Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Essentials #45: Resident Evil 2 / Resident Evil 3

Resident Evil 2

The original 1996 Resident Evil was one of the early pre-Final Fantasy VII hits for the Sony PlayStation. Quite unlike anything players had seen during the 16-bit era, it was a glimpse, perhaps both exciting and foreboding, at what the new disc-based generation could offer. More baffling than the divisive mechanics was the questionable production, most infamously exemplified by the atrocious opening video, which recalled the low-budget Sega CD-era FMV games that had turned players off live-action game characters. Capcom's craft had thankfully matured considerably by the time of the 1998 sequel, produced by Shinji Mikami and directed by Hideki Kamiya. In nearly every way a better experience than the original, Resident Evil 2 was, along with Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, a console-defining title that proved the PlayStation generation had truly arrived.

Ditching the live-action B-movie footage, Resident Evil 2 began with a pre-rendered CG opening cinematic. Approximately four minutes uninterrupted, this was at the time the most stunning CG cut scene in a video game. This was an age when companies like Capcom, Square, and Namco could insert short pre-rendered movie sequences in their games, and these non-interactive bits would wow audiences as testaments to the developers' technical prowess. The movie shows its age now, and the voice acting and dialogue, while leagues better than the first game, were still not exactly good, but I cannot help but smile nostalgically as I think back to those innocent days, when fans might look forward, not even to playing the hot new game, but just to watching the opening CG, as if it were the latest Michael Jackson music video.

The gameplay in this survival horror sequel was fundamentally the same as in the first game. RE2 was still an experience built around fixed camera angles, tank controls, scarce supplies, ink ribbons, and locked doors. There was still no heads-up display to clutter up the pre-rendered look of the game, but your condition would now be reflected in your character's animation and performance, as characters in poor health would clutch their stomachs and walk in pained gaits. Shifting the stage from the remote mansion of the first game to a police department that had become the final stronghold against the infected that had overrun Raccoon City, RE2 was a more hectic experience. The game would now throw whole packs of zombies at the player, and the clunky combat became more nerve-wracking than ever. As ever unable to move while shooting, players would have to rely on limited ammo and auto-aim to hold back approaches of three or more bullet-soaking zombies.

The major innovation of RE2 was the new partner system. The original Resident Evil offered a choice between two player characters at the beginning of the game. The basic flow and progression would remain the same regardless, but the story elements and details would change to accommodate whichever protagonist the player chose. Meanwhile, the other player character would literally go missing for most of the game, while either Rebecca Chambers or Barry Burton, depending on the protagonist, would instead provide the player support.

Resident Evil 2
began, at first glance, in much the same manner. Although it assigned each player character to a separate disc, it invited the player to begin the game with whichever character/disc they preferred. The player's choice would affect the game much as it had in the original; both characters would cover the same ground and face the same puzzles, but character interactions and dialogue would change. Unlike in the first game, both main characters would remain prominent, forming an impromptu partnership to split up and search for a way out of the nightmare. The real twist, however, was that, upon completion of the story as depicted in that first disc, the game would prompt the player to pop in the other character's disc to experience their side of the story.

It was the greatest disc changeover or "round two" in gaming history (at least until Astro Boy: Omega Factor). Players might have come into the second disc fearful of recycled stages to cheaply extend play time, but the differences would quickly become apparent the moment a mysterious helicopter dropped off an ominous crate, from which would burst forth a new model of the "Tyrant" humanoid bioweapon that had served as the final boss of the first game. The oppressive music that played as this trench coat-clad "Mr. X" stalked the short straw-drawing character made it clear that the rules had changed. The second half would indeed reuse the same environments, and the puzzles would at least be very similar, if not identical, but there was a new tone to the game. Mr. X and his theme music gave it a more menacing air, and it was a higher stakes affair overall, as events revealed that the first disc had been the softer path.

