For many gamers, myself included, Resident Evil 4 presents a pinnacle of the series that hasn't been reached since, despite two big budget subsequent releases, as well as a smattering of other lower-key launches too. And as Capcom prepares this week to release Resident Evil Ultimate HD Edition for the PC, it raises into question again why people fell in love with and still adore Leon's battle against the Ganados above any others before or since. And more to the point, why has such a great game not been taken as a basis for later games, and built upon to produce an even greater game? Why do we keep coming back to a game released over 9 years ago for our fix, and how did Capcom not capitalise on it and make two stellar follow ups in Resident Evil 5 and 6?
Start at the Beginning
The first reason for this apparent fall from grace is all in the build up. I remember a quote from Shigeru Miyamoto where he said he personally creates the first level in action games last, his rationale being:
“Your first level (or tutorial, or sequence, or whatever you want to call it) should serve as a prologue for the rest of your game. It should introduce many of the concepts your player will be interacting with through the rest of your game, and it should do so in a way that doesn’t alienate them right away.”
It's so important to get the first part of your game right, as it needs to set the tone and expectation for the rest of the experience. When thinking about Resident Evil, this means building up tension and anxiety and a feeling of helplessness. It needs to get your heart racing in a mixture of fear and adrenaline. Think about your favourite Resident Evil game and think about its opening sequence, whether it's the original's opening cut-sequence and first zombie encounter, or if indeed if it's Leon's experience in Resident Evil 4 in the creepy woods, the aggressive Ganados and of course the facing off against the entire village before the ominous bell tower tolls.
Now compare these experiences to Resident Evil 5 and 6 openers. Resi 5 tries to recapture the Resi 4 face off, but due to the fact that it involves camping out in a room for half of it, there's a lot less tension. Also the time it goes on for makes it drag rather than entice, plus the fact that at the end the entire place gets carpet bombed by your allies in the sky, it wipes away any fear factor you may have had. Resi 6 is even worse, as despite the fact that the intros of each set of characters do a good job of setting up their respective adventures, none of these are particularly survival horror. Chris Redfield's mission arc literally turns into Call of Duty from the get go, and whilst it's entertaining, you feel like you're playing a completely different franchise.
Go it Alone
Another pretty key difference that you may have noticed in the games pre and post Resident Evil 4 is the number of protagonists. Or more importantly the number of protagonists that are available to control simultaneously. The fact is it should come as no surprise that all the good Resident Evil games of years gone by have been single player games, whilst the ones that fell the most flat - Resi 5 & 6 in case you're not keeping up - see you teaming up either with constant AI or with a friend for some multiplayer action.
Similar to the carpet bombing point earlier, there's just something that jars with the ethos of Resident Evil if you've got back-up. The whole reason the franchise had worked so well in the past was that you were on your own against everything the game could throw at you, deceptive camera angles, shock tactics, boss fights, the lot. Having someone to fight alongside you is great, but having more than one person on the job suddenly means the game isn't survival horror. And it's not just because you've got a team-mate to fall back on either. A lot of what makes the heightened emotions within a game like Resident Evil is how you react, how you yourself build up tension in your own imagination. Putting you in a situation with another player shatters that illusion, because you'll find you'll be talking strategy, helping each other out or just downright having a laugh and mocking each other. All these things shift your focus away from being scared, from the tension the game should be creating, and before you know it Resident Evil is just another 3rd person shooter.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of multiplayer. I myself completed both Resident Evil 5 and 6 on various difficulties with friends online, but could I honestly say it felt the same as traipsing through the Spence Mansion on my own? Absolutely not. And it's not that Resident Evil's storyline doesn't lend itself to solo play. In fact the majority of the older games feature multiple protagonists, but the important thing is their paths are separate, crossing only at various junctures to split up again and create that isolation, fear and anxiety that a good survival horror game should be dripping with.
Again, this next one may sound obvious, but a lot of what makes a good survival horror game is that sense of fear. How you invoke that fear is obviously different in each game, but there are definitely some do's and dont's, some patterns you can spot. Firstly the more clichéd a setting is for horror, the more likely it is to scare. These things work for a reason. That's why Spencer Mansion is a brilliant setting, especially at night with the darkness playing tricks on your eyes. It invokes that recollection we all have of scary movies or television we have seen over the years, and any type of landscape we can relate scary moments to from media we have seen sets our imaginations wild.
