Resident Evil’s “Action Trilogy” Revisted

A Look Back at the Horror Franchise’s Gun-centric Releases

2016 marks Resident Evil’s 20th Anniversary and publisher Capcom has been celebrating all year long. The company announced a new sequel in Resident Evil VII which vibes as a huge course-correction for the franchise, seeing a return to the original game’s core tenants of environmental exploration, resource management, and hard horror. PS4 owners can download a playable glimpse of the future (which I’ve talked about repeatedly).

Capcom’s also released a new spin-off, Umbrella Corps, a game that proves sometimes a good idea on paper can lead to the virtual equivalent of a burning bag of shit on your doorstep. More successfully, they’ve been mining Resident Evil’s past, re-releasing oldies on current platforms. Resident Evil 0 saw a solid HD re-treatment in the vein of last year’s superb REmake Remaster. Beyond that, Capcom has also spent a string of summer month’s re-releasing uprezzed versions of Resident Evil’s “Action Trilogy” – a trifecta of RE4, 5, and 6.

Though these departures from the franchise’s perceived formula created a rift between old school fans and the new laser-pointed generation, one thing’s inarguable: the Action Trilogy helped push Resident Evil into the mainstream spotlight. Resident Evil 5, for instance, is not merely the top selling game in the series. It’s the best selling game in Capcom’s history. Not Mega Man. Not Street Fighter. Resident Evil 5. And taking second place silver? Resident Evil 6 – a game that some publications can’t write about without preceding it with “the divisive.”

Removed from their hype cycles and marketing blitzes, I re-played each game in the action arc as they’ve been released, beginning with 6 and ending on late August’s RE4. Below, I quickly break down what these game’s were when they launched and how they fare now in order to figure out if these titles really deserve the shit that’s been heaped on them since.

RESIDENT EVIL 6 (original release: 2012)

How It’s Remembered: Resident Evil 6 attempted to be the jack-of-all-trades for every kind of taste. Perhaps taking notice of the growing divide between old school fans and those inducted during the Plagas days, Capcom ambitiously crafted not one but three different campaigns (with a fourth, shorter campaign unlocked after beating the game), each with their own distinct tone, each completely co-op.

The types of enemies you fought and overall feel changed depending on which campaign you tackled – like Leon Kennedy’s more horror flavored campaign or Chris’ military shooter clone – but the gameplay remained generally the same throughout. Though each campaign followed their own stories, narrative threads would often overlap leading to genuinely cool, but woefully rare, four player co-op boss fights.

Reactions were mixed. Some critics agreed the game was a tonal mess, lambasting the schizophrenic nature of the multiple campaigns. The most common complaint was how geared toward how far it strayed from the series’ horror roots. A title where you could melee-execute just about every enemy was deemed not very scary.

How It Fares Now: Resident Evil 6 isn’t so much plagued by problems as it is littered with great ideas that probably belong in another game. I personally love the game’s contextual melee. I spent a disgusting amount of time (i.e. hundreds of hours) honing my zombie-whaling skills in The Mercenaries. The push-to-go controls, snappy gunplay, and surprisingly versatile evasion mechanics make for a uniquely fun, uniquely Eastern take on third-person action.

But that shit has no business being in a Resident Evil game. What tension is there to be had when I know I can bust open an enemy’s head like a watermelon two seconds after having it jump out at me? Resident Evil Revelations 2 does a better job of showing us what a modern disciple of RE4 should feel like. That game reigned in its dodging system, making it much more tactile, and returned a sense of vulnerability to your character. In contrast, everyone in Resident Evil 6 handles like an over caffeinated John McClane.

Still, there’s appreciable nods to the series at large, and some of the game’s more earnest attempts at traditional horror almost hit the mark. Dark, rainy graveyards with infected dogs chasing you down; decrepit crypts echoing undead moans; clandestine underground laboratories housing living atrocity… It all comes closer to resembling classic Resident Evil than RE4 or RE5 can stake claim to. The game even features a dynamic lighting system meant to replicate the deliberate atmosphere horror films stage. Ten minutes with the controller, however, dispels that nostalgia.

