After many years of “tank” controls, static camera angles and increasingly formulaic gameplay, Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami knew it was time to reboot his franchise, so he and his team built Resident Evil 4 from the ground-up. The studio axed the controls, camera angles, nonsensical puzzles and even the iconic zombies that had populated the franchise from the beginning, and fans welcomed the sweeping changes with praise.
It’s been four years since Resident Evil 4, though, and we’ve enjoyed two Resident Evil games that are rooted in its fundamental design. Most recently, the publisher released Resident Evil 5, a gorgeous, action-packed game that plays more or less just like its predecessor. As entertaining as the game is, however, it definitely feels quite familiar. Fans were outspoken about the familiarity, and Capcom responded, saying that the next Resident Evil game will bring many new changes to the series.
So, what changes should be made and in what direction should Capcom take Resident Evil from here? There are many directions it can go. The franchise is sort of at a split in the road. After Resident Evil 4 and 5, it’s difficult to even call the series a survival horror franchise anymore. Really, Resident Evil 5 plays more like an action game than it does a horror title. Should the franchise continue down this road of delivering action-packed thrills instead of frightening chills? I don’t think so. The next Resident Evil should absolutely return the series to its roots in the sense that it must be atmospheric, creepy and frightening.
One of the ways that Capcom can accomplish creating a scarier experience is by reconsidering its approach to storytelling. The over-the-top, cinematic Metal Gear Solid 4-style cut-scenes of Resident Evil 5 are nice, but they aren’t the most immersive way of telling a story, especially one that should be frightening. The next Resident Evil should take a cue from the talent at Valve and mimic the Half-Life series’ storytelling technique. That is, abandon cut-scenes, or at least don’t use them heavily. Use in-game storytelling as much as possible. Perhaps even use a dialogue system that allows you to interact with other characters in the game. If not, at least tell the story through gameplay, not cut-scenes. By using in-game storytelling, you’d be kept in a constant atmosphere, which means you’re more likely to become immersed and affected by the game’s environment and atmosphere.
For a game to be frightening, its setting has to be right. Since Resident Evil 4, the series has moved away from the dark, claustrophobic hallways and corridors that made the series so creepy in the first place. The next [i]Resident Evil</i. should be dark, dark, dark. No more African desert at noon, with so much sun that the game’s characters are likely more worried about getting a bad sunburn than being eaten alive by whatever non-zombies are infested the surrounding area.
How’s this for a setting? A ruined New York City, set in the middle of the night. Not a fan of New York City? Then pick your favorite major city instead. But I think Resident Evil in the Big Apple is too good to pass up. Imagine wandering around an infested Times Square, looking up at skyscrapers with shattered windows. Cars flipped over. Dead bodies lying around. Occasionally, you might encounter a survivor, but for the most part, imagine a devastated, lifeless New York City, crawling with zombies.
That’s right. Zombies. Capcom, please bring zombies back. But not the sluggish, “Oh, I’ll just sidestep this one when it gets close” zombies from the Resident Evil of old. I want fast zombies. The violent, relentless, fast living dead. I don’t care if Capcom wants to borrow some plot elements from 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, I want zombies just like the ones in those films. Picture this: You’re on the 50th floor of the Empire State Building, exploring a room without power. The only illumination is the moonlight staring in from the huge windows you’re standing in front of, as you look down upon a ravaged, apocalyptic New York City. You hear footsteps behind you, so you turn around. A group of speed zombies have entered the room and are hauling ass at you. What do you do? Your back is against a glass wall and on the other side of it is a 500-foot drop — a couple seconds of falling, and then splat. You have to think quickly because these zombies aren’t the slow dawdlers from previous Resident Evil games. They want to kill you, and they move fast. If that doesn’t get your adrenaline going then you’re probably not alive, or you’re just no fun.
