All the people who have access to the Resident Evil 6 demo and other fans of the franchise can keep complaining about how far it’s strayed from its roots, but let’s also examine Capcom’s attempts at their own stated objective. Ever since the seminal Resident Evil 4 changed the franchise and the genre forever, Capcom has been trying to top that game, and I’m sitting here wondering why they and everyone else have failed thus far. Thinking about it has started to reinforce my belief that level design is one of the most important things in making a good game, and it’s disappearing for some reason.
I’m pretty sure Capcom has said at least once explicitly that their objective with RE6 is to surpass RE4. Even if the latest game doesn’t mark any kind of return to true survival horror, can it even accomplish this much? What does it need to do, and what have other games done wrong?
I don’t know how many people might agree with me when I say the seven-year-old RE4 probably still has the best singleplayer campaign in a third person shooter, but it definitely is still a highly regarded game. It blazed the trail that Gears of War, Dead Space, and pretty much every modern third person shooter followed, and has yet to be surpassed despite those games being more modernized.
RE4’s tank controls and odd shooting rules look restrictive and antiquated by today’s standards, and its graphics have definitely been surpassed. To me at least, it remains the most replayable third person shooter ever. Every time I revisit part of that game I end up replaying the whole thing because I want to experience this moment and that moment one more time. No part of that game allows itself to become boring. I’ve heard people say Alan Wake is better than RE4 because it has better controls, and I still think those people are crazy.
Gears established a “language” for controls and mechanics in these types of games and in that respect it blazed a trail of its own. A great mass of shooters have basically evoked that language, so they should be just as fun right? Games like Uncharted make sure players don’t miss all these cool moments they’ve got scripted into them, so they should be just as exciting right?
Despite all this, most of these games are not as fun or as exciting, and the only real difference I can find is level design – scenario creation. The developers of most linear shooters these days do recognize that games like RE4 were so memorable because of exciting moments followed by more and different exciting moments you didn’t see coming. The reason they throw so many cinematic scripted events into games is to create “water cooler moments.”
I’m gonna go ahead and spoil part of the Resident Evil 6 demo in this paragraph. The portion of the demo showing Leon’s story is almost nothing but players walking through dark hallways with scripted dialogue in the background, and then they have to fight a zombie in an elevator. On paper it sounds like a lot of tension punctuated by an intense and unexpected fight. In my opinion it wasn’t, and that’s because through the whole section I almost never had full control of Leon. Most of the time I could do nothing but walk forward and maybe press the flashing button to watch a lengthy animation of Leon opening a door or moving an obstruction.
RE4 never did things like this. Throughout that whole game you were either in a cut scene or in full control of Leon, yet it was built on “water cooler moments” that you couldn’t avoid. RE4 built those moments not by curtailing player movement, which in my opinion disconnects players from the game, but by controlling the situation around the player. RE4 pulled out so many ideas for its level design it’s kind of crazy the game was able to keep your interest for 20 hours when a lot of shooters now can’t even do it for six.
Oh other games have come pretty close to RE4’s ballpark. I think the campaigns in the Gears games are at least very good, if not great. The other most important thing behind RE4’s quality is how perfectly balanced every weapon and enemy is in the game, and Epic understands the importance of this in Gears. Even if the level design in the Gears campaigns isn’t mind-blowing, it at least feels inspired, and in my opinion they outshine other third person shooters in the multiplayer department because of their dedication to balance.
I also think Uncharted 2 was a fantastic game in terms of scenario design in the singleplayer. I like to hold up it and its sequel as more elegant examples of setting up situations that both look cinematic and play well. Uncharted 2 is one of the few shooters this generation I like to revisit.
And then of course you have Vanquish – the Japanese attempt at a western-style shooter from the director responsible for RE4. That game controls like Gears, but its core mechanics are so utterly different you have to approach the game with an utterly different mentality. What further sets Vanquish apart is the increasing enemy variety as the game goes on. Too many military shooters have you shooting the same three enemy types because they’re restricted by the bounds of “realistic” human beings. Gears and Vanquish are better games for having you shoot monsters and robots respectively, of crazier and crazier design requiring different strategies. Again, RE4 has this in spades.
I think the people who make Dead Space understand all the basics covered here, and a lot of people really love those two games. In my opinion the first one was far too easy (even on hard mode). The second game was a bit better but fell into the trap of restricting player control for the sake of theatrics. Dead Space 3 looks like it’s going to be just another third person shooter, with forced co-op like Resident Evil 5 to boot.
If you wanna talk about first person shooters for a minute, those all try to create water-cooler moments too, but the last one that really nailed it in my opinion was Half-Life 2, and it did so through superb scene manipulation, not player manipulation. Call of Duty 4 and Halo: Combat Evolved understood this too, but not many other FPSs.
So, can Resident Evil 6 reproduce the tight level design and scenario creation of its predecessor? The demo isn’t nearly enough to go on. What I could play of Chris’ section was just shooting up mutated people with guns. The section with the new character Jake however was promising: basically a section where you run away from a boss and lure him into traps while also dealing with other enemies. It resembled some of the best parts of RE4, if only in terms of the basic formula. It’s convinced me that the creative spark might still be in there somewhere. Maybe.
- By the same token though, one could ask why this console generation hasn’t produced a 2D fighter to surpass Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, or a WRPG to surpass Baldur’s Gate II. Has this console generation produced any new genre-defining games?
- I wouldn’t expect a whole lot form this Final Fantasy VII PC port, seeing as it’s going to cost under $10. At least I think we can expect a proper PC port of the original PS1 game, unlike the old Eidos PC port. Oh well, another chance for me to play it for the first time.
- I think Activision finally got me to buy Call of Duty DLC with their sale that’s going on now… well everywhere. I actually care enough about survival mode to want to play new maps.
- If you’re still upset about Max Anarchy being delayed into 2013 everywhere except Japan, apparently the Japanese version has full localization for English and other languages. It’s also region-free on both PS3 and 360.