A couple of days ago, Capcom and Sony, in a bit of cleverly orchestrated marketing, unveiled their first big trailer reveals for the freshly announced Resident Evil 6 and the recently wrapped Resident Evil: Retribution respectively, this the week before Resident Evil: Revelations is released on the Nintendo 3DS, in a clear attempt to whip geeks up into a Resi-frenzy.
It seems like a good time to take stock of where we are at regarding Resident Evil in its various iterations. I was going to save this up for an article in which I watch all four films back-to-back upon the release of the fifth in some kind of hideous masochistic movie marathon but I will only touch briefly on the film series here, so it may still happen (lucky me/you). And I’m not going to enter into much speculation on the story, characters, and call-backs per se, rather I’m interested in looking at where Resident Evil as a franchise is headed. Of course, this is still just another knee-jerk trailer reaction rant, but permit me one moment to state my case.
Let’s just get it out of the open and say right now, Resident Evil 4 was the best game of the decade. Not this decade obviously but the previous one. Though the Gamecube remake of the original had briefly reignited interest in the series, the static camera angles, inventory system and unwieldy controls were becoming tired for previously loyal customers, and still as much of a hurdle for newcomers as when it debuted in 1996. Resident Evil Zero had added a few novel mechanics (the most obvious one being the ability to switch between two characters), but the quintessential survival horror title was looking increasingly like the very walking dead for which it was best known.
Enter Shinji Mikami, director of the first instalment, and now returning to the fold to direct Resident Evil 4. The game had already had a couple of false starts, but Mikami tore up the rule book the way only its original creator could, and the franchise was given a complete overhaul. Gone were the zombies and archaic gameplay mechanics, and in came new intelligent enemies, a shift in camera perspective, and slick tight controls. Incredible set-pieces, interesting characters, creepy locations, and a genuine sense of progression and increasingly overwhelming odds meant Resident Evil 4 stood out not just from the previous games, but everything else out at the time on any console.
So surely I should be excited by the new Resident Evil 6 trailer then? Well, then came along Resident Evil 5. See, Resident Evil 5 is not a bad game, not at all. It plays very much like Resident Evil 4, it has some exciting moments, and there is a lot of fun to be had when playing the co-operative mode. But it lacked the spark of its antecedent. It would always have a tricky time following up a stone cold classic, but it felt like the developers were happy to coast on the good will of Mikami’s offering while failing to understand what made it so successful. And any game is more entertaining playing in co-op with a buddy – witness the mindless repetitive blast-a-thon Gears of War, which owes a very heavy debt to Resident Evil 4 anyway.
Resident Evil 5 also marked the first time I gave up paying attention to the story. In the previous games, I enjoyed all the scattered diary extracts and documents as much as I did the overarching juicy conspiracies tying Umbrella with Raccoon City’s local government and police force. However, Capcom went and stuffed it all up by positioning game one traitor Albert Wesker as the franchise supervillain, crowbarring him into the background of every situation, and magically making sure he had a hand in practically everything. Wesker’s Report and The Umbrella Chronicles were feeble attempts to make the story work when it wasn’t needed. By bringing the storyline to the fore, it only highlighted all the plot holes and inconsistencies which hadn’t really mattered anyway.
Taking a look at the trailer for Resident Evil 6, it’s crammed with garbled exposition, throwbacks to past instalments, and lots of messy carnage. Sadly we follow the adventures of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA), a taskforce set up to investigate and eliminate Bio-Organic Weapon (BOW, an acronym I’ve come to loathe) threats. It seems that the continued presence of the BSAA is one of the problems with Capcom’s direction of the franchise, and seems to lose the essence of ‘survival horror’ being an act of ‘survival’. Whereas in the past, your character would be caught up in a situation they never expected, here you’re entering into a situation, guns blazing, with the intention of defusing a biological threat, which just doesn’t have the same appeal. With the demise of both Umbrella and Wesker, naturally a new story has to go somewhere. But the escapades of the BSAA are uninspiring in comparison. Perhaps when I get Resident Evil: Revelations (and I have played, and enjoyed, the demo), I will warm to them more as an entity, but right now, they seem like morons.
Resident Evil 4 managed to create a contained story, with only the odd hint and reference here and there beyond the returning characters. Resident Evil 6 in comparison seems far too desperate to ladle on the call-backs. We have Chris Redfield and Leon S Kennedy back (and Ada Wong/Sherry Birkin/Ashley Graham depending on what you read), Raccoon City Mk. II with a viral outbreak in Tall Oaks, and the President’s gone all deaded, not a million miles away from if Lord Saddler’s plan in Resident Evil 4 had come to pass.
And rather than scaling back the much decried focus on action that Resident Evil 5 suffered from, here it seems they have upped the ante even more. From the trailer’s brief non-cutscene snippets, there’s kung-fu, explosions and a shot of Chris sliding towards chest-high cover in a style reminiscent of practically every third-person shooter released post-Resident Evil 4 in an act of gameplay cannibalisation. Okay, Resident Evil 4 suffered from similar accusations of abandoning scares in favour of combat, but there were still tight close-quarters enemy encounters amongst the one-man-army battles, and plenty of moments of real horror to choose from. A crazed chainsaw-wielding maniac banging down the door. Evil monks muttering moans of muerte. Regenerating shape-shifting freaks stalking dark prison corridors. But here it seems Capcom have lost the thread. Funnily enough, the only franchise that has managed to conjure up worthy scares recently has been Dead Space, perhaps the game most blatantly inspired by Resident Evil 4 itself.
So where does Resident Evil: Retribution fit into all this? Well, it seems that for all of the problems that Resident Evil 4’s great achievements have unwittingly spawned, the movies have been partially responsible too. As both series have developed, they have fed into each other, leading to an increasing push for bigger action, bigger set-pieces and, frankly, more stupidity. Just as Milla Jovovich tries to outrun a chopper firing up a glass corridor in Resident Evil: Apocalypse, inspired by the opening cutscene for Resident Evil Code: Veronica, so too does Albert Wesker become a psychic superhuman in Resident Evil 5 a la Alice’s magical powers in Resident Evil: Extinction.
When Paul W. S. Anderson dropped the first adaptation into everyone’s laps in 2002, fans were somewhat distraught that it had very little to do with the games, with none of the characters featured either. But given what’s come since, I wish they had kept them completely separate given the mangling of story and scenario in the subsequent adaptations. So now, Resident Evil: Retribution, we have returning characters from all the previous films, while Ada Wong, Barry Burton and Leon all make their cinematic debut, whereas Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles even featured an appearance from Umbrella super-computer Red Queen, which originated in the first film. Confused? Well, if Capcom’s attempts at creating an overall story arc to the games seem misguided, Anderson’s series is an even worse offender when it comes to tying itself up in knots and ending in plot cul-de-sacs. By the end of Resident Evil: Extinction, we have an army of Alice psychic super-clones. Then, in the first 15 minutes of Resident Evil: Afterlife, all the clones die and Alice loses all her powers and we’re back to square one. Anderson has indicated that this is the start of a second trilogy (yes, there will be six films in total), but all the back-tracking stinks of making it up as they go along. Of course, the success of the previous film determines whether a new one will get made, but quit with the inescapable cliffhanger endings then.
Ultimately, this is a question of what Resident Evil represents, both to the game developers and the film-makers. In its original incarnation, it was a game of investigation, exploration, and horror. Your actions were limited by the controls and the camera perspective, but also your ammunition and environment. A spooky old mansion, filled with the shuffling undead, nightmarish creatures hiding in the shadows, and you, only with a crummy knife, a pistol, and the inability to aim properly or turn and run away quickly.
For better or worse, this all changed with the advent of Resident Evil 4, and there are still many naysayers out there who claim it is not a ‘true’ Resident Evil game. I can see their point, though I would still argue it still carries enough elements over for it to feel true to what came before. And if that’s the cost for getting such an incredible game as Resident Evil 4, so be it. And it’s not as if Capcom have neglected the past – quite the opposite in fact, given their constant rereleasing of previous episodes and returning to Raccoon City in new titles.
Perhaps the Japanese name for the series – Biohazard – just works better in summing up what the series is all about, less survival horror and more sci-fi action. And maybe, semi-George Lucas style, Resident Evil as it exists now is how they always wanted the game to be. The original clunky controls and B-movie voice acting were just the technical limitations of the time, when all they ever wanted to make was a smooth kick-ass action entertainment experience (just with zombies and block-pushing puzzles). And the films are just an extension of this.
With three games and one motion picture, 2012 would appear on the surface to be a golden year for Resident Evil fans. While I should be giddy with excitement, I am instead fairly cautious. Will I buy Resident Evil 6? Definitely. Will I go see Resident Evil: Retribution? Inevitably. With regards the former, at the very least it will be a passable way to waste a few hours. And concerning the latter, well, I’ve seen all the others at the cinema, and despite continually being angry with myself for subjecting myself to them, I’ll keep going against my better judgment. But do I have high hopes for either? Not really, I’m afraid.
The gauntlet has been laid down. Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.