The split narrative also held inventive implications for the gameplay. Because the two characters were exploring the same building at the same time, just not together in the same areas, the decisions made in the first half might affect the second character's playthrough. When hoarding supplies for survival, you also had to consider whether the other character might need them more later, in which case you would have to suppress the impulse to collect every item on the first disc. Needless to say, this sort of long-term planning was hard to commit to, and my immediate self had few scruples about screwing over my future self, adding to the increased tension of the second disc. Also, although the first disc seemingly covered the entire length of the story and finished with a triumphant ending, the true ending only came at the end of the second disc. If that wasn't enough, remember that you could have begun the game from either disc, running either character through either half of the story, making for a total of four fairly distinct trips through the game.

While still relying on text-based files to convey background information, the game this time had a far more developed story and characters with real personality. It was the way the narrative evolved, however, that made it so much more rewarding than before. In the original Resident Evil, the characters were trapped wandering the mansion with little aim, all the while basically depending on a spineless helicopter pilot to screw up his courage to come pick them up. In Resident Evil 2, although Leon was a rookie cop and Claire was unusually resourceful for a civilian college student, they were not members of any sort of elite unit on a mission. They stumbled haplessly into a bad situation, and there was no expectation of backup. They, along with the player, had to make their own escape. The result was that it was less scary overall than the bleak original, but RE2 touched a greater range of emotions. It gripped players just as the original had, through restrictive design to immerse them in the fatalism, but then it did more than just linger in terror. Fear gave way to a plan, which yielded hope, and then that final ride to freedom was true triumph.

Mechanically, Resident Evil 2 wasn't all that different from the original, and if, as I did, you played it after having experienced the better-looking, more playable GameCube remake of the first game, the sequel might not have felt like much of an advancement at all. But even I found the second game more satisfying. If the experience was not quite as pure as before, the deliberate design was still there, and it was now further channeled into a more sophisticated narrative arc that managed to grow steadily and progressively more rewarding as it developed.

Additional Information

Originally a PlayStation release, Resident Evil 2 was later ported with only minor additions to the PC, Dreamcast, and GameCube. The only port really worth discussing is the 1999 Nintendo 64 version. Handled by Angel Studios, this was something thought impossible by many. Not only did they manage to pack all the pre-rendered backgrounds and video into a single cartridge, albeit in compressed form, but they also added many exclusive features, including higher resolution character models than any other version, stereo surround sound, and even an optional brand new camera-relative control scheme. Fans of the Resident Evil story would also have appreciated the extra documents that linked to the other games in the series, including Nemesis, Code Veronica, and even Resident Evil 0, which was originally supposed to be an N64 title, but would only see release three years later on the GameCube.

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Resident Evil 3: Nemesis

Known in Japan as Biohazard 3: Last Escape, Capcom's Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, released in 1998 for the Sony PlayStation, was almost like the third disc of Resident Evil 2. Set right before and right after Leon and Claire's adventure, Nemesis again took place during the Raccoon City outbreak, fleshing out and completing the story through a third perspective.

This time around, there was no choice in who to play as. Jill Valentine, heroine of the original Resident Evil, returned as the sole protagonist. Carlos Oliveira, one of several mercenaries hired by the Umbrella Biohazard Countermeasure Service (UCBS), filled the Rebecca Chambers/Ada Wong role, as the supporting character who would also be briefly playable.

Gameplay was again much the same as in previous installments, but some new elements had been implemented into basic combat for a more action-oriented feel. Jill had evidently picked up a few moves since the first game. The tank controls were made much more manageable by the addition of the 180-degree turn borrowed from Shinji Mikami's Dino Crisis. To take out groups of zombies with a minimum expenditure of ammo, it was occasionally possible to home in on exploding barrels or similar environmental objects. At close range, Jill could also back enemies off with a shoulder ram or roll out of the way of attacks. Mapped to the same button as the "aim weapon" function, these defensive maneuvers were hard to control and more often seemed to happen as if at random. A patient player with good timing, however, could evade just about any attack at will, even including sidestepping incoming rockets.

These maneuvers were of little use, however, against the aptly named "Nemesis," a souped-up version of RE2's Mr. X. On a mission to eliminate any and all members of Jill's former "STARS" (Special Tactics And Rescue Service) unit, the rocket launcher-toting Nemesis would chase the player at points throughout the game. These could be set pieces or boss battles, but most often they came as pseudo-random encounters. Upon entering specific rooms, the moment you triggered a cut to a different camera angle, Nemesis would appear right on your tail without any warning or loading. Technical limitations stood in the way of a more natural pursuit--Nemesis could not possibly open the doors on those painted-on backgrounds--but the sudden arrivals happened regularly enough to leave you in sustained apprehension.

