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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

'Resident Evil' Has Had a Rocky Relationship With Multiplayer

Resident Evil games are at their best when they keep you isolated to a single setting, cut off from the outside world as you attempt to stay alive against the stumbling undead hordes. Such creepy elements have become cornerstones of a genre known as survival horror, one that Capcom’s trademark series firmly cemented back when it debuted on the original PlayStation in 1996. Flash forward 25 years, however, and Resident Evil can now mean different things to different people. It can be a zombie-themed restaurant in the heart of Tokyo, a billion-dollar Hollywood movie franchise, or potentially a fear-tinged multiplayer experience where you fight alongside friends.

Of all these side ventures, it’s the latter that Capcom seems to be obsessed with most. Strange, considering the Japanese publisher should know that scary games are more effective, for the most part, when played alone. And yet Resident Evil continues playing host to various co-op and competitive installments that push back against the traditional survival-horror grain. RE: Verse is the newest effort, released free for Resident Evil: Village purchasers as a standalone deathmatch-style game where players battle as iconic characters from the series. Repeatedly bludgeoning Chris Redfield using a Tyrant’s mutated arm is a nice way to celebrate the franchise’s 25th birthday in theory, I’ll admit, but last month’s beta did little to convince me that the game will be a worthwhile investment for PVP diehards.

So why doesn’t Resident Evil just stick to the terrifying single-player stories it does best? Maybe because some of the brand’s multiplayer-centric games have shown fun but flawed flickers of promise.

Resident Evil Outbreak, 2003 (PS2)

Resident Evil’s first flutter with multiplayer is arguably also its purest. One of the few games to take advantage of the PS2’s early network capabilities, Outbreak cast you and up to three others as a varied group of survivors trying to escape infested Raccoon City streets. Doing so as either a cop, waitress, or reporter was tense, especially thanks to the classic fixed camera angles, tanky controls, and inventory management. The fact that all eight characters had their own skills was great for replayability. Everyone was handy depending on the specific scenario.

Resident Evil Outbreak’s initial attempt to merge online co-op with the series’ early mechanics sadly suffered from a creaky online infrastructure. Plus, with no headset support, communicating with people using 10 preset key commands was always going to be awkward. Look beyond Outbreak’s connectivity woes, though, and you have a Resident Evil multiplayer game way ahead of its time.

Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, 2007/The Darkside Chronicles, 2009 (Nintendo Wii)

One can’t help but think Capcom looked at what Sega was doing with House of the Dead on the arcade scene and thought, “Hey, why don’t we make a light-gun shooter with zombies too?” This was the basic notion behind two Resident Evil entries exclusive to Wii, 2007’s Umbrella Chronicles and 2009’s Darkside Chronicles. Both games took fan-favorite moments from previous games and retrofitted them to a first-person format, tasking you and a friend with blasting away at the undead in the pursuit of points.

Being guided through such legendary locations as the R.P.D. headquarters, the earlier Resident Evil: Zero was more cinematic than before, and to the games’ credit, using the Wiimote to pop off zombie heads felt incredibly natural. As serviceable as they were, though, neither Chronicles game would dramatically influence future multiplayer endeavors. That honor instead fell on Resident Evil 5 (released earlier in 2009), igniting Capcom’s nature to build co-op directly into Resident Evil’s main campaign.

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, 2011 (Nintendo 3DS)

Having firmly made the jump from fixed camera angles to the new over-shoulder perspective in Resident Evil 4, Capcom eventually saw fit to give the franchise’s longstanding The Mercenaries mini game the standalone spinoff treatment. The aptly titled The Mercenaries 3D was an impressive visual showcase for the Nintendo 3DS’s graphical capabilities, certainly, but didn’t do much to shake up the notion of capping as many zombies as possible within a given time limit.

It did, nevertheless, faithfully re-create environments from the most recent games and allow you to share this space with a friend. Resident Evil had swerved fully into action blockbuster territory by this point, and this spinoff took those elements further as the first Resident Evil game to let you move and shoot at the same time. The pace was faster, but you and your buddy were rarely scared.

