Thursday, April 23, 2009

Design Analysis: Resident Evil 5 Times Over

About a month ago, I finally shelved Resident Evil 5, after a very whooping 5 back-to-back playthroughs. First playthrough on "Amateur", then going back to "Amateur" to get S rank for all levels, then finishing the game on "Hard" (with Infinite Rocket Launcher), then finishing the game on "Professional" (battling through occasionally bafflingly-stupid AI), before finally finishing a co-op game on "Normal" with my girlfriend (which proved a very different and entertaining experience thanks to my partner-in-crime).

What's surprising is... this is the first time that I played through a Resident Evil game more than once after beating it. However, what's even more surprising is... Resident Evil 5 is not even my favourite Resident Evil game. So, why did I drag my ass through the same game so many times then?

Before I go into answering that question, let me go into some of the reasons why I wasn't as blown away with the latest instalment as I was with the last few entries in the series, particularly Resident Evil 4.


Resident Evil vs. Resident Evil

Before anything else, I know that a ton of people have said that Resident Evil 5, while being a good action game, doesn't feel like Resident Evil anymore; and I have to say that I completely and utterly agree with this statement.

Even though the control scheme and viewpoint were adopted and evolved from the revolutionary series entry that was Resident Evil 4, the gameplay scenarios in which these controls are employed are totally different; I mean c'mon, a "Cover System" (a la Gears of War) in a Resident Evil game, never saw that coming.

Back-to-back, Literally
But the biggest lost in transition for me in Resident Evil 5 has to be in terms of the atmosphere. The Resident Evil games have always been more about the creation of atmosphere and ambience, and the sense of tension that results from that. Even with the redesigned controls in Resident Evil 4, the game still managed to hold its own in this regard.

Gone and missed are the gloomy, cloudy and occasionally intentionally claustrophobic environments of the past Resident Evils, only to be replaced by a bright African town depicted in broad daylight for a good quarter of the game. The perpetual presence of a partner also takes a lot away from the fear factor of the game's settings, and making her powerful enough to hold her own doesn't help either, when it comes to this.

I understand that Resident Evil 5 tries to create the tension through a different gameplay lens, by making the zombies faster, more aggressive, smarter and deadlier, and focusing towards the tension and excitement through the action-oriented gameplay; as opposed to the reliance of tension-induction through setting and atmosphere as in the past games. But personally, without the atmosphere, Resident Evil just doesn't feel like Resident Evil anymore.

Perhaps Less is More in this case

Through its own merits, Resident Evil 5 is a good action game, and the co-op factor is a welcome addition as well (if you minus the occasional hiccups in the AI). But in the evolution of the series, I would have much preferred Capcom to actually have used the current-gen technology to create a better atmosphere with all the smokes and mirrors of today, and ride on the original essence of the series, rather than evolving it a little too far from its roots.


Through the Grindmill: When Play feels like Work

So going back to the question at hand: Why would I play a game that is relatively less stellar 5 times while leaving more stellar games to sit comfortably on the shelf after one playthrough? If it has to come down to one thing, then it has to be: Achievement Points.
Achievement Points - The Killer of Time

Resident Evil 5 is a rather tricky case. The game itself is actually very replayable. However, stretch that replayable-fun-factor over 5 playthroughs of the linear structure of the game, and the entire experience straddles the thin line between work and play at times - especially on "Professional Mode", where I saw Sheva stand right next to me and refusing to rescue me on multiple occasions.

If playing through the game itself was work, then the Achievement Points acquired at the end of the day probably felt like a fat paycheck. In my opinion, Achievement Points are actually glorified bragging rights that you can actually validate and verify, unlike in the old days that people mostly took your word for it when you tried to prove to them how hardcore you were. But the deeper implication of Resident Evil 5's case told me a little more about the power and influence of this new-found "glorification" and also a little something about my own gaming habits.

Firstly, let me say this out straight, I am NOT an Achievement Whore. While I do try my best to acquire as much as I can to prove myself, I am not the kind that will go about buying Avatar just to get 1000 points in 10 minutes. For me, the Achievement Points are a way to create an enjoyable meta-game around the game, and I will do it as long as I find it at least somewhat, bearably fun - which often takes into account the time, fun factor and potential reward in trying to achieve them.

This in itself is a little nostalgic, as it reminds me of the times when I was a kid. I had a lot less games to play, I and would grind and try to set up these challenges for myself for bragging rights among my friends (I had a promoted Level 37 Adam and Bleu in Shining Force). But as I grew older, and as I built a much bigger library of games than I actually had time for, I started to try to finish the games I had to a "justifiable" level - this being subjective of course, but often was taken as completing the game and seeing all the stages / missions / bosses possible in a single playthrough.

Grinding Force: Till the Enemies were worth 1EXP each

Basically, under this "justifiable" rule, the basic instinct was to shelf a game when the game was relatively less gratifying in itself once the logical or reasonable ending was reached. But with Achievement Points, I found myself doing things that were a lot less gratifying in themselves, but still did them anyway as I knew that there was a reward at the end of it.

And the power of the reward to me, comes from 2 factors. 1 of which is mentioned, being able to show-off said Achievements to the world, but the other factor is because of the fact that these Achievements are developer set, there is a greater and more universal level of recognition and "certification" that people agree on and gives rise to a greater sense of pride in obtaining them. I personally think that Achievements have come so far that they have become an artful balancing act or perhaps a bit of a tug-of-war between the gaming community and the developers.


The Power to Shift Paradigms

One weird effect that I questioned in my gaming habits were the change in my "Bartle Test" results. I always thought of myself more of an "Explorer" - I remembered that the thing I liked most about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, was exploring the world of Hyrule and discovering all its little secrets. In fact, I attributed my preference towards exploration as the reason for it being my favourite game, because I enjoyed that sense of amazement and discovery as I journeyed and explored someone else's world.

Ocarina of Time - The Vastness of Exploration
I kind of knew that I was partially an "Achiever" as well, considering my self-proclaimed hardcore-ness and all, and just wanted to prove to myself (and perhaps to others as a secondary audience), that I could do certain things in the games that I play (like my 2.7 million Geometry Wars score, for example - that's hardcore).
Bartle Chart

However, in recent months, I really find myself questioning if my type has shifted, as now, when I play an Xbox360 game, I seem to have developed a stronger threshold for the repetition of gameplay and levels if there was a reward at the end, as compared to trying to take all the time I need to find explore and discover the game world.

Perhaps this is another issue altogether, on whether I personally find the game worlds these days to be becoming too large for a comfortable pace of exploration without feeling lost for more than half of the game, knowing that you are barely scratching the surface, like in Fallout 3 or in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.
But what I do know is that Achievement Points are here to stay, and the dilemma of trying to decide between gratification and accomplishment will only continue to haunt me as long as I give a damn about them.

Pictures Courtesy of: