Resident Evil for GameCube is a perfect example of creative impotence masked behind an engaging sense of style. Its not a bad game. Or, I should say, the cumulative experience it offers isnt bad. As a slick remake of a popular classic, it has its virtues. Gameplay, however, isn't one of them.
Resident Evil, of course, is the game that reinvented the horror genre some years ago. It coined the term "survival horror" for its then unique combination of gothic atmosphere and relentless violence. Inspired loosely by Infogrames Lovecraftian PC game Alone In The Dark, Resident Evil (PSX, 1996) combined the classic haunted house premise with the gory Darwinism of zombie films. The result was a blockbuster, a genre exploitation game thats thin gameplay was overshadowed by a powerful sense of danger and fear. Several sequels followed, all of which improved marginally on the gameplay but played down the gothic roots of the original in favor of Hollywood-style sci-fi.
Now, on the GameCube, Capcom has made a decisive effort to put the series back on track by, literally, going back to square one: a flat-out remake of the original Resident Evil baring the same name, the same premise, mostly the same plot, and all the same problemsonly now amplified by six years of gaming innovation and a current console market where the continued financial success of recycled concepts threatens to throw the industry into a tale-spin of creative deprivation.
Fans know the set-up well. Members of the S.T.A.R.S. (Special Tactics and Rescue Squad) of Racoon City are called in to investigate a series of deaths on the woodland outskirts of town. After one of their helicopters goes down, the remaining S.T.A.R.S. members delve into the woods in search of their lost comrades, eventually leading them to a remote mansion where they find themselves trapped by hordes of walking corpses and other abominations. From there the goal becomes simple: escape with your life. Like the original, Resident Evil for GameCube allows you to choose between two S.T.A.R.S. members at the outset: Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, both of whom have their own advantages that will help the player survive the horror.
Fans and newcomers alike will notice right off that Resident Evil has some serious visual panache. No game before has looked like this. Like the original PSX version, the GameCube remake uses pre-rendered, 2D backgrounds in which the player controls 3D characters from a variety of fixed, cinematic perspectives (a much maligned technique because the characters and environment never quite seem like part of the same world). For the first time, though, the illusion is perfect. The mansion interiors and exteriors are indeed 2D, but they are detailed and animated to include everything from candles flickering in shadowed hallways to grass blowing gently in the wind. The 3D characters, however, are the real show-stoppers. They look, for lack of a better word, real. The level of detail on Chris and Jill (and the other human and non-human inhabitance of the game) represent a new standard for realistic-looking graphics. Shadows cast by them and on them co-exist with the 2D seamlessly, and if they stand unmoving there is nothing to suggest that they are not a part of the background: a breakthrough visual achievement.
Unfortunately, thats where the innovation stops. Unlike the graphics, there have been virtually no enhancements made to the gameplay, and, yes, this is a problem. Not that I expect perfection, but the conventions Resident Evil chooses to indulge in are so outdated that they distance the player from the experience. On the PSX (and even the Dreamcast) things like the control scheme, the door animations, and the inability to shoot while moving seemed more acceptable, but on the GameCube they are without logic or excuse. I thought videogames were supposed to put you in situations that somehow "simulated" human ability, i.e. gave you options that encouraged you to use your innate problem-solving skills to accomplish something. What the hell am I supposed to think about a game where, when a zombie is lurching at me, I have to turn, run, turn again, and shoot because my character is so stupid he cant tell his legs to move and his hands to pull the trigger at the same time? If the point is survival, why cant they make a game where having to get through a door is *part* of the experience rather than cutting to an abstract animation that exists as part of some other reality? How am I supposed to act as I would in the real situation if my game character controls like a fork-lift and is magically transported from one room to the next even if the proximity of a conflict makes escape clearly impossible? Did the designers somehow think these things made sense? Did they think at all?
It may seem unfair to apply all these criticisms to a game that is, after all, a remake. It would be easy to argue that this isnt supposed to be new, and that if I want to accuse a game of this series of blowing its chance to be original it would be more appropriate to wait for a genuine sequel, such as the impending Resident Evil 4. I disagree with that line of reasoning, though. Ironically, I found it more acceptable to let convention slide in Resident Evil: Code Veronica (both on Dreamcast and PlayStation 2) than here. I felt that game promised less and I knew to expect less. Considering, though, that the GameCube version promised a "rebirth" for the entire series on a new platform I feel that it puts itself against a different standard. On the GameCube (and in the shadow of gameplay innovations made to Resident Evil derivatives like Onimusha and Devil May Cry) the lack of improvements to the gameplay seems less like an oversight and more like a stubborn refusal. This "fresh start" for the series is nothing of the kind. It is not a re-envisioning. It is not a re-imagining. It is a face-lift.
That said, there is no doubt a thrill in seeing the badly acted plot of the PSX original reconstructed into a decent horror story. The voice acting is improved beyond belief. One of the pleasures of the game is just to hear the familiar dialogue said well, and I think anyone would agree that, while the original voices had a kind of stupid charm, the ones in the remake serve the story better by not distracting you from it. The only real element of camp in the game is Wesker, the S.T.A.R.S. team leader who wears sunglasses at night and speaks in silly idioms. After hamming it up something awful in Code Veronica, I was happy to see that the more "serious" tone of this remake retained Weskers campiness without breaking the mood. This was a fine line Code Veronica wasnt able to walk. In fact, Resident Evil for GameCube succeeds in a lot of ways that Code Veronica failed, most notably in terms of general storytelling and straight-out scariness. Unlike the last few Resident Evil games, the GameCube remake has the good sense to imply whats going on rather than blubber it straight to the player (this is mostly because they left a lot of it unchanged from the original which, unlike the sequels, was fairly understated.) The writing is decently spooky, and there is a new plot threadone involving the fate of a certain familythat is more inspired and chilling than anything weve seen in this series in a while.
Are the design weaknesses made up for by the graphics, nostalgia factor, and basic gameplay? The answer is: sometimes. Even though the play mechanics are at most times a slap in the face of common sense the game does manage to realize the basic premise of survival and generate some tension. This makes for some survival situations that require thought as well as reflexes, but only on the higher difficulty settings. Otherwise, theres nothing to distract the player from the absurdity of the puzzles Resident Evil employs to break up the action. When youre pinned down by zombies in a dead-end hallway on your last clip it is pretty easy to forget that no one would build a mansion so absurd (even if they are "weird and evil".) But when you find yourself with a decent stockpile of defenses theres not much left to do besides push blocks, find goofy objects, and a host of other things that only a game designer could think of and only a fan would love.
Its a pity that Capcom didnt take the opportunity to truly reinvent this series, especially considering the strength of its inspiration. One of its creators has been quoted as saying the game was partially inspired by the films of George A. Romero, most notible for his "Dead" trilogy that began with Night Of The Living Dead in 1968. The difference, though, between his films and a cookie-cutter franchise like Resident Evil is that he showed passion and creativity for the ideas he was working with. He didnt exploit his concepts for atmosphere or cheap scares, but seemed truly fascinated by the resourcefulness human beings in the most horrid situations imaginable and challenged his audience to ask themselves what theyd do in similar circumstances. The creators of Resident Evil, though, dont seem interested in challenging the player with anything besides arbitrary actions in a paper-thin scenario that, while entertaining to a limited degree, has no real curiosity about its potent themes.