Whatever moves she'd gained, Jill was not going to go hand-to-hand against him a la Milla Jovovich in the terrible Resident Evil: Apocalypse movie. Against this super-Tyrant, more than ever the best course of action was to run like hell. But remember how frustratingly perilous it could be to try and swerve around those zombies in the first game? Well, unlike those regular zombies or the lumbering Mr. X, Nemesis was actually fast. Against this enemy who could also instantly execute Jill if he did get his hands on her, the tank controls were a greater liability and more panic-inducing than ever before. If you ran into a wall trying to turn, or worse yet, you ran into instead of around him, it could all end with the controller lodged in the TV screen. It was the most frantic experience in my gaming history, but when it worked, I loved the thrill of those close calls.

Furthering the action feel of the game were the "Live Selection" events. At specific points in the progression, the player would trigger a prompt asking the player to choose between two courses of action. The player would have only a short amount of time to choose, or else the game would decide, usually going with the worse of the two outcomes. Truthfully, these decisions would not often alter the plot or even the action in a significant way, but they kept the player alert and involved in a less brutal way than the "press this button or die" quick time events of more recent installments.

What really made RE3 one of my favorites, however, was the setting. Although RE2 also took place in the city, it was contained almost entirely within a single building. RE3, on the other hand, had you continuously on the move through urban outdoor environments. The difference was obvious the first time you accessed the in-game map. Replacing the elegant floor plans of the first two games was a massive and messy grid of intersecting streets. And what you saw as you roamed these larger environments was nothing less than the nightmare laying siege to the picture of the real world. In the first two games, the mansion and police station were simultaneously prisons and shelters. They were literally shelters in that there were zombie dogs outside, but, so long as the events remained confined within these uncommon buildings, there was also a feeling of detachment and safety on the part of the player, who would not likely be caught in such places. RE3 drove home that the menace was everywhere, and there was no hiding from or ignoring it. As you walked the still eerily familiar streets once crowded with the now infected people or the now destroyed cars, the terror was more real than ever.

Inevitably, at one point early on Jill would even have to flee into the same police station from RE2. Jill's time there would be brief, but it would be enough to observe some clever connections to the previous game. If you had played the games in order, you would have already witnessed the grisly conclusions to some minor subplots "introduced" in the later installment. The most hardcore and astute fans might also have taken note of the dates on documents in both games, then mapped out the chronology of Raccoon City's final days. And the idea that Jill tangled with Nemesis mere hours before Claire and Leon would arrive there made for a classic near missed connection, as, to date, Jill still has yet to appear in a game together with either Claire or Leon.

RE3 also featured the first iteration of "The Mercenaries." Itself a followup to the similar "4th Survivor" mode from RE2, "The Mercenaries" was originally a bonus mini-game that allowed the player to control one of three UCBS mercenaries (hence the name) through a short mission to escape the zombie-infested city. The player would be given a very limited amount of time to get to an extraction point. To buy more time, the player would have to exterminate the many zombies that lay in the path to the destination. The fast pace and abundance of enemies made for a more challenging experience than the main game, but there was neither a point nor much fun to be found in trying to play Resident Evil as an action game.

To a lesser extent, that problem carried over to the rest of the game. The mechanics of Resident Evil were never conducive to action gameplay, but RE3 awkwardly laid new mechanics on top of the original design to force an action experience. The haphazard dodging made the already clunky combat even more hit-or-miss, which is probably why they never reappeared in any subsequent installments. Testing the player's ability to steer their character, Nemesis was essentially the most potentially frustrating mechanic of the original game taken to its most extreme end. Nevertheless, when it worked--and it worked more often than not--it provided a faster, more advanced Resident Evil for veterans of the series. Moreover, as horror goes, Resident Evil was always an experience that went for the heart more than the mind or the stomach, and Nemesis got the heart beating faster than any other game I've played.

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