In the summer of 1998 it was to my sheer delight that I won a copy of Resident Evil 2 from a local radio station. By the time I had finished it, with prowess that has long since left me, I was able to trot a squeaky block of tofu swiftly from the sewer depths to the police department’s roof, equipped with only herbs and a knife. This was the distilled Resident Evil experience.
At its prime, the series stood as a fascinating demonstration of gameplay as systems of meaning. The whole survival horror genre is one of perhaps unique status in that narrative subtext is essential for the game to work in any way. I’ve written in the past about how games are best considered as elements working in collusion, and Resident Evil is a fantastic example of this – in accordance with the metric of tools plainly churning out ‘fun’, its system of mechanics could easily be surmised as quite terrible.
Of course, that would involve ignoring a significant portion of what made the old Resident Evil games so engaging. Rather, it’s better to think of gameplay as a language, whereupon RE’s mechanics would be prose centring on a tone of fear and desperation. It was, after all, this pivotal element that initially entered the series into hearts and minds, now long since abandoned.
Resident Evil Code Veronica, one of the last classic RE experiences prior to the recent shift to more action-orientated gameplay, is possibly my favourite entry in the series if only because it was dressed to the nines in the story’s iconic absurdity.
Departing from the familiar locales of the previous main entries, Code Veronica begins on a newly-besieged prison island owned by the evil Umbrella Corporation. The island is administrated by a shrill, schizophrenic and needlessly theatrical fop Alfred Ashford, who hounds the player for most of the game. Such is his preposterous villainy that one diary entry tells of his need to put to death some workers who built for him a secret bridge to a secret house, and that Alfred is expressly OK with killing them because he is a villain.
Code Veronica carries the Resident Evil legacy of hilariously bad cutscenes and voice acting, and yet the inadvertent campness does little to spoil the game’s overall suspenseful tone. As always, the series’ original gameplay conjures anxiety so successfully that it excels at picking up the narrative slack. While boasting many additions to the initial formula, Code Veronica retains a considerable portion of its predecessors’ idiosyncrasies, offering a variety of features to aid the player (e.g. auto-aiming and a handy about-turn) without compromising the game’s balance.
To an outside observer, the later change to a third-person shooter in Resident Evil 4 might seem like a natural continuation of the series’ increasing use of action-adventure elements. In spite of all the gearing up towards bombast, Code Veronica remains such a different experience to RE4 because at its core it plays like a strategy game (albeit of a vastly different type than Command and Conquer or Tactics Ogre). Let’s break the gameplay down to its major components to see how this is so.
If you’ve ever played an early Resident Evil game you’ll know what its gameplay amounts to. Movement is cumbersome and slow feeling, even at the player character’s fastest sprint. Many have likened it (not unfairly) to driving a tank as opposed to the human avatar on-screen. As mentioned, a quick about-turn is available for emergency retreats, which is especially useful when face-to-face with a giant green Steve monster.
This serves as the backbone of the game’s mechanical system. Navigation and exploration take up most of the player’s time and characterize the imminence of the other mechanics, namely combat and puzzles.
Combat in Code Veronica is archaic – the second-person viewpoint often obscures the player character’s directional facing, inhibiting the player from lining up shots with ease. Turning in the horizontal axis is sluggish, as with movement, while the vertical plane speaks of only three degrees. Without the autoaim function, shooting an enemy on the first try is a matter of planning or luck. Most importantly, you’re prevented from moving when aiming, while drawing and holstering any weapon involves a small time investment that can place you in danger in the abundant confined spaces.
Due to its deficiencies, combat is governed by the availability of ammunition and health items alongside the layout and variety of enemy monsters in each particular area. The scarcity of resources is balanced against the need to explore areas for essential keys and puzzle pieces, so the mindset the player must adopt is one of resource management with these as top priority. After this, monsters are to be avoided so as to preserve ammo, often at the expense of health items. On the other hand, if health items are running low, enemy herds may need trimming down or complete removal to facilitate ease of navigation.
The result is an ingrained fight or flight mentality as the player needs to be constantly aware of his/her inventory, given its incredibly limited capacity. Occasional storage crates serve as a dumping ground for collected items, freeing up inventory space and allowing the player to restock on reserves.