Saturday, January 2, 2010

Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles

The much anticipated (at least by me) followup to 2007's Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, The Darkside Chronicles is a predictably similar yet very much superior experience.

Umbrella Chronicles felt slapped together as a package, liberally reusing assets from Capcom's GameCube releases to cash in on the popularity of the Wii and the resurgent Resident Evil brand. Darkside Chronicles, inspired by the success of Umbrella Chronicles itself, is again an on-rails shooter that retells the events of previous core titles in the franchise. This time focusing on the adventures of Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield, Darkside Chronicles covers Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil Code: Veronica, the two chapters that Umbrella Chronicles omitted, almost certainly because there were insufficient GameCube-era assets to draw upon. Without all the old art and movie files to recycle, Darkside Chronicles feels much fresher, with far more effort put into it, despite ultimately running off the same simple mechanics as its predecessor.

Darkside Chronicles is still an on-rails shooter using the infrared pointer capability of the Wii Remote to crudely mimic a light gun. The accelerometer is used to reload by shaking the remote or for swinging the knife, although occasion for the latter is minimized compared to Umbrella Chronicles. Actually, I found that the gameplay of Darkside Chronicles felt slightly simplified overall compared to the last game. For better or worse, it's an easier, more accessible game, boss battles aside. Zombie packs are never as large or in-your-face as in the hairier stages of Umbrella Chronicles, and critical headshots seem to occur with greater frequency. The number of weapons is also much smaller this time, although players are now able to access the inventory mid-mission via the pause menu. The game no longer scores you on how many destructible objects you shoot, which gives hardcore players one less grade to measure themselves, but the many items hidden about the environment still compel you to fire constantly at everything.

The most significant change to the mechanics may be that the player can no longer control the camera at all, and my greatest concern, based on pre-release footage, was that it might go overboard with the shaky cam technique, robbing players of the joy of lining up shots precisely. As it turns out, that's not a concern at all, as there are still plenty of things to shoot at during the course of the game, which, at about ten hours, is, like Umbrella Chronicles, uncharacteristically full for its genre.

What really makes Darkside Chronicles so much better, however, is its story presentation. Although Umbrella Chronicles purported to retell the stories of Resident Evil, Resident Evil 3, and Resident Evil Zero, in practice it conveyed very little of those games' plots and would have been largely useless to anyone who hadn't already played the original titles. Covering the most story-intensive entries in the series, Darkside Chronicles thankfully does a much better job of actually filling in Wii-gen newcomers to the series on what they've missed.

The Resident Evil 2 chapter fares the better out of the two. The Darkside Chronicles take understandably trims and excises subplots here and there, but all major events are retained, and what remains is a complete and self-contained story. And it's surprisingly better than a B-movie!

It is helped along by much higher production values than Umbrella Chronicles. Whereas that game reused character models from the GameCube games and even included the same movie files from Resident Evil Zero, Darkside Chronicles takes many characters not seen during the GameCube era and features them in a story paced by a large number of new pre-rendered cinematics. The real-time graphics are fairly consistent stylistically with the GameCube games, but even many of the elements that could have been recycled, such as the Raccoon City Police Department from Umbrella Chronicles, appear brand new and better than ever. Meanwhile the cut scenes are quite nice and help to raise the game's look above the Wii standard.

The Code: Veronica chapter is a little less coherent, as it cuts most of Chris Redfield's journey and downplays Wesker's role, perhaps because we got enough of those characters in Umbrella Chronicles and Resident Evil 5. To be fair, the original Code: Veronica was already by far the looniest installment in the series, and in Darkside Chronicles, the best bits survive mostly intact, with the one notable exception of the portrayal of Steve Burnside, which I found to be a bowdlerization that rather missed the point of the character.


In Code: Veronica, Steve was, at first glance, an annoyingly cocky punk, but his poorly supported facade of cool repeatedly broke down in more genuine moments of fear and weakness, revealing one of the most human characters in video game history. Rather than being the hero himself, he was one of the tragedy's victims whom I wanted to protect, and, believe it or not, that was one of the first cases that convinced me that being a video game hero might entail more than just killing things. When I was ultimately unable to save him, and instead he was the one that finally accomplished something heroic, I felt defeat unlike any "game over," but I also felt like he really fought for it and earned that moment.

Darkside Chronicles presents an initially intriguing take on a Steve who, when taunted by the villain, responds with a fury beyond reason, such that even Claire seems a little frightened. He is clearly using anger to escape having to deal with other emotions, but when the story finally sets him face-to-face with what he's been running from, the release is nowhere near as cataclysmic as one might expect. He deals with it a little too easily, and even as terrible things continue to happen, the bravado never really ceases. In other words, this Steve trades human warmth for the distant coolness of action heroism.

Again, this won't affect anyone who didn't play the original Code: Veronica, and what matters most now is that players of Darkside Chronicles can enjoy themselves without feeling like they have to go back a decade to get the full story.

Like Umbrella Chronicles, Darkside Chronicles also includes one chapter of new material, again set during that six-year gap between Code: Veronica and Resident Evil 4. Detailing Leon's history with Jack Krauser as hinted at in RE4, it's nothing revelatory, nor even as significant within the canon as the "Umbrella's End" scenario from Umbrella Chronicles--whereas the story of the fall of Umbrella was the major attraction of that game for hardcore followers of the Resident Evil mythology, "Operation Javier" in Darkside Chronicles feels more like an afterthought to flimsily tie together the flashbacks to RE2 and Code: Veronica within one narrative--but as with all the other stories in Darkside Chronicles, it's better-executed than anything in Umbrella Chronicles.

The only truly disappointing thing about Darkside Chronicles, compared to Umbrella Chronicles, is the lack of any bonus chapters, such as the Rebecca and Wesker missions that added new perspectives to established stories. Umbrella Chronicles also had the two RE2 side missions starring Ada and Hunk, so maybe there wasn't as much left for Darkside Chronicles to explore, but this should have been the time to finally address persisting questions about Sherry's fate or Ada's true employer. At least there is still plenty of Resident Evil fan service in the form of collectible files, including some cool audio recordings that reveal a bit about some of the villains and supporting characters.

The completionist in me also would have liked to have seen a chapter based on Degeneration, especially as I believe an on-rails shooter could make better use of that material than the movie did. The optimist in me hopes that Capcom and co-developer cavia are saving that for a third Chronicles game, which I would be all for.

1 comment:

Czardoz said...

Undoubtedly, the revised take on Steve Burnside reflects the values and sensibilities of the storyteller, Leon Kennedy, who, in a misguided attempt to protect and glorify the memory of a man he never met, actually ends up mangling the most poignant pieces of that man's life.