Setting the game in a city would make it even easier for Capcom to incorporate some backtracking elements — something sorely missing from Resident Evil 5. We don’t need Metroid levels of backtracking, but having players revisit areas provides the perfect opportunity to catch them off guard with a scare or two. Walking through an area you’ve already explored, you’re never sure what to expect. You’re familiar with the surroundings, but at the same time, you know this is Resident Evil, so you’re on your toes. Plus, connected world design is generally a lot more fun than moving from stage to stage.
By the time the next Resident Evil arrives, we’ll hopefully be playing on next-gen successors to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (and please, Nintendo, a comparably powerful Wii 2), which means Capcom will have extra horsepower to make use of. If the series’ track record is any sign of things to come, it’ll look fantastic — that’s a no brainer. But the extra processing power can be used in ways other than visual eye candy. I’d like to see destructible environments as well as burnable environments. Imagine if when you toss a grenade, when it explodes, the surrounding walls go with it. You’d have to be careful about where you use explosives, so that you don’t end up giving zombies in another room a way into the one you’re in. On the flipside, you could also use explosives to blow your way out of a sticky situation by turning a useless wall into an exit. Further, with Far Cry 2-style burnable environments, explosions would leave an aftermath of flames — perfect for cooking large groups of zombies.
A ruined metropolis setting, fast zombies, destructible environments — all these things are great and would likely make a pretty frightening experience. But more is needed to make Resident Evil a truly tense, riveting experience. It might not sound appealing, but a certain level of anxiousness is essential in the horror genre. The gameplay will need to be designed in a way that is focused on scaring you. It would be smart for Capcom to bring back some of the cheap scares that were so common in previous Resident Evil games. The next Resident Evil doesn’t need to be overflowing with them, but a few well-placed cheap scares are a good way to keep you on your toes. Never knowing when something might jump out at you creates an edgy atmosphere. Many gamers hate cheap scares, but they can be used tastefully.
The pacing of the game is also integral. I’m not opposed to having hordes of zombies on screen, but I don’t like the idea of turning Resident Evil into an action game. I think it should be rooted in the horror genre. So, as far as the Resident Evil 4 and 5 model goes, a couple of things have to change. Both titles gave you a lot of ammunition. More than enough to get the job done. The problem with this is that if you know you have plenty of ammo, that’s not exactly going to create a tense atmosphere. I propose that the next Resident Evil make ammo scarcer. Ideally, Capcom would use some kind of smart system that always ensures there’s enough ammo around so that you have enough to take on anything the game throws at you, but never so much that you feel totally safe.
One other change that would help create tension would be to get rid of the weapon upgrade mechanic. Instead, have players discover new, more powerful weapons as they explore the game’s world. When you go to a menu screen to upgrade your gun, that’s just another reminder that you’re playing a video game, and the less Capcom takes you out of the game, the better. Also, by having you find new weapons as you progress, Capcom can remain in control of what weapons you have and when you get them. The more control a developer has over players, the easier it is to create the kinds of settings that instill fear. Despite popular belief, linear game design isn’t such a bad thing.
Finally, there’s the topic of co-op to consider. Resident Evil 5‘s co-op mode is the best part about the game; it’s the reason I played all the way through the title. But I don’t know if co-op and horror go together well. How can a game be scary if you have a friend with you? That feeling of isolation and loneliness – that you’re on your own, and no one’s going to save your sorry ass – is essential in creating the right atmosphere. Co-op kind of defeats it or at least diminishes it. I think it might be wise if the next Resident Evil sticks to just single-player.
When it comes to the next Resident Evil 5, Capcom has a lot of options to consider and several directions it could go. The most important thing, in my opinion, is that the publisher returns the series to its survival horror roots. It doesn’t have to be the most terrifying game of all time, but it should be frightening, at least. It’ll be disappointing if Resident Evil continues down this road of becoming just another action game. That’s not how Resident Evil began, and that’s not what it should become. Hopefully, Capcom’s reading this and taking this advice to heart. If so, I think the next Resident Evil will turn out just fine.
But of course I’d say that. These are, after all, my ideas.
Phillip Levin is a freelance video game journalist who has been writing about games for seven years. He lives in Southern California and writes for numerous publications.