Some video game franchises older than 20 years struggle to stay relevant. But publisher and developer Capcom is likely to maintain its track record of creative and commercial success with its upcoming remake of one of the most important video games ever made: 2005′s “Resident Evil 4.”
The fact is, the Resident Evil team has become very good at making Resident Evil games. Their confidence stems from Capcom’s decision to create the Reach for the Moon (or RE) engine, the company’s proprietary software framework for making games. “Resident Evil VII” in 2017 was the first Capcom game to use RE Engine. Since then, it’s powered every major Capcom game, including this summer’s highly anticipated “Street Fighter 6.”
“Whenever the designers create something, we can immediately check everything in engine, see if everything looks nice,” said Yasuhiro Ampo, a longtime director of the Resident Evil series who is also directing the new remake. “The ease of access really aids development for the games.”
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But the original “Resident Evil 4” is not just another Resident Evil game. It’s often cited as the godfather of the modern third-person action adventure. It would go on to inspire “The Last of Us,” the Gears of War franchise, and basically any video game that places the camera behind, just above and to the right of the player character.
The remake is also the most complicated Resident Evil title for the RE Engine. Past games, including the successful remakes of the second and third sequels, featured brainless zombies and other monsters shambling and shuffling toward the player. But the zombies of “Resident Evil 4” were basically still human, with their mental faculties intact, making snap decisions in combat encounters. This was a new challenge for the team.
“We have made a lot of Resident Evil games since,” said Yoshiaki Hiabayashi, the game’s producer and another series veteran. “One challenge we had was looking at how the Ganado [zombified humans] artificial intelligence works in the game. That is new for the RE Engine.”
“When you interact with enemies, we do have to have them have some sort of intelligence so they don’t walk straight to you or behind you,” Ampo added. “You will see that they’re not acting like a computer, but a thinking creature with strategy behind their movements.”
This is not a new challenge in game design. Even the ghosts of “Pac-Man” from 1980 had artificial intelligence designed to react and strategize against the Pac-Man player. The Resident Evil series would just replace the ghosts for zombies, and the maze for a mansion, or sometimes a city. In “Resident Evil 4,” the stakes are heightened further still: The maze is a Spanish countryside, and the ghosts are the hundreds of zombified citizens, all clamoring to kill the player.
The developers learned a lot about their own series over the years, and they’ve been keenly attuned to player feedback. The overwhelming positive feedback to the “Resident Evil 2” remake fueled excitement for remaking the fourth game — despite the team’s initial consternation around remaking such a venerated, influential title.
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Hirabayashi said they were laser focused on identifying what made the fourth game great and building on that foundation. Player protagonist Leon may seem like a faint echo of the confident, skilled-at-martial-arts Leon of the infamous “Resident Evil 6,” but Hirbayashi said they kept the focus on improving the fourth game, while not thinking about other titles in the series or within the survival horror game genre.
“The team didn’t specifically look into other games to try to copy from others,” he said. “The basis was ‘Resident Evil 4.’”
Player feedback also suggested to them that the audience loves the characters and wants more stories about them. It’s why Luis, a bit player from the original game, has an extended hpresence in the remake, and why Leon seems to be directly addressing his trauma from surviving the destruction of Raccoon City in the original trilogy.
“We learned that players really want to learn more about everything,” Ampo said. “So we added more depth to the characters[.] They have more interactions between themselves so the player gets more connected to them.”
Shinji Mikami, who directed the original “Resident Evil” and “Resident Evil 4,” the two most influential games in the series, recently announced his departure from Tango Gameworks, the studio he founded after leaving Capcom. His influence looms large over the current remake, but Hirabayashi said Mikami hasn’t had any input into the remake. Mikami directed the first game’s remake for the GameCube, which set the bar for transformative video game remakes back in 2002. But this time around, Mikami just meets up with the team for drinks in a friendly capacity.
Mikami’s guidance from the early 2000s still resonates with the developers; many of them previously worked under him.
“If you have a game that’s always tense, you lose the players within that tension,” Hirabayashi said, recalling Mikami’s advice. “The tension is built on a curve, high tension and low tension. The high tension is followed by these cushioning moments.”
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Ampo said the core of making a great Resident Evil game is giving players fear, and then soon after, the means to overcome that fear. The series has established this push-and-pull dynamic of offering up ammo and other helpful resources when needed, and then draining all of it through enemy encounters. It’s why the series always ends with the main character wielding a rocket launcher: It’s meant to symbolize the player finally conquering the horror with overwhelming force.
“Overcoming the horror is one of the main concepts,” Ampo said. “With ‘Resident Evil 2’ and now 4, the teams have learned to look at how players approach certain situations and how they overcome them. We have added more tools to overcome any situation.”
These tools include Leon’s knife, which is now a limited resource but is also strengthened to the point that it can go blow for blow with a chainsaw. This also includes the new partner AI, with the president’s daughter, Ashley, and Luis becoming more active participants in combat.
This also meant removing “quick-time events,” or button prompts that flash on the screen like Simon Says for your controller. Instead, a famous knife-to-knife fight sequence from the original game will now become fully playable.
“We wanted the player to have control over the sequence themselves,” Hirabayashi said.
When asked what part of the game was most important for them to keep, both men shied away from answering.
“This is a tricky question for us, because if we say too much we might spoil the game,” Hirabayashi said, laughing.
Even if the Resident Evil team is confident in how it remakes our collective survival horror past, they want to make sure that players stay on their toes.