Resident Evil Outbreak (2003) – Review

Who knew that Raccoon City was this big? I always imagined it as a rather small town near the woods of Raccoon Forest. (Source: Screenshot)

And rightfully so: Capcom had delivered hit after hit before, with franchise entries like Code Veronica or the incredible remake of the first game.

Outbreak was different, kind of weird at times, but full of innovative features. It does have its shortcomings, undoubtedly. But to me, critics didn’t appreciate Outbreak’s strengths too much, instead focusing a bit too much on the bad. Let’s get these pain points out of the way before we discover why Outbreak is a pretty underrated game.

The Bad

  • Offline Gameplay

Back in 2003, critics jumped at the core feature of Resident Evil Outbreak — or rather, its absence. It’s a pretty known fact among Resi fans that Outbreak was originally intended as an online experience. It became one, too, but only in its native country of Japan. Capcom removed this feature in the Western releases that we got. All the characters that should be controlled by other players have now simply become NPCs, and rather confused ones at that. We’ll discuss the offline gameplay aspects a bit more later on.

  • Loading Times & UX

The drawback of Resident Evil Outbreak that stands out for me the most is the loading time. It’s … really bad. There’s a lot of waiting when entering a room, noticeably more than in older RE games. The game also loads before and after every cutscene. Tedious. I also noticed some inconsistencies with the overall UX. Sometimes, the loading screen changes its style for no sensible reason, sometimes sound effects in the menu seem off.

But that’s it with the main flaws of Outbreak. On to the good stuff!

The Good

1) Episodic Structure

Resident Evil Outbreak was developed as an online game — but it is not an MMO or anything like that. Capcom instead wanted players to solve smaller adventures together. It’s a Resi game, after all. Raccoon City is crumbling. Turning the area into a MMO sandbox wouldn’t make much sense. It’s the urgency and panic that propels these games forward.

As in other franchise installments, Outbreak’s goal is to survive and escape the horrors of Raccoon City. It makes sense then to group players together in tight locations and with little time. For this purpose, the game is elegantly divided into smaller chapters, or “scenarios”, as they’re called. Each has a different setting, inspired by classic Resi lore, and also a small plot, often revolving around Umbrella employees gone mad.

It says “File #2” here which is the sequel/add-on, but the render portraits are from the original. (Source: Resident Evil Wiki)

The player initially selects one of eight Raccoon City inhabitants and explores the mid-sized areas with two additional NPCs. Almost superhuman avatars, like Chris or Leon and other franchise staples, don’t play roles here. (Although it is a little surprising how a quiet college student like Yoko can easily wield heavy artillery.) Outbreak’s heroes are pretty much everyday people: a waitress, a subway worker, a journalist, a doctor. They don’t know at all what’s going on. They just want to escape the hellish nightmare that their hometown has become.

A varied cast of characters, numerous episodes, or scenarios: Resident Evil Outbreak does indeed sound like a TV show. Understandably, fans have already asked for a real TV horror drama with exactly these characters.

In short:

Resident Evil Outbreak demonstrates episodic gameplay years before Telltale or Netflix became a thing.

2) The Last Classic Resi

Coming out only one year before Resident Evil 4, which would mark the greatest turning point in the series, Outbreak might as well be the last “classic” Resi game. Camera angles are fixed and poignantly positioned, just like in the old days, back in the mid-1990s. The characters can be controlled directly though, not only via the tank layout. I still found myself coming back to the tank controls and the d-pad — personally, I just like it best that way.

An example of just how atmospheric and great the soundtrack can be.

Locations are not pre-rendered but fully realized with polygons, just like in Code Veronica. Everything just looks great overall, sets are moody and spooky. Sometimes the camera cleverly moves, heightening the sense of pressure. The soundtrack by Bayside Shakedown composer Akihiko Matsumoto, among others, is also top notch, one of the best features of the game. Pretty much every sound effect carries that classic Resi vibe as well.

Capcom provided a lot of fan service throughout the game. Callbacks to other installments are abundant. Veteran Resi players will recognize many settings, puzzles (sometimes with an interesting twist), music cues, and story beats. Indeed, some of the stories feel almost like fan fiction — a genre which saw great successes in the years after Outbreak launched.

Resident Evil Outbreak also continues the series’ tradition of added bonuses. Players earn credit points when doing well. These can be spent on bonus images, music pieces and so on. Another feature that is common in today’s games.

In short:

There’s some retro feeling inside this still great looking retro game, story lines feel like charming fan fiction at times.

3) Innovative Coop Gameplay

Resident Evil Outbreak might have been too ambitious for its own good. Online gaming was not ready in 2003. Additionally, the concept behind Outbreak was, and to an extent, still is, unheard of. There’s violence in the game, obviously. But in contrast to so many online games of today, the goal in Outbreak is not to kill others but to achieve something together. It feels at times like surviving a natural disaster together. So, in some ways, Resident Evil Outbreak is still ahead of its time.

A final word about the removal of the online mode in territories other than Japan: That can actually be pretty funny as well. All the NPCs make random and clumy decisions, sure. But I cared about them. They act so naively in the face of zombies and horrible monsters. And sometimes, they’re suddenly also kind of brillant, solving puzzles for me. They surprised me a couple of times — and suprise is a rare feeling I get from games.

In short:

The survival aspect in its online context is still innovative. I can also forgive the stupidity of the NPCs when they’re just funny.

So, what are you waiting for? ,-)

There you have it. Three big reasons why Resident Evil Outbreak still has a lot to offer today. If you can get over half-baked NPC helpers and long loading times, you’re in for a surprisingly competent game. Resident Evil veterans owe it to themselves to check this one out.

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