So hands up who's seen a horror movie set in Africa? Set during the daytime? Anyone, No? How about humongous entities wrecking up cityscapes, sound like a scary movie you've seen? Probably sounds more like a Power Rangers episode you watched when you were younger. And that's also the more recent games' problem. The settings they are choosing aren't inherently scary. And whilst this doesn't mean they are non-starters - good narrative and set pieces could still turn a previously perceived "safe-place" into a very, very scary one - it does make it hard for developers to truly scare in environments that don't have that traditional horror ambiance. Even Resident Evil 4 - the one that took the leap the furthest from tradition and still succeeded - had gloomy mines, castles, and a cult as it's back-drop.
To coincide with this is how you get people's heart's racing. Earlier Resi games did this perfectly, from surprise zombies, to windows cracking, sharp bursts of dramatical music and hidden dangers behind that blind corner. How to do this consistently is really tough, and it shows in later games how much Capcom has run out of ideas. Resident Evil Revelations, as well as Resi 5 & 6, was a prime example of doing the same old things we had seen before. A distant scream, a splattering of blood on the bulletproof glass of a lab - none of it has the same effect as it did 10 to 15 years ago, and not because I've grown up, it's because it's the same tactic, just in a different setting. And when you've got to the point where the player can predict what's next you know you've hit the zenith of survival horror.
But as I allude to, it's very tough to maintain the variety to scare people. But this is something Capcom are going to have to invest some real time into in future projects, if they want a return to form.
Capcom has also fallen into a very familiar narrative trap with it's Resident Evil series, one that is harming it's function as a survival horror. As the convoluted story progresses, and Chris, Jill, Leon et al strive to topple Umbrella - or whatever guise they are under these days - there comes a certain inevitability.
As with any storytelling there's a need to go further than the previous installment. Similar to what I was saying earlier about going to new lengths to keep the player's attention, the narrative in these types of games is in danger of losing it's way in favour of the need for a grander and grander spectacle. It's why Resident Evil 6, and to a lesser extent Resident Evil 5 were so distant from their earlier cousins.
If you want to understand where I'm coming from, imagine you're an executive in a meeting about the latest Resident evil game. You're asking what makes this game so new and different from the rest. And the reply you get is that this time, it's not just about Raccoon City, or other such small communities, this time, the threat is to the entire world.
Duh, duh DUUUUUUUUH! Ahem.
I joke of course, but in all seriousness the decision to make Resident Evil 6 about a global outbreak - as opposed to other games just hinting that that may happen if you didn't do anything - just breaks the genre. For many reasons. Firstly where the heck do you go next, after a global outbreak, zombies in space? That would be ridicul- wait what's that? Dead Space? Never heard of it. Either way, this does present Capcom with a continuity problem to a franchise, in the same way that I'm convinced the reason we haven't had a new fully 3D Mario adventure for the Wii U yet is because Nintendo haven't quite figured out what's bigger than a galaxy yet, that makes any kind of sense.
But even without considering that, a global outbreak of the virus turns any hope you had of being a vulnerable protagonist creeping through unknown locales into a virtual superhero doing whatever is necessary to save as many people as you can from certain death. And superhero games are not scary, they're all about saving the day, feeling macho and facing things head on. If it wasn't for green herbs, you wouldn't know you were in a Resi game.
Essentially, Capcom went too big and too grand with their latest installments. They need to slow down and rein everything back in a bit. The next game really needs to be on a smaller scale, story and impact-wise for it to stick true to the genre. This could be achieved in a variety of ways, be it a prequel like Resident Evil 0 or separate side story like Resident Evil 4.
Wrong Genre ≠ Bad Game
It's worth remembering that for all the faults listed above, it doesn't mean that these later Resident Evil games were inherently bad games. They were just bad survival horror games, and therefore bad Resident Evil games. Branded as something else, and these games probably would have been quite popular and well received.
But as with any new game you need to understand what makes your genre tick, and for survival horror, it's all about invoking that sense of fear and anxiety. The locations need to be scary to begin with unless a lot of effort is put into paradigm shifting thoughts on what makes a place scary, and you need to make sure you throw in as many new ideas as possible to keep things fresh. Where possible, keep it single-player to maintain that feeling of hopelessness, and for goodness sake don't make the overarching threat too big as to make it unattainable for your protagonist to truly succeed. Then you'll have yourself a decent survival horror game. Hopefully.
But what do you guys think? What are your thoughts on the future of the Resident Evil series? Is there anything I have missed? Let me know in the comments section below.