A Decent Argument About Modern Resident Evil

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I’m a classic Resident Evil fan who prefers the older games of the series, but even I can grudgingly admit that complaining about the series becoming action-oriented just on that basis alone — whether it’s a valid complaint or not — is little more than an appeal to personal preference; it isn’t going to convince anyone.

I do think it’s strange to have a series suddenly redefine itself, especially in such a way that it alienates its prior fanbase, but there are valid circumstances for such a thing, and it’s happened before in the video game industry. So rather than complain about that, I want to take the time to compose a decent argument about the problems present in the modern Resident Evil games (mainly Resident Evil 4 and 5) other than them simply not being horror games. Problems in the redefinition itself as well as in the games. I don’t hate the games, so I hope fans of the modern games are still reading and hear me out. After all, you’re always free to disagree.

Horror and action aren’t mutually exclusive

My problem with the action focus of Resident Evil 4 and 5 actually has nothing to do with the action itself, but rather it dropping the horror, which are two different things. What most people — from both sides of the argument, modern fans and classic fans alike — don’t seem to really understand, is that pretty much every horror game has elements of action in it, including the original Resident Evil.

It’s funny when people complain about the “controls” of Resident Evil 4 and 5, because they’re literally exactly the same controls that were in the old games, with minor alterations. You can’t tell me that two genres can contain good games with the same basic control scheme and not be otherwise compatible in nature.

Any good horror game has atmosphere, immersion, and danger. Atmosphere and immersion are relevant in any video game, including the action genre. And danger — not in the sense of just having foes but in the sense of having something truly threatening that you should fear — is easily possible within an action game, and even Resident Evil 4 and 5 go partway with this with the particularly dangerous enemies, like the chainsaw guys. Aside from the obvious concept of having a spooky or unsettling theme, these are the three necessary elements to make a true horror game, and they transcend genre. Games like Amnesia or Slender are proof of this: Both nail the three aspects, but otherwise, Amnesia is basically a puzzle game, and Slender is Pac-Man.

What I’m getting at here is that it’s one thing for a game to evolve over time — change isn’t always necessary but many series do make appropriate evolutions as time goes on — but quite another for a series to entirely shed its core tenet. Arguably if the single most basic and important aspect of a game wasn’t popular or good, then you probably shouldn’t bother with a sequel at all. Resident Evil’s core tenet is — or was, anyway — just survival horror, and the modern games are not scary (barring the rare occasional scene that manages to be).

It’s weird, too, because both Resident Evil 4 and 5 milk the concept of an angry mob for large portions of the game, and mobs can be horrifying. The latter halves of both games, on the other hand, deal with particularly alien mutated horrors that trump some of the monsters of previous games in the series, in lab environments that the series is no stranger to. Resident Evil 4 in particular had a lot of potential to be terrifying to a degree that no prior Resident Evil was, but even 5 could have pulled this off. I don’t understand how or why Capcom skipped out on this, because they didn’t have to sacrifice much if anything of what they were already doing with both games to do this.

Had they skillfully combined action and horror, Resident Evil 4 and 5 would have been indisputably deeper, more intense experiences.

The modern games are flawed even as action games

Clearly a lot of people disagree with me considering the games have critical acclaim, but I can’t play either Resident Evil 4 or 5 without regarding them as games with numerous flaws. I would never call them great games (though they are certainly solid and fun). I don’t say this as a classic Resident Evil fan out of distaste at the alterations made. To the contrary, I focused on these games enough that I rarely thought about the old games while actually playing them.

Both games start with pretty solid opening portions, with dynamic enemies, interactive and well-designed environments that encourage strategy and maneuvering, and just fun, quality combat scenarios. Resident Evil 5 in particular nailed this; the first couple of chapters have very impressive level design.

The later areas, however, quickly devolve into less-inspired, generic corridors, and you largely follow a linear path through straightforward levels that don’t encourage this variety, fighting against mostly the same enemies over and over again. Often new areas introduce a new set of foes, but that variety quickly becomes stale as those enemies are recycled in the same way. That’s not to say that you need to have tons of enemies, but you do need variety. It can come from the enemies, it can come from the level design, or other places. But any game where you do the same thing over and over again can get stale, and this is particularly true of the action genre.

To be fair however, Resident Evil 5 improved on this somewhat from 4, and it does seem like Resident Evil 6 will improve the action even more (though obviously this remains to be seen). So, if nothing else, they seem to be improving at the action side of things, which is good if they intend to keep with this direction for the series.

Cheesiness and other plot issues

Small point really, in comparison to the rest. Sort of ties in with the last… simply that this aspect is poorly handled in the modern games.

