Review by Bloomer

"Frustration (cleverly!) vinyl-taped to a stick."

The Resident Evil series' supposedly exclusive move from the Playstation to the GameCube kicked off in 2002 with the arrival of the cripplingly good Resident Evil Remake and Resident Evil Zero. Resident Evil 4 was still three years away, but in a 'so much for that Nintendo exclusivity clause' series of events, the gap was filled by the appearance of the two Resident Evil Outbreak games back on the PS2. By way of explanation, Capcom muttered something about the Outbreaks not being direct sequels.

The resulting games are certainly a far cry from from what was going on with the GameCube Resi titles, and they offer one last manic spin on the oldest school of RE gameplay. The starting point is a mixture of pre-rendered backdrops, mobile camerawork, fewer puzzles than usual and more action. The new features include a big roster of playable characters with unique abilities, teamwork oriented gameplay, cooperative online play (no longer available) and more varied level settings offered on single discs than by any other instalments in the series. The initially available eight characters sport so many different cool skills that you can feel paralysed by choice before you even start a game. There are characters with potshot/high damage shooting skills, characters with medicinal skills involving not just ye olde RE herbs, but pills, medikits, bandages and hypodermic guns. There's a mechanic who can lob wrenches, repair broken items and tape together any old crap he finds lying around to create new weapons, from the graceless 'stick with a concrete slab on it' to molotov cocktails and aerosol flamethrowers. There's Alyssa, a fleetfooted reporter pre-equipped with a stun gun, and who is also the new master of unlocking, and Jim, the coin-flipping coward who can play dead and have all the monsters ignore him.

In spite of the presence of all this excellent detail, the Outbreak games are easily the most querulous of all RE titles. The first Outbreak broke even with its highs and lows, but File 2 really crosses the line into obnoxious and frustrating territory as far as solo play is concerned. Never has it been so frequently unclear as to what you need to do to progress in each level. You still only get one save slot, there are hardly any typewriters around and it's easier than ever to save at a game-destroying position. The virus time limit on each level is still a nuisance. Most programming additions for this episode are also for the worse, including some of the CPU-controlled character AI, and especially everything to do with doors. And the level design is harsh, often poor.

I should clarify that I never had the chance to play either of the Outbreak games online, and that anecdotally they're both regarded as better games in that context. Capcom's Outbreak servers are permanently closed, and since the game isn't an open source project or a PC-based game, no Outbreak server is ever likely to reappear in the future. Note also that the online game wasn't about deathmatches and did not use different levels to the solo game, but let three gamers tackle one of the game's scenarios together, instead of having your two team mates played by the CPU. However, it is the single player version of Outbreak File 2 which has been left to us for all time, and this is the game I am reviewing.

In the manner of the first Outbreak, File 2's five scenarios each play out in the manner of a miniature self-contained Resident Evil game. When this works, it can be a very satisfying arrangement, compressing as it does the full dynamic range of what even fans acknowledge are some pretty grueling games into a more manageable size that can be picked up and played from start to finish relatively quickly. The first Outbreak mostly succeeded in pulling this feat off for four of five scenarios. The last scenario was too long, too puzzle heavy and started to significantly flunk the clarity of gameplay test. File 2 has a far uglier strike rate; only two of its scenarios are much fun – Flashback, set in a forest and a decrepit mansion, and Desperate Times, set in the classic RE2 police station. File 2's last scenario is another overlong, semi-unclear monstrosity, and scenario two, the subway-based Underbelly, is easily the worst executed RE level in the series' twelve year history.

Wild Things, the level set in Raccoon City's zoo which initiates File 2's proceedings, demonstrates a lot of what's wrong with the game. Sparseness of the environment is a major problem and immediately in evidence. The first location is a big empty street. When you do get into the zoo, it's full of huge empty concourses. Without any zombies in them, they just make for a lot of really boring running back and forth, though admittedly the space is being kept clear for the appearance of the most ridiculous-seeming monster in RE history, the zombie elephant. The dullness of the empty spaces doesn't mean, however, that the zombies and other monsters aren't dangerous when they do show up. They're actually more rapacious than ever. Zombies regenerate quickly, break down doors and harass you constantly while you're indoors, to the extent that you can barely get the darn map screen open or look at your inventory without being attacked. The Outbreak games don't pause for these things the way most other RE games do.

If I rewind to that first street for a moment, consider also that the very first door you approach in the game can only be opened by unloading more than an entire clip of handgun bullets into it. Talk about unwelcoming! When you go through any door to a new location, there's a load from the disc, then you find yourself in the new room with the door still open behind you. Since the camera view may now be from a completely different perspective, which in turn reorients the objective controls, the odds of you accidentally walking straight back into the room you just came from through the open doorway, and suffering another disc load – and then another one after you undo your mistake – are high. Another horrible thing about the door programming is that if a zombie is pounding on a door and you choose to open it, the zombie lurches through and immediately hits you. Admittedly you could wait for him to break through, then open fire or run around him, but if you're unlucky, the poor fool could be pounding on the door for up to a minute before he enters. When a game generates such vexed impatience that you'd rather take more damage than have to hang around for sixty seconds, you know it's really rubbing you the wrong way.

