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by Virgin Interactive

venom_36-01.jpg (4668 bytes)Games like Codename: Outbreak help to remind me why the unofficial motto among reviewers is, "We play games so you don’t have to." One of the first in Virgin’s line of bargain "anytime, anywhere" series of games, Outbreak is a first person shooter that sells for twenty dollars a box. Always a fan of the "more for less" concept, I loaded the gigabyte worth of data onto my hard drive and dove into some good old fashioned mayhem...or tried to, at least. Aside from the fact that the game crashes more frequently than Pippi Longstocking has freckles, it features bad graphics, story line, and AI. The voice acting and dialog sounds as if it were modeled after late-night TV reruns (Gee will-ickers, Batman!), and the written narration doesn't even use English words that really exist. With such memorable quotes as, "Found a proof that the humankind is not solitudinous in universe!" and "He looks dead. That’s serious!" the question isn’t whether or not the game is worth the twenty dollars it will cost you in the store, but instead whether or not to take it if someone were to offer it to you for free. Even with the creepy feel and atmosphere that develops after the first level, the game is not competitive with alternative first person shooters, even at a bargain price.

venom_37-01.jpg (5036 bytes)In Outbreak, the near-future earth is being smashed by meteors--offshoots from the tail of a passing comet. Not surprisingly, humanity discovers that it is not "solitudinous" in the universe when creepy crawly creatures begin infesting humans and seriously screwing with their better judgment, turning them into alien puppets that then turn on their comrades. It is your job, as the commander of a two man special forces team, to save the world (in one form or another) by fighting off the alien infestation, and killing every contaminated man woman and child you happen to come in contact with (though good luck finding infected women -- the aliens seem to prefer men in uniform). This is done through a classic first person perspective (though you have the ability to switch to third person as well) that is clumsily executed and hindered through both poor design and poorly executed - even if interesting - innovation.

venom_38-01.jpg (5382 bytes)Codename: Outbreak, though lacking anything more than an original B movie story line, isn’t without the tell-tale signs that suggest the European based developers didn’t have their hearts in the right place. Gun recoil, bullet delay when snipping long distances, atmospheric guard towers that let you pick off little men from way up in the sky -- there is no doubt that Outbreak does come with some aspects that are interesting, and sometimes downright fun. For example, by placing you in command of a team of players that you choose from before each mission--who become unusable after they die--Outbreak makes an attempt to forge a story that involves more than simply passing from one level to the next. By giving you only a limited number of teammates who can die without ending the game, your partner suddenly becomes more than merely cannon fodder and is instead a valuable asset worth keeping alive (as well as yourself, since the soldier you are playing stops being available if you die). Sadly, though, drawbacks in controls, graphics, sound, and artificial intelligence succeed in giving the game an out of date feel. The creepy atmosphere and limited unique features simply aren't enough to save it.

venom_34-01.jpg (5661 bytes)To begin with, Outbreak looks old. The graphics are blocky, characters are squat, and entire cars are made up of what looks at first glance to be six or seven flat graphic panels. Outside scenery isn’t without its charm, providing a good open, un-enclosed feeling, but is hindered by design decisions I thought had been laid to rest long ago. Invisible walls hold you in place when you reach level boundaries, and small objects on the ground that could barely catch your toe block your way until you jump over them. Items appear and disappear as you turn, enemy and friendly AI alike are prone to pass through walls and into areas you have to scout around in order to find an entrance to, and spotting an enemy stuck halfway in the wall with the barrel of his gun sticking out from the steel wall he’s hiding behind isn’t an unusual occurrence. I’ve seen an enemy climb a ladder only to continue climbing into the sky after reaching the top, and then run around in the air like a chicken with no head. Enemies that are dead tend to look like they are still alive, since the pixels shift constantly as you look around. Computer screens show little bullet holes when you shoot them, but their glass doesn't usually shatter, though sometimes it does. In other words, what graphics are present in the game suffer from a lack of reality. While sometimes atmospheric, they tend to be shallow spirits (in the computer sense) rather than interactive objects that you can blow up and destroy.

