First released as a Dreamcast exclusive back in 2000, Code: Veronica has the dubious honour of not only being the other awkward in-between Resident Evil but the first next-gen release in the series, obliging the title to take survival horror into the 21st century even when the real fourth Resident Evil was struggling behind the scenes to find its own identity in this brave new world (at least we got Devil May Cry and Haunting Ground out of those troubled delays). It couldn’t even boast on the back of the box that it was the first fully 3D title in the series as Resident Evil: Gun Survivor had pipped it to the post by just a few weeks – and on what was then the decidedly long-in-the-tooth PlayStation, no less. To make matters worse Gun Survivor’s unique first-person viewpoint didn’t go down well with reviewers at all, putting Code: Veronica in the unenviable position of having to silence these post-Raccoon City critics and prove there really was life for the series outside of the classic and by then overly familiar template. For what it’s worth I feel Gun Survivor’s great so long as you approach it controller in hand (even in regions where G-Con 45 compatibility is included) as a first-person Resident Evil game rather than go in expecting Time Crisis with zombies – treat the game as if Resident Evil VII came a few decades too early. And was fun. Code: Veronica was also the first canonical game in the series not to be granted an official numbered slot in the timeline, allegedly due to an exclusivity deal with Sony on that front. Perhaps this is why the game leans in so heavily on the crowd-pleasing explosions and familiar faces over significant shifts or updates in the core gameplay – spin-off titles with no real hook on new and untested formats tend to be easy for fans to casually dismiss, regardless of their quality.
One thing that had to go were those old pre-rendered backgrounds: As beautiful as they were at the time (and as far as Resident Evil 0 would eventually push the concept on the GameCube) in 2000 they were seen as a relic of a bygone age – anything less than full 3D would have been completely unacceptable, especially on hardware as cutting-edge as the Dreamcast. What’s surprising about Code: Veronica’s handling of this newfound freedom is how carefully and delicately it uses this power: it would have been easy to get lost in a whirl of constantly sweeping shots that only existed to remind the player they were finally tank-controlling within a true 3D space, but this game’s content to stick with static angles for the most part, with the occasional pan or tracking shot used only where it will either be genuinely useful or add some emotion to the scene. Keeping these “special” camera angles reserved for certain areas and events helps maintain a sense of contrast between the “typical” presentation expected of the series and the new capabilities of Code: Veronica; something as simple as the camera following a character down a lift to a lower area in the same room adds real depth to a location that would have been impossible to convey using the old static backgrounds, no matter how detailed they were (and they really were very detailed by this time). The “suspended doll” area is perhaps one of the strongest displays of the team’s mastery of framing, the mixture of shots imbuing the room with an all-important survival-horror atmosphere that is only enhanced by knowing that the giant creepy decaying doll centerpiece is physically occupying the same space as Claire as she moves up and around it into the unknown. Character’s faces are softly lit by the warm glow of a hand-held lighter or briefly bathed in the harsh red of a rotating emergency bulb, enemies visibly lie in wait under the flooring or grab hold of the scenery before launching themselves at the player – it all feels like a conscious push to make the characters part of the world and not just run around “on top” as the 3D models with pre-rendered backgrounds could sometimes come across as (a disconnect that became more marked every time Capcom ported the older games with higher resolution character models to newer formats but – understandably – left the backgrounds untouched). This was a huge leap forward, proof not just of the Dreamcast’s power but of what Resident Evil itself could do when freed from its old constraints and there’s no doubt when you look at the camera angles used throughout Code: Veronica – rotting corpses hanging limp in the foreground, wider shots that take in a whole disastrous scene, over-the-shoulder tracking that forces you, the player, to approach the unseen danger at the same moment your character does – that they were chosen to enhance the tension and fear factor of each particular event and not a case of blindly aping the look of the older games without any understanding of what they were trying to achieve.
