COMPLETE GLOBAL SATURATION
Halloween approaches and my evenings have been filled with practical effects and Italian prog rock as The Thing, Inferno, Suspiria et al. grace my TV. Dale North recently wrote on why survival horror might just be old hat, ahead of the decidedly old-school Evil Within and Alien: Isolation.
One of the true contemporary horrors of the genre, though, is Resident Evil 5.
Not because it is a scary game to play but because it is a scary game to exist. And to have done remarkably well for Capcom, pushing the company further towards making unoriginal dreck. Complete global saturation, indeed. I wrote a few years ago over at Electric Phantasm—and have re-edited below to suck less—on Capcom’s most important disappointment, the uncanny taxidermy of Resident Evil 4 dressed up in silly hats and big muscles, walking around like that creepy robot dog thing. It is a horrifying abomination and a cautionary tale worth cautioning again, if anyone’s listening (Dead Space wasn’t, as it took the sequel’s missteps further for the third).
Resident Evil 5 blows.
Resident Evil 4, on the other hand, is a brilliant game. It eschews the tangled mess that is the Resident Evil series’ canon for a camp romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is peerless in its pacing. That’s why it’s so insulting that Resident Evil 5 tries to ape its predecessor, and so pathetic in the numbers of ways it fails. It’s Resident Evil 4 sans creativity. In its stead, Capcom funneled in a healthy dose of blockbuster action and brown, war-torn homogeny in an attempt to echo the then-current zeitgeist.
They didn’t go full tilt, however, which is what’s more depressing. The Resident Evil 4 framework is there, but in a sort of uncanny valley state of disrepair that makes everything that is bad about Resident Evil 5 more stark. It’s an imperfect clone devoid of heart. It’s Resident Evil 4, the stupid Resident Evil canon and Black Hawk Down thrown into a blender then dumped into a stew pot as a dozen different chefs seasoned it to taste. And it worked, as far as Capcom is concerned, which is the most disheartening part. It is their best-selling game.
Yes, Capcom. While a couple years ago I might have been content to praise them for revitalizing the fighting genre with Street Fighter IV, since then even fighting game fans are sick of Capcom’s nickel and diming and rereleasing of the same titles with new superlatives tacked on.
This is the same Capcom under which Lost Planet and Dead Rising—a bulk of their new IPs last generation and some of its most successful—essentially had to be developed in secret, according to former Capcom development head and Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune. He even said Capcom had a company-wide mandate that 70 to 80 percent of efforts were to be towards sequels and that the 30 to 20 left for making new IP would, in practice, never receive approval. This is the same Capcom that tried to absorb the posthumously beloved Clover Studio, makers of Viewtiful Joe, Godhand, and Okami, whose pivotal members preferred to abandon the Capcom-funded independent company than to cede creative control.
But I already had a sad for Clover so I’ll ignore the easy punching bag. Or, at least, restrict my jabs to the Frankenstein’s monster it created. Just look at its opening. It’s a Tarantino-level imitation of Resident Evil 4‘s, but with the action jacked up to eleven.
Resident Evil 4 has an opening cutscene that lasts several minutes. In it, we’ve an unsettling fog creeping in and a camera set up lurking behind foliage in the forest, while one of the agents stops off to take a whizz at the side of the road. It lets us know that Leon and his escorts are being hunted. That they’re unsafe. That you, the player, are unsafe. Easy telegraphs, but appropriate. Then, desolation. You leave the car, now in control of Leon, and have to walk up to a lone house in a creepy wooded area. You meet an unassuming and unsettling homeowner who yells at you in a foreign language and then tries to kill you. You have limited ammo and more of them are outside. You’re alone and in a hostile environment. You run back to the car and see skid marks leading off the cliff; peer over the precipice to find the flaming wreck. Again, alone.
Next is a desolate, eerie trek onward. You come to a lone shack right off the beaten path. There has to be something in it; either something ready to kill you, something you can use, or both. You whip into the shack, ready your weapon and find a strange mix of fear and relief at the woman impaled on the wall, suspending in midair by the pitchfork smashed through her face. Maybe you fire a few accidental shots out of surprise at the grisly scene. Next, of course, is the village center, in which disaffected, crazed people placidly go about their business while your driver burns in a funeral pyre with a hook through his chest. Just in case you were holding out hope that you weren’t alone. Oh, and pretty soon—after you maybe feel like you’re getting a handle on dealing with all of these enemies at once (or you’re scrambling around for ammo)—a lunatic wearing a burlap sack over his head is going to come at you with a chainsaw.
Resident Evil 5? No longer are you wandering into a quaint, eerie pueblo in isolation. You’re running into a modern town that looks like it was ripped right out of Black Hawk Down. There’s nondescript military personnel with covered faces saying military sounding things driving around in heavily armored jeeps with big guns. It is the middle of the day. Then Chris Redfield, driving a military jeep in the middle of the day in a wide open savannah, wearing chill bro sunglasses and expositioning like a motherfucker. He gets into the populated (by regular humans) city and then Sheva’s ass eclipses the frame. Just her ass. The camera lingers for a while so you can ogle the sexy native temptress in a manner that would do Thomas Jefferson proud. When she moves, you realize Chris’ arms and neck are bigger than his head. He is grotesque, but also strong, formidable.
