Version tested: Wii
What's this? An on-rails zombie shooter as good as The House of the Dead II? In 2007? Shame it's taken Capcom eight years and four attempts to get it right. Shame the genre is as outdated as 56k modems. Shame it's so short and that there's not a single new idea in the entire game. But hey, it's never too late to have fun shooting undead Umbrella employees between the eyes. Right?
Right. Almost despite itself, there is something bafflingly moreish about the whole on-rails genre when it's handled in the right way, and Umbrella Chronicles has a reasonable stab at rehashing the age old 'blast everything that moves' premise.
For starters, the concept of revisiting Resident Evil's 'Umbrella' storyline chronologically is a fantastic means of getting you right into the action, and taps into any fan's latent nostalgia for how the key events, set-pieces and boss monsters unfolded in the original survival-horror classics. Kicking off on the train in Resident Evil Zero, you can choose to play as escaped convict Billy Coen or S.T.A.R.S. Bravo team member Rebecca Chambers and work your way through a sequence of short scenarios which approximate the timeline - minus the puzzling, of course. Each crams all the key events into roughly ten-minute chapters - complete with the exact same enemy types, locations and even some of the dialogue, culminating with a boss encounter.
If you've played the original games, then Umbrella Chronicles is admittedly short on surprises, but that's kind of the point. Knowing what's going to happen next doesn't stop it from being a great deal of fun to relive some of the set-pieces in a more action-focused setting - especially as the game engine has been radically overhauled and no longer has that pre-rendered look. As you can probably imagine, the game takes care of the movement for you, leaving you to simply get on with pointing and aiming at the onslaught of mutated beasties pouring out of each and every location. The control system strips away added complications of ducking behind cover, and simply adds a somewhat superfluous degree of head movement in any direction via the thumbstick on the Nunchuk. As useful as this is for being able to nab pick-ups at the last minute, for the most part your main focus is on pulling off headshots and trying to save the more powerful weapons for enemies and situations that demand it.
So, while you'll get by just fine with your unlimited ammo handgun, when you're crowded out and under pressure, you'll invariably be forced to switch to the shotgun, sub-machinegun, machine pistol, magnum, grenade launcher or grenade to deal the maximum possible damage in the shortest possible time. Cycling between weapons is a simple, intuitive process of pressing the C button (or up and down on the d-pad), while reloading functions involve either shaking the remote briefly, or simply pressing the fire button again once you're dry.
Just like in the original, you'll see ammo and health-giving herbs and first aid sprays lying around, but in Umbrella Chronicles you'll also get used to shooting breakable objects and glancing around for otherwise hidden pick-ups. Getting through to the next checkpoint is crucial, so you soon find yourself making the most of the powerful weapons and ammo by learning when the real danger points of the level are coming. On the game's Easy difficulty, it's a useful exercise in not only learning the 'script' as it were - preparing you for the game's more ferocious harder settings, and giving you a chance to know where the quick time events are, as well as knowing how best to respond to the occasional melee attack. Shake boy, shake!
As you go along, the game also unlocks some interesting side-quests, such as Wesker missions which flesh out what this devious little sod was up to at the time. Although they tend to recycle locations and monsters in filler fashion, the real series obsessives will no doubt be thrilled to find some of the plot holes filled in by the typically hammy cut-scenes.
Once the Resident Evil Zero scenarios are done with, the events of the 1996 classic Resident Evil unfold, this time with Rebecca Chambers side-quests available. But rather than simply work through the entire series, Resident Evil 2 is effectively sidelined into the bonus sections of the Resident Evil 3 chapter, rather than having the full focus it richly deserved. This, along with the complete absence of any of the scenarios of the excellent Resident Evil 4 (or Code Veronica) makes it feel like a needlessly curtailed offering (maybe to leave the door open for a sequel).
As nice as it is to have an all-new (new, as in set in 2003) scenario bolted onto the end of the game, I think most fans would rather this served as a full chronicle of the events of the series, rather than just the selected highlights (and rather brief highlights at that). We were expecting a rather more meaty offering, put it that way.
Naturally for an on-rails shooter, it's an incredibly repetitive experience, and not one you should think about charging through all in one go. Best played in small doses, there's no getting away from the pick up and play intensity that it offers - especially when it really starts to test you with the often monumental boss encounters. The fact that you can play the whole thing in simultaneous two-player co-op adds an extra dimension, too, and it can't be underestimated how much fun you'll get out of it with a pal round for some post-pub frolics.
In terms of how it actually feels to play, the Wii is the perfect home for such a game. On-rails shooters demand absolute precision targeting, and the Wii remote offers that for free. Not having to go out and buy an extra peripheral to play it 'properly' is fantastic news, especially as it's a game that lends itself to two-player fun. As the first 'proper' game to support the Wii Zapper, you can pretend you're pointing a gun at the screen instead of just lazily pointing the remote at the screen, but it's not a game that particularly demands that you point a gun-shaped object at the screen to get the most out of it. If anything, you might actually find it slightly easier to play it without the Zapper; as any light-gun veteran will tell you, holding your arms outstretched for extended periods isn't the most comfortable gaming experience you could ever have. Still, (undead) horses for courses.
As with the Wii edition of Resident Evil 4, you can expect top-notch visuals as an added bonus. Seeing almost the whole series re-rendered in an engine as capable as this makes me wish Capcom would re-issue the entire series like this. Presented in 480p widescreen, it's definitely one of the better Wii titles to date - though doesn't quite match the ambition of 4, if only because there's an evident desire to keep things recognisably consistent with how you remember them. On the downside, I did notice a few glitchy moments, and odd texturing, but such nitpicking is overwhelmed by the generally exceptional character model excellence and the hugely atmospheric locations throughout. As for the soundtrack, though - what were they thinking? It seems entirely at odds with the action for the most part, and does absolutely nothing to enhance the ambience.
Needless to say, Umbrella Chronicles isn't the most long-lasting affair, and in absolute gameplay terms it's probably one of the most wafer thin offerings you'll have experienced for years. But in a landscape dominated by epic, sprawling complexity, it's refreshing now and then to kick back and blast away in a game that's as knowingly brain-dead as this. The Resident Evil fans will lap it up, and those of you that fancy a good old fashioned arcade-style zombie blaster can't go wrong. Admittedly it's not everything it could have been, but taken at face value Umbrella Chronicles is a huge amount of fun while it lasts. Having taken a few left turns over the years with the various Gun Survivor titles, it's good to see Capcom come up with an on-rails game which does everything it should.
7 / 10