In a horror game, where a sense of danger is crucial, you obviously can’t have a badass protagonist who can pull off barely human feats and whom nothing fazes. But this is also true of an action story if the story is serious, and despite the over-the-top action of the modern Resident Evil games, they are still serious — even grim — storylines. Leon’s one-liners and Chris’s “Incredible Hulk” constitution are just generally not helpful to Resident Evil. I know Chris was always a badass, but he never used to do ridiculous things or behaved like an unstoppable bodybuilder.

And it’s not just the characters who do over-the-top things: the plot itself does as well.

Resident Evil 5 is actually the most guilty here, with a plot about not only world domination but a complete forced evolution of the human race and villains who want to become gods. Not only is it a total departure from the goals — stated or implied — of the villains in previous games, but it’s just generally a difficult to swallow concept. With the story trying to do bigger and badder things every game, the series is getting entirely removed from the interesting plots it used to have. Resident Evil 6 also seems to be continuing this trend, with over-the-top action sequences and an overreaching plot involving a seemingly worldwide catastrophe.

Again, this sense of absurdity would be fine in a less serious or less realistic story, but Resident Evil is trying to be taken seriously, and given what it’s doing now, it’s trying to be too serious. Sure, the original Resident Evil was corny as hell, but that was just bad acting and didn’t come with over-the-top, ridiculous exploits or storylines, and it was quickly corrected and only got better and better in the following games.

Why was it changed in the first place?

Admittedly this point comes the closest to simply whining about Capcom changing the genre in the first place, but there’s still two valid points I’d like to raise:

First, I really don’t understand Capcom’s business decision to do it in the first place. The series was doing well and selling many copies with each sequel. Yes the modern games are selling more (and for obvious reasons), but this wasn’t relevant at the time Capcom initially made their decision, and I don’t get why they actually decided to change the series so much at the time.

My second point ties in; it doesn’t make sense to me to redefine an already successful game in a way that strips it of its identity and alienates its fans unless it’s selling poorly, which Resident Evil was not. Furthermore, why not just make it into a different game, or at least a spinoff? There was already a precedent for this in the series:

Devil May Cry first began during the development of Resident Evil 4. At some point during development, they realized their ideas didn’t fit the Resident Evil series and made their ideas into Devil May Cry instead. This was unquestionably a good idea, as it spawned another critically acclaimed series that went on to help pioneer the action genre and inspire games like the massively popular God of War.

The creator of the Resident Evil series also later went on to make Shadows of the Damned, a game with very similar gameplay to Resident Evil 4, but in an entirely different series. There’s also Operation Raccoon City, an action-based spinoff of the Resident Evil series. But even before all of this, they were making light gun shooter Resident Evil spinoffs; there was an established precedent for the action side of Resident Evil being in the form of spinoffs.

I don’t understand how Capcom could have so many examples of taking these ideas and putting them into a new action game (or at least a spinoff rather than the main Resident Evil series), and not make the connection to how weird it is to randomly redefine the main Resident Evil series itself, or why, in the time since, they haven’t tried to reclaim this separation.

Conclusion

None of this is said in hatred of the modern Resident Evil games, because as I said, I actually do find them to be fun games. But I think they receive a little too much praise for being amazing games that they really aren’t, and I think a lot of their fans write off the classic Resident Evil fans’ complaints far too quickly. I think I’ve laid out a pretty good argument for Capcom to either revert the series and implement their action concepts into a new game (or a spinoff), or to meld the elements more to make a new game that’s the best of both worlds. I don’t think there’s any possible way that either route would produce bad games or not be met with massive commercial success (especially with such a deficit of quality horror games lately, barring the aforementioned Amnesia and Slender), not to mention I think either would please all fans of the series.

Of course you’re free to disagree, though, and I’m very interested in knowing what you think.

I’m also aware that in many ways Resident Evil: Revelations did sort of attempt to revive the old formula. I do appreciate that, but Resident Evil 6 appears to continue the current formula, and that bugs me. That said, I’m sure it’ll be a solid game and I like that they seem to be improving the action aspects. I haven’t played the demo yet, but I should shortly, and of course the game is about to come out. I long for a deeper experience, but in the meantime, there’s still fun to be had.

(Credit to Resident Evil Wiki for most of the images.)

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  • Cfrock

    I’ve been a fan of the Resident Evil franchise since it began and, honestly, I sometimes find it hard to understand why people complain about the modern games so much. More specifically, why people complain about Resident Evil 5 yet shower Resident Evil 4 in praise when the two games are very, very similar.