The character models haven’t been forgotten in this graphical upgrade and the game makes heavy use of sometimes astonishingly subtle facial expressions and gestures that make it almost hard to believe that just one game ago a main character would have had one single painted-on facial expression all game and some sort of sticky-out nose if they were lucky – in Code: Veronica the Redfields now have visible eyelashes. These days the series has moved into real-time photogrammetry as standard and characters faces display individual pores outside of cutscenes even on the lowliest compatible format: there’s no denying that the impact of these details and animations have been inevitably lost to time but back then it was a huge technological leap to see something so detailed done easily in real time when it would have been absolutely impossible just a few years before. This awe is only underlined by the very deliberate presence of an approximation of the original iconic mansion hall that kicked off a whole genre (my apologies to Alone in the Dark) as well as the whole mess these characters are in – on the PlayStation just going up the stairs in the same room triggered a loading sequence but here you can go up, down, and run all around in 3D, in much greater detail, and it doesn’t even feel like the hardware’s breaking a sweat.
While the graphics may be a determined step forward Code: Veronica’s underlying gameplay feels like more of a throwback to the earliest days of the genre, playing it safe by lifting directly and often from the original Resident Evil: A cautious but admittedly sensible step that helps to give what had been named as a side-story some of the historical grounding and legitimacy it needed to turn heads. This is the reason why all of your not-so-favourite puzzle elements are back with a vengeance; from box pushing to painting puzzles to important items being stuck inside or on the reverse of otherwise unremarkable collectables. The worst sort of nostalgic carry-over is reserved for the now-obligatory valve handle, which in this game is the wrong shape for the first hole you need to stick it in and must be cut to size, used, then later re-found and changed back using an add-on part lying around elsewhere. When Jill’s crank broke in her hands during Resident Evil 3 is felt like a knowing wink to fans, that the character was channelling the frustration players had been carrying all these years, but Code: Veronica’s treatment of a very similar item comes across more as an unfunny joke at the player’s expense. On a similar bum note is the return of the tiger statue/eye gems puzzle, which this time around requires you to solve and then un-solve a power-related problem in another room before you can gather all of the essential items from it. Whether these unusual devices are viewed as canonical proof of Umbrella’s far-reaching lunacy, a respectful nod towards the older games, or shameless pandering to hopefully give fans a reason to feel comfortable in a new environment is largely down to current generosity of the end user: I think it’s fairest to say it’s a mix of all three, and some lean more heavily towards one of the previously mentioned directions than others. The first time the shotgun-hung-on-a-wall puzzle is used it give you access to a new area as well as an interesting way to award/deny you a useful weapon dependent on how well you could work your way around the damaged Rockfort Island area, so in that instance it feels like an old favourite given a completely new twist. However the variant found in the Antarctic lab – where you place the gun on the wall to gain access to some grenade rounds placed a few feet away – feels rather tired, asking you to do something you already had to do to get there in the first place to gain a little more of an item you already have.
Whatever your feeling towards those familiar tricks and traps Code: Veronica quickly burns through its player’s patience towards these puzzles thanks to the vast amount of backtracking and the stop/start nature of its item placement. The preceding three mainline games all have you move through “levels” – the guardhouse, the police station, the clock tower – (they’re even organised as such within the file structure too if you want to take a look) you would enter an area and solve the puzzles within before moving on to wherever the game lead you next. A major change of scenery also meant you were definitely done with wherever you’d just been and had no reason to go back there unless you were absolutely desperate for a left-behind herb or box of ammo – this is not the case with Code: Veronica. This game unfortunately has you spending a lot of time going back and forth between the prison, palace, private residence and military base (and later around the various levels of the Antarctic base) with no flowing “and we’re done here” solution to be found no matter how much effort you make into planning it out – some areas just need visiting twice (or more) no matter what you do, and others really are physical dead-ends with a sparkly object at the end for you to take and put somewhere else: there’s no nearby one-way door to pass through that’ll lead you back to where you need to be, no hidden air vent to slide down or locked-up ladder to deploy.
