Returning to the Resident Evil remake

I know I’ve complained about the preponderance of recent remasters, which makes my current enthusiasm for this, the 2015 remaster of the 2002 remake of 1996’s Resident Evil, as well as the long-awaited Majora’s Mask 3D, seem odd. I’ll defend my position, though, since neither of those games has been seen on shelves in more than a decade and at least two console generations – they’re retro, in other words. I’ll be less enthusiastic about a 1080p remaster of Resident Evil 6, should that arrive, believe me.

Resident Evil HD: The mansion lobby

This is a game that I always respected and wanted to like, but timid little 2002-vintage me never made it much beyond the appearance of Crimson Heads. A couple of hours, in other words. A humiliating admission for such an ardent horror fan, but sadly not an isolated one in my gaming back catalogue, which is a who’s who of abandoned horror classics. But while the years might have blunted the absolute dread I felt when playing this to the point where it didn’t really give me The Fear at all, like when I played through the original Silent Hill, though, time has left the solid mechanics alone. It’s a phenomenally well-designed game.

But where Silent Hill, being (a) a PS1 game and (b) doing in real-time what Resident Evil resorted to pre-rendered backdrops to accomplish, looks really rough now, the Resident Evil remake (REmake hereafter) still looks incredible. It’s genuinely one of the most beautiful games ever made, even on a GameCube, and quick polish for a new generation of systems has only enhanced it. Some FMV and dark backgrounds that can look somewhat over-compressed aside, the game looks almost flawless. A handful of rooms are apparently now rendered in real-time, and it’s absolutely seamless – meaning we had a game on the GC that could stand up alongside games from two generations on. Amazing.

Resident Evil HD: Jill Valentine

I’m continually blown away by the details in the visual and story design of this game. The Spencer Mansion, ridiculous as its gems, metal objects and death masks may be, is an iconic location, brimming with memorable rooms and scares. Lisa Trevor and her family add a harrowing subplot that’s significantly more disturbing than any number of exploding heads. It has fun in playing with your expectations, so that you can imagine the designers smiling as famous moments like the dogs through the window are subverted, or when the aforementioned Crimson Heads turn cleared rooms into dangerous ammo sinks. The voice acting still has B-movie charm without being impossible to take seriously like the original, while those touching up the script and removing some of the more egregious howlers had the good sense to leave alone some of the best writing.

As much as I love RE2 and 4, REmake is my favourite in the series. It’s pure survival horror, which, brilliant as it is, Resident Evil 4 isn’t. It’s also tight, creepy and self-contained, which the bigger and crazier RE2 isn’t. It’s also a lesson for newer games in how to do a lot without a huge abundance of content, supporting two stories, multiple endings and a series of enjoyable unlocks in a game that can comfortably be finished in five hours.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

I’ve written before about how much I miss the B-tier of gaming, that time when there was something between a $100 million “AAA” release – the shifting definition of that term is another post in itself – and a quirky indie game from two blokes in a garage. Every so often you get something that channels the spirit of that time, showing that polish, cool ideas and a budget aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this, which had sat on my pile of shame for a couple of months, is put together in that vein.

I mean it as a sincere compliment when I say that The New Order feels straight out of 2003. It belongs to that glut of post-Half-Life 2 narrative-driven shooters that were ten-a-penny on the original Xbox and actually represented, in retrospect, a reliably good subgenre for one that was rinsed so thoroughly. As well as Valve’s classic, the DNA of games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (there’s a Starbreeze connection), Breakdown, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, Doom 3 and so on is on show here. Even if I limit the discussion to games about leading a resistance against a technologically advanced and oppressive regime, I could equally be talking about The New Order, Half-Life 2 or the much-missed Freedom Fighters.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

This retro feel is carried through to the pleasantly old-school design: secrets, collectables, non-regenerating health, an arsenal of weapons to carry around without regard for encumbrance systems, and giant enemies with exploitable weak points abound. Even the prominence given to dual-wielding feels pleasantly of that era, after Halo 2 made it a banner feature but before dour, grounded militarism became the genre’s creed.

The New Order isn’t thrown together without thought, though, which is perhaps surprising for a series with such straightforward roots. Almost as surprising as the lack of multiplayer in a game whose deathmatches once hooked me so strongly. The design of posters, signage, architecture and even the pop music heard in the background has been built to present a believable vision of the 60s in a world where the Nazis won the war and propaganda infuses all aspects of culture. I read several excellent articles about the music around the game’s release, among them VentureBeat’s, and was blown away at how much effort went into an area that is so easily overlooked.

