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Resident Evil review: Still suffering beautifully after all these years

(Courtesy of Capcom USA)
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Resident Evil 
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Available on: PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360

You hear Lisa Trevor before you see her. Her wail rises from a locked basement stairwell, more searching than threatening, but shrill enough to signal trouble. Later, you find her bandages hanging beside a freshly lit fire in an old cabin. On the ground outside, you read her name on a list of the experimental injections that turned her 14 year-old body into a molting monstrosity. Emphasis on details like these, which immerse players in a landslide of sensory experiences before connecting them to plot points or system rules, have defined Resident Evil games and helped make survival horror a mass market phenomenon.

The latest in the series is simply called “Resident Evil,” a high-definition remaster of a 2002 remake of the original 1996 PlayStation game about a secret police group who end up marooned in a hillside mansion overrun with zombies. The 2002 remake was a high point in video game history, something which, at the time, seemed like a visionary artifact sent back in time from the future. Thirteen years later, its layers of delicately intertwined systems are as powerful as ever. Yet the persistence of its power is evidence of a lost future, a style of design, emotional manipulation, and technological trickery that’s been mostly abandoned.

The most simultaneously characteristic and anachronistic part of Resident Evil is its movement system. Commonly called “tank controls,” movement is accomplished through an awkward process of rotating the character clockwise or counterclockwise, then pressing up on the joystick or d-pad to make them or her move in whichever direction they’ve wound up facing. Unlike contemporary controls, in which one’s character moves in whichever direction the joystick points, Resident Evil’s rotational controls separate movement into two independently controllable vectors.

The movement system is inseparable from the game’s visual technology. A product of the first generation of three-dimensional games in the mid-90s and built for a system with 2MB of memory, “Resident Evil” uses a process called pre-rendering to create the impression of greater visual detail than the first PlayStation was capable of producing in real-time. Not unlike rear-projection in old movies, pre-rendering creates a high-detail recording of an environment on hugely powerful computers and then uses the recording as a looping and non-interactive backdrop, on top of which a handful of game items would be rendered in real-time.

While later consoles would eventually be powerful enough to run 3D worlds without the pre-rendering trickery, Resident Evil’s 2002 visuals were inseparable from the game’s pacing, controls, enemy encounters and puzzle design. The remastered version’s one concession to contemporary design –- an option to use a direct control scheme to replace the rotational model — feels all wrong, like trying to play a violin with an electric guitar pick. It turns the game into a vaudevillian slapstick, with players sprinting through spaces meant for slowness and tension.

But, just as rotational controls can overcomplicate something fundamental, pre-rendered backdrops seem dimensionally askew, bound by the clunky rectangular collision system of interactive objects that clash with the minute details and rounded edges of the faked backgrounds. Using rotational controls atop Resident Evil’s pre-rendered visuals gives an impression of either running into things that don’t seem to be there or failing to respond to things that seem like they should be where your character is but aren’t.

The game builds plays with this kind of hallucinatory duality. The mansion and its satellite structures are puzzle boxes, knitting together an East Wing servant’s quarter containing some sheet music that belongs in a West Wing piano room you may not yet have visited. Every discovery in one location depends on a player’s ability be cognizant of another offscreen location, and it frequently confronts players with symbolic puzzle pieces for places they would not yet have discovered. Playing the game is a process of slowly trying to join together these two dimensions–the seen and unseen, the symbolic and the literal.

The genre’s signature limits on ammunition and healing items make each decision to pull the trigger an implicit bet that there will be more shotgun shells or magnum rounds to find later on. Zombies will come back to life after a set time as more powerful Crimson Heads, which makes the decision to fight a choice between whether you think you’ll be able to risk having to return to a room or hallway later on, exposed to even more danger.

There are some minor attempts at modernization. Online leaderboards let you track the time it took to finish the game, and there is a small encyclopedia of options for replaying, including an infamously difficult mode that makes all the enemies invisible. Character models have all been redone to add extra detail, while lighting and reflection effects have been improved to add even more dreamy realism to the mansion. And the pre-rendered environments themselves have gained a slight granularity. What seemed a marvel in 2002 is more apparent as technological trickery in 2015.

Yet, all these years later, “Resident Evil” still works beautifully. Its sound effects, cinematic cameras, zombies, corrupt corporations, lush visuals, and biochemical experiments create an interactive system that bridges the gap between what you cannot see but know through intuition, and what you see but know isn’t real. And Lisa Trevor still lurks beneath it all, a howl coming from the other side of a locked gate, a lost girl still convinced she’ll find her mother and make an escape, incapable of understanding the entire compound has already been abandoned.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen

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