) is by far the more playable proposition today.
And yet, if you can accept these interactive barriers as relics of the game's era, the jewels in Code Veronica's design have lost little of their shine. This is a puzzle-heavy game - more so than the first three Resident Evils - and Capcom's raw ingenuity regularly sparkles here. The cinematic shocks are just as effective today as ever, and even where the 3D models look outdated, the poised enemy animations help infuse these blocky cadavers with threat that still chills.
There is a frenetic pace to the game and the switching between protagonists contributes to the theatrics, allowing the designers to view scenarios from multiple viewpoints in an effective way. The cameras are wonderfully directed, contributing to the sense of dread - and while the dialogue and acting is nothing short of atrocious, the B-movie plotline races along, rarely allowing you time to notice.
The item management side of the game, which has you deliberating over which assets to leave behind when your inventory fills up, remains effective and as much a source of the survivalist horror as the shambling zombies. While the ambiguous controls grate at first, the game's peculiar rhythms do have a certain, shuffling charm, once you're acclimatised.
Resident Evil: Code Veronica is a relic of a bygone era that Capcom has done nothing to reinvent for modern audiences with this reissue. Yet beneath its off-putting anachronisms there is a worthwhile, menacing game - for those with the eyes to catch it.
6 / 10