As you already know, a low-budget film entitled The Blair Witch Project was released in theaters this summer and became one of the surprise hits of the year. There was a whole lot of talk about the film's low budget and unique marketing, but what really mattered and what moviegoers ultimately proved to be more enticing was their dying need to scared. The creators of the Blair Witch got back to the basics and showed that we are better at scaring ourselves than any special effects guru was; they played on moviegoers' fears and instincts with great success and fans showed their appreciation by going back for more. It is in this 'frightening' regard that I compare it to Capcom's latest in the 'survival-horror' genre, Dino Crisis. While it was spawned from the phenomenally popular Resident Evil franchise, Dino Crisis tries to offer enough to separate itself from Resident Evil as well as the myriad of clones Resident Evil sequels that have saturated the market. Capcom has dumped the pretty (and expensive) pre-rendered background graphics and shock tactics that Resident Evil used and instead have opted for real-time 3D backgrounds, packs of carnivorous dinosaurs, and real-time action. It's a big break from the norm, but it shapes up to be a successful one.
This time around I play Regina, a female member of a rescue team sent to an island to rescue a scientific genius named Professor Kirk; who is publicly alleged to be working on a new fuel source, but those in the know believe he is working on something far more sinister. Regina and her comrades must work together to rescue the Professor as well as simply surviving. Anyone looking at Dino Crisis will make an immediate connection to Jurassic Park (Dino Crisis and Resident Evil creator, Shinji Mikami, admitted later that Jurassic Park was indeed an influence as he developed the game), but the move from zombies to dinosaurs was genius. It completely changed the pace of the genre. In Resident Evil, if a bunch of zombies came after me, I could get away easily by outrunning them or walking around them. This is not the case in Dino Crisis. Capcom went to work creating realistic dinosaurs that would relentlessly chase and hunt down my character throughout the game. The dinosaurs are incredibly strong and as fast as I am (and in some cases, even faster), so any battle with them could very well be my last. It made every potential confrontation all the more urgent.
Resident Evil fans took quickly to the slick CG full-motion video (FMV) movies and pre-rendered backgrounds of Resident Evil as soon as it was released. But with each sequel, the flashy graphics were becoming more and more of a hindrance to gameplay. In Resident Evil, it always felt like I was sliding across nicely rendered wallpaper and not moving through the background, which kept me very much removed from the game and this is why I love the real-time graphics in Dino Crisis. It was refreshing to be able to actually walk around things in the game and walk into and out of the background without getting lost due to flawed depth perception. As for the FMV, Dino Crisis has its share of it in the game intro and endings (there are 3 unique endings), but leaves the FMVs during the actual game to be done in real-time. This doesn't interfere with the action and gives the game a consistent look throughout.
In a solid effort not to disappoint horror fans, Capcom went to work pushing the PlayStation to its limits. They not only included excellent real-time graphics, but also managed to pile on some of the best real-time light-sourcing I've seen on this system. Regina now walks into and out of lit areas with light hitting her body with the utmost of realism. Shinji Mikami and his team of developers have always showed an instinct for using the most appropriate music and sound effects to heighten the ambience. Not that there is a lot of music, mind you. Most of the game is filled with deafening silence, which is only broken by the occasional dinosaur squeal or roar echoing throughout the island. But when the action really heats up, though, the heart-pounding music kicks in and takes things to a new level. All of this could easily have been missed, but I'm glad I didn't and I think Capcom should be commended for it.
However, of course, the game is not quite perfect. In my opinion, Capcom didn't veer far enough away from the Resident Evil series. The door-opening-so-you-know-the-CD-ROM-is-loading screens are still here. Whether I was trying to escape an attack through an air duct in the ceiling or just strolling through a door, having this screen pop up would totally take me out of the action and remind me that I was just playing a game. Capcom tries to distract me with gratuitous shots of Regina's butt, but that only makes matters worse. I think it's a cardinal sin to force a player to have to sit back and watch any kind of blatant load screen like this in the middle of the action. Also of note is the menu system. Sure Regina can now carry her gun at all times without having to always access the menu screen to equip it, but this became a real pain in the butt when I wanted to use an air duct or flip a simple switch. These are relatively minor negatives, but changing them would surely improve the game.
It was a bitter pill that the horror industry swallowed to see a movie like The Blair Witch Project have so much more success than much more expensive and over-hyped endeavors like The Haunting. After the industry-induced push towards more grand effects on the big screen, it's nice to see them take notice of one of the 'tiny' movies. I only hope that the video game industry is watching. These days, every developer is so keen on releasing the next Resident Evil, by offering more zombies and more blood, that they neglect to add anything worthwhile to the genre. In Dino Crisis, we have a game that is more concerned with pulling you into it and letting your mind work itself into a frenzy. It uses basic gameplay and ingenuitive pacing to put players on edge and accomplishes the rare feat of letting gamers scare themselves. Case in point is my partner here at GameCritics.com, Chi. Although a wily Resident Evil veteran, Chi was constantly jumping out of his pants while playing and that was pretty concrete evidence to me that Capcom had gotten things right.