SAVAGE PIXELS #15: Resident Evil 6 and the state of survival horror
You already know, from previews and reviews elsewhere on the ‘net, that Resident Evil 6 spectacularly fails to return one of Capcom’s most beloved franchises to its survival horror roots. Like the fifth proper Resi before it, 6 is an all-action blockbuster affair, more in thrall to movies with something blowing up every eight seconds than flicks designed to creep under your skin and haunt waking and sleeping hours alike.
But you probably also know – and if you didn’t, now you do – that it was never Capcom’s intent to revisit the tense atmosphere, grubby visuals and enveloping dread that characterised their first forays into the survival horror genre. Resident Evil, or Biohazard in Japan, stood out like a sores-weeping zombie on a commuter platform full of shiny suits when it first appeared on the PlayStation in 1996. But such a slow-moving game would seem out of place in a commercial-achievement-driven environment dominated by boisterous, brash war games, sports simulators and dance workouts. Even this generation’s relatively sedate, violence-as-an-option stealth games, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and recent hit Dishonored, are always on the tipping point of blooming into glorious carnage.
Resident Evil - oooooh shiiiiiit RUN AWAY RUN AWAY (etc)
Capcom doesn’t make games to be a makeweight operation; it makes them to lead the way in an increasingly crowded, massively competitive and fantastically ruthless marketplace. A return to Resi’s comparatively quaint beginnings would, frankly, have prioritised fan service over the acknowledgment and reaction to contemporary gaming trends, those that keep doors open rather than slamming them shut on developers (which is perhaps something that the Capcom-funded Clover Studio might’ve been advised to note when putting together God Hand back when).
And it’s not like these games haven’t been falling further and further from the tree for some time: perhaps the most celebrated of all Resi titles, the fourth, is less survival horror, more straightforward third-person shooter, albeit of an exceptionally high quality. That came out seven years ago – so why, now, has there been such disappointment expressed at a company’s perfectly acceptable stance of sticking to their (never-quite-enough-ammo) guns?
Revelations - not shite, but it might give you a headache unless you turn the 3D down...
Probably because, unfortunately, the Resi series has lately been subjected to a series of games best categorised under the banner of diminishing returns. 3DS exclusive The Mercenaries 3D was a waste of the license in 2011 – although Nintendo’s handheld has since been graced by the superior Resident Evil: Revelations – and the less said about the abhorrent Operation: Raccoon City, the better. Said co-op-focused third-person shooter of early 2012 will surely rank as one of this year’s most tremendously disappointing releases.
Which, actually, plays to Resident Evil 6’s immense favour: compared to that sack of shitty potatoes, there’s no way that this triple-campaign, co-op-compatible, Mercenaries-mode-as-a-bonus-feature, convoluted-plot-that-makes-little-sense-even-to-a-Resi-veteran offering could ever be anything but a considerable improvement. Like Raccoon City, it spends much of its time encouraging the solo player to dial up a mate and get them involved – all the main (three) campaigns are navigated by two characters, and Capcom has gone all out to hammer home the play-with-a-pal perspective by blessing the computer-controlled companion with the AI skills of a rocking horse. Wanna play the game alone? Frustrated with the results? Yeah, sorry. Basically you’re playing it wrong.
Resident Evil 6 - if Leon's hair got messed up once, I missed it...
And, playing it wrong, getting through one campaign is enough to put a man off approaching the next two. But, in the name of professionalism… this man nearly managed it. But he stalled before the third – in the order I played, the campaign featuring newcomer Jake ‘son of Albert’ Wesker… I mean Muller… and Sherry Birkin, last seen acting the dribbling pint-sized damsel in distress in Resident Evil 2. She’s since learned to fire a gun – which would have come in handy back in 1998. At least, that’s what The Internet says. Honestly, I tried to make it to campaign three; but I was so worn down by what came before, so stripped of enthusiasm, and so distracted by newer, shinier games (oooh, Angry Birds on the 360? Gimme gimme gimme…) that I just… ran… out… of…
Ammo. Which you will, fairly often. And when you don’t, you might well find yourself thrown back into the thick of things after a cut-scene, with only seconds to make a vital shot and… Oh dear, you had to reload your pistol, missed the game-advancing target, and now you’re a snack for a mutant zombie shark thing. Yes. This happens. It’s not a bug as such; but the fiddly controls make swift decisions a rather more laboured process than they should be. And, this being a third-person shooter with its share of tunnel sections, you’d assume it’d be easy to snap to cover, right? Wrong. Hold this, press that, tap this way: bingo. Shame you’ve now lost sight of that zombie you thought you killed with several headshots. The same zombie who’s now gnawing on your ankle.
