games / Previews

E3 2014: The Evil Within Preview

June 17, 2014 | Posted by Liana Kerzner

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The original Resident Evil was a defining part of my teenaged years. That game seems so silly now, but at the time, it was terrifying: no one had seen anything like it before. It was to the mid-1990s what the Night of the Living Dead was to teens of the 1960s, a zombie story that squeaked in under the wire of a newly-implemented ratings system to scar an entire generation of previously-sheltered spoiled brats. This makes Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami the George Romero of video games.

Now he’s back.

While Resident Evil was a mishmash of generally-accepted scary stuff, The Evil Within’s scares all seem to have a central metaphorical premise, inspired by the psychological detective thriller film Shutter Island. But the familiar Mikami tropes are still there — the creepy, broken-down mansion; the cast of characters who aren’t what they seem; the hallways with giant windows; the foreboding staircases, limited ammo, medical experiments, and zombie-like monsters that aren’t zombies.

The best way to describe the look and feel of the game is a mix of the original Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2, Outlast, and Clive Barker’s Undying. From the original Resident Evil, we get the approach on the mansion, some familiar homage shots, and the dreaded save rooms. From Silent Hill 2 inspires the monster designs and the theme of self-induced psychological torture. From Outlast there’s the Victorian asylum setting complete with creepy antique wheelchairs, as well as lockers to hide in and beds to scramble under to escape unkillable enemies. And from Clive Barker’s Undying, there are the creepy, altering formal family portraits and gory, metaphorical character evolutions.

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The story focuses on detective Sebastian Castellanos. Sebastian and his team are investigating a mass murder, when they encounter a malevolent and mysterious force. He’s knocked out and wakes up in a messed up alternate reality. It’s pretty standard stuff, but the plot details aren’t as important as the implications of theme throughout the demo: plenty of silent accusations, repetitive and gruesome self-harm, and many many indignities committed on corpses. The tarot-like Hanged Man imagery figures prominently, which can mean sacrifice, surrender, or, not surprisingly, inner harm.

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The Evil Within demo managed to inspire dread without a single jump scare. So-called survival horror has become too reliant on cheap music and lighting tricks to ramp up the tension. Once those wear thin, there’s usually very little horror left in a horror game, so their absence was welcome. Instead, the game creates a consistently creepy environment. The enemies can come from anywhere, including through the walls. You are alerted to the presence of a bad guy nearby by an eye icon that rapidly tracks back and forth – this simple device is surprisingly panic inducing, because you don’t know exactly what the monster is or where it’s going to come from.

Enemies don’t permanently die in The Evil Within unless you set them on fire, so the zombie-like things coming after you bear varied injuries: stakes through the head, barbed wire wrapped around their legs, stuff like that. Furthermore, headshots don’t always take these freakazoids down. But the real awesomesauce came from the way the playable demo freaked me out with things that normally make players feel safer. For instance, Sebastian’s doctor companion tends to follow behind him, creating a second set of footfall sounds. I kept stopping and panning the camera around to make sure it was him, and not something that was trying to kill me.

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Another cool feature was that nearly everything was a puzzle. Even the parts that are “shoot zombie, reload, repeat” require thought. All reloads are manual, so you have to time them well. You also have to manually pre-select your weapons into d-pad quickslots, and you also have to decide which zombies to burn and which ones you’ll chance getting back up, because matches are a limited resource. Ammo is also extremely limited, but melee attacks usually just buy you time.

There are various environmental hazards you can use to conserve ammo, but some enemies can’t be harmed by any means. You just have to run or hide. There’s a catch there though too. Running makes you tired, so if you overdo it, you’ll end up doubled over and panting in the middle of a chase. That completely freaked me out.

But there are also puzzles that are of the more traditional sort… kind of. They involve fishing keys out of a corpse’s chest, and pretty gruesome lobotomies, similar to the eye gouge scene in Dead Space 2. These puzzle segments were the only points where I felt the controls weren’t intuitive, but no monsters were coming after me at those points, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Another nice touch was the fact that there was ample time to study most rooms before I had to fight or run for my life. The beasties are triggered by tripping alarms that make a lot of noise, so as long as I kept an eye out for those the big blinking red lights, I could scope out the room to plan my attack before taking on the ghoulies. The demos were pretty well-designed in terms of letting you know what you needed to do without a lot of fumbling, provided you pay attention to the visual cues.

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Bethesda is revealing a lot of the game, including showing the entire beginning at last year’s Eurogamer show. This implies a real confidence in the story on Bethesda’s part, but there also seems to be a feedback process happening. While chatting with a player experience dev after I’d finished the demo, I learned that they’re having issues with players under the age of 25 not connecting to the classic third-person survival horror format. The only horror games they’re familiar with are first-person experiences like Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In a shining display of empathy, they apparently don’t understand why they should care about horrible things happening to another person. I weep for humanity.

So the huge amounts of advance content are designed to get those of us who, ahem, “built character” through the original Resident Evil to tell others that The Evil Within is worth playing. I know I’ll be playing it when it comes out just in time for Halloween.

The Evil Within will be available for PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 in October 2014.

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Liana Kerzner