E3 2012 Will Deliver the Final Blow to the Survival Horror Genre
E3 2012 is nearly upon us and everyone is, justifiably, excited about the event and all of the secrets it contains. However, given what we already know about the expo’s lineup, there’s reason to worry. This year’s E3 may drive the final nail into the coffin of the survival horror genre. The primary suspects behind what could very well be the ruthless slaughter of this once beloved genre are Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3. Both are highly anticipated titles with much to show this year and many people are already eagerly awaiting further details for each game, but they have a lot to prove in order to convince us that they are still true horror titles. The survival horror genre is quickly dying and there are three main factors that have turned this glorious style of gameplay into a forgotten art.
Resident Evil 6
Let’s start with Resident Evil 6. Here’s a game that, besides its protagonists, bares little resemblance to its earliest entries. There once was a time when players had to deal with scarce ammunition, health pickups and various infected creatures that made their entrance in some very heart-stopping ways (remember the zombie dogs jumping through the window?). Resident Evil 4 began to change things, although it still played heavily on the survival aspect. During this time, the game was hailed as the best in the genre. Although a new virus had taken over the enemies, allowing them to plan and organize their attacks, Leon’s journey still felt true to the Resident Evil franchise, and I’ll tell you why in a moment. Then came Resident Evil 5. Chris Redfield and Sheva Alomar took on more infected in Africa. These infected possessed the same capabilities that the previous entry’s opposition did, but something felt wrong. Was it the ability to see attacks coming a mile away in the well-lit environments? While not as scary as a dark, narrow corridor, that wasn’t the main issue.
Vulnerability is the first factor. Throughout the franchise there was a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability. The lack ammo and abundance of zombies that could quickly diminish your health created a sort of anxiety that stuck with the player from start to finish. Resident Evil 5 failed to create this feeling of desperation. Between Sheva’s ultra-acrobatic moves, Chris’ Gears of War body build and the slew of ammunition drops, the game rarely (if at all) put the player in a scenario that made them feel extremely unprepared to tackle. This lack of vulnerability seems to be missing in the footage we’ve seen so far for Resident Evil 6. Leon can pull of some tactical maneuvers during his fights with the shambling undead. Is that even necessary? Had I seen these action-packed motions slapped into any 3rd person shooter, I probably would have thought it was an exciting addition. But what reason does Leon have to slide across the ground and fire his gun while lying on his back like Max Payne? These are zombies, not spec ops soldiers (at least, some of them aren’t – more on that in a bit). Chris’ sections are all about running and gunning simultaneously as well as taking cover. Then you have Jack Muller’s sequences. He’s said to be Wesker’s son. We’ve all seen the kind of inhuman carnage that Wesker is capable of during combat. So Jack is no doubt going to be a powerhouse that allows players to impale enemy after enemy with his fists. None of those characters seem to be all that vulnerable.
The next major issue with the deterioration of the survival horror genre was briefly mentioned already: the cover system. Chris and Sheva’s African adventure contained a few instances of a limited cover system, but it seems Resident Evil 6 is looking to completely integrate the system into the gameplay. The speeds at which Chris was shown sprinting and sliding into cover looked very out of place for this franchise. The worst part is that screenshots have shown infected enemies wielding guns. Sure, we’ve seen weaponry in the hands of biologically-altered people in the previous entries, but Uroboros and Las Plagas left their host, in most cases, looking like an average human being. Resident Evil 6’s J’avo are completely deformed (in the face, at least) creatures that work tactically in groups and can wield the same weapons as Leon or Chris. Capcom has looked at what other 3rd person shooters have succeeded in doing and decided to implement the winning ideas of other developers in their own game. This has caused the shift from “survival horror” to “action horror”, if you can even still consider the horror element present anymore. More and more it seems we will see the genre continue to evolve, just like the franchise’s viruses, until it’s no longer recognizable when compared to its original form.