Not content with making you play fetch-the-shiny the game is also really keen on “noticing things” being a key part of your progression and there are a few points where something won’t change, be accessible, or in the case of the serum needed to cure Claire should she succumb to Nosferatu’s poison be visible on the shelf (not even in a “A serum? I don’t need this” sort of way either), until a specific event has occurred no matter how much foreknowledge you arm yourself with. At one point you can’t access a secure area until you look at it through a security camera: Not unlock the door, not bypass the security system – look at it. There’s a secret statue-door between Alfred and Alexia’s bedrooms you can’t use until you’ve been shown it exists in a cutscene, even when you know it’s there and it only takes a shove to operate (even though both rooms are accessible and unlocked from the off – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to pass between the two instead of walk the corridor outside). This minor aggravation turns into something of an irritant when you realise Chris is able to open the same secret door instantly without any hints to guide him: you, the player, may now know it’s there, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is a point in the game where you know and you can’t (Claire) and there is a point where you know and you can (Chris) with nothing more than a “Because we said so” to differentiate the two.
Just as you’re forced to solve puzzles or hang around until you’ve officially been told you’ve spotted something you’re also made to fight monsters this time around too: Enemy placements work a little differently to previous games and have been designed more for dramatic effect or immediate shock value than as (un)living puzzle pieces for seasoned players to carefully avoid as they make a break for the nearest door. The first time you really feel this new approach will probably be during the first Claire vs Tyrant encounter on the way back to the palace: In an older game you could deliberately eat a hit and sneak past as they recover (see: “Mr X”/Nemesis blocking your only exit) but here you have to take him on and do enough damage to make him fall flat on his face – and you have to do it before he pushes Claire back into the flames at the far end of this narrow passageway, triggering an instant game over no matter how much health she’s got left (or a retry, if you wish). He’s not especially resilient here and you’re highly likely to have a surplus of ammo at this point (or failing that the all-powerful combat knife – go for the knees!) but it’s a definite moment that’s about neither survival nor horror and instead a strong step towards the conflict-led design of all the Resident Evils to come. On the less do-or-die end of the “fight to continue” scale are Alexia’s vinetacles in the Antarctic base – you have to take the Cyberdemon approach and shoot them until they die because there’s no other way to get around them. They aren’t a penalty for a player’s poorly-planned backtracking or for those who couldn’t get through the corridor fast enough, they’re just put in your way and there’s no alternative route around them, no way to squeeze by if you time it right. It’d be a mistake to say it’s completely impossible to avoid conflict with the range of biohazards unleashed on Rockfort Island – dogs are still best ignored, as are the new rubbery “bandersnatch” abominations and the light-fearing bats. The Redfields may not have Jill’s new dodge maneuver but they’re as fast on their feet as they’ve always been and it’s always worth trying to run before you start pointing guns at things but there are some non-boss spots here that wouldn’t exist in the other games where your only options are to really go on the offensive or get hurt.
Code: Veronica’s insistence on direct combat doesn’t quite sit right during regular gameplay but there’s no doubt it really shines in the game’s set piece boss battles and perhaps nowhere best than in the heart-stopping “Tyrant on a plane” sequence and the incredibly tense shoot-out against the blind Nosferatu. The Tyrant fight is the one place where the game is unapologetically difficult no matter what setting you play it on: There’s always a chance that however prepared you are one false move will kill you instantly – and that’s a conscious part of the design, and a very large reason why if there’s any part of the game that people will remember, it’s this part. The cargo hold is small, the Tyrant is fast when he’s uninjured, and one whole side of this tiny arena offers nothing but a fatal drop for whoever gets shoved in that direction while standing too close to the edge. Dodging is possible but takes some careful spacing to work effectively, and that box-catapult never seems to ready itself fast enough. The use of 3D here is slight but effective – once the dramatic intro’s over there’s technically nothing here that couldn’t be adequately represented in the traditional manner but there’s a sense of depth and air to that exposed hatch (which you’ll get to experience for yourself if you’re unlucky) that makes an already dangerous battle feel just that little bit more threatening.
