Resident Evil 4 was not really Resident Evil 4 (RE4). Resident Evil Outbreak: File 2 was. Rather than a spin-off like the Gun Survivor titles, Outbreak represented the point where the series split into two separate franchises. Outbreak got the feel of the series, RE4 got to continue the plot. Which one of them really deserved to pick up the mantle and continue the numbering? I feel it's Outbreak.
First, there's the control scheme. To say that it's been improved doesn't really go far enough. This is the control scheme that critics of the series have been demanding all along, and they were right to ask for it. While RE4's control scheme was fantastic, it wasn't fundamentally different from Resident Evil 3's—the only additions were manual aiming and clear context-sensitive actions. Leon could still only run straight ahead and turn slowly, but no one noticed because the camera was anchored behind the player's back. It played like a first-person shooter where the player can't sidestep or move while shooting. File 2, on the other hand, takes Outbreak's already completely revamped control scheme and refines it to near-perfection.
Now, not only can players move in any direction they like, whenever they like, but they can actually move while aiming! This shouldn't be such a revelation, as the Silent Hill series has offered this particular feature for years, but it's such a monumental change for the RE franchise that it feels like an entirely new invention. With the restricted controls, tight areas, impaired sightlines, and famously limited ammunition, combat in RE games has always tended towards the incredibly hard. Besides allowing players to move while aiming, this game has auto-aim so good that the nefarious Resident Evil crows are finally manageable even for novices.
The developers have also done a fantastic job of using the camera to create the sense of foreboding and dread that the best games in the series have delivered. While it's true that RE4's over-the-shoulder camera position does a better job of putting the character immediately and viscerally inside the world, there's nothing better than locking down the camera and forcing the player to walk through a dark tunnel towards a blind corner to get their palms sweating and heartbeat racing. REO: File 2 has even managed to overcome the nagging feeling that forcing players through narrow pathways was just a cheap way to spring out of frame monsters on them when they least suspect it. By giving them auto-aim and free movement, characters can now creep towards a corner, gun trained on the wall. The way characters visibly snap to their targets whenever they see something shootable ensures that the player can always hit a monster, even if it doesn't appear onscreen. While this isn't quite as useful as a Metal Gear Solid-style first-person view button would be, it's enough of an improvement that it changes the way Resident Evil is played, and it's a change for the better.
Then, of course, there's the best part of the game, the online co-operative mode. Much criticism has been leveled at the Outbreak series and its lack of support for online voice communication, and those complaints are one hundred percent accurate. Attempting to play the game online can be a bewildering ordeal. Expressing all but the simplest concepts with the game's conversation controls is nearly impossible, and it makes the puzzle-solving and most of the combat far more difficult than it should have been. Of course, all of these problems can be solved so long as the player has a few friends who also enjoy Resident Evil, and access to a telephone headset (to prevent severe neck pain).
It may seem unreasonable to ask that people actually speak with one another over a telephone while playing an already-online videogame, but is it really that much more difficult than gathering people together for a game of Mario Kart? While setting up a session may be a chore, the multiplayer is nothing short of fantastic for longtime players of the series. Examining maps, deciding where to go next, trying to figure out puzzles in real-time, teaming up to gun down Hunters—this game offers an unparalleled co-operative experience that's a joy to play, no matter how difficult some of the levels get.
The difficulty is a bit of an issue, though, especially when playing single-player. The Resident Evil series' traditional stinginess when it comes to ammo distribution is in full effect. This isn't as much of a problem when playing multiplayer, since there is usually some ammo squirreled away in various locations, only available to the special abilities of certain characters—unfortunately, in single player, the partner AI isn't quite as helpful as it could be. They'll defend themselves, or help if the main character if they're being attacked, but they're restricted in the use of their special abilities. They can only use abilities that affect their inventories, not those that affect the game world. While the doctor can make medicine, and the plumber can make weapons, the reporter will not pick locks. Worse still, there are a few obstacles in the game that need to be pushed by two people, and the computer will not help the player push. This is an especially egregious problem, as two-person pushing has been going on since RE2. Luckily, these obstacles never prevent the player from completing a level, but they're still an irritating oversight.
Resident Evil Outbreak: File 2 is a wonderful survival horror game. The new control scheme is so good that if Capcom were to redo all the previous RE games in the style of Outbreak they could probably convince me to go ahead and buy all four titles for a third time. Heck, the prospect of playing the original RE co-operatively as both Chris and Jill would be reason enough shell out 40 dollars. It also proves that there were great things about the RE franchise that were lost with the switch over to all-action. Is there a central, crippling flaw in the multiplayer mode that renders the game's best feature nearly unplayable out of the box? Well, yes. But when there's an incredibly easy workaround that allows the game to be played as it was meant to, can I really find fault with it? When the third Outbreak is released, presumably for a next-generation console, I'm sure simple and effective voice-chat will have been implemented, but until then, this is as good as it gets for co-op horror. And yes, it gets pretty darn good. Resident Evil Outbreak is the true successor to the Resident Evil name, and it's good to see the torch being carried so proudly.