Visiting Nazi London in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Wolfenstein is undoubtedly a game that would have made my abridged best of 2014 list had I plunked down the cash before the Boxing Day sales. I’m tempted to drop a cliché about how it’s not big or clever, but really, it kind of is. The old-fashioned parts are lovingly, knowingly so, and the thought put into its vision of a Nazi-dominated 1960 is up there with the big releases. There’s nothing in The New Order that’s been thrown together arbitrarily.

I’m happy, therefore, to declare that gaming’s B-tier still lives! For one game, at least.

Best of 2014 #1: South Park: The Stick of Truth

South Park: The Stick of TruthThe South Park games are an eclectic mix, from an FPS in the days before everything had to be an FPS, through kart racinggame shows and tower defence. An RPG must have been the obvious choice, then, thankfully after they had the revelation that South Park games work better when they look like the TV show.

But even despite the turmoil that accompanied the development, from THQ’s bankruptcy to the frankly shameful censorship – I imported the unsullied version, naturally – it turned out amazingly well. It’s fun, funny, authentic, and unlike many turn-based RPGs, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. With my reduced gaming time coming into frequent conflict with my love of a genre that thrives on lengthy narratives, words cannot express how much I appreciated a traditional RPG that I could finish in 15 hours.

It’s the fact that it was funny that stood out most, though. From the ludicrous summons to the creative trophies (‘Are We Cool?’ and ‘Heisenberg’ are favourites), through the obsession with anal probing, dodging swinging ball sacks and the way the Nazi zombies speak in incomprehensible snippets of Hitler speeches, it’s often hilarious when most games can’t raise a chuckle. Even if the game had sucked, which it absolutely doesn’t, I’d have happily endured through the running time to soak in all the humour.

Happy new year, everyone. May it be better for gaming than the last one.

Best of 2014 #2: Infamous: Second Son

Infamous: Second SonThat this is the only first-party game to make my list may be an admission that I don’t have a Wii U more than any lack of trying from the platform holders, but the fact is Microsoft and Sony haven’t been particularly prolific in 2014.

But even without caveats, I thought Second Son fulfilled the promise that the Infamous series had had since the beginning. The first two were good but saddled with a bland protagonist and a uninteresting, half-baked apocalyptic story. Delsin liked having powers, just like the player does. He’s like Spider-Man rather than another tortured hero.

Second Son was, in fact, the first game in which I bothered to earn the Platinum trophy. That means I finished it twice, when most games don’t even move me to play through them once. Even if it still suffers from the rather binary morality of the other Infamous games, the good and bad paths were enjoyably different.

It was gorgeous too, of course. One of the first games to restore some faith in what these consoles are capable of when they’re not running another remaster.

Best of 2014 #3: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Middle-earth: Shadow of MordorHere’s another late addition, which I admitted to missing out on barely a month ago but have since fallen for in a big way. I wish I could say it wasn’t the Assassin’s Creed ripoff that I called it back when it was unveiled because, gameplay-wise, that’s essentially what it is. But it’s polished nonetheless – that’s something you can’t say about this year’s Assassin’s Creed – and has enough tricks to stand out.

The Nemesis system was the cleverest for me, in that it’s a somewhat procedurally generated system that doesn’t stand out as being so – you might not realise that Goroth Plague-Bringer, against whom you had a long-running feud, was a creation of the game itself. The way it would cause some uruks to run away and others to return from the dead, hell-bent on revenge, allowed the game to create something approaching the personal, unique stories that typify the best open-world sandbox games.

Monolith seems to have a way of coming out of nowhere with impressive games – think the Condemned, F.E.A.R. and No One Lives Forever series – without picking up the following of some of the better-known studios. After this, and following my frequent complaints that so few studios are making games that aren’t safe, ridiculously budgeted annual sequels, I’ll keep an eye on what it does next.

Best of 2014 #4: Dark Souls II

Dark Souls IIThe consensus on Dark Souls II seems to be that it’s the weakest of the three games in the tenuously linked Souls series, so perhaps I’m unusual in finding it more immediately engaging than its direct predecessor. I admittedly lack the patience to go all that far and sample their full depth, so the “immediately” part may be where a connoisseur could tell me I’m wrong.

Honestly, I feel like a bit of a dilettante discussing it when there are so many writers who can be far more authoritative on these games, so I’ll just say that I had a blast with it. I’m safe with my complaint that it’s another of those games that suffered from pushing ageing hardware too far, this time to a controversial extent that makes the inevitable PS4/XB1 upgrade seem more cynical than usual. But beyond that I enjoyed the bleak world, the minimalist storytelling, and the creative bosses.

If this is Souls without its soul, the series director Hidetaka Miyazaki having been reduced to a mere supervisor by his role on the upcoming Bloodborne, I can’t wait to see how that game turns out. I’ll reserve a spot in next year’s list, shall I?

Did you hear that the Souls games are quite hard, by the way? I think I’ve seen it mentioned.