Confusion, Disappointment, Frustration. That is what I felt as I sat down for another round of Resident Evil 5’s Mercenaries mode with my brother. Was it entertaining? Yes! Co-op definitely works – it’s the perfect way to while away a rainy afternoon. Unfortunately, it isn’t Resident Evil, a series that used to be known for its gut wrenching terror and perfectly constructed tension, pockmarked by brief moments of respite and safety (never had I been happier to see a typewriter). So what was it that made the series so good? And when did it all go so wrong?
Well I have a confession – I may consider myself a bit of a Resi veteran but I am not one of the old school. My introduction to the series was with the Gamecube remake of the original, way back in 2003. The game looked beautiful, I had never seen anything look so scary and I was desperate to brag about how Nintendo was serious about mature content on their shiny new console. So I spent an intense weekend exploring all the nooks and crannies of the Spencer Mansion, piecing together the hideous story behind the horrific experiments. I was captivated and enthralled yet terrified – THIS was horror!
For me, it was the intensity and familiarity of the setting and story that made it so good. Everything that happens takes place over the course of a single night, making the experience feel all the more real. There are no chapters or levels, the only break in the game is when the player switches off. On top of the relentless tension and dread is the isolation, you are left to fend for yourself for the majority of the game radically ramping up the fear factor. The occasional interaction with other characters becomes a welcome (and exciting) prospect, luring the player into a false sense of security. These pockets of interaction suggest that its okay, that you aren’t alone. However, as the dust is blown off of some of Umbrella’s dark secrets, it becomes apparent that not everyone can be trusted.
In the final moments of the game, dawn comes as a welcome relief, bathing the blacks and greys of the Umbrella labs in pale sunlight. After braving the dark halls of the Spencer mansion, the labyrinth like grounds (full of some of the game’s most twisted horrors) and the coarse industrial maze of Umbrella’s testing facilities, reaching the end of the game feels like a genuine accomplishment.
Unfortunately, latter installments seem to have shirked the slower pacing of the series’ earlier titles in favour of something much more arcade like. Admittedly, the old formula had become rather stagnant, in fact, when playing through Resident Evil 2 and 3 I never got the same thrill as I did with the remade original, even Zero didn’t quite have the same edge. To be honest, I was never a fan of the Raccoon City installments, their city setting meant that they lost the sense of claustrophobia and isolation that made the original so frightening.
Resident Evil 4 was an anomaly that managed to bridge the gap between the old style survival horror and the arcade shooter style of the more recent games. This was mainly down to the new enemies that Capcom decided to introduce, as well as the new environments. The opening stages of the game were the strongest, suggesting that environments had to be entered with some degree of trepidation. Unfortunately, many segments of the game descended into a more trigger happy affair – a sign of what would follow in later games.
Still, the game was a welcome change and rightfully received very positive reviews from critics. Unfortunately, Capcom seem to have taken steps back with the more shooter-centric gameplay of the 5th game and the wealth of Wii spinoffs we’ve seen over the last few years. The next major game in the series, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City already seems geared to disappoint – it relies ever more heavily on the shooter mechanics of the Mercenaries mini-game and uses the tired Raccoon City setting (as well as all the old enemies) and apparently you can ‘kill’ Leon Kennedy, star of the second and fourth installments. There doesn’t seem to be an ounce of horror, and to be honest, it all just looks a bit silly.
There is hope yet however – at Comi-con this year Capcom announced that it is developing Resident Evil 6 and will reveal more information at this years TGS.
Alas we have to wait, but until then, root around on eBay for a copy of the Gamecube remake, or pick up the Resident Evil Archives edition for Wii and see what survival horror is all about.