If Tyrant was all about dazzling you with drama then Nosferatu is all about ominous restraint: This is a boss that the game has taken time out to set up as a terrifying beast ever since Claire first caught sight of him locked up in his featureless cell through the secret floor of the Antarctic base’s office, and that build-up pays off beautifully as you see what was once Alexander Ashford, father to the game’s chief antagonists, slowly walk up the stairs towards Claire out in an Antarctic blizzard, the one thing standing between her and freedom. You’re encouraged to collect Alfred Ashford’s rifle before this battle with the not-so-subtle prodding of some “Hey, look at this!” shots of his gun left right out in the open only a few paces away from Claire, and in the following fight it becomes obvious why they wanted you to use it – the unease of being forced to watch this monster walk directly towards you through the storm as you try to line up a shot through the rifle’s first-person lens (a brilliant immersive trick that would be dialled up to eleven for the Project Zero/Fatal Frame series) is one of the finest moments of pure distilled horror found in the entire series. You can of course still choose to use standard firearms and defeat him in the usual manner, but the game offers you a tantalising tidbit that’s hard to ignore – one perfect shot to the heart from the rifle will take Nosferatu down instantly, if only you’ve got the nerve to pull it off.
One event where this aggressive attitude falls flat is during Steve’s final mutated appearance: You’ve worked your way through a whole game that’s awash with ammo (dual machine guns too) and repeatedly encouraged you to shoot first and worry about the puzzles later but here you have to run away from him and that enormous axe no matter what sort of firepower Claire’s carrying – every swing does ridiculous amounts of damage and he’s utterly unstoppable and unstunnable. That by itself would be unusual enough but what makes it jarring is the fact that even if you play perfectly – TAS-run perfectly – there’s no way to avoid taking life-threatening damage as you try to escape him. So you end up running a bit, getting hit, eating a herb, running a bit further, getting hit again, eating what is probably your last herb, and then limping along while praying you make it to the invisible line in the floor that causes the FMV sequence to kick in before he finishes you off. There’s no tactical planning or clever player input here and if you used up all your herbs while you were exploring (there’s no indication that the switch back to Claire is temporary or her final playable moment) then that’s just too bad, you’ll have to start over from the retry point and do better next time (there’s a mandatory instant-kill puzzle along the way too, just for fun). As a long-term fan it’s annoying and imprecise – why can’t I stun him? Why can’t I push statues over to slow him down? Why can’t I ever outrun or dodge that axe? But there’s no denying that on your first run, when you make a desperate sprint for the slowly-closing exit with that invincible monster tearing you apart and just make it in time, is absolutely unforgettable.
And that’s what Code: Veronica’s really trying to do – to convey a spectacular event and the rush of excitement of that goes with it. With that in mind it’d be easy to come to the conclusion that by being more superficial Code: Veronica is “worse” than its more refined stablemates but I think it’s more interesting to question who the game’s for: It’s a new game, on a new format, in a new console generation – why shouldn’t it be for new players too? But what about the sort of fan who plays these games over and over until they know how to deal with every situation before the dogs have even burst through the glass windows? The “real” fans who can tell you what sort of virus something’s been infected with by sight alone?
Steam’s achievement statistics tell an interesting story about at least one slice of Resident Evil’s customer base: At the time of writing only 77% of Resident Evil remake’s PC players have killed a zombie. Any zombie at all. That means over 20% haven’t even got so far in the game as to kill the earliest-introduced, weakest, and most numerous enemy in the whole series. And the statistics only fall off a cliff from there: 30.4% have defeated Neptune. Only 26.6% have encountered Yawn at all, and just 26.4% of all player have finished the game on any difficultly setting – which is to say that almost three-quarters of everyone who’s ever bought the game haven’t finished it.
But that game’s the difficult one for series purists anyway, so let’s turn our attention to the well reviewed and currently the best selling Resident Evil of all time, Resident Evil 5:
Only 56.4% of Steam users have finished the first part of the first chapter.
What about Resident Evil 4 then, the untouchable darling and series mastermind Shinji Mikami’s personal survival horror baby? It fares a little better but even so only 67% of players have got far enough to ring the village bell.
