Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Masters of Uninvolving Gameplay. Sandwich.

Mr. Keeley and I have a running joke. We say that Resident Evil 5 is the only game we have ever played ironically.

It is not just the script; bad video game scripts are a dime a dozen. While Resident Evil 5's script indeed ranks among the worst, this game is inept on every level – from game design to art design to animation to acting. For decades, film fans have been watching terrible movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Plan 9 from Outer Space not merely because they tell idiotic stories but also because they are beautifully bad works of filmmaking. Resident Evil 5 is the video game equivalent; it is so earnest and so inept a video game that one cannot help but love it.

As Capcom releases the game's final downloadable episode this week, it presents an interesting quandary for a fan: What should Resident Evil 6 look like? Should the developers attempt to make a modern game – one where players can walk and shoot at the same time?

They risk losing some of the game's charm that way. I have never come to tears laughing at a game before I played Resident Evil 5. Every moment brings a new expression of just how stupid the game's design is. Why does a rocket launcher take up as much space in your inventory as an egg? Why is there a cover system that makes you stand up to heal yourself? Why does 90% of the dialogue consist of "Come on!" and "Okay!"? Why do zombies bounce between walls like ping-pong balls when you shoot them? Why is there a giant, ancient city underneath sub-Saharan Africa that is populated by zombies who operate elaborate booby traps, and also houses a multinational drug corporation headquarters?

At first, these questions frustrated me, but soon I began to see things differently. Watching a massive axe flying through my character and doing no harm, simply because I was in the process of picking up loose change, is not frustrating. It is an amusing sight to behold. Add in cooperative play, where one can share these moments with a friend, and a session of Resident Evil 5 often becomes uproarious.

Still, Resident Evil 5 was not made by a fertilizer salesman on a bet; the game was a multimillion-dollar production. This fact is apparent when looking at the game – character models are extremely detailed and effects like mutating creatures are excellent. So, while kitschiness can be forgiven to some extent, a big-budget series continuing down such a path would be difficult to excuse.

Resident Evil has been in this position before. Back in 2004, much of the gaming press was criticizing the series as stale and archaic. After all, the early Resident Evil games had a camera system that made walking in a straight line across a room one of the games' greatest challenges. The fact that the games still worked this way well into the 21st Century was a joke. But in early 2005, Resident Evil 4 came out and brought the series to the forefront of action/horror games. The player was granted freedom of movement that was more consistent with games of the time and quick-time events (Press B now to dodge the axe!) gave the game's cutscenes greater immersion. It looked like Resident Evil was back on track.

Naturally, when it took five years to release 5, expectations were running a bit high. Revolutionary sequels like Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2 or Assassin's Creed II only took a couple of years to develop, after all. Yet what fans received was a hollow retread of 4 – a game that made few improvements and that proved many of its predecessor's innovations had now become clichés. (Every mediocre game is now riddled with tedious quick-time event sequences; they are a bane of modern gaming.) It also proved that, while 5's failures were often amusing in how miserable they were, the series would again be forced to evolve in order to survive.

I do not know what Resident Evil 6 should look like. I could create a list of suggestions but, really, what it needs are things that I have not yet seen. With the release of Mass Effect 2 last month and Heavy Rain yesterday, I feel as if the rule book for video games is being rewritten on a weekly basis. Video games are now more emotionally engaging than ever before – I let out involuntary yells as I leap out of collapsing buildings in Uncharted 2; my lip quivers as I play with my only surviving son in Heavy Rain. Today, video games clearly have the power to scare the crap out of me.

I want Resident Evil to make it happen, but it is up to the developers to figure out how that can be done. They can start by making a new game – not the same one I have already bought twice. I doubt that I will find another failure very endearing.

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