Online gaming, one day, will be the norm for console gamers. For now, though, we're still scratching around waiting for the broadband installed base to creep up and for the likes of Sony and Nintendo to get their acts together before game companies really take it seriously. Some are taking it seriously, of course. Microsoft, in particular, seems to think that Halo 2's online features for Xbox will create an explosion in demand for its Live service. Others, it would be fair to say, are merely dipping their toes into the water to see what the potential is - and one of those companies is most definitely Capcom, which has so far put out a couple of low key Xbox Live titles. Many felt that Outbreak, its PS2 online multiplayer Resident Evil title would prove to be a major draw for online gamers - only to find that this groundbreaking feature has been stripped out of the PAL version.
We've known this for a long time, of course - nearly a year in fact - but it's not until you sit down with the single-player mode that you realise what a depressing fact that is. We imagined the game would still play very much like all the Resident Evils we've played over the years, but it does only in the loosest sense.
The magic of the stubbornly old school RE titles is their sense of immersion, atmosphere, cunning puzzles and the gradual unravelling of a steadfastly B-movie-esque plot. Outbreak may share the common gameplay mechanics, such as a rough approximation of the lock/key puzzles, the same health system, and usual bugbears of limited inventory and vile control system, but it sacfrices timing, suspense and plot to just wade in with zombies that refuse to die, dull and exceptionally simple puzzles, and some of the most dim-witted buddy AI ever.
Set over five reasonably short episodes, or 'scenarios', the game has been designed from the ground up to be a co-operative multiplayer game for four players. From the off you're essentially trapped in a fairly closed environment and have to work out how to get to the next section while groaning creatures of the undead lurch relentlessly at you and sap your will to live. In the discarded online game, you would all work together (skill-related issues notwithstanding) and help fend off attacks while others players scouted for objects, lending them a hand in distress by swapping first aid sprays and the like, and generally sticking together to eventually get out of your current situation.
With eight diverse characters to choose from, each with their own unique strength (better weapon, rarely attacked, lock picker, can carry more, etc), it's possible to get a decent amount of replay value out of each scene, with different cut-scenes occurring and different objects accessible depending on who you choose. The question is whether the offline mode will make you want to play it at all. To all intents and purposes, once you know roughly what objects you need, and where you need to go, you rarely need any AI help at all, but, frustratingly, on the occasions you do need their help - such as some health - swapping objects between players can be a black art, with many requests failing to register at all.
Evil, but not to the core
Most gamers are seemingly well versed in the variety of annoyances that Resident Evil games can present in terms of control, combat and camera issues, so we won't harp on too much about those except to note that they're still here after all these years (although directional control does at least allow you to run in a specific direction - that is, until confusion hits you when the camera angle swaps to the opposite side, and you're still pressing up, but running down the screen). No, we can live with most of those issues, given that we're normally too sucked into the proceedings to care very much after a while, but Outbreak's online design origins manage to introduce entirely new and spectacularly irritating issues, such as the inability to reload or equip your weapon or do any kind of map reading/ inventory juggling without risking being eaten alive by a posse of slavering zombie flesh eaters. Because inventory pauses would change the entire design of the game, Capcom has, at a stroke, dispensed with one of the few saving graces of its clunky object management system and introduced a new level of pain to the hapless gamer.
Having a keen aim would be fine, of course, were it not for Capcom's baffling decision to allow zombies to rise from the dead an infinite number of times - meaning that if you're attempting to read a memo or search a room thoroughly, your chances of being attacked are increased exponentially, especially when the game decides to quickly introduce multiple enemies into a confined room in a matter of seconds. Even on Easy, Outbreak gives the player very little time to explore, gather objects or take in the scene before being beset by an unending succession of relentless drones that can reduce your character's health from Fine to Danger in one short attack for some bewildering reason.
Very quickly, the solo Outbreak experience breaks down into a series of Game Over screens before you eventually work out where the relevant keys are, and where to head. Once you've got the knowledge, it very quickly become apparent that there's little in the way of meaningful puzzle solving (not, at least, until you try the Hard and Very Hard levels - but then that's ruined by an even more fascist posse of enemies and bosses), and the game feels light in the story department too, with nothing like the sense of purpose there normally would be in a RE game. It's a very formulaic find key/unlock door experience all the way through until the next mini cut-scene kicks in.
We're losing him...
We're guessing that Capcom kept things simpler than usual so as to make the game more about survival and keeping your team mates alive, but, if anything, put into a single player context the buddy AI is just a nuisance, and characters come and go seemingly at random. You'd honestly be better off on your own, and the chance that they might have an object you need but aren't around can be especially aggravating. The ridiculous decision to only let you carry four objects (eight if you're Yoko) leads to all sorts of shenanigans, and is the kind of tired, pointlessly particular game mechanic that should have been put to death a decade ago.
On a technical level Outbreak falls down too, with horrendous loading pauses between every single room (20 seconds plus for no good reason at all), making simple reccy activity a chore, while the visuals themselves do little to justify such painful pauses. Sure, they're rendered on the fly, and are reasonably attractive, but nowhere near the splendour of the Cube, and certainly not up to par compared to other PS2 efforts. Even Capcom's own Onimusha 3 beats it hands down in all departments, and Outbreak's vanilla animation, unhelpful camera angle switching and proliferation of obscured objects just makes us long for RE4 even more. For the love of all that is Evil, Capcom, put this tired set of gaming mechanics out of their misery once and for all, and give PS2 owners a Resi Evil game they deserve, not some ham fisted attempt at an online game that simply doesn't translate as a single-player experience.
As a footnote, even with online play, there was no headset support (bizarrely) and players were left communicating the same way as they do offline, with a set of four commands (help, thanks, etc) mapped to the right stick and some context sensitive commands mapped to the square button. To put it politely, they're useless and highlight even more what an ill-conceived project it was all along.
Dead on arrival
It's a shame, because on paper Outbreak sounded like a grand and ambitious concept that could shake up the survival-horror game into something much more than it could ever be alone. We still believe that Capcom will get things right eventually, and as an idea it has great potential, but for now it's a botched attempt and should be put down to experience. For the PAL consumer, it's one for the absolute die-hards we're afraid, and even they might have issues trying to live with the lack of online play.
Resident Evil Outbreak is due out on PS2 on September 24th.