e3 2014The Evil Within Isn't Scary, Just Monotonous - Hands-On - Updatee3 2014 - RSS 2.0
Update: Joshua Vanderwall
It was disheartening to read Greg Tito's take on The Evil Within (below) when you've been eager to get a deeper look at the game for a full year, so I was dutifully skeptical. I booked my own time to see the game so I could disprove these reports to myself and was sorely disappointed when I found my experience to be largely the same.
I played the first chapter Greg talks about with the doctor and his patient, although it differed slightly when I played. The zombie doctor's head exploded with a satisfying "pop" after four rounds to the face. If there was a quicktime event, I accidentally made it through without noticing. When it was time to go fishing in a quasi-corpse for a set of keys, I spent several minutes with an upraised knife before I found the sweet spot that triggered the prompt to eviscerate. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, but you have to position the knife in just such a way to dissect the body. Suffice to say, it wasn't scary, just frustrating. The jump scare was obvious and predictable, although it did still have an effect.
I found the atmosphere to be sufficiently creepy, but the controls and the characters didn't necessarily do much to enhance that scare factor. The shifting shadows on the walls, crawling under beds to avoid monsters, desperately pistol whipping zombie-like things when you run out of ammo. It has the makings of a harrowing experience, but it fails to deliver on the whole. Sadly, the best scare I got during my demo was when I was hiding in a closet, watching a monster go by. After he was safely around the next corner, I exited the closet, only to have the doctor I was escorting appear inches from my face. I yelped for the first time in the demo at what is basically a glitch. He was just standing there, why didn't the zombie eat *him*?
When Bethesda's new survival horror game was first shown at last year's E3, it employed a lot of the tropes and familiar images that designate a property as being "scary." There were the creepy hospitals, blood flowing through hallways and groaning multi-limbed monsters. But something was missing about The Evil Within. It had the trappings of horror without the soul. At least, that's what it felt like after the hands-off presentations available back then. Surely, after a year of development, and a full chapter at our fingertips, Shinji Mikami's The Evil Within would knock his Resident Evil 4 off the pedestal of survival horror, right? Sadly, that's not the case. The Evil Within is a dud, with very little keeping it from being a staid march through blood-spattered clichés.
The sequence I played began outside a dark, gloomy house in the country. The doctor traveling with the detective protagonist guy told me we have to go to his brother's laboratory. Sure, makes sense. Moving around to the back of the house, there are weird zombie guys shuffling around a fire that's burning alive a child in the backyard. No big deal. You can kill these guys with a variety of weapons such as a pistol, or an axe you pick up from bodies. It takes a fair amount of rounds to down them, and the axes are limited use items, so get ready to flail around and die often before you figure out their motions and execute a stealth kill by jamming a knife in their brain. They will rise again unless you burn the body with a match, but you only have so many matches. The limited resources of survival horror are a bitch, ain't they?
Editor's Note: Check out Andrea Rene's much different take on the gameplay of Evil Within with her hands-on video preview below.
More from Greg Tito's opinions on the playthrough.
Going into the house, you get the sense that "something isn't right" as the protagonist is fond of saying. Maybe it's the moving shadows on the wall, or a male voice repeating the same three lines about peeling off the skin. Going behind the curtain, you see a man examining a body on a table with all manner of dirty medical instruments around him. Surely, the doctor's brother is just performing a necessary surgery ... at night ... in a totally sterile environment ... Nope, he's a zombie guy too. He attacks and you have to QTE the hell away.
Then comes the real scary part. There's a diagram on the doctor's desk which very clearly tells you he was hiding a key in the dead guy's chest. What does any self-respecting video game player do with that information? Go fishing for the key in the viscera of a corpse's half-rotten chest, of course! The sound design really sells the gross-out factor with lots of squelching as you reach into the chest cavity. This game is a foley artist's wet dream, I can just see all of the-jump scare! Oh man, I totally saw that coming.
In another chapter, you investigate a mansion. Going in the foyer, you see an odd locking mechanism on the big door with three large empty vials - begging to be filled by the tubes that feed out into the other parts of the house. You have to solve three different puzzles to open the lock, got it. There followed a very long part of the preview in which The Evil Within's lack of a save system or adequate check points really ruined the experience for me. The game seems to want to reward you for exploration - you need to scavenge for bullets, matches and other resources or you're screwed - but it severely punishes you for it as well.
More often than I'd like to admit, I'd have gone into every room in the house, encountered all manner of beasty and solved all the minor puzzles before going into the one hallway and dying. I would be sent back all the way to the last puzzle I solved, which could be an hour or more of gameplay erased. I had to replay the same sequence so many god-damned times that I was shooting zombies by rote. To be fair, some of the monster placements and behaviors would be different, allowing for some suspense to be sustained, but not very much. We were told there is a "save room" system being developed for The Evil Within, but that it just wasn't in this build. I wish it were.
Gameplay quibbles aside, it's difficult for me to report I was impressed with the story or the presentation. I'm being a bit vague on what details I did discover to avoid any spoilers, but the uncovering of what happened in that hospital and why everyone around you keeps dying and/or returning to life feels kind of meaningless. People are dead, blood is strewn about, and I just don't care. The protagonist is named Detective Sebastian Castellanos, but he has absolutely no memorable character traits other than annoyingly saying things like "this doesn't look good" whenever the action suddenly changes locations ... which happens a lot.
Yeah, you'll just be walking down a hallway when you turn around and, hey, you're actually on an industrial looking catwalk system, or in another house. The shifting location is maybe a bit freaky the first time it happens, but it soon becomes frustrating to piece together a cohesive timeline. Are we in the hospital still? I don't know. It's akin to the "Wake up, it's all been a dream, Dorothy" trope. Is the whole thing a dream? Is the entire plot of The Evil Within all a bad drug trip? Does it have to do with the experiments the antagonist was conducting on the human brain? I wish I cared enough to find out.
There's still time. Shinji Mikami is a veteran game director. I sincerely hope the slice I played isn't indicative of the whole experience and that, taken as a whole instead of this manufactured playthrough, The Evil Within will be a high watermark in psychological horror storytelling and bring the survival element back to the survival horror genre he popularized with Resident Evil. I hope.
The Evil Within is due for release on October 21 on PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and the Xbox One.