Thursday, April 02, 2009

Why Dead Space Works, Silent Hill Doesn't, and Resident Evil Switched Gears

Even though I don't get a chance to play horror games very often, that genre includes some of my favorite video games. When done right, the horror genre sucks you in like no other. It's something about the darkness, the ambient noise, and the isolation that puts you right in the character's head and makes you jump at every snapped twig. Up until now, two genres have dominated the "survival horror" genre: Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Both are absolute powerhouses in their own way, but one has evolved into a new genre and the other has languished behind the crowd because of its outdated gameplay mechanics. And then you have a new contender from EA of all places which promises to reinvent the genre itself.

Resident Evil started the whole "survival horror" trend and largely took its cues from Alone in the Dark--cinematic camera angles, puzzle-solving, 2D backgrounds with 3D character models. The first RE game set the tone for most of the series to come. Its scares came mostly in two types: "It's just the cat" seat-jumpers and the stress of knowing that you probably don't have enough ammo to survive the next encounter. It's what you might call "apprehensive" horror. The series continued in this vein for four iterations before beginning to change in RE4. But what RE never focused on was psychological horror, the kind of fear that is instilled over time so that when the big moment comes, you're already seconds from wetting your pants. You need atmosphere for this kind of horror, and it's honestly difficult to pull off.

But Silent Hill has always been up to that task. Placing atmosphere above everything else (including gameplay), the team behind (most of) the series knows how to craft an eerie game. Blood-stained walls, screams in the distance, view-obscuring fog, and mutilated creatures that evoke terror, loathing, and pity are the stars here. It's all atmosphere, all the time in Silent Hill. Unforunately, the gameplay shambles along slower than any Racoon City zombie. The focus on melee combat slows the pace to a crawl, and the series' indoor levels, while wonderfully gory and "wrong, somehow," are littered with locked doors and tedious progression schemes.

And now we have a new kid on the block--EA's Dead Space, a game that combines the psychological horror of Silent Hill with the frantic gunplay of Resident Evil. But thanks to its next-gen presentation, Dead Space enters the playing field with a bang. The game takes place in an enormous mining space station, where the inhabitants were slaughtered and their corpses transformed into twisted, clawed amalgamations of their former selves. Between the surprise encounters with deadly beasts, players are treated to tense audio recordings of former crew members recalling what happened to their home (and each other), text logs of the doomed mining operation, and hallucinations (or are they?) of your character's lost love. The musical score keeps you on edge and the ship's ambient noises will ensure that you're always checking behind your shoulder for things that go bump in the night.

Thankfully, the gameplay doesn't faulter. Although heavily in favor of gunplay (though melee attacks are present), players are tasked with carefully managing their ammo reserves and shooting precisely. You can't kill these monsters by filling them with lead--you must dismember them to be victorious. You are able to run, aim, and shoot at the same time, which is an enormous step up from Resident Evil (aim and shoot, but don't move) and Silent Hill (gunplay is virtually an afterthought) and manages to maintain the tension.

The latest entry in the Resident Evil series, RE5, continues the trend set by RE4 and changes further from a horror game into an action one. Its pace is similar to an adventure movie, and the addition of two-player co-op (online and off!) means that Capcom can focus on throwing more enemies at you at a time. RE4's strength was that, unlike its predecessors, it overwhelmed the player with guns and ammo, but then threw just enough enemies your way so that you never really felt comfortable. RE5 retains that feature, but the addition of a second player means that even MORE baddies swarm you, and they're more intelligent than they were in RE4. This is the same kind of "apprehension" fear that RE4 had, but instead of dealing with too little ammo, you're dealing with too many bad guys. Neither RE4 or RE5 have any real "scare" moments. There are a few seat-jumpers, but as usual, very little in the way of atmosphere. The sense of scale is impressive--RE5 loves to throw gigantic setpieces your way. But the Resident Evil series has moved beyond the "survival horror" genre and is becoming an action series. That's fine by me, and it works well for both RE4 and RE5.

The king of tension is still the king of tension, but not a lot else. Silent Hill: Homecoming upped the ante from a graphical perspective but kept all the old PS2-calibur gameplay choices, and that really weighs the game down. Trying a hundred doors before you get to an open one is just annoying, and having to get up close and personal to dangerous enemies in order to deal damage to them (melee combat) just isn't fun. There is the option for gunplay, but ammo is still scarce. The player has new combat abilities including dodges (actually present in SH4) and counter-attacks, but in general, combat is an activity best avoided. Homecoming will be fun for series veterans, but newcomers will likely warm to RE5 or Dead Space before this latest Silent Hill jaunt. This is not to say that Homecoming is a bad game--it's just archaic. But in order to regain fans, the series will definately need to evolve.

Dead Space is already getting a prequel for the Wii called Dead Space: Extraction. Although technically a rail shooter, EA cautions that it will be unlike any rail shooter that's come before, and all of the abilities of the first game, including stasis and kinetics, will return here. The game looks absolutely incredible: EA has broken the "Wii" barrier for graphics. Interestingly, the Wii is also getting another RE game, a sequel to Umbrella Chronicles called Darkside Chronicles which will likely focus on parts of the RE storyline left out in Umbrella Chronicles (most of RE2, Code Veronica, maybe RE4). Finally, even Silent Hill is showing up on the Wii soon. A remake of the original PSOne game is on the way, called Silent Hill: Shattered Promises. It will not be a rail shooter, but aside from its remake status, details are scarce. Anyway, it's a good time to be a horror fan, as there are lots of choices right now!

1 comment:

lantaro said...

Me: "Went over to Nelson's, watched Zach play some 'Dead Space.'"
Elliott: "You watched 'Dead Space?'"
Me: "Yeah, why?"
Elliott: "Last time you watched me play 'Dead Space,' you screamed like a bitch and ran out of the room!"
Me: "You shot its head off and it kept running towards you, what did you expect from me?!?"