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On March 22, 1996 Capcom gave birth to a brand new genre with Resident Evil. Believe it or not, Survival horror and Resident Evil just turned 16 years old. Regardless of how you feel about the genre in general, it has come a long way. The dark atmosphere and grisly content in the original Resident Evil games put players on the edge of their seat with slow pacing and fixed cameras. Coupled with the pretty prerendered environments, Resident Evil created a spooky atmosphere on the now infamous Umbrella mansion’s grounds. Supplies were scarce and players were forced to make fight or flee decisions constantly in an effort to conserve health and ammunition.
Soon after Resident Evil, and its success, other publishers began to follow Capcom’s lead. Most notably Konami. The Silent Hill series has been arguably as big as Resident Evil and just as twisted. Other horror IP’s soon followed with developers and publishers wanting to get in on the horror fad. Soon the market was flooded with horror based games such as Clocktower, Dino Crisis, and Fatal Frame. Some were good, others… not so much. As time went has gone by, Silent Hill and Resident Evil remained the flagships of survival horror but even the gleam of their success had begin to tarnish. Sequels like Code Veronica, the first Resident Evil game to hit the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 didn’t really advance the series in a profound way. Sure the game looked prettier but the fixed camera angle remained, so did the terrible voice acting and cheesy dialogue. It wasn’t until Resident Evil 4 that the series experienced a rebirth.
Resident Evil 4 brought back the lonely secluded feeling of survival horror and introduced more dynamic enemies. The AI was smarter and could overwhelm the player with their numbers. The new over-the-shoulder camera angle made gunplay more pulse pounding and intuitive which in turn meant the new aiming mechanics were far more precise. While the game still handled sort of tankish, it was one of the defining survival horror games of the last 10 years. Following the critical success of RE4, they lost that suspenseful terror in RE5. A game designed for cooperative play, many critics hated it and the game was especially bad when playing alone. The horrible AI controlling your partner meant they basically became a pack mule while the player took down the majority of the baddies. The story and moments in the game were never really scary. The game, especially in The Mercenaries, has tense moments but it never really succeeds at frightening except in the DLC chapter Lost in Nightmares. Anyone building a cooperative survival horror game should take a close look at how successful Lost in Nightmares was at being creepy. Surprising or not, Resident Evil 5 was not the first RE game designed to implement multiplayer. Outbreak was actually the first, but this is lesser known since the game released on the PlayStation 2 where online play was not widely supported and was still very much in a grassroots phase.
Fans of the genre and critics were starting to feel that truly scary games were going by the wayside, and that survival horror might be dead. Visceral Studios rewrote the script when Dead Space came out. Published by Electronic Arts and released on Halloween, Dead Space ditched tank controls, allowed players to aim, shoot and move all at the same time and still managed to scare the shit out of players. The USG Ishimura became a living nightmare as necromorphs ambushed Isaac Clark from ventilation ducts and dark corners. The visuals, and especially the sound design, made Dead Space a survival horror classic. It completely ditched the notion that players had to be limited to bad controls in order for the game to be horrific and dripping with suspense. The claustrophobic pathways of the USG Ishimura and the danger inside of it were enough for gamers. With Dead Space 2, the scripted moments were made bigger and more dazzling. Isaac Clark is literally losing his mind as he treks through the Sprawl, a space station built out of the remains of Titan. The story and setting of the game may have turned some off as some of the Ishimura’s confined atmosphere was lost, replaced with more wide open spaces as the Sprawl . That being said the game played wonderfully and still managed to be intensely creepy. Gunplay was further improved and it turned out to be one of my ten favorite games of 2011.
With Visceral Games taking up the survival horror mantle is it just that Capcom forgot how to do scary? This year is the time to find out as Capcom is releasing two Resident Evil games and it will be interesting how they fare. Operation Raccoon City just released and the buzz from the press has not been very encouraging. Many Resident Evil purists will be put off by the cooperative play design in Operation Raccoon City, especially with the competitive multiplayer. Later, in the third/fourth quarter of 2012, Capcom is also releasing Resident Evil 6. Right now details are incredibly scarce but I’m curious to see what avenue Capcom decides to go down with the latest chapter of the Resident Evil saga. Both Leon Kennedy and Chris Redfield have been shown off in the preview trailer. With Operation Raccoon City looking to carry on the core ideas behind Resident Evil 5 with cooperative play being the main focus, I’m curious if Resident Evil 6 will be a scarier solo experience. Resident Evil 6 could be a return to glory especially if it manages to create a very creepy atmosphere with cooperative play options.