"Survival horror" is a genre that has badly needed a shakeup. After Capcom broke new ground by putting the scare factor into games starting with the breakthrough title Resident Evil, an incredibly hot new style of game was popularized. Unfortunately, most companies attempting to cash in in the success started by Resident Evil (including Capcom themselves) have been merely covering the same ground without really adding much to the formula. Superficially they may seem different, but at the core they all play much like minute variations on the same theme. For such a young genre, it has quickly gained a feeling of "been there, done that" in the few years since its explosion onto the scene. In fact, looking back at the list of games that qualify as survival horror, I'd pick only three as being the best representatives of what this type of game has to offer: Resident Evil for starting off the craze, Silent Hill for making things truly chilling and Dino Crisis 2 for putting an entirely different spin on how the game can be played.
A friend of mine summed up Dino Crisis 2 nicely as a fleshed-out version of the mercenary minigame from Resident Evil 3. I think he pretty much nailed it there, and surprisingly, the formula is strong enough not only to stand on its own, but to be a very potent game in its own right. Like most of the other games in the same category save its predecessor, in Dino Crisis 2 you control your character from a third-person perspective on top of static 2-D backgrounds. However, the twist here is that the emphasis is on action instead of suspense, and the feverish pace rarely lets up.
You start the game as one of two commandos—Dylan, the stronger military-type character, or Regina, an intelligence agent with a penchant for an odd piece of armor. Each character has a main weapon which is used to deal out most of the dino-damage, and a sub-weapon which is used more for breaking up crowds of enemies, or to open certain doors. The player is awarded "Extinction Points" for practicing genocide on a small scale using a multiple-kill combo system never before seen in survival horror. The player can then use the points to buy more weapons, equipment upgrades or healing items at any of the plentiful save points throughout the game.
The tighter, gunplay-oriented feel makes Dino Crisis 2 seem less like a game and more like an action movieby using the excellent sound effects and a pulse-pounding pace to full effect. Dodging a huge Allosaurus, jumping from a ledge, running towards a door while dodging and swerving and then pausing to take out a Plesiosaur with an anti-tank cannon gives the game an entirely different flavor than any previous survival horror title—definitely a huge plus as far as I'm concerned. The repetetive back-and-forth "keyfetching"—which made up the bulk of previous survival horror gameplay—is almost completely gone with only a bare handful of "locked door" tasks remaining. In addition to the new focus on faster, more streamlined design, Dino Crisis 2 has added several quasi-minigames which break up the monotony that these games tend to develop. Going from one location to the next at certain points, you'll suddenly find yourself behind the trigger end of a large, mounted machine gun and fending off an angry herd of Triceratops, or using a flare gun to signal your partner where to launch mortar shells. There's also a brilliant underwater area which uses different physics than the rest of the game. Such diversions greatly help to keep the adventure from feeling like a one-note lesson in repetition and shows much more creativity and imagination than has been seen as of late.
Not content to simply change the stale game design, the graphics in Dino Crisis 2 are beautiful and definitely improved over the dull original. Dropping the sterile, under-detailed 3-D areas of Dino Crisis 2 for prerendered backgrounds was definitely a step in the right direction. Since the hardware has less work to do, the character models look great and move quite fluidly.
Capcom has also vastly improved their CG movie techniques. The game's intro scene could easily be mistaken for a feature film, and at points you'd swear you were watching real footage. With the PlayStation 2 due to arrive on store shelves in a month, I feel confident in saying that graphics on the PlayStation just aren't going to get any better than this. (While on the topic of graphics, I'd like to also mention as a side note that Regina has a fuller figure in a certain aspect than most videogame women are endowed with. Capcom, I applaud you for promoting alternative positive body images!)
On the downside, one thing that always seems to come up with this particular genre is the issue of control. Personally, I've never had a problem with Resident Evil-style controls and feel quite at home with them, but I've also known gamers who get frustrated to the point of snapping controllers over it. The traditional setup you love, or love to hate is still present and is virtually indistinguishable from other Capcom efforts. However, while this scheme has been effective for dealing with slow-moving, staggering zombies, I noticed that it does need a bit more tweaking when dealing with the faster, more agile dinosaurs. There seemed to be a very noticeable half-second delay when choosing new targets during a firefight. While a half-second may not mean much when you're taking aim on a festering corpse 20 feet down a hallway, that half-second becomes vital when you're in the middle of a pack of slavering raptors trying to render you into petite spam chunks.
Another somewhat flawed carryover from Resident Evil is the bad habit Capcom has of placing enemies in the areas where the camera changes views. Whether this is done on purpose or is merely coincidental is unknown, but it's highly annoying to say the least. It's hard to see where a dino may be lurking since you're limited to looking at one immovable view at a time, but I often found the dinos to be in the blind spot where you have to walk in order to go from one section to the next. To compound the problem, the dinosaurs replenish as you go from camera view to camera view, so when you walk unknowingly into a raptor's claws, you'll often get knocked back between camera shift points only to have the empty room you just cleared out suddenly full of predators again. Can you say "tag team?"
The only other negative thing that comes to mind is the slight rush job given to the translation. While the game starts off fairly predictably, it soon develops a very interesting sci-fi twist which is unfortunately marred by several mistakes and subpar constructions of the english. Most of the flubs are minor grammatical or spelling affairs, but when the game got right down to the meat of the plot, I felt that Capcom should have spent more time sitting down with a dictionary in order to do it justice.
Overall, Dino Crisis 2 succeeds in keeping the core of survival horror style that gamers are intimately familiar with, while reformatting the total package into something with a substantially different flavor. Trimming the deadweight puzzles, an overall shorter playtime than comparable games, having shifts in the game's pace and tossing in some unexpected twists and turns in the actual mechanics add up to a very exciting, tight and fresh package for gamers. Capcom should be especially proud of this latest effort since it has breathed new life into a franchise that I previously assumed to be dead on arrival and turned out a sequel infinitely more enjoyable than I expected. Now if only Capcom would start work on a Resident Evil/Dino Crisis crossover...