Once you get control, you don’t have to wander into a creepy abandoned house. You just walk straight in a well-lit, politically unstable country until a cutscene happens; in it, they finally give you some spooky music and every regular citizen who was walking around is gone. Then you keep walking straight and a guy gives you some guns. Then you see some voodoo shit and animal sacrifice—hey, maybe it’ll start getting creepy. Then a not-so-short load screen before you’re finally in a room with a dude who runs at you and Chris has to kill him indiscriminately. The guy doesn’t linger there to let you ponder whether killing him is okay. The scene doesn’t let you think about anything. It forces you into reflex action and then it’s over. A waste.
Next you’re funneled down more corridors with no threats present while the game feeds you ammo pickups. Then, finally, it strives to complete its rendition of Resident Evil 4‘s opening, but instead of wandering hesitantly into an eerie village, alone, where a man you were just talking to burns and placid monsters till soil, what is there? Well, there’s the public execution of the guy who sold you weapons. Except that cutscene reveals the big baddie too early, dampening the impact when he finally shows up. You’ve also got a guy with aviators yelling into a megaphone and monster people sprinting around, eventually towards the house you’re in.
Instead of requiring you to take an unfortunate jaunt into the domicile of the killers, Resident Evil 5′s opening just has them dash toward you, while you’re in a nice, semi-defendable building as if you were playing Call of Duty‘s Nazi Zombie mode. Oh, and the scene ends with helicopters and rocket launchers. Being saved by a helicopter at one point in Resident Evil 4 felt like god himself was reaching down from the heavens to extricate Leon from this terrible place. This has no impact. It lazily progresses the plot in the explodiest way possible after the context-less, ill-thought-out, Resident Evil 4 aping set up.
It doesn’t establish any tension. It just assaults the senses and rewards you for your killflexes. If it wasn’t so poorly done, along with the rest of the game, I could excuse this as some sort of nod to its predecessor. Instead, it just feels like the development team had absolutely no idea what to do, so they took Resident Evil 4‘s opening and turned the volume up really loud, hoping people would like it. Again, this speaks to the worst part about Resident Evil 5: it’s a broken and homogenized Resident Evil 4.
It’s Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake remade again by Michael Bay.
Resident Evil 5 needed to be even more exciting than its predecessor, so Capcom replaced Resident Evil 4′s inventory system with something that remained in real time. And is broken. It’s not about the realism angle. Resident Evil 4‘s inventory system just worked sensibly, with items taking up space relative to their size.
In Resident Evil 5, an egg takes up as much space as a rocket-propelled grenade, body armor inexplicably takes up a spot instead of being worn (as it was in Resident Evil 4) and the co-op play, coupled with a smaller inventory, necessitates incessant inventory tradesies that is much more irritating than rearranging your attaché case. It’s one thing for Capcom to reuse the Resident Evil 4 formula, another for it to take the formula and then noticeably break parts of it, making the screw-ups that much more uncanny.
There are the obvious criticisms. Sheva and cooperative play. The most frequent excuse for Resident Evil 5 I hear is, “Well, it’s a good co-op game.” Why? Because it allows two people to play at once and it isn’t too broken? Because that’s the barrier of entry for a game to be a good co-op game. It’s a lot easier to enjoy a bad game if you’ve got a partner. EA even built a trilogy around this idea. That doesn’t make it good. I’ve played plenty of awful games that were made decidedly better just by having someone else present, there to share the misery firsthand. Resident Evil 5, for example, because we got to rip it in tandem for being stupid and bad.
I’m not a jilted Resident Evil (1) fan who specifically hates the move away from the franchise’s horror origins to action—I love Resident Evil 4 to death, after all. There is something unsettling about the conformity of it all. The co-op does undercut any sense of eeriness and tension. You either have an annoying AI partner who is frustrating enough to take you out of the experience or you have a friend with whom to talk about that asshole at work who forwards everyone “meme” pictures and threw out your curry because it “smelled weird.” Isolation is scary. I’m sure there can be a frightening game with cooperative play, but not this one, not with two strong characters with fictional special forces training who are armed to the teeth. Not with Chris Redfield’s stupidly enormous biceps and neck (remember when he looked like a human and the game had more colors than brown, tan and sepia?).
It’s not just that it isn’t scary, though. Resident Evil 4 wasn’t all that scary. It’s that there is no finesse or direction. No unique style. No atmosphere. It’s Resident Evil 4 hideously re-skinned in high contrast, war-torn brown HD. And abridged. Not just shorter, but with variety removed and no feel for pacing. The second half of the game just plays like Gears of War, with contextual cover thrown in and a lot of zombie monster things that shoot you with machine guns. It just tries to be as loud and exciting and rock punching as possible without reprieve or juxtaposition. Resident Evil 5 is technically proficient and playable, but it’s creatively bankrupt. A soulless, cobbled together Frankenstein’s monster with all the trappings of Video Games Circa 2009 stapled onto Resident Evil 4‘s spine.