Saturday, October 18, 2008

Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles

As I've suggested previously, I hold the Resident Evil series in high regard, ranking it probably among my top three gaming franchises. The series has certainly had low points, however, such as the Survivor light gun games or the mediocre Outbreak online titles. Most fans ignore these side stories as irrelevant to the main canon, and I personally have never felt compelled to play them. Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles for the Wii is an unusual case, as the on-rails experience is far removed from either the survival horror of the earlier titles or the third-person shooter action of Resident Evil 4, yet it's still generally regarded as one of the main installments due to its use of characters from the core series, as well as some important new contributions it makes to the plot.

Released after RE4, Umbrella Chronicles retells the events of Resident Evil Zero, Resident Evil, and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. A fourth chapter contains brand new material that fills in some of that massive gap between Resident Evil: Code Veronica and RE4, specifically covering the fall of the Umbrella Corporation, which had been glossed over anticlimactically in the opening text of RE4. Umbrella Chronicles consequently serves both to fill in new fans introduced to the series via RE4, as well as to tie things together for longtime fans trying to make sense of things.

In practice, the handling of the stories from the older installments is mostly disappointing. While the series has never been too heavy on plot, Umbrella Chronicles distills things even further, with each chapter being strictly a straightforward zombie-filled shooting spree leading up to each game's final showdown followed by its ending. Events and subplots are excised, and major characters like Barry Burton and Nicholai are completely removed without any explanation. Even as a highlight reel, it's somewhat unsatisfying, as the on-rails format cannot capture the carefully-engineered tension so crucial to the original experiences, meaning that many of the games' most memorable moments are not represented. Likewise, in terms of gameplay, the survival horror genre simply does not translate to one-dimensional on-rails shooting. Puzzles are out of the question, inventory management can mostly be neglected, and flight is never an option. Even RE3's signature gimmick, the STARS-stalking Nemesis, is reduced to just another boss to be brought down through the usual hail of gunfire.

As for the new chapter set between Code Veronica and RE4, it's arguably the most disappointing of all, as it is just as straightforward and lacking in explanations as the recap episodes, resulting in a finale that is still anticlimactic. It doesn't help that neither Code Veronica nor RE4 are ever actually referenced, leaving some significant gaps on both sides of the timeline.

The best parts of the game are actually the side missions that become unlocked as the player progresses through the main scenarios. Set both alongside and between the primary chapters, these missions revolve around supporting characters in previously unseen events that fill in some of the holes in the series. Most of the new story material of the game, including the true ending, actually comes from these stages, as one character's recurrent subplot weaves revelations into the story that help to set up the fourth act.

While it may fall short of its promise, the game does actually have a lot to offer. The playable content, comprising four main chapters of three stages each, along with ten side missions, is quite substantial, unusually so for the genre. There is also a fair amount of fanservice, including tons of collectible reference material to cover all the plot and character information that the playthrough itself omits. And series fans will surely appreciate the many trophies in the forms of assorted objects from throughout the franchise's history.

The production values are quite high for what the game is. The GameCube installments were some of the most visually-attractive titles of their generation, and Umbrella Chronicles reuses many of those assets to good effect. The game looks and sounds like a real Resident Evil product, with none of the distracting inconsistency or cheapness of the various side stories.

In essence, it's comparable to the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland; it's an enjoyable enough experience that captures the aesthetic of the source material, but it cannot be taken as a replacement for the original works. And, taken on its own merits, well, it's a lot of fun, as on-rails shooters tend to be despite their lack of depth.

When the Wii was first unveiled, one of my hopes was actually that it would mean a return of the light gun genre, as having a pointing controller standard meant that the visceral joy of firing a gun could be viably retained without the burden of an expensive peripheral that would be useless with 99.9% of games. In practice, I now realize that motion controls could never truly replace the light gun. While more tactile than a control pad, it's functionally not too far off. You're still just manipulating an onscreen reticle, rather than legitimately aiming. Nevertheless, feel goes a long way, and it's still more satisfying than a D-pad or analog stick could ever be.

Cooperative play, certainly the preferred mode in any on-rails shooter, is a blast here as well, albeit the difficulty doesn't seem entirely balanced for it, with boss fights in particular stripped of all challenge. The exception to this is in the quick time events that occur periodically RE4-style. I personally have no problem with QTEs as a gameplay mechanism when used sparingly, but I must admit that they were the source of my greatest frustrations in RE4--probably 90% of my deaths came during the knife fight (most of the rest were in that blasted jet ski scene!). In co-op Umbrella Chronicles, each player is randomly assigned a different button press/combination or waggle motion for each QTE, which they must both input correctly and in time. As in RE4, one QTE late in the game features an homage to the infamous laser corridor from the Milla Jovovich films. This ridiculously-staged and entirely gratuitous sequence proved absolutely maddening during my co-op playthrough, as the timing demanded was so tight as to practically require lucky guessing in order to avoid the instant death that would result from either player's failure, with the last checkpoint being a ways back. That absurd moment aside, it's also unfortunate that the side missions are initially single-player only, with co-op only being unlocked after all stages are beaten.

Regarding the game's single greatest disappointment, the omissions of Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil: Code Veronica, the official word is that their stories do not figure into the main Umbrella arc. This sounds completely bogus to me, as RE2 takes place around the very same event as RE3, while Code Veronica was the game that really established Wesker as a potential "franchise player." A more likely explanation is that the project just lacked the time and budget to cover everything, so they cut the parts which had the fewest GameCube assets available for reuse. Personally, I like to believe that it's because RE2 and Code Veronica were the Claire Redfield titles. Of the four main characters of the series, Claire is the only one who never received a GameCube makeover. Perhaps Capcom decided it would be a waste to have her rendered in Wii graphics for her current-gen debut. Instead, it looks like the Resident Evil: Degeneration movie will be the first appearance of the new Claire, albeit the production values sadly do not look on par with the real-time graphics of the upcoming Resident Evil 5.

1 comment:

Czardoz said...

Maybe you should blog more about your Sony game testing days. Or stories about Johnson P. Enis. Names shall be changed to protect the retarded.