Resident Evil 4 Ultimate HD Edition is available on PC on 2/27/2014.
Over the past decade, Resident Evil has spiraled downward. Action has replaced tension. Gun fights have replaced puzzles. What was a stressful, original horror game has become a loud, businesslike shooter franchise, with no discernible qualities left of its own.
Popular belief says it was all Resident Evil 4’s fault. That game set the bar too high. Presumably under pressure to outdo it, the directors on subsequent Resident Evil titles have strayed from horror and towards action. This pattern of one-upmanship culminated in the disastrous, overstuffed Resident Evil 6, which featured online multiplayer, six playable characters and three campaigns. After nine years of successively trying to up the ante after Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil today is completely without direction.
But the downward spiral didn’t exactly start with Resident Evil 4. If we summarise the issues with today’s Resident Evil games as “too much shooting, not enough scaring” then the cracks really started to appear in Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, which launched in 2000. Compared to Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2, it’s a much louder game, oriented more towards combat, forward progression and bluster. It set the groundwork for what Resident Evil is—or isn’t—today.
The first two Resident Evils are very static. They mostly take place in a single, large location, and rather than constantly moving forward, players are often backtracking, going to-and-fro about the building trying to find which keys match which doors.
Resident Evil 3, by contrast, is all about changes of scenery. Compared to RE 2, which features three main locations (a police station, a sewer and a lab), RE 3 moves between a factory, a restaurant, a gas station, a newspaper office, a clock tower, a hospital, a park, a cemetery and a chemical plant.
It features the same variety of locations as Resident Evil 4. Resident Evil 4 moves from a village to a castle to an island, with each area comprising several sub-areas, including a lake, a dungeon and a cave system. Rather than take time to build the atmosphere of an individual location—to give players a sense of being locked in somewhere, trapped—the game speeds along to the next new spot, lining up one fresh environment after another. It’s about rapidity and energy, about not letting the player’s eyes and hands get tired of looking at and doing the same things. And although that requires a lot of work and creativity, and makes for a great action game, it isn’t conducive to scariness.
Resident Evil 6 does the same thing. In fact, it goes one further. Not only do you move between several different areas, using several different characters, in different campaigns, but there are moments where the story actually moves to another country. Leon’s campaign for example starts in the US but climaxes in Japan.
This sense of motion, of having the resources to travel and to survive travelling, kills the atmosphere. It’s precisely what makes Nemesis the earliest example of a non-scary Resident Evil. There’s no sense of oppression or claustrophobia. You’re constantly moving around. Retreading your steps and repeatedly butting up against locked doors might get tedious but it calcifies a sense of being stuck, of being unable to flee from danger. The pacing of Resident Evil 3 on the other hand is all about change, change, change. There are so many different places to run to, and keys are given to you so readily, that you feel like you’re able to avoid and flow around all conflict. In terms of making it more visually appealing it certainly works, but as subsequent RE games have proven, that feeling of agency—of being able to shoot your way through and get somewhere else—breaks the illusion of horror.
Resident Evil 3 was also the first RE game to really focus on combat and weapons. In the original Resident Evil, you start without a gun at all. Compare that to RE 3, where, if you play on the default difficulty, you begin the game with an assault rifle, a shotgun and a magnum.
Resident Evil 3 also introduced the quick 180 turn, a dodge ability and more advanced weapon customisations. In RE 2 you could find a single upgrade for each of your guns, so long as you played as Leon; in RE 3, you could not only upgrade your guns but also customise and create new types of ammunition. As such, you were much more adept in combat—you could more easily avoid, kill or flee from enemies.
Of course, you needed these abilities to counter the larger groups of zombies that RE 3 introduced. In Resident Evil 2, the largest amount of zombies you would encounter at once would be between five and six. In RE 3, there are several occasions (the shopping district, the industrial park, the clock tower, the hospital) where you’re fighting eight or nine zombies in one group. There are bigger groups of basically every enemy: Hunters, which in the first Resident Evil would generally attack one at a time, appear in trios.
The focus has shifted from small numbers of enemies that are powerful and difficult to kill to larger groups of fodder that let you experiment with your weapons and ammo. Even the eponymous Nemesis, ostensibly an invincible, relentless pursuer, can be cut down by your guns. He’s one of the evil Umbrella Corporation’s “Tyrant” models. In RE and RE 2, the Tyrants are used either as a one-off, final boss or appear sporadically throughout the game at crucial moments.
Resident Evil 2’s Mr X appears six times throughout the game. RE 3 has twelve different confrontations with Nemesis, though, and each time you’re able to down him and then loot his body for weapon parts. He’s the best example of how RE 3 reduces the significance of individual enemies. Whereas Tyrants in the previous RE games were either fought occasionally or only once, in RE 3 you defeat a single Tyrant repeatedly. Nemesis appears so often than any sense of menace surrounding him is quickly lost. Once you realise you can beat this guy, not once, not twice but twelve times, it’s hard to feel threatened by him. Instead, he becomes like the rest of the enemies in RE 3: fodder, empty spectacle, just something kind of cool for you to shoot your guns at.
If you compare Nemesis to the creature from Hellnight, released by Atlus in 1998, you can see the trajectory Resident Evil was following, and how it was bound to split away from other, better horror games. Hellnight’s monster is ominous and invincible. It’s glanced only briefly, cloaked in shadow. You can’t kill it. The game is about running away and hiding from it. It’s an obvious progenitor to games like Amnesia, Slender and Outlast, which by any estimation are more frightening than today’s Resident Evils.
As far back as the late nineties, Resident Evil was leaning away from horror and towards action. Resident Evil 4 might be a more obvious tipping point, but if you compare Nemesis to games like Hellnight, Clock Tower and the original Silent Hill, it instantly smacks of gunplay over scares, action over atmosphere.
Truthfully, it’s unfair to criticise Resident Evil for no longer being scary. These were never really horror games. Only the original Resident Evil and the first sequel which now represent such a tiny part of the Resident Evil franchise, could really be called frightening. The games that came after that, starting with Nemesis, leaned gradually closer to traditional third-person shooting. Resident Evil 4 was not so much a reinvention as it was the conclusion of Resident Evil’s long transformation into an action franchise.
Ed Smith is a freelance critic who has written for Eurogamer, New Statesman and The Escapist. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.