We can go on like this for any entry in the series you care to mention: Only 50.8% of people have seen Leon’s ending in Resident Evil 2‘s remake, and just 30.3% of everyone who’s played it have seen the true ending.
While I’d never claim the above was a serious scientific study I think it’s fair to say that there’s a definite trend on display here and from this we can draw a reasonably safe conclusion that we can apply to earlier games in the series: That no matter how critically acclaimed it is or however many copies are sold the vast majority of gamers will never finish any Resident Evil they buy once, never mind get to the point where they worry about best-practise reloading techniques (always via the menu!), consistently performing melee finishers for extra mercenaries mode time, or learning how to solve puzzles in the most inventory-efficient manner. With this in mind it’s easy to see why they’d design Code: Veronica to be as spectacular and memorable as possible for those first-and-only timers – which will be the majority of paying customers – than those who see speeding through with the sort of time/rank that’d earn them an infinite rocket launcher for their next go as a casual warm-up. Because of this Code: Veronica also made the decision to lean in on the story even though the series has never been accused of being particularly strong on that front. Atmosphere? Mood? A lingering sense of dread and danger? Sure! But actual story? …Not so much. As with the gameplay the details here really don’t matter as much as old-timers might insist they would or should: Most people play to see their favourite characters shout at each other for a bit and fight some cool monsters, not jot down key item locations on a home-made map or use keys on doors they’ll never go through just to trigger the discard dialogue and save themselves a trip back to an item chest. Code: Veronica is Resident Evil as viewed through a typical user’s mind’s eye: Everything’s zombies and shooting and weird keys and Wesker.
You’d think the ex-STARS captain’s return from the dead would be a huge spoiler but in fact it’s anything but – in the original version of the game his face is shown literally in the centre of the title screen (he was removed from X’s, even though he gets more screen time in that game – more on that shortly) and on multiple promotional posters right next to portraits of Chris, Claire, and Steve. Him coming back was as much part of the draw as seeing Chris and Claire together for the first time, even if the exact circumstances surrounding his unexpected return from the dead are completely cast aside – why waste time worrying about new virus strains and plots-within-plots when the game could instead have him pinning Chris to a wall with one hand or cackling to himself like the finest of vintage B-movie villains? Such was his popularity that the “director’s cut” Code: Veronica X added and/or tweaked several major scenes for the character – normally something I’d be all for but in this instance they sadly do more harm than good.
The first alteration is his introduction, which in X has Wesker running into Claire outside the palace area: He mentions he’s responsible for attacking the island (irrelevant in Code: Veronica’s action-first setting) before referring to Claire as bait even though he didn’t know she was there and had no idea Chris was coming for her and then Matrix’ing himself away into the night. He becomes the villain behind the villain, all shadowy and mysterious and yet somehow a man with better things to do than kill or capture the one person on the island who has a proven track record of destroying Umbrella facilities before escaping with their life. His original entrance comes much later and has him busy with… whatever he’s evil-ly busy with before noticing Alexia’s awake, and then he is surprised to learn Chris is there as well – to keep some rough continuity with the additional earlier introduction his shocked line is replaced in X and we are made to suffer through him saying “Oh little fishy, come see my hook” in a more confident tone while the rest of the scene plays out exactly as it did before. The original sequence positions him as a preoccupied third party who just happens to delight in unleashing containers filled with Hunters across the island to make life difficult for Chris, which is far more in keeping with the game’s over-the-top nonsense than an inserted quasi-explanation for specifics the plot never even pretended to care about to someone he’s not really interested in talking to before going off to do something else.
After this comes Wesker’s scene with Alexia, which in X has him again acting like a bootleg Neo before scuttling off into wherever evil goes when it’s not trying to look all moody and mean. So why would this be a problem when you know the character’s a powerful back-from-the-dead traitorous badass by design? The thing is Code: Veronica is Alexia’s game, not Wesker’s, so for her to be out-shone in her own intro takes a lot of the edge not just from the fight that immediately follows this scene but steals something from the climax too, as if you’ve been given second prize and the more interesting battle got away. In contrast the original has him slapped across the room by her like it’s nothing at all before she turns her attentions to Chris – and while its fair to say she’s a complete pushover in either scenario she feels far more dangerous and intimidating after being shown to deal with someone who can’t even die right so effortlessly.