    I do disagree with most of your points and if you’ll indulge me I’ll explain why but don’t take my disagreement as hostility. You’ve outlined your argument well and I can understand it, I just don’t agree.

    If you don’t want to read my babbling, I’ll sum it up here. Modern Resident Evil still does everything classic Resident Evil did, it just does it in a different way and I don’t think people are really used to it yet because that classic style became so iconic (it literally defined a genre). Revelations shows that a mix of styles is possible and Capcom seem to be learning as time goes on. Resident Evil has changed but it’s still the same at heart.

    First, the idea that Resident Evil 4 & 5 have abandoned the franchise’s “core tenet” based solely on the game’s not being scary is very subjective. You may not have found the games scary but thousands of others did. I’d even go so far as to say the modern games provide some of the most genuinely scary moments and enemies in the entire franchise (I’d call Resident Evil 4 one of the scariest games in the franchise in general). Creatures like Regenerators, Reapers, Novistadors, Verdugo, Del Lago, huge packs of Lickers, Duvalia and the moments when you get genuinely surrounded by Ganados or Majini all make these games scary for me and lots of other players. The opening to Resident Evil 4 was scarier to me than the entirety of Resident Evil Code: Veronica.

    I also feel there is more variety in the later stages of the games than you give them credit for. For the first few chapters of Resident Evil 4 you fight nothing but standard Ganados and a maximum of two Dr. Salvadors (the chainsaw guys, one of which is not mandatory). By the final chapters you have Novistadors, Regenerators (and Iron Maidens), Garadors, three different Las Plagas and the Ganados use pipe bombs, crossbows, Gatling guns and even armour. Resident Evil 5 is very similar in this respect. Compared to earlier games, the variety here is incredible. The original Resident Evil only had 5 major enemies excluding bosses: zombies, dogs, spiders, Hunters and Chimera. The crows, worms and bees only show up once or twice so hardly seem notable. Again, excluding bosses, Resident Evil 2 only has 5 major enemies: zombies, dogs and spiders again and Lickers and Plant 43s to replace Hunters and Chimera. Again, crows, worms and the cockroaches only show up once or twice.
    In terms of level design, the later stages in both games are still open and varied, it’s just that it’s based more on verticality than openness.

    Issues with the plot seem unusual, especially from someone who is a fan of the more traditional Resident Evil. You say the story is taking itself seriously but never once have I felt that way and the early games were just as ridiculous as the modern ones. The original wasn’t cheesy because of bad acting (although that helps), it was cheesy because the game was something of a spoof of naff B movies. That bad dialogue and silly plot was intentional. The series has more or less just built upon that until you reach the almost farcical Resident Evil 5, with its “complete… Global… Saturation.” If they were taking the story seriously, they simply wouldn’t have given Leon any of the lines Resident Evil 4 is remembered for and Barry Burton wouldn’t be anything like the Barry Burton we all know and love.

    As for the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ sentiments that come across when you question why the series was changed, well, it was broke. Since Resident Evil 2 the franchise was selling less and less with each release. Enough to keep the series going but not enough to really make Capcom jump for joy. More significantly though was the critical reception of the games. By the time Resident Evil Zero came along, people were generally just tired of the static cameras, the cumbersome inventory system and the tank-track controls. Survival horror’s heyday had been and gone and Resident Evil was becoming more irrelevant each year, so I’d say a change was needed and clearly Resident Evil 4 was just about the best Capcom could have hoped for.

    I don’t know if you haven’t played Revelations yet but for me (and many others) it provided the marriage of old and new Resident Evil that fans wanted and that Capcom have promised in Resident Evil 6. 6 seems to be separating it though, giving each gameplay aspect its own campaign. Revelations merged it beautifully and if you haven’t played it I would strongly recommend it. It refined the control scheme and general gameplay but, most importantly, it is a genuinely scary game and it doesn’t let up at any point.

    Sorry for the huge comment but thanks if you read it. I did enjoy the article and look forward to finding out what you think of Resident Evil 6 when it comes out.

    • JuicieJ

      Revelations most definitely merged action and horror nearly seamlessly, but the game still had a few nagging flaws. It was a great game, but one that needed improvement. I figured the next Resident Evil game wouldn’t have the same problem after such a triumph over the other modern games, but RE6 — as Axle would say, as well — is looking like a cluster**** of different themes and ideas that just do not come together at all. It may wind up not being a bad game, but I certainly don’t think it’ll be a great one (or even a good one, at that).

