I recently decided to give Resident Evil: Outbreak, the franchise's first and much maligned foray into online multi-player, a second chance. I'm glad I did, because there's actually a lot to like in Capcom's messy little experiment.
As a multi-player experience Outbreak remains hopelessly broken, but as a single-player experience I've come to realize it has certain unique merits. Most interesting to me, it marks a return to stories of average people struggling to survive as opposed to the super hero bullshit more recent RE games indulge in. Just the fact that it is comprised of mostly average locations (a bar, a hospital, a hotel, the city streets) and involves normal people as playable characters (a waitress, a doctor, a reporter, a college student) automatically makes it a hundred times more intriguing than the Michael Bay swill Resident Evil 5 crammed down our throats a few months ago.
What I love about Outbreak is how it explores many of the more unglamorous actions readily found in zombie cinema. Instead of kicking zombie ass you spend most of your time bracing doors, hiding in lockers, crafting makeshift weapons out of rubbish, and prolonging your inevitable zombie infection with various drugs. Outbreak has so many interesting ideas that it might have offered players a perfectly nice single-player experience... that is, if the option of playing solo was unlocked from the very beginning. There is a solo mode, I discovered, but it can only be unlocked by finishing the game. This is absurd, because it's what the default offline mode should have been. Tragically the default offline mode saddles the player with a set of broken A.I. companions, who do very little besides ruin the atmosphere by acting like imbeciles and screaming random canned phrases.
Tantalized by the prospect of playing Outbreak single-player, I decided I was going to slog through the game with the broken companions in order to be able to access the solo mode. However, even playing it with companions is proving to be more compelling than I expected. The companions are broken, mood-shattering, and idiotic... but all the same I sort of missed them once they all died and I was the only one left. I played the second scenario as Yoko, the college student, and I really began enjoying the game once all my companions were dead and out of the way. This is the solo mode experience I wanted, and it was pretty evocative. I was trapped in the underground research lab from RE2, and I was trying to escape. I made a few serious mistakes along the way and ended up falling to the ground on the top level. Unable to stand, I crawled in desperation towards the nearest exist. But the virus rapidly overtook me. I finally turned around near the door and awaited my death, thinking that if only one of my friends were alive they could have helped me up and through the door.
I died there on the floor, just an anonymous citizen of Racoon City. I wasn't a hero. I wasn't one of the protagonists of the main games who gets to kick ass and do flips. I was just a normal girl whose greatest asset was a backpack... and that wasn't enough to save me in the end.
Spending an hour trying to survive, only to have it all end in a lonely whimper, was an intriguing experience I haven't had in many games, let alone Resident Evil games. It was satisfying precisely because it was frustrating and awkward. The frustration and awkwardness had an interesting existential dimension all other RE games lack. Even the fact that I couldn't save my game was a plus in this regard, since it made me truly afraid for my life. If one views Outbreak as a series of Racoon City short stories--all short enough to justify the lack of saving--in which the point is to force the player to face their own uncomfortable mortality... the game is not at all unsuccessful. I think if it had been marketed as such, as a collection of survivor stories in which the muli-player aspect was optional and the single-player mode was the default, it would have been received quite differently by both critics and players.