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, 2012 (PS3/Xbox 360)

Capcom tried to follow in Left 4 Dead’s blood-stained footsteps with 2012’s painfully bland Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. Set once again during the time of Resident Evil 2 and 3’s initial T-virus outbreak, this team-based co-op shooter was held back by stiff controls, bullet-sponge enemies, and a general disregard for the franchise’s horror aspect. This “What if?” scenario played out from the perspective of Umbrella’s special-ops team, and didn’t make mowing down zombies fun.

Operation Raccoon City also included a competitive multiplayer option called Heroes Mode, where two teams of four step into the shoes of legendary characters like Leon, Ada, and more. Overall, it was a cheap way to appeal to fans and felt significantly undercooked compared to other PVP offerings at the time. Capcom looks to be resurrecting a similar concept for RE: Verse, but have they learned anything since then?

Resident Evil: Revelations 2, 2015 (PS3/Xbox 360)

The Revelations sub-brand is where Resident Evil staunchly returned to its survival-horror roots. The second entry delivered on this while finding room to innovate, thanks to a fresh take on online co-op: One player controls a traditional gun-wielding character (Claire or Barry) while the other assists by pointing out threats and staying defenseless. Suddenly, teamwork and communication were more vital than ever in a Resident Evil multiplayer game.

Revelations 2 also doubled down on the more arcade-like Raid mode introduced in the original. And while it’s not indicative of the main story’s willingness to push the idea of Resident Evil co-op in new and interesting directions, chasing scores and leveling up your characters proved addicting. Of all future multiplayer possibilities, a potential Resident Evil: Revelations 3 excites me the most.

Umbrella Corps, 2016 (PS4/PC)

Resident Evil multiplayer reached a creative low point with 2016’s Umbrella Corps, an online “tactical” shooter so shallow and unpolished that any reference to the series’ name was scrubbed from its title. Maps were too dense, the constant switching between third- and first-person felt unnatural, and having undead dogs and zombies thrust into the mix made who won online matches excruciatingly unpredictable. The 3 v. 3 cover-based action was so poorly balanced its player base on both PS4 and PC dwindled after just a week, leading to a four-year drought until Capcom would attempt another multiplayer-centric Resident Evil.

Thankfully, Resident Evil VII: Biohazard’s release the following year marked a major sea change for the brand, with Capcom firmly embracing its mysterious and unsettling focus on survival horror. If only the same could be said for the franchise’s future online offerings.

Resident Evil: Resistance, 2020 (PS4/Xbox One)

Highly inspired by other asymmetrical multiplayer games like Dead by Daylight and Friday the 13th, the thinking behind Resident Evil: Resistance was sound but never quite came together. One team of survivors would be forced to complete a series of puzzle challenges while one player controlled in-game events as “the mastermind.” The core to Resistance’s 4 v. 1 setup made for a thrilling and often tense gameplay loop, yet completing the same objectives eventually grew competitive.

That being said, this is still the closest that modern Resident Evil has come to successfully translating its survival-based mechanics to an inventive multiplayer format. Not knowing which traps the mastermind will lay down next always kept the survivor group guessing, but each player character never felt defenseless thanks to their useful skills. Though progression was plagued by a grindy loot box system, Resident Evil: Resistance had the potential to develop a proper platform if Capcom paid it enough attention.

Resident Evil RE: Verse, 2021 (PS4/ Xbox One)

Capcom now looks to be undoing Resistance’s marginally good work by quite literally RE: Verse-ing to the idea of a conventional PVP shooter—similar to Operation Raccoon City’s offering, albeit with less chest-high cover. And although there’s definite promise in blending villains and heroes from across all Resident Evil timelines into a single game, the most recent beta proved that, at least in this format, the novelty wears off quickly. Transforming into a bio-weapon upon death is a cool concept, but emphasizing attacks and ammo being commonplace shreds RE: Verse of its survival horror skin.

This isn’t to mention the weird comic-book-style filter layered on the screen at all times, seemingly included as a way for Capcom to tell players that they aren’t taking Resident Evil multiplayer seriously. Believe me, it’s working. The franchise has been on such a winning streak in terms of its single-player games as of late, I fear RE: Verse is distracting from this momentum rather than actively benefitting from it. Resident Evil’s latest multiplayer endeavor might appeal to a select sect of players; I just hope it recognizes past mistakes to avoid being dead on arrival.

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