Call A Friend
Having breathed fresh life into the stagnant lungs of the real-time strategy genre with the excellent Cossacks, Ukrainian developer GSC Game World's next Herculean task was to create an innovative first person shooter. And they almost succeeded... Codename Outbreak's plot borrows heavily from the likes of Puppet Masters and Day of the Triffids, with a passing comet showering parasitic aliens over the Earth. As is the way with such creatures, they are soon infecting humans and trying to turn the world's military into pod people. And naturally it's up to you to wipe them out before we all end up like Donald Sutherland. Or rather, it's up to you and your squad of elite special forces types. What sets Outbreak apart from other cliché-ridden shooters is that you have a whole team of heroes at your disposal, and you can take any two of them on a given mission. The orders you can give your squad mate are fairly limited - follow me, stay here, attack, hold fire - but you can switch between the two characters at any point in a mission if one of them gets stuck. Sadly this is one of the game's real weaknesses. While the AI generally does a good job of following you, your squad mate sometimes gets stuck in confined areas, ends up on the wrong side of a fence, or sits sullenly at the bottom of a ladder refusing to follow you up it. Obviously this can be frustrating, especially if you only notice that your friend has got lost when you run into an enemy patrol and there's nobody there to bail you out.
It's Been A Hard Day's Night
Pathfinding flaws aside, the behaviour of your AI-controlled sidekick is determined by a range of stats such as speed, accuracy and reactions, and different missions should suit different characters. In practice though you will want to use the same pair of soldiers whenever possible, because their stats rise rapidly throughout the single player campaign as they gain combat experience. The only time substitutes come in handy is when one of your men is badly wounded and hasn't fully recovered his hit points by the time the next mission gets underway. Once you have selected which two men you will be taking into the mission, you are given the chance to customise their equipment load-out, selecting armour, weapon and ammunition for each. I say weapon, because GSC have apparently taken their lead from a certain shampoo manufacturer - why take a seperate rifle and grenade launcher into combat when you can just Fire & Go? As you work your way through the game's thirteen missions you will get access to heavier and more sophisticated guns, wrapping everything a budding action hero could want - machinegun, sniper rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher and the rest - into a single weapon. All you need to worry about is how much of each kind of ammunition you carry into battle, although you can often replenish your stocks by frisking the bodies of the alien-infested soldiers you kill along the way. The last option you are given, and something else which sets Codename Outbreak apart from most other first person shooters, is whether to launch your attack by day or night. Although some of the missions are fixed, most of the time you can decide whether to sneak in under cover of darkness using the excellent night vision goggles or to try your luck in broad daylight. It's a neat touch which gives you a wider choice of strategies and adds to the replay value.
Short Controlled Bursts
Once you are into your first mission it soon becomes obvious that this is not just a Quake clone. Codename Outbreak lands somewhere between a traditional run-and-gun shooter and the likes of Rogue Spear and Operation Flashpoint, and you will often have to rely on stealth to complete your missions rather than simply charging in, guns blazing. Shooting while moving tends to be wildly inaccurate, and it pays to stop and drop to your knees at the first sign of trouble, firing off a couple of shots at a time instead of rattling through your entire clip. You can also go "prone" to get the best stability for sniping and to make it harder for your enemy to see you amongst the undegrowth. There is even a neat camouflage net which automatically appears over you when you lie down on the grass, making it even harder for anyone to spot you. This isn't a hardcore military sim either though. Thanks to your advanced body armour you can survive several direct hits from a machinegun or sniper rifle on the medium difficulty level, and even a rocket or grenade explosion isn't guaranteed to take you out first time. Luckily killing your enemies is a little easier, and one or two good clean head shots from your sniper rifle will usually do the trick. The result is a nice balance of sci-fi action and more realistic feeling combat and stealth.
I See No-One
It's not all good news though. Codename Outbreak is sadly afflicted by some nasty flaws which could really have used a couple more months to iron out. The most obvious is the voice "acting" (and we use that term in the loosest possible sense), which makes Plan 9 From Outer Space look like a masterpiece by comparison. Not only is the dialogue terrible and the translation often shoddy, but it sounds suspiciously like GSC invited a few of their English-speaking friends into their offices to record the voices, as everyone has a Russian accent and speaks in a sleep-inducing monotone. The result is actually rather funny, but we suspect it wasn't supposed to be. It can also get irritating, because the possessed soldiers only seem to have half a dozen stock phrases which they repeat ad nauseam throughout every mission. "Where are they? Where are they shooting from? I see no-one." The game engine also suffers from a lack of polish, with clipping problems that only serve to make your squad mate's pathfinding issues even worse. You can walk right through some apparently solid objects, and in one mission I found a group of enemy soldiers trapped underneath a building, with only their heads poking up through the floor. At the other end of the spectrum, trying to get past a disabled tank is like finding your way through a maze of invisible walls. The graphics are uneven as well, with vast outdoors terrain let down by blocky models and some dodgy texturing. And when you reach the truly stunning tropical island in the final mission, with its lush vegetation and towering cliffs, you may start to wonder why most of the rest of the game looks rather dull by comparison.
Codename Outbreak had the potential to be a truly great first person shooter, a science fiction answer to Operation Flashpoint. Unfortunately thanks to AI flaws, clipping problems, awful voice acting, repetitive sound effects and some rather lacklustre level design in places, we are left with a game that falls far short of its potential. It's still fun, but it could have been a lot better given a few more months polishing.