Resident Evil 6 - put holes in these heads and... oh, never mind...
I’m pretty sure in zombie flicks past and present, a bullet between the eyes makes the hunched-and-groaning go down like drunken prom dates in those very same movies. Resident Evil 6 comprehensively argues otherwise. Yes, a shotgun to the torso will make mincemeat of a Standard Issue Shuffler; but pop a cap in the lumbering bollock’s noggin and – oh, my – on he comes. Again. Again. Again. Seriously? Am I unloading on the only guy in Tall Oaks who had a brain operation several months prior to the C-virus taking hold, had a section of their skull replaced with three-inch-thick Kevlar, and is now rocking an impenetrable forehead?
That’s in the Leon S. Kennedy campaign, anyway. Play as Chris Redfield, a series stalwart since the very first game, and you get to battle the J’avo – humans from a distance, but rather less friendly than your average chap when up close. These adversaries mutate a variety of ways – some amusing, some likely to lead to that dreadful YOU ARE DEAD screen popping up to say hello one more time – and generally present more of a challenge to the player than the zombies populating Leon’s campaign. I won’t spoil any story aspects of either, but Leon’s is more in keeping with notions of ‘traditional’ Resident Evil gameplay – numbers of enemies rather than specific types tend to pose the most problems – while Chris can be felled by just a single J’avo with determination on its side, and ammo shortages in its favour.
Resident Evil 6 - a J'avo, rightly pointing out that their insurance won't cover that...
If the above is making this sound awful, well… actually it’s not. There are moments that really shine in Resident Evil 6. A tense shoot-out on an aircraft during Leon’s campaign is a highlight (though the ‘boss’ involved is a let-down); Chris’ self-destructiveness actually plays havoc with those around him to surprisingly profound effect. It’s not that there’s any lack of polish; it’s just that nothing really gels. Three separate campaigns, each running to several hours (allowing for deaths, puzzle-solving and general exploration), feels excessive. High Moon delivered a cohesive experience with their War For Cybertron game (reviewed last time), alternating between Transformers characters in a single campaign. Quite why Capcom couldn’t have done similar here, when each of the three stories converge so greatly, is confounding. And while each character does have their own gameplay traits, Chris and Leon handle the same way, and all the three lead males seem to have been voiced by the same gruff-toned All-American-Hero (for hire)*.
(*They weren’t, but, really… You tell the difference when all three are on screen.)
Most depressingly, Resident Evil 6 gets boring. It breeds fatigue. Step forward eight paces, watch cut-scene, activate quick-time-event (of which there are a fucking million), die because you tapped X in the wrong place because last time a QTE came along you had to hammer down on the A button like this was Olympic Gold’s 100-metre sprint on the Game Gear. So, no. It’s not bugs that ruin this. It’s poor design. Or, rather, too much design. If Capcom had streamlined this, they’d have almost certainly have produced a more satisfying, more engaging end product that those without 75 hours a week to spend gaming can enjoy without regretting parting with a single penny of whatever this retails for. (Perk of the job: at least I didn’t pay for this.)
So what does Resident Evil 6’s lukewarm critical response – Metacritic has it at under 70% for the 360 version, which would spell developer D-E-A-T-H for a smaller team without such a strong IP on its side – mean for survival horror? Is the genre well and truly dead? Certainly Electronic Arts’ manoeuvring of their Dead Space series away from Alien-ripping, pants-wetting scares to a more action-orientated formulaic-looking over-the-shoulder shooter for instalment three suggests that major publishers are today wary of investing in the survival horror canon. But one only needs to look to the past to see that the future won’t lack for tip-toe-towards-the-goal releases, those where avoiding confrontation is more important than engaging in it.
Way back in 1982, Alien on the Atari 2600 was an effective, albeit graphically rudimentary (to be polite, even for the 2600), survival horror of sorts. Stamp out the eggs. Avoid the aliens. In a Pac-Man style. Not: shoot everything with a machine gun – something lost on the developers of the Mega Drive’s Alien 3 title, Probe. In the same year, for the same system, Haunted House was released. In it, the player could only see the evil lurking in the basement if they lit a match – and, should that match get blown out, one had best run for the door. One can also look at 1983’s Ant Attack on the Spectrum as a proto-survival horror release. Edge magazine has claimed that it marks the genre’s beginnings.