But best of all is Wesker’s final appearance: An almost six minute long cutscene very obviously shoehorned in during Chris’ five minute long escape (and that countdown includes the time spent in final boss battle) from the Antarctic base. Fun as it is to see the ex-colleagues have a go at each other, and as good as it is to not have Mr Sunglasses completely vanish from the plot after Alexia flings him across the room in the replica mansion hall, there’s really no hiding the fact that there’s nothing in this for the player: You already know he’s powerful and hates Chris, so having to sit through another scene explaining how he’s powerful and hates Chris especially when everything else has been screaming YOU’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW since before the final boss fight takes a lot of can-he-make-it rush out of the ending. Oddly enough the most satisfying take on this bitter rivalry can be found in Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles: Wesker’s petty “I won the game” message carved into the stone where Steve should have been and that unflinching stare across the flames capturing their very personal hatred of each other far better than either of the official conclusions to the game.
If we’re talking characters we really have to take a moment to discuss Steve Burnside, the other main personality in the game and the only new playable member of the cast. He’s… he’s… well. He’s Steve. It’s clear from the off that Steve is a walking plot device who really only exists to dredge up emotional responses out of Claire, created to die in a way that’ll make her feel hopelessly sad and conveniently remove her from the plot when the game needs a reason to have a Tyrant-stopping heroine kept out of the way for a bit and that’s about it – he has no ties to the rest of the cast or any real drive or agency of his own beyond “I’m getting out of here”, but expressed in a way that seems to erratically veer between whiny and unappealingly cocky. There’s no getting away from the fact that Steve’s behaviour is just not endearing, not even when you take into account the completely expected family tragedy backstory (show me a Resident Evil character without one) and him being forced at one point to shoot his own zombified father. Even if you don’t believe there’s any problem at all with Steve trying to kiss Claire while she’s asleep (someone who has expressed no interest in him beyond escaping-comrades level concern and some friendly teasing), or holding on just a little too long when she falls on him, or blatantly checking out her backside – causing him to cock up their escape plan and forcing the player to fix it – his misplaced affections feel not just one-sided but unearned. He doesn’t do much beyond complain or cause problems which the player then has to then make the effort to sort out (See: Claire’s very real need for the golden Lugers) and on the occasions he does “save” Claire it’s either completely ineffectual (his feeble attempt at shooting Nosferatu before the battle starts) or from a threat that you as the player never feel you couldn’t have handled yourself if only the game had given you the chance.
So Code: Veronica’s not a really survival horror game but more of a story-led one… with a bad story and one highly unlikable main cast member? Yes, it’s all true – sort of. Take any line in the script and it’ll look bad – and that’s because it is bad. This is not a well-written adventure by any means – the story is a mess with two false climaxes, a villain who hates you for something you didn’t do and dies by falling over, another who either disappears from the plot entirely or gets badly edited in for a hands-off fight with no winner depending on which version you’re playing, and the final boss just seems to want you dead because you’re there. But nobody except weirdy internet bloggers is going to try and evaluate these wonky elements individually, and when taken as a whole Code: Veronica just about works in that special summer action movie kind of way. It’s very easy while playing in the spirit it was intended to be taken in to lose yourself in the moment, running from one exciting cutscene to the next as the game breathlessly takes you through a slew of one-off sequences and boss fights that whether you love or loathe them, you’ll never forget them. Code: Veronica is probably the closest to a black sheep the main series actually has, even though it could be argued it was the one that tried the hardest to be the Resident Evil people fondly remembered talking about with their friends rather than the one that in reality they got stuck on and put down without ever coming close to finishing. It didn’t wholly succeed in bringing the series into the future but there’s a lot in here, right down to that guns-first attitude and the now memetic Chris/Wesker rivalry, that other entries would expand upon to great effect and be roundly applauded for in the years that followed.