Again with the savaging, Wild Things features hornbill birds, who adopt the role of RE stalwarts the crows, but are heavier and meaner. There's an alligator moat, in which to meet the alligator once is predictably fatal. To attempt to cross the moat with even one hornbill bird left alive in the air will also prove fatal, as there's no way you can evade its incessant pecking while in the water. Such unkind horror set pieces are hardly atypical for the RE series, but they're just strung together in rapid succession in File 2, and in a picky and mostly misery-making fashion.

The fact that you start to hobble when injured in almost any RE game has contributed to making them all hard. The Outbreak games add a degree of -censored- beyond hobbling, which is crawling. Being reduced to this state can be so frustrating that you may unrealistically wish you had simply been killed outright. Your remaining time drains at a hugely accelerated rate while you're crawling, ensuring you will die in about a minute if you don't get help, or possibly wrecking your shot at completing the level if you do manage to get help. At least in File 2 they now let you grovel for healing items off the floor or crawl to a different room (if there's no door in the way), which gives you a shot at survival beyond screaming at your AI friends for help. It does remain oddly touching to be helped up, though, or to help up a staggering or crawling friend.

The characters still yell out everything from the minor catalogue of available ad libs in a particularly spastic, overwrought fashion. 'Wait... YES! What if?.. My goodness! Someone please help me! HEY YOU! HEY YOU!' It sounded ridiculous in Outbreak and still sounds ridiculous in File 2, but at least it's functional. Your team mates try to respond to your requests for help, and you can give an item to a specific character by calling out the person's name first. Something new to File 2 is that the CPU characters constantly seek to offer you random items from their inventories. While this seems cute at first, it rapidly becomes dumb and annoying because you almost never want the crap they're thrusting in your direction.

The worst level, Underbelly, wastes a subway station as its setting. The train tunnels are long and sparse, so are the staircases, and there's almost nothing going on in any of them. Yet as soon as you enter the connecting warren-like maintenance tunnels, the place is crawling with the undead. You can't read one of the notes lying around or even have a thought without some walking cadaver crashing through the door and cramming its hands in your face. Just trying to work out what to do in this level is agonising, because the backtracking and circling demanded by the enormous environment is so tedious. On my first protracted attempt to complete the level, I became stuck after I'd thrown every switch I could throw and repaired every broken thing I could find to repair. I pored over the memos I'd collected and found some note about a sprinkler system which could be reactivated. That was all well and good, but why would I care when nothing was on fire? What happened eventually was that I just walked through every room in the level again, and suddenly a cut scene occurred in one of them which advanced the plot. This is appalling design. What aggravated me even more was that several cut scenes took place hot on the heels of the first one, each supposedly implying what my next action should be, but they lacked any storytelling clarity. Even in a case where I had only two exits to choose from, the cut scene couldn't depict clearly which one of the stupid exits I was supposed to go through. At least the feted sprinklers turned on eventually. The first time I survived this mess, I was rewarded with a miserable E rank and almost no points, further increasing my wrath.

The Flashback and Desperate Times levels play like well honed short versions of other RE games, and for their duration, all of File 2's clever physics, teamwork elements (the CPU characters will collect puzzle items for you during Flashback) and impressive range of character actions are able to shine. End of The Road is admittedly well put together, but its great length is unwelcome in light of the game's strict time limit system. Wild Things is pretty painful, and Underbelly is insulting. And even the good scenarios suffer from the very high unfriendliness levels of this game, in everything from monster aggro to anti-generous save game support and weird AI behaviour. You can throw everything you have at File 2 and still be 'rewarded' for completing a level with a completely rubbish score. It's not just that this is demoralising, but you actually need lots of points so you can spend them on unlocking the million unlockable things the game has to offer, most importantly the extra characters. I can only assume it was easier to earn points by participating in online games, because I laugh at the idea that I would go to the trouble of not just completing, but aceing, these levels approximately ten more times to earn the points needed to buy a few more play modes. You even have to buy Hard mode, once you've unlocked it. It's a relatively cheap purchase, but I'm still close to being incensed at the idea. Just staggering to the end of each level on Normal difficulty, after extensive familiarisation time spent on a not easy Easy, was enough of a trial for me to feel that I should be able to say, 'I rode out Resident Evil Outbreak File 2.'

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 11/03/08

Game Release: Resident Evil Outbreak File #2 (EU, 08/26/05)

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