      • Cfrock

        What I think people will take issue with when Resi 6 comes out is the clear separation of the styles. I loved the demo, every second of it, but Chris’s campaign has already been referred to as ‘like third-person CoD’ and what we saw of Jake’s campaign was very similar, albeit with more interesting enemies and deeper focus on co-op.

        Leon’s campaign seems to be the only portion of the game trying to focus on the horror aspect (it is fairly reminiscent of Resi 4) and Ada’s looks set to take that approach too. Based off the demo, I know I’m going to love every moment of Resi 6 but I do feel that contrasting the campaigns this way is going to lead to people saying things like ‘I liked half of the game’ or ’2/3 of it was just rubbish’.

        How they’ve put the game together is risky and ambitious but I do think it will lead to criticism and perhaps more set-backs for the series like we had after the release of Resi 5.

        I’d like to add as a side note the Resi 5 DLC. Lost in Nightmares showed that the pure horror fans credit to the early games can still be present in the new games while Desperate Escape was nothing but the fast paced action the series is usually mocked for and yet people absolutely loved it. I think if Capcom didn’t have such knee-jerk reactions to the critical response, we’d have seen a much more natural blend of the two styles. Revelations moves a great deal in that direction but JJ has a point, there was more they could have done. Resi 6 does not seem to be a continuation of that and so perhaps fans looking for the best of both worlds will have to look at the 3DS since Capcom has said several times they want to do more Resident Evil on there.

  • Turo

    Why did it change? Simple, a decrease in sales and tons of criticism. The “fans” are the ones that drove the series in the path it took.

    • http://twitter.com/joethulhu Joe Hammons

      Decrease in sales – not true. RE was still selling like crazy. REmake sold very well, and even the ports of 2 and 3 to the Gamecube were selling very well. As for criticism, also not true. The afforementioned REmake was met with massive critical success. The ports of 2, 3 and CVX not so much, but not because of the games themselves, simply because they were just straight ports. Nothing extra was added. Everyone seems to like to yell “bad sales and bad reviews!” when they try to defend Capcom’s switch, but it’s simply false.

      • Turo

        I love how you bring up REmake so much, when Resident Evil Zero was the last of the classics to come out. Also, CVX wasn’t as hot as 1, 2, and 3 when they originally released. Even then, I don’t think 3 did as well as the first 2. Like I said, a decrease in sales. I also never once brought up “bad reviews”, but if you want to go there, both reviewers and players alike criticized the franchise for get stale. Especially the controls… which they later went on to praise in RE4…

        • http://twitter.com/joethulhu Joe Hammons

          Zero and REmake came out very close together, and were developed at basically the same time. REmake was given priority and it’s easy to tell, since it’s a much better game and looks a Hell of a lot better. Code Veronica, on first release, was crippled by the poor sales of the Dreamcast console. Code Veronica X didn’t have that problem, but no one seemed to want to play a port of a Dreamcast game onto PS2.

          You did bring up bad reviews. You specifically mentioned tons of criticism. Which is not true. No one thought the series was getting stale. If they did, it was because Zero was lackluster in general.

          By the way, I wouldn’t have bothered to respond at all, since it’s just stupid to think I’m going to change anyone’s opinion over the internet, but you said that it was the fans that killed Resident Evil. It wasn’t the fans, it was Capcom’s greed. The old RE games sold very well, but they knew if they appealed to a wider audience by making action games they would have a goldmine. And look what we ended up with. Capcom is happy. Most fans are not.

          • Cfrock

            Actually, the change in style came because Shinji Mikami was unhappy with how the series was going and so were Capcom so they asked him to lead development on 4. It wasn’t an appeal to a wider audience (that may have been an indirect consequence).

            But yeah, the series sales peaked at RE2 and since then they were on a steady decline. None of them sold better than RE2 except 5 and 6 and possible 4 (notice anything those ones have in common?). Declining sales were a major cause for Capom’s desire to revamp the series and make it the financial powerhouse it was at the start and has become again since 4.

            And Resident Evil games were criticised for their controls and inventory systems and storyline and voice overs from day one. Seriously, day one. Those complaints never went away and most of them persist even now. By the time we got to RE0, people were having to tolerate a control scheme that had been lambasted and ridiculed for years. REmake was praised but it was the one Resident Evil since 3 that saw a mostly positive reaction. Survivor, Code: Veronica, Dead Aim and the Outbreak games were all received lukewarmly at best, outright hated at worst. REmake is the one example of a Resident Evil game having a mostly positive critical reception since RE3.

            So yeah, people weren’t buying them and spent their time criticising them. This made Capcom seek a change in direction, they called up Shinji Mikami to help them out and modern Resident Evil was born.