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Resident Evil Evolution - From Survival Horror To Horror-Action

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Posted September 28, 2012 - By Danielle Riendeau




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Resident Evil is a unique series in the videogame landscape. It boasts a (largely) continuous storyline that weaves through more than 20 games (across main numbered titles, spinoffs, one off projects, and the like), and its themes have remained very consistent – you play as a person (usually a guy or gal with badass police/special forces/super spy training) who needs to mow down lots of nasty undead and or parasitic monsters in scary, nasty, or just plain unpleasant scenarios. Usually, there’s a puzzle or two to figure out, an NPC or six to rescue/converse with, and a whole host of memes ready to spawn from the bombastic story sequences.

But the gameplay itself has been through a series of changes since the 1996 debut. What started as pure horror with arguably awful “tank” controls has evolved into a faster-paced, action-oriented blend, complete with bigger biceps, more explosive cutscenes, and wildly refined gameplay systems (such as inventory).

It came from the 1990s

Resident Evil first arrived in 1996 on the original PlayStation, and it was, suffice it to say, a massive hit. Set in a mansion overrun with undead things, players took on the role of Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine and explored, killed zombies, and solved a truly insane variety of arcane puzzles to best the baddies. All sorts of lore was introduced – the t-virus (the zombifying agent itself), the shady Umbrella Corporation, the need for herbs as healing agents.

It was also notoriously cantankerous as a game – movement was slow and clumsy, as you moved your tank character along pre-rendered backgrounds. Thankfully, most (if not all) of your enemies were pretty slow too, but that was small comfort when you had scarce ammo, limited saves (saving was done in special rooms, with ink ribbons playing a funny, anachronistic role), and, on your first playthrough, almost no idea what the hell was going on. The second and third games (Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis), both also for the original PlayStation, stayed with the same general gameplay, though the story (and number of ridiculous backstory elements and characters) grew more ambitious. Nemesis did introduce the more action-friendly 180-degree turn button, which would follow throughout the rest of the tank-controlled titles.

With the release of Code: Veronica in 2000, on the then snazzy “next gen” Dreamcast in 2000 and PS2 in 2001 came with one of the first major gameplay shifts – the environments were all rendered in 3D in realtime.

Resident Evil To The Present - The Evolution of Survival Horror To Horror-Action

The real changes occurred in 2005’s blowout success (both commercially and critically), Resident Evil 4. Tank controls were dumped for what can accurately be described as balls-out action, with gunplay and melee attacks the cornerstone of the all-out action. Enemies were faster and tougher. Puzzles were limited, and the action sequences were as over-the-top as any Bruckheimer epic.

RE5 continued the trend, offering even bigger, faster action, and offering explosive co-op play between main characters Chris Redfield and Sheva Alomar, turning what was once a solitary, terrifying experience into an exhilarating, buddy-enabled one. Wasting monsters just isn’t as scary when you have a friend beside you, after all.

Tonal Shift

Gameplay changes are to be expected with a series that’s been running this long. Some genres and play styles simply fall in – or out – of favor over the years, and the faster, more action-oriented play is now en vogue.

The earlier games were decidedly creepier. Part of this is the mangled controls, perhaps, but much of it is the more deliberate pacing and the inescapable sense of vulnerability that came along with low ammo stores. While the environments and scenarios of RE are still macabre, a sort of beefy heroism has pervaded the series.

One need only look at the character models from game to game. Leon Kennedy was an average-sized man in Resident Evil 2. In Resident Evil 4, he was jacked up enough to beat up muscle man Krauss. Chris Redfield was no withering flower in the original Resident Evil, but by RE5, the man looked like a linebacker. Action games need action heroes, and RE has been quick to comply.

Resident Evil 6 Release Date Announced; Pre-Order Bonuses Revealed

The emphasis on gunplay over puzzle solving, and smoother controls has further led to what you might call the “action-ication” of Resident Evil. This is also so for the enemies – instead of shambling undead, players now typically battle with tougher, faster parasitic beasties, or superhuman monsters that all but scream “mutated ‘roid rage!” before moving in with muscled tentacles, claws, or other appendages. It’s a bigger, louder, more obvious world, and the tone looks to stay the same for RE6, which launches on October 2nd.

Resident Evil is far from being the only horror series affected by the action-oriented “go big or go home” mentality – the Dead Space franchise has exhibited the same signs, in a far more compressed time span (2008-2012), and arguably, the “purest” horror is being relegated to niche titles, like the incredible (and horrifying) Amnesia: the Dark Descent.

That isn’t to say any of this is a bad thing. Capcom has done wonderful things with the series’ turn to action – not least of which is the almost pitch-perfect exercise in pacing and action that is RE4, a game many consider a masterpiece (and some, the epitome of the series). Co-op players lauded the ability to bust up nasty baddies RE style with a friend in the fifth installment, and the shift in focus away from horror certainly hasn’t stopped the series from indulging wholesale in its rich (and dramatic!) narrative.

So, embrace the evolution, the bigger biceps, and the better controls. The action world is better off for having a little dash of horror in it, and it’s never been more flat-out fun to dispatch the shambling undead/parasitically mind controlled as it is today.

Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit web ninja in San Francisco. You should

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