venom_32-01.jpg (5766 bytes)The audio is little better. The dialog for the voice acting can be very cheesy. The combat music, intended to pump adrenaline into your blood, grows old quickly and serves more often than not as an early warning system that an enemy is near. Enemy banter is limited to only a few phrases that are repeated often, all of which you’ll hear if you listen for only a minute or two. Atmospheric sounds tend to leap out at you. When approaching a humming computer, the sound does not increase in volume as you draw near but rather suddenly appears within a certain range. The sounds of your footsteps change depending on the substance you’re walking in, from the clanging of your boots on the metal plating of a military base to the splashes of water when in the river. While a nice attempt, neither the clanking of your boots nor the splashing of the water sound anything remotely like either of them should. If it weren’t for the fact that you’d just entered a river, you’d wonder what that weird noise was, and whether or not you should be worried about it shooting you.

venom_39-01.jpg (5795 bytes)The friendly and enemy AI are weak. In some respects I found the enemies to be resourceful, chasing after you, circling around to catch you by surprise, even climbing ladders for a better shooting angle. Most of the time, though, I found enemies tripping over one another, trapping each other in corners, running into walls for minutes at a time, and sometimes staring blindly into space as their friends are picked off one by one before their eyes. The friendly AI of your teammate is similar. Though he obeys your commands rather well, and often spots enemy units long before you do (not surprisingly, since there is no directional indicator when you’re being shot), I never once completed a mission that he didn’t become hopelessly fascinated by some otherwise insignificant wall, rock, or plant life. Since most missions require that you have all members of your team present at the exit before continuing, this often means you have to manually extract the pesky slacker from whatever perch in which he may be stuck. When he does accompany you, he mimics your every move. He crouches when you crouch and sprawls when you sprawl. I’m not sure, but I think that he may even change weapons when you do.

venom_35-01.jpg (5996 bytes)Speaking of weapons, for good or bad, Outbreak deviates from the pre-molded system of finding newer and better weapons scattered amongst the debris as you fight your way deeper and deeper into a level. Instead, you find yourself armed from the start with a universal weapon capable of firing a wide range of shells, from shotgun to missile launcher. Each gun comes fully equipped with a scope for pesky long distance shots, and a smooth automatic rotating action for switching between cartridges. The arsenal is nothing new, even if it stands for some extra focus: submachine gun, shotgun, laser, sniper rifle, etc. What makes the weapon unusual is its execution. The machine gun recoils badly when you fire, bouncing around like a jumping bean as you try to hit your target. As a consequence, the machine gun, traditionally your primary weapon, is nearly useless. Similarly, the laser weapon is too weak and has too long of a firing delay to be of any use. All in all, I killed only two men with the laser weapon; one was my teammate who I assassinated to see if the laser was really doing any damage to enemies at all, and the other was a helpless researcher I was sent to escort to safety (he creeped me out after he started the walking through the walls thing, and figured I was better off without him).

venom_33-01.jpg (6100 bytes)For all of its very obvious limitations, though, Codename: Outbreak manages to save itself from my first single star rating. Despite the fact that it crashed every time I left my computer long enough for my screen to turn off, and its outdated style, Outbreak succeeds where many other bargain games have failed - an attempt at gameplay originality. Though you wouldn’t know it from looking at the story, and sometimes it appears in annoying ways, Outbreak still makes an attempt to do more than re-execute a formula that’s been done in the past. The ability to switch back and forth between two separate combatants at any given time, the feel of the restless fog that hovers over a battlefield when peering down from the window of a sniper tower, the fact that you have a limited supply of men to complete the game -- they all testify that Outbreak’s developers were honestly trying to make a quality addition to the gaming world.

venom_31-01.jpg (6223 bytes)Ultimately, Outbreak may have been an OK game five years ago, but in the modern world it looks and operates like an out-of-date first person shooter. Plagued with flaws that made appearances in the first and second generations of these styles of games, Outbreak is barely half a quality game for about half the price. Considering that you can purchase Half-life -- an old but still excellent game -- new and in a deluxe form for around thirty dollars, Outbreak can’t rely on its price alone to hold it afloat. Without smoother execution of the gameplay and game elements, the low price tag doesn't justify coughing up the money for it. As first person shooters go, it’s still a rung below the bigger, badder, and heavier fighters currently on the market. Stay away unless you find it in the bargain bin for under six dollars.

Aaron Stanton   (02/26/2002)


Ups: Switching between characters during levels; faint stabs at innovation; almost so bad it's good.

Downs: Dated graphics; horrible voice acting and dialogue; lame story; glitchy gameplay.

Platform: text