Opinion: Should Resident Evil Be Laid To Rest?
When the trailer for Resident Evil 6 landed yesterday and the buzz began to build around Capcom’s latest zombie extravaganza, it’s safe to say I was less excited than most. Regarding both the 3-minute video and accompanying promotional spiel with vague disappointment, my response veered between bored indifference, and weary regret. There are many major games on the way this year that I am looking forward to – but Resident Evil 6 is certainly not one of them.
It wasn’t always this way. Only a few years ago, the announcement of a new title in the famous survival-horror series would have had me pretty much jumping for joy. However, something has gone badly wrong of late.
The problem, as I see it, is that a once-great IP that thrived on ingenuity, atmosphere and the unexpected, has now become a tiresome action franchise that draws inspiration from the uninspired, and has abandoned its haunting, suspenseful roots.
Remember the original Resident Evil? Of course you do. Released way back in 1996, it was a groundbreaking horror experience that established a whole new genre in gaming and influenced numerous subsequent titles. It was a generation-defining game, noteworthy both for its novel mix of intense action and mysterious puzzles, and for its emphasis on fear, tension and mood.
Initial sequels built upon the core strengths and influential advances of the first game, adding their own inspired touches along the way. Nemesis introduced the relentless goliath of the title into the equation, bringing a new kind of fear in the face of an unstoppable pursuer. The REmake had you burn fallen zombies to prevent them from regenerating into the horrific, deadly Crimson Heads. All stayed true to the spirit of Capcom’s original creation, but found new ways in which to surprise, shock and entertain. However, it was 2005 reboot Resident Evil 4 that signalled a complete change of direction for the series.
Make no mistake – it was a necessary and timely one. The old Resi formula had become predictable and outdated, and Resident Evil 4 injected the franchise with a welcome dose of innovation – evolving the experience without trampling all over its hallowed roots.
It introduced an over-the-shoulder view, precision-aiming and a wider and more diverse arsenal to sharpen up the action. It added thrilling set pieces and a much greater sense of scale, and replaced the shuffling, moaning zombies of old with more agile and intelligent enemies.
Crucially however, despite these changes the game retained that vital sense of suspense, anxiety and genuine horror that had been so integral to the Resident Evil experience all along. It understood that pitting you against invisible beasts in sewers, or attacking you with regenerating monsters in an eerie abandoned building, was all part and parcel of generating an adventure that had both ass-kicking action and teeth-gnashing scares.
How ironic then, given the influential impact of Resident Evil 4 at the time, that its success set Capcom on a path that would see them strangle the spark and invention out of their great flagship enterprise, and assume the overriding view that what mainstream audiences really wanted now was straightforward shooters, devoid of psychology and subtlety.
Enter 2009’s Resident Evil 5 – a game which continued the mechanics of its predecessor in a rudimentary sense, but forgot to evolve the fluidity of the action along the way and – most importantly – to actually put some fear into the experience. Here was a game that repeated all the tricks of the fourth title with none of the same impact, that threw chainsaw-wielding baddies and hordes of attackers at the player without understanding the importance of pacing and atmosphere, and substituted OTT set-pieces for mysterious intrigue throughout.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the game, however, was that it was so unbearably derivative. It looked, felt and played like pretty much any other big-budget action title out there – only with far less convenient and logical controls.
Looking at the initial footage for Resident Evil 6, you sense that this trend will continue. The franchise seems to have abandoned its sense of uniqueness, its identity, and indeed its very soul; seemingly lost through the eager wholesale adoption of mechanics and ideas utilized by any big-name shooter of the past few years.
Resident Evil 6 will feature melee brawling, cover-based shooting, and copious Baysplosions. Sound familiar? Where once the series established its own mechanics and set standards within gaming as a whole, now it is merely content to imitate the popular trappings of others.
If the gameplay seems to be more knock-off than pioneering though, in presentation terms the tone of the series has not evolved to take on the serious edge it probably needs. The series always had a cheesy B-Movie aesthetic, but while this actually had a certain novel charm in earlier installments, these days the hammy dialogue and ludicrous plot-lines (What? The president is a zombie?! No way!) actually seem just plain silly – and crucially devoid of any sense of knowing-humour that would help soften the cringe-factor.
The franchise’s spin-offs aren’t exactly looking too exciting these days either. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City could hardly be less of a horror game, even though it may well turn out to be an accomplished FPS, though Resident Evil Revelations on the 3DS at least appears to be making some effort to actually reconnect with the series’ genuine survival-horror roots.
When Capcom talk about “dramatic horror” they are attempting to have their cake and eat it – appealing to the instant adrenaline kicks of action game enthusiasts, while attempting to keep increasingly disheartened and neglected horror fans along for the ride as well.
I am well aware, before you point it out, that this has proved a successful tactic for the company too. Resident Evil 5 was a commercial smash, and I rather expect its follow-up will fly off the shelves too. But whereas the earlier games enjoyed big sales while blazing a trail forward, the same could not be honestly said of the Capcom colossus now.
The truth is that Resident Evil used to be a series that defined the essence of great video game horror, while setting its own unique agenda in the process. These days it is merely in thrall to the trappings of other, better Triple A shooters, and has diluted the actual survival-horror aspect of the experience in ever-increasing installments.
As such, the franchise is now largely irrelevant in a gaming landscape already packed full of zombie-blasters and third-person adventures. And perhaps, with its most forward-thinking days behind it, it would now be best if it were laid to rest once and for all.
Mark Butler is the author of Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror, which is available to download for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.
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