Finally, we have cooperative play. I enjoy experiencing a game with a friend just as much as the next person, but it must be acknowledged that co-op in horror games really dials down the intensity of any real horrific moments. Sharing the scares is a nice idea, but it is an idea that has yet to be perfectly crafted. Maybe if my partner and I felt vulnerable in the first place, the scare would still be there. However, if I’m playing Resident Evil 6 and a zombie latches onto Chris, I’m not going to be all that worried because Player 2 will undoubtedly come to my rescue with his/her overpowered melee attack. Cooperative play takes an already unbalanced situation in this ever-changing genre and further tweaks the balance in the players’ favor. Suddenly there are two completely competent (hopefully) tanks annihilating B.O.W.’s with extreme prejudice and both care little about self preservation because it doesn’t matter.
Dead Space 3
Shortly before Resident Evil 5 came out and disappointed most fans, Dead Space was released. With it came hope for the survival horror genre. Isaac Clarke was in a heavy suit which caused him to move slow, even while running. He needed health pickups to avoid being diced in half by necromorphs. Furthermore, his enemies were relentless, even after having a couple body parts cut completely off. These space creatures sprung from countless shadowy crevices, which forced the player to keep their guard up at all times. He was fighting a losing battle (with engineer equipment, nonetheless) and this feeling of being unprepared and outmatched transitioned to the player well. Then came Dead Space 2. The scares weren’t set up properly and there was a bit of an action/cinematic feel to the game. Isaac had become stronger, deadlier. Even his suit reflected this change, taking on a more sleek appearance. This led to the main issue that Resident Evil 5 contained: vulnerability.
Judging from the few details that have leaked out regarding Dead Space 3, it has decided to take the same path as Resident Evil. Isaac Clarke is sure to be even more prepared this time around and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see his melee attacks get another damage boost. One can argue that as Isaac continues to encounter the necromorphs, he gets better at dealing with them. While that may be so, it still detracts from the overall theme that the game once proudly put on display. The feeling of hopelessness and distress should be consistent during his journey. He is but an engineer with severe mental instability. EA could have found a way to make the enemies continue to get deadlier and scarier, but instead they insist upon making Isaac the powerhouse that Chris transformed into. At least, that’s the vibe I’ve been getting. E3 could very well prove me wrong, and I really hope it does.
EA has also decided that Isaac needs to be able to take cover. I’ve seen the swift motions of the necromorphs first hand and the player has no reason to stick to walls with those vicious bladed foes sprinting towards them. Cover systems are used in games where the player is under constant fire. We know that Isaac will face off against Unitologists in Dead Space 3, but the more troubling enemy is the necromorph (or some other form of infected) that can fire guns. As you can already tell by my Resident Evil 6 section above, I’m not too fond of the idea of gun-savvy infected filling up a franchise once known for superb survival horror. Will these new armed-necros be able to lose body parts as well? Will they shoot from the ground if their legs are severed? Either way, it doesn’t make it as interesting or near as scary as the necromorphs that crawl using their blade arms to continue to make their way toward the player.
Now we get back to the co-op factor. Dead Space 3 is introducing co-op for the first time. Isaac will be accompanied by a new character, John Carver. As I’ve already stated, having someone watch your back detracts from the vulnerable vibe and allows players to be a bit more careless. With Isaac already showing signs of becoming a more efficient killer, doubling his abilities with a second player is only going to lessen the shock value of whatever is on screen. I don’t believe I need to elaborate further on this point as I already did that in the previous section regarding co-op.
Nowadays, “survival horror” no longer thrives on the heart-pounding tension we’ve seen in past titles and, instead, aims to reproduce the type of tension gained while playing an FPS on the highest difficulty while waves of mindless enemies fire in your general direction. If you want to see another perfect example of mainstreamed horror, play the F.E.A.R. games and see how different the third entry feels from the first two. Also, if you want to experience the original, slow-burn horror, check out Silent Hill. The combat system may be underdeveloped, but at least it evokes feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. However, take a look at Downpour’s sales and you’ll see why developers believe the market is “too small” for true survival horror. So, part of the blame may be placed on players for stating with their money that action is all they want to see. It seems the developers have listened as terrifying franchises have decided to switch gears and attempt to recreate the cinematic, action-packed feel of other established franchises, such as Uncharted. Let us all hope that next week EA and/or Capcom show us that they haven’t completely forgotten their roots and that they plan on providing the same experience for us fans that got us hooked in the first place.