Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles may have shown better a month ago, but the preview build I saw yesterday had the unfortunate fate of trying to follow-up last month's EA's on-rails shooter, Dead Space Extraction.
Is it fair to compare? Not completely. Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles, a follow-up to 2007's Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, is not done yet. It comes out in about a month.
The two Resident Evil light-gun games, both developed by Capcom and Cavia for the Wii and both expanding the fiction of the more interactive Resident Evil games, nevertheless invite comparisons to other games in their genre.
Right now, the comparison favors EA and its well-reviewed September on-rails shooter (they call it "guided first-person experience") Dead Space Extraction.
Capcom's game, which once may have impressed, now seems less successful in terms of graphics and gameplay — and maybe storytelling — than EA's effort.
I played the first level of Darkside Chronicles at a Capcom event in New York yesterday. It was set in the game's new slice of content, a South America-based chapter, Operation Javier, that is set between the events of Resident Evil: Code Veronica and Resident Evil 4. I played co-op with a publicist for the game, each of us wielding a Wii remote, me as Leon Kennedy, she as Jack Krauser.
The controls were simple. Point. Shoot. Shake to reload. Weapon selections were mapped to the d-pad. But ambition may have gotten the best of the game's developers. This first chapter of the game is set in broad daylight. That may provide a visual echo of Resident Evil 5, but it also exposes the jagged graphics the Wii is sometimes prone to make for games with quasi-realistic graphics, the jaggedness that the dark shadows of Umbrella Chronicles and Dead Space Extraction kept hidden. (The screenshots in this post, from Capcom's press site, look smoother than the visuals in the demo I played.)
The opening level of The Darkside Chronicles has Kennedy and Krauser, soon to be rivals in RE4, helping each other shoot through the infected hordes in a South American village. Your taste for shooting ambling zombies in the head may vary with mine — it is a popular pleasure in games. But I just recently was shooting specific limbs off aliens in Extraction, making the gunplay in Resident Evil feel less finessed. Some would say that Resident Evil shotguns aren't meant for surgery on a zombie stomach, and they'd be right. But are you up for shooting piranha that leap out of the water and mutated giant frogs? Would you like zombie body parts to fall off in the places you shoot them?
The draw of Darkside Chronicles will be the fiction, which certainly has a bigger following than that of Dead Space. The game brings back sequences from Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil: Code Veronica in addition to providing Operation Javier's new bridging content to RE4. It's telling old story and new, in the light-gun format.
One hopes, though, that game design advances aren't passing Capcom's Wii series by. Extraction presented a more dynamic on-rails shooting experience than the rest of the Wii's many light-gun games have. It did much of the work Capcom and Cavia have attempted of integrating narrative with rail-shooting. But it did so by pulling the player through such physically dynamic sequences — through space-walks and tunnel-crawls and panicked rushes from scary enemies — that it seldom felt like the player was a floating gun. Instead it conveyed the sense that the gamer was the hands of an intelligent character. Darkside Chronicles felt more conventional than that yesterday. It pulled us down dusty streets, allowed us to choose between a couple of branched paths (first player to press the button dictated our decision) and brought us toward a boss. Chatter between our characters was relegated mostly to cut-scenes.
The Darkside Chronicles demo had some awkward moments. Occasionally, one of our characters would get pulled out of our limited control for scripted drama. For example, my targeting reticule for Leon stopped working as an infected person leaped on my character, who was suddenly on-screen as if this was a third-person game. That was a cue for my co-op partner to free me by shooting her cursor at the guy wrestling with Leon. This didn't happen because I messed up. It happened because the game was programmed to run that sequence at that time. In single-player, I was told, these first-person-interrupting scenes would happen to the partner character only, which would probably better preserve the consistency of first-person control. But, in co-op, to have one of our characters removed from our control while the other person can still play, was confusing.
The game has many of the standard light-gun staples. Objects in the environment can be shot to reveal healing items and ammo. Discoverable gold bricks can be used to buy weapon upgrades. An inventory screen accessible whenever the game is paused can allow players to share and swap weapons. We had stand-bys like the shotgun, machine gun and magnum at our disposal, in addition to an infinite-ammo pistol. Holding a button and swiping allowed for a last-gasp knife attack. The game is playable with the Remote or the Wii-Zapper. A Nunchuck is not supported.
Not all prospective fans should be deterred. Pedestrian gameplay that drives players through an expanding fiction that fascinates millions of gamers may be enough to get people excited about Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles. And you should know that I was unimpressed with EA's Dead Space Extraction both times I saw it demoed before I was able to play the real thing. Maybe I'm a bad judge of light gun games in preview form? Or maybe The Darkside Chronicles still needs that something special to impress in a genre that just got a boost from a horror series rival.