Retrospective: Resident Evil – CODE: Veronica

Retrospective: Resident Evil – CODE: Veronica

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis wasn’t intended to be the sequel to Resident Evil 2. It was conceived as an action-based side-story, but owing to a complex mix of financial issues and a delay in the release Sony’s second console, the then Resident Evil 1.9 became 3 and, later, Nemesis / Last Escape. Even after that shift in development, it feels more like an epilogue to the Raccoon City drama than a proper sequel, at least in terms of its length and content. If it were not for Jill Valentine in the lead read, and bringing Raccoon City to an explosive end, it would do little to advance the franchise’s narrative. Sure, it’s an exceptional epilogue, but an epilogue nonetheless.

CODE: Veronica, which debuted on the ill-fated Dreamcast in 2000 and made its way to the PlayStation 2 a year later, is Resident Evil 2’s true successor, interweaving the story of the first two games by uniting the Redfield siblings. Claire, still searching for her brother Chris, is kidnapped by the Umbrella Corporation and detained on an island prison in the Southern Ocean. Shortly after her arrival the island is attacked, once again releasing the experimental T-Virus.

…You gotta wonder if it’s a Claire thing.

Few would argue in favour of Resident Evil’s literary merits, but CODE: Veronica is notable for the scope of its narrative ambition relative to its predecessors. Here’s a game that’s thematically centred on the corruption of aristocracy and the degeneracy of hereditary bloodlines, although saddled with the weird / problematic conceptions about hereditary that the series at large is.

The villains of the piece are the Ashford twins, who turn out to be genetically-modified clones of their oldest ancestor, Veronica – a mad attempt by their father (whose fate is an excellent one) to revive an ailing family to its supposed former glory (somewhere along the way the Ashford’s helped found Umbrella).

He’s quite mad (image courtesy of True Achievements)

The twins, Alexia and Alfred, are even more deranged than their father. Their near incestuous relationship, predicated on power and megalomania, make for a sharp contrast to the good-natured and loyal Redfield siblings, who express their love for one another without being total creeps. The twins’ relationship is a piece of horror unto itself, complete with its own disturbing twist. It’s strange in a way Resident Evil hadn’t been before.

Cutting his way through it all is series villain Albert Wesker, miraculously alive after seemingly dying in the Mansion Incident. Wesker is Umbrella’s most successful experiment, having used the virus to turn himself into something…well, less than human. Far less. Now he’s back to pillage what’s left of Umbrella’s origins, starting with Alexia and Alfred.

I like CODE: Veronica a lot. It’s one of my favourite Resident Evil games, even if its reputation is dampened by its exclusion from the so-called “numbered titles”. I’ve said before that my tolerance for Resident Evil’s trashy (if not outright horrible) writing is relative to my enjoyment of the game itself, and CODE: Veronica is no exception. I find the scenario so compelling that the stink of the dialogue and acting doesn’t rankle.

Rockfort, the island, is a unique and absorbing setting. Although scarred by an assault from mysterious forces, its appearance is a reflection of its commander, Alfred. His capricious wishes had long since driven the inhabitants to despair, his inadequacies as a human being on full display in his ostentatious embrace of military iconography. And perched on black cliffs, a Gothic palace presides over the miserable lot of land – opening its doors reveals worse still, and the soundtrack starts channelling Halloween.

The game’s director, Hiroki Kato, opted to create a game whose two playable characters have stories that follow on sequentially from one another, rather than existing as A / B plots that broadly cover the same ground. I prefer this approach, so being able to play as Claire as well as Chris in the same game is a definite boost to CODE: Veronica. Yes, you’re still exploring the same maps, but the storyline reshapes the geography, closing down old passages and opening up new ones. If there’s a downside to that approach it does mean Chris sort of steals Claire’s game out from under her, as if the series hadn’t quite figured out how she’d figure into its larger mythology.

CODE: Veronica makes full use of its real-time lighting (image courtesy of True Achievements)

It plays well, staying close to the Resident Evil formula. If you didn’t like tank controls and clumsy combat before, you probably won’t here. Strangely, despite being a graphically superior game to Resident Evil 3: Nemesis – ditching the pre-rendered backgrounds for fully polygonal environments – it doesn’t include some of that game’s better features, such as the ability to make a 180 degree turn or dodge enemy attacks. That’s a consequence of the way in which the titles were developed, making CODE: Veronica actually feel clumsier than a game from a previous generation of consoles.

I’d also make the argument that the loss of pre-rendered backgrounds ultimately detracted from the setting’s potential depth; I played Resident Evil 3: Nemesis straight after this one, and although the graphical elements aren’t as seamless, there’s so much packed into the background of every scene. It’s gorgeous. CODE: Veronica can look quite lovely, but it can also look quite bar, especially when you’re inside laboratories.

Another problem is Steve Burnside – an unfortunate survivor on the island. Steve’s a cocky brat who I guess the developers thought came across as fun and cool, especially when he starts manifesting feelings for Claire, whose arc could bend towards the tragic. But no, he’s just a total goon you will learn to resent.

In a game already full of obstacles, Steve proves to be one of the biggest: he literally appears in order to hinder and frustrate players’ progress inadvertently. Where you should really be channelling your hatred at the game’s villains, you direct most of it at Steve.

Still, this is peak Resident Evil, with some interesting gameplay scenarios, a compelling European Gothic setting (albeit one in the Southern Ocean), and a substantial bit of narrative. It wasn’t to be the last game in the original mould – that honour belonged to Resident Evil Zero, whose underperformance on the GameCube brought an end to the template that had been established in 1996 (the remake of Resident Evil bears similar responsibility for this, although it’s substantially better than the prequel).

That’s not to be mourned, though. As much as I love CODE: Veronica, it feels like a game that was older than its time – a series soon to be in desperate need of a rethink.

It’d be awhile before Capcom found it.

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