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Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
Pinpointing exactly when Resident Evil went over the cliff is difficult to do, partly because a retinue of fans would argue that it hasn’t, but come one, let’s get serious about this fifteen-year-old zombie franchise. Of late, the series has come to look a little corpse-like itself, and games like the rail shooter The Umbrella Chronicles for the Nintendo Wii make no great case for its viability in today’s market.
Once upon a time, during the final descent of the Clinton Administration, Resident Evil was THE zombie franchise. Predating the now-ubiquitous undead craze by several years, the Japanese-produced Capcom title became a hit for its tense mood, intricate (and sometimes incomprehensible) story-line, and myriad ancillary characteristics – ammo scarcity, bad voice acting – that defined the survival horror genre.
But then something happened. Perhaps it was that no amount of Resident Evil could satiate the gaming public, and so the number of RE games released in the early 00’s was necessary, but Resident Evil started to appear a bit dated. Or stale. Or something. But either way, beyond a captivating fourth entry in the series, Resident Evil has become the thing it always was, and the lack of dynamic changes makes it look quaint in comparison to franchises that have kept up with the times.
And all of the problems with the Resident Evil franchise are only highlighted by the existence of The Umbrella Chronicles. It seems like a lame attempt to recapture the allure of the first games under the guise of fan service, but it comes off as lazy pandering rather than a testament to the strengths of the series. It rehashes the same old story locations and plot points in what turns out to be an awful experiment for the Wii.
The Umbrella Chronicles takes players through the initial Raccoon City outbreak, something that has already been exhaustively covered in several other games. However, the attempt to codify all of the fiction surrounding the Umbrella Corporation’s indiscreet meddling is a successful one, on some level, resulting in a story that at least feels cohesive.
Beyond melding together several plot-lines, the game does not really take a foray into new ground, so I won’t spend the bulk of this review doing backbends to detail the story. If you’re familiar with the mythos of the Resident Evil universe, then you’ll have no problem keeping up. And though some may find comfort in repeating well-trod territory, for most gamers I would assume it provides nothing really interesting or attention-grabbing. Some of the sequences just feel like they’ve been crammed between already-existing cut-scenes, which doesn’t seem altogether far-fetched. And some of the cut-scenes – particularly the opener, taken from RE:Zero – are exact replicas, which immediately detract from the sense of newness that should accompany, well, any game at all.
It isn’t inherently bad, but playing Resident Evil games sometimes feels like buying the fifth reissue of a Beatles album or yet another Jimi Hendrix Greatest Hits. Do you need it? No, unless you are a hapless, neurotic completionist. Capcom has made it a point to parade around the corpse of this franchise so the fans can buy whatever it is they’re selling, and I’m really no better or superior, because I nearly always play these games, even when I don’t necessarily think it’s the best use of my time. But the madness should stop. It really should.
To its credit, for a Wii game, it doesn’t look bad. Visually, it looks consistently like Resident Evil. The zombies look like Resident Evil zombies, and the environments are successfully true-to-series representations of government facilities gone to seed.
Beyond the look of the game, though, the problems begin to surface rather quickly. It is is not necessarily poorly paced, but it is monotonously and predictably paced, which may be worse. Players can anticipate the same structure for each level: shoot; checkpoint, shoot; boss; end-of-level. Deviations in form are few and far between, and the combination of predictable enemies and encounters make every level feel inconsequential.
Which would be as big a problem if the game were actually fun to play. Fun is one of those ineffable and indescribable aspects of games journalism because it is so subjective, but trust me on this one: The Umbrella Chronicles is not fun in any traditional or even tangential sense of the word. The lack of innovation speaks to the fact that this is just a rail shooter with a Resident Evil skin.
Sure, there are a few notable touches, like the unique weapon set and power-ups and enemies – and Holy God, are there enough enemy types – but that just works to prove the original point. It is a rail shooter disguised as a Resident Evil game, not a Resident Evil rail shooter.
The fact that you can pick up diary entries and fight Tyrant do not make up for the sluggish controls and plodding mess that constitutes the story. The Wii controls are inconsistent, at best, and impossible to reconcile with a peripheral like the Wii Zapper, which turns the Wii Remote into a rifle, of sorts. For example, most of the boss battles require a lightning quick response to the A button, which, because of its position on the Zapper, makes controls inconvenient at some points and unusable at others. The reload function doesn’t always respond well, which can be frustrating in a horde of the undead.
Or a horde of lizards, snakes, bugs, bats, and miniature yetis. The number of enemy types is huge, so at times it comes off as one of those generic horror games of the 80’s, the ones that would toss in every conceivable creepy-crawly creature because it is, you know, a “horror” game. Traditionally, Resident Evil has not been altogether focused on being exclusively a zombie game, but come on: some of the enemies are silly duplicates and make the game feel desperate for variety. But the variety is transparent and illusory, and the enemy types cannot fully mask what the game is lacking.
And then there are boss battles. The lack of thought put into them is astounding. No matter the type of boss, the proper method for dispatching each is to pump round after round into the boss’s head. You will unload literally hundreds of rounds into each boss before you’re done, which wouldn’t be such a problem if they weren’t philosophically identical. Sure, each boss has a different cycle of attacks, but rest assured: every single boss has a cycle of attacks. It is the kind of variety that only highlights a lack of variety.
Ultimately, The Umbrella Chronicles confuses the length and monotony of boss battles with their epic-ness. The intersection between an appropriately difficult boss battle and its length is not always at the highest possible point on the graph. Most of these could have been cut in half, at the very least, and have achieved the maximum effect. It seems to be an insecure act on behalf of the developers that they take every boss battle to be a momentous occasion. It would have been more effective to put time and effort into making each boss battle new or different, rather than just long and difficult.
At this point, you may be asking, Well, what did you EXPECT from this game? It’s a rail shooter, and all rail shooters have these flaws. That’s all true, and the answer I have is, I don’t know. I’m not sure what exactly I expected from this game, but it wasn’t what I ended up getting. The controls and the monotonous structure kept the game from being fun, and the “greatest hits” rehashing of the first outbreak in Raccoon City kept the game’s story from being interesting, and the lack of originality in the game’s execution make it just another attempt to use the Wiimote’s motion controls.
Some of the levels are harder than others, and the bosses become increasingly frustrating, but there is no real sense of achievement, save for the grading screens at the checkpoint and end of each level. You might want to replay the levels in order get an A or a B on whatever aspect, but other than that, I don’t see any real joy coming out of a second playthrough.
The problem is, The Umbrella Chronicles just isn’t that fun. It is set up to be an arcade-style rail shooter with a Resident Evil flair, but it comes off as a repetitive, sluggish mess.
It doesn’t add anything to the mythology, nor does it introduce any new or interesting mechanics to the genre, which makes it both a bad game and a poor representation of the face of the franchise. Finishing the game is a chore, and replaying it doesn’t seem like it would improve the gaming experience. Once you’ve played a single level, you’ve basically seen what it has to offer, so if you like it, then you probably won’t be as put off by The Umbrella Chronicles as a whole. Most non-RE fans, however, probably won’t find anything compelling to draw them through more than a few hours’ worth.
The Final Word: If you’re looking for a fun and innovative rail shooter experience on the Wii, play something like Dead Space: Extraction instead. It manages to do all of the things The Umbrella Chronicles and doesn’t feel like a lazy attempt to cash in on the name on the box.
Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles is available on the PlayStation 3 and Wii (reviewed).