Though it shares some ridiculous beats with its predecessor like over-the-top villains, superpowered characters, and some truly awful one-liners by way of Jake Muller’s stupid, stupid mouth (I don’t want to imagine how much worse the character could be if Troy Baker weren’t in the recording studio), I actually really enjoy the story’s attempt to re-ground the series in biological threats and global terrorism. It’s an uneven experience, absolutely – it probably should’ve featured one campaign with an ensemble cast for the sake of cohesion – but it really isn’t the Bad Resident Evil critics and fans have made it out to be.

Understandably, my stance on the game is precisely why old school fans hate it: it’s a really good action game with horror undertones; not the other way around.

The Next-Gen Difference: Being the newest of the bunch, it naturally looks the best, showing very few wrinkles since its 2012 release. Its lighting effects, in particular, stand out. Some textures are muddy upon inspection but character models look great. Since you’ll spend most of your time planting headshots instead of soaking in environments, as solid as the level design is, the 60 frames-per-second quickly becomes the port’s best virtue.

RESIDENT EVIL 5 (original release: 2009)

How It’s Remembered: Following in the wake of the critical darling RE4, Capcom’s Xbox 360/PS3 sequel garnered massive amounts of attention. The game promised to deliver on the thrills of its predecessor while adding a huge shakeup in the implementation of a fully co-op campaign, online and off.

Though it brought back elements from previous games’ lore, like Chris Redfield’s franchise spanning rivalry with Albert Wesker (a villain whose love of sunglasses is only matched by his need for complete global saturation) Res 5′s reliance on spectacle gunfights, harsh daylight setting, and an over-simplified inventory system left horror fans even further in the dust during this console cycle.

However, a heavy marketing push and its positioning as one of the few great couch co-op titles this side of Gears of War ensured the Resident Evil brand reached more hands than ever.

How It Fares Now: Not as great as I had hoped. The game is caught in this transitional flux where aping RE4 to a tee meant we’re forced to contend with outlandishly dated controls. It’s amazing because all it really needs is to allow players to shoot and move. That’s all. Numerous set pieces ratchet up the enemy count way beyond RE4′s threshold, making constant movement a necessity. Unfortunately, the moment your gun goes up, you’re cemented in place, left completely open to axes, spears, and tentacles aimed squarely at your chiseled jaw.

Past that small, yet constant, frustration, the experience is solid if familiar. Maybe all too familiar. Several systems return like treasure hunting and weapon upgrading (but now you can thankfully assign guns to the D-pad instead of having to dig into the menu in the heat of battle). Some puzzles and boss fights almost feel directly lifted from Resident Evil 4, lending to the game’s severe case of sequelitis. Though we’re finally treated to cinematic cutscenes, a middling, self-serious story led by two dull mains (Chris is accompanied by BSAA agent Sheva Alomar) makes the whole affair feel like a one-off – despite the multiple plot threads that connect it to past outings, much more than RE4′s tenuous links.

I do like the additions this game makes to the lore. The BSAA is the perfect escalation we’d see in a world where private benefactors are cobbling up biological weapons. Again, it’s the grounding elements I’m attracted to that the Action Trilogy seemed to have struggled with. An enemy like Umbrella makes sense and has real world analogs. Wesker’s trenchcoated pursuit to infect the world? Leave that in whatever anime you stole it from.

Ultimately, RE5 feels like a half-measure in the face of RE4′s revitalization of the brand. Granted, it’s a stellar imitation. Capcom could have done worse than clone one of the most critically lauded games of all time. But they certainly could have done better than “Resident Evil 4 now with co-op!”

