Thursday, 27 January 2011

Looking back: Resident Evil

Do you remember picking up the cover of Resident Evil at a shop for the first time? Remember seeing this screaming guy on the cover with a giant spider in the background asking yourself; what the fuck this game was about? I do. I remember being halfway scared of the cover, the pictures on the back and the description, and the other part of me was very intrigued.

Before you say it; I know Resident Evil wasn’t the first horror game and I’m not trying to make out it was. But for me it was the first time I’d sat down and played a game that scared me. Well ok, Doom also scared me a few years before, but Resident Evil was made like a horror movie. It featured a real movie sequence in the intro with actual actors and left you abandoned in an old mansion. It didn’t take long before you realised it was something seriously wrong going on. I bet you are thinking the same as me now; that first FMV with the zombie eating at a dead guy and turning its head. I remember just shouting out; what the hell is that?!

At the time I played this the movie sequence at the beginning seemed cool and especially the atmosphere building the story around it. Looking back it seems very cheesy, but the main story behind it is still excellent. This goes for the rest of the game too, today and even partially in 1996 the voice overs are bad, but pick up the main lines, read all the notes found around in the house and soak up the atmosphere of every room and your imagination will fill over the cheesy parts and help make the story of the mansion in Resident Evil seem excellent and of course creepy.

What I find unique about the original Resident Evil, and not the remake which misses the following point; is that it didn’t go too far out lengths to make the mansion creepy. It was just an old abandoned building, complete with old furniture and horrid wallpaper and a hidden, dismal research facility underneath. There weren’t stupid candlelight rooms, oh-so-scary dungeons and ridiculous over-the-top scary characters or any sort of overnatural phenomena. The game told the story of a company experimenting with bioweapons at an old Victorian-like mansion and something going horribly wrong.

While the controls were sluggish and the combat often frustrating, it helped build a tension for the first game, sadly it was kept in the later games and never progressed. But the gameplay was never really pushing boundaries in RE, it was there, it worked fine for its purpose, and it helped keep you at your toes fighting down the zombies, dogs and other hideous creatures. Add the fact that it never ever let you have stacks of ammunition; in fact it’s probably the most balanced survival horror game you’ll ever encounter in this regard. The gunplay felt satisfying though, and while slugs were sparse, the shotgun gave for some of the most satisfying headshots in any game. It balanced out the weapons perfectly and always gave you them at a slow pace, making you really enjoy the moment you got your hands on a new one.

The zombie killing and scary moments when dogs jumped through windows etc, would not have been so great had it not been for the environment and setting. This is the truly genius part of Resident Evil in my opinion. Firstly let us look at the build-up of the game; RE didn’t make you travel through the game from A to B, it just left you in a house and so the environments were used in a manner that made you familiar with them. You would find short routes through the mansion; often you would go a longer route to avoid enemies because of sparse ammo. As you progressed you found new keys to unlock doors further and further into the whole building. It helped build a familiarity with the mansion and it helped build tension as you realised it was far larger than your first impression.

All this combined with some truly amazing designed rooms and interiors, each and every room felt and looked unique in both colour scheme and layout (this was also missing from the remake). I could just walk around and look at all the details and combined with notes and diaries written by the people living there you could picture yourself how it was before everything went wrong and how it was to live there. I can close my eyes and see all these creepy, yet fascinating, rooms in front of me. The blue marble room with the green statue in it, the bright lit art gallery with the crows, the hidden lift to the library, the dining hall with the bloody fireplace, the room with a collection of middle age armours, the guardhouse with it’s cracked up wooden floor, the secret lab entrance beneath a fountain, the white tiled morgue, the steam filled orange power generator rooms and so on. Truly one of the best designed environments in the history of gaming. No, I’m not going too far saying that.

The RE series went on to become one of the biggest gaming franchises ever from this, and it was indeed well deserved. While not actually outdoing it’s first outing, RE2 and RE3 followed the same style and are well worth mentioning as beautifully realised Raccoon City settings. Taking the story of how the T-virus spread to a larger and more shocking, yet not too exaggerated scale. RE: Codename Veronica took a new direction and placed the RE formula on an island, it too was cleverly designed but gave up halfway and became far fetched  From then on the series lost me. Surely we got a remake and a Zero iteration, which held the style of RE1-3, but did we need a remake so soon and made like a cliché fun park horror house? The series then went into the action genre and while good games on their own, RE4 and RE5 for me have nothing to do with the original trilogy. The atmosphere, the setting and style were lost completely.

I’ll raise a shiny, blood-red glass of wine at the end of my dining table in the flickering candlelight and give a toast to Resident Evil 1 to 3, but of course mostly to RE1 and say: You changed my deception of videogames, introduced me to survival horror in its true form and amazed me with your atmosphere, tasteful design and clever plot. Now I’ll grip hold of my Beretta, load it with 9mm lead and blow some zombie brains out!

(This article was first published on Wednesday, December 15, 2010 on my original IGN blog.)

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