Sweet Home - kinda like Zelda, if Zelda was a video nasty...
The most commonly acknowledged ‘birth’ of survival horror would come some years later. In 1989, Sweet Home was released on the Famicom. A haunted house-set adventure full of chance encounters with zombies and ghosts, it’s a foundation of sorts for all survival horror releases since. One can’t look over its synopsis and not draw parallels with the original Resident Evil. Which, itself, was the catalyst behind the genre’s mainstream success in the 1990s, through to the mid-00s. Silent Hill and its PlayStation 2 sequel are perhaps the greatest (read: most terrifying) games to contest the Resi series’ top spot in the league of most-shit-scariest. If you’ve never played the second Silent Hill game, do. It’s a foggy model of perfection.
But twists on the genre have provided similar palpitations of terror-as-pleasure. 2004’s Doom 3, while obviously indebted to its well-known FPS roots, was on a first play quite the shorts-stainer, and the 2002 Game Cube exclusive Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (video) ratcheted up the tension by adding sanity effects: cue not knowing if your telly’s on the blink (a technique subsequently nicked by Batman: Arkham Asylum). Play it today and, although the presentation is a little rusty, the game’s frighteningly effective at grabbing hold of the gut and squeezing it. The same sort of pressure is never felt in Resident Evil 6 – just as it wasn’t in 5, and as aforementioned, let’s not get into Operation: Raccoon City.
It’s in the indie world that the survival horror genre has really maintained its grip on developer hearts and minds. The DayZ mod of ARMA 2 – as selected by Stay+ as one of their favourite games last time out – will see a full, standalone release before long – and it’s as pure a survival horror experience as one can hope to find nowadays. To quote the back cover of the not-a-survival-horror-title masterpiece Dark Souls: prepare to die. The atmosphere of Terry Cavanagh’s VCS-styled platformer Don’t Look Back, currently free to download via the App Store, is very survival horror-ish. Even though the gameplay’s far removed from your usual experience in the genre, the instant deaths and sense of dread throughout makes the game fiendishly addictive, and as breath-catching as a great survival horror title. The music alone makes the hairs stand on end (video). 2010's puzzling platformer Limbo (profiled in Savage Pixels 14) also has strong survival horror elements at play: solve the problem or the problem will kill you.
2011’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent is, probably, the scariest game of this decade so far. The player is given no weapons. If a monster is encountered, the only option is to flee. Like Eternal Darkness, it utilises sanity effects, altering how the game plays. In a way it’s comparable to the rather more tranquil Dear Esther (itself a ghost story): only in this instance the player is hunted. And few situations in gaming are as compelling as when the player is the pursued, rather than the pursuer – it’s what made Resident Evil 3, for all its flaws, ultimately a success, as the indestructible Nemesis unrelentingly chases Jill Valentine until the game’s coda.
Most recently, Slender: The Eight Pages, released in June 2012, adopted the chase-me-chase-me dynamic, resulting in a finely tuned first-person horror. It’s a simple game of cat and mouse, really – the player must avoid making eye contact, as best they can, with the pursuing Slender Man (look him up… terrifying). Spend too long in said antagonist’s company and it’s game over. But what’s perhaps more striking than any aspect of the game itself: it’s free. Download it today (for Windows or Mac) and spend an hour or two ruining your next night’s sleep.
Just as survival horror games, albeit primarily from the margins, found audiences in the 1980s, they continue to do so, even if they’re rarely amongst the top-sellers of any given week. Resident Evil 6 is as spooky as hearing a creaky noise in a strange house… for the ninth time, when you already know it’s the central heating cooling down. Its ‘failure’ to reengage with survival horror isn’t its undoing – its faults as a triple-A third-person shooter do for it in that respect. But, then, Capcom were wise to stick to shotguns and incendiary grenades over flashlights and notebooks – these everyday tools, these essential narrative-pushing devices, are employed more effectively, right now, by small teams looking to deliver pure gaming without mass-market compromise.
So, put Leon’s mission on hold for a few weeks, and seek out something truly shocking. It’s waiting for you, just there, in the shadows…
NEXT TIME! Halo 4 and the DNA of the FPS.
GET INVOLVED! Did you dig Resi 6? Was it any cop in co-op? Eternal Darkness is pretty bloody great, eh?