Windows - 2001
Description of Codename: Outbreak
It's a funny old world. When playing the Codename: Outbreak preview code not four months ago, we here at Games Domain rather enjoyed ourselves. A quick run through the missions demonstrated its challenging AI and we weren't entirely perturbed by the nature of the game. So why is it, when it comes to the brushed up review code that we're suddenly filled with a universal loathing of the game formerly known as Venom?
It's not that the game is particularly poorly constructed, or badly scripted, or even limited in its scope - it's the little things. Those little niggles that turn what could be a pleasant gaming experience into a horrific trawl through a hell from which it seems there is no way out.
Codename: Outbreak is set in the not so far future, where the Earth's close brush with a comet has left the planet with a rather unpleasant problem. Nestling in the comet's tail was a race of parasitic aliens. Falling to earth in spectacular meteor showers, they infected the scientists investigating them, the police guarding them, and the soldiers sent to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the scientists and police. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to that omnipresent sci-fi staple - the facehugger - the baby aliens attach themselves to the back of your head, therefore turning you into a zombie whose sole purpose is to walk around a lot, and when shot at, run up and down screaming: "Where are they? Where are they shooting from?"
Sidetracks aside, your job as an elite member of the armed forces is to investigate, annihilate, and neutralise the parasitic threat. The action takes place through 13 levels, each with a different focus, and a different set of mission goals for the player to fulfil: from search-and-destroy to rescue missions and basic information gathering.
You're not alone on your quest for justice, but instead you get to select a team-mate from a crack squad of soldiers, each with his own attributes and specialities - sniper, demolition, so on and so forth. Alas, there isn't one that specialises in ladder climbing - pity really. You enter each mission as a squad of two, your buddy and cohort covering your back. He's controllable via a series of simple (very simple) commands. You can control his stance (standing, kneeling, or prone - he copies you), his attack rating (free fire, hold fire), and movement (hold, cover me). You can also switch between the team-mates whenever you desire, but to be honest, the best thing you may want to do is let him get on with it, because when it comes down to it, he's one hell of a shot.
One of the problems (and frustrations) with Codename: Outbreak largely comes with its AI. Our friends at GSC Gameworld have clearly spent some time and effort on the antagonists here, and they're not shy of telling us. "The computer rivals' artificial intelligence is based on usage of virtual hearing and sight algorithms, helping the computer players to pattern their behaviour in the game," boasts the official website. And it's true: this is clear in the game itself. In fact, when they've seen you, your time in game is generally limited as the soldiers you face are professional and not a little scary the vast majority of the time. They'll attempt to flank you, work together, and generally do their best to fill you with lead. It doesn't help that they're all crack-shots - find cover fast, because they simply don't miss.
However the AI gets its knickers in a twist when it can't see the enemy and, as this is a game where you are encouraged to sneak about, this is a problem. When blind to your presence, the enemy soldiers tend to do three things: a) run around, b) stand waving their guns around, c) kneel, waving their guns around, whilst uttering two or three stock phrases obviously reserved for this occasion. At first it's amusing, and extraordinarily easy to pick them off, but just wait for them to assume positions b or c - but it becomes irritating pretty fast.
Sadly, the good parts of the AI don't seem to extend to your hapless team-mate (other than the uncanny ability to shoot better than Billy the Kid when in a tight spot), probably because he has to act in concert with you, rather than his cleverly programmed counterparts. Since, as we've mentioned, many of the missions are supposed to be stealthy, you may wish to turn off your team-mate's ability to fire, but even this won't stop him from standing in the middle of the enemy's field of fire when you're crouched handily behind a large rock. See you later then, chum.
Also, and this is particularly unfair, your team-mate has been gifted with superhuman abilities. When attempting to discover an alternate entrance to a particularly thorny area, we took what we thought was the novel approach of swimming around the guarded area, in a handy river. Turns out the river was only handy for showing us poor quality water effects, since the entire area was ringed with 'unclimbable' hills - apparently ruthless soldiers don't possess the ability to scramble up anything other than a moderate slope. In fact, should you stand, crouch, or even lie down on a hill of over about 30 degrees, you'll start to slide down it. It goes without saying how ridiculous it is to be lying on the floor sliding down a very small incline.
The limitation doesn't, however, extend to our superhuman comrade - hearing sudden gunfire during one flashpoint, he could be seen standing right in the middle of said unclimbable hill, being peppered with bullets by a selection of eager opponents. Great. Similarly, when standing on a piece of scaffolding, he spotted a guard high in an observation tower. Obviously overcome with the sight of an enemy, he casually ignored such a little thing as gravity, and ran across the intervening space (which, we should add was 15 foot above ground level) to get a better shot. Hmn.
We could even forgive the sap for being superhumanly gifted if he at least managed to obey the most simple command - "follow me". Many of the missions require crawling through limited spaces, sneaking around different access points, and so on. Surprised we were, when we turned to our companion to check on his status, and found him still running around on the floor of a lower level, having been seemingly challenged by the difficult combination of a ladder and an airduct. Hey! You can walk through mid-air! How about you spend less time showing off, and more time learning basic climbing skills?
Okay, so we've griped about the engine. But what about the game itself? As mentioned, you'll often be tasked with infiltration missions - "take it stealthy" - your Russian voiceover advises you. Perhaps the Russian ought to buy a new dictionary, that is unless the definition of stealthy has changed to "shoot everyone in your path" recently. These aliens really don't have many brains about them, because they obviously fail to check on their exterior guards. Perhaps they thought that the network of connected guard towers were simply having a tea party, and resolved to just try them again later, rather than find out exactly why they've stopped responding in their entirety.
Passing over this, it's the gathering information missions that irritate the most. The information in question takes the form of personal computers, notepads and so on, which those careless scientists have left lying around all over the place. We had to hurriedly restrain ourselves from throwing our monitor out of the window when we discovered that the information source we'd been missing was a tiny (and we mean tiny) disk, hidden on the floor between two cabinets. Who throws disks on the floor? Do scientists do this regularly?
Calm, remain calm. There are good things in Codename: Outbreak. The gun, for example, is a whole lot of fun to use - it's a single weapon with a rotating barrel. In later levels, you can even add an extendable rocket launcher barrel for decidedly non-stealthy fragfest. You also come equipped with a bunch of fun tools. You can drop holograms of yourself, and use a tesla generator to conceal your movements from eagle-eyed sentries, although that saps heavily from your health. Sound in the game is universally fantastic. We'd be challenged to produce a game that produces more realistic, and immersive ear-candy. The 3D sound system is perfect: voices will echo up to you from your antagonists and are well performed. It's just a shame they don't say more than the same three phrases.
There are also some nice touches to the visuals. Water effects aside, GSC Gameworld has implemented a system where you have a ring of detail around you. Close up, the grass is detailed, the rocks clear, and so on, but as your eye travels further, the detail begins to blur although the quality remains admirable. Faces on players are another matter, mind you. Quite who has a cone-shaped face, we're not sure, but it seems to have been the main criteria for joining the army.
It's crushingly disappointing that playing Codename: Outbreak wasn't enjoyable - it was one of the upcoming stealth/action titles that Games Domain was genuinely looking forward to. Our expectations have been comprehensively destroyed by what is a truly mediocre title. Save the world from a race of parasitic aliens? We'd rather have a nice cup of tea, thanks all the same.
Review By GamesDomain
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