The Next-Gen Difference: Resident Evil 5 was a graphical marvel when it came out and some of that sheen still prevails. But it’s helpful to remember this $20 port is exactly that… a port. Not a remastering. That said, it is the PC version they’re porting, resolution bumps, extra modes and all. Collecting every piece of DLC and content from every version of the game that hit the market since ‘09 makes this release the definitive iteration. Plus, big shout out to the Lost in Nightmares DLC – the best mix of old school philosophy and modern visuals you can find in the entire Action Trilogy.

RESIDENT EVIL 4 (original release: 2005)

How It’s Remembered: Very well. After years of prototyping and reimagining (a process that gave birth to Devil May Cry), Shinji Mikami reinvented Resident Evil as an incredibly tense shooter. It shunned pre-rendered backgrounds in favor of a fully explorable 3D environment. Your perspective shifted over Leon’s shoulder, giving you full reign over his weapon’s aim. Slow shuffling zombies were traded up for quick thinking humans that could use weapons and swarming tactics against you. Inventory management was ripped away from item boxes and six slots; now you had to manage your items on your person, on the fly.

The game is a mechanical reboot in the guise of a sequel. It spends no time at all impressing on players how different the world you’re stepping into is from the lonely halls of the Spencer Estate. Umbrella is gone. Leon Kennedy, once a rookie cop thrust into an impossible situation, is now an adept US government agent, deployed into the rural wilderness of Spain in order to find the president’s kidnapped daughter.

The results blew critics away. Some still hail the title as a gaming masterpiece. Resident Evil 4 broke from the confines of survival horror and became a genre-definer that would inform everything from Gears of War to Dead Space.

How It Fares Now: There’s a learning curve to be had with its controls, sure. In a sense, Leon still controls as he did back in his Raccoon City days. You still have to pivot your character in the direction you want to go before actively moving forward. It’s Tank Controls 2.0. But, unlike RE5, encounters are spaced out and enemies don’t quite bombard you as often, allowing smart placement into your arsenal of tactics. I won’t downplay that it’s rough, but if you can leap the control hurdle – a feat much easier to wrap your head around using the Gamecube controller – the game is still an absolute treat, ranking in as my favorite of the Action Trilogy.

What struck me on my latest runthrough is just how pitch perfectly paced this game is. The developers knew when to let you breathe. It knew when to throw in a puzzle to break up firefights. It knew when to let you roam an environment. And it knew not only when to throw shit at the fan, it knew how much and how hard.

Filled to the brim with memorable moments and, especially, standout boss fights, Resident Evil 4 never once dips into the pits of repetition. If there were a game I could wipe my memory of so as to enjoy one more blind playthrough, it would be this game. You’ll fight a variety of enemies, each requiring a new strategy. The invisible bugs littering the sewer sections; the blind Garradors with their Wolverine claws, homing in on your every step; the Regenerators that will continually reassemble until you use an infrared scope to blast off hidden parasites latched to their body…

There is a dearth of quality moments strung together by tight gameplay design and tense, mood drenched atmosphere. I loved every second of revisiting this curve ball of a sequel. In sacrificing the components that we thought embodied Resident Evil up till then the game was allowed the freedom it needed to become one of the best titles of all time.

The Next-Gen Difference: This rendition is more or less a direct port of the HD edition found on PS3 and 360. Besides a new aspect ratio and some touched up models, you won’t find the kind of loving remaster REmake enjoyed. Many textures are blurry yet surrounded by stark HD line work, making for some truly eye-splitting visuals. The game deserves a more comprehensive upgrade than this. Dated UI and control settings are painful reminders of this fact.

In a completely tone deaf move, the piss poor trophies and achievements from the HD Edition are copied over to the port – a measly 11 in total. A substantial list can easily be ordered up for this game considering its length and wealth of extra modes – including Ada Wong’s bonus campaigns. Resident Evil 4 has the distinction of being both the best game but the worst port of the lot.

Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6, are available for PS4 and Xbox One each priced at $19.99 MSRP.

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