OLD FRIEND The gameplay comes fast and furious enough to justify frequent detours.
You have to hand it to the folks at Capcom: they simply don’t know how to mail it in. When word came down that the company was developing a Resident Evil–branded, arcade-style shooter for the Wii, a cynical person might have predicted a worthless cash-in. Instead, we have The Umbrella Chronicles, a breakneck tour through the Resident Evil canon that plays like a greatest-hits album.
The Umbrella Chronicles bears a superficial resemblance to Sega’s hit arcade series House of the Dead (which, by the way, spawned the worst movie ever made, which in turn launched the “career” of German auteur Uwe Boll). It’s a first-person, on-rails shooter where you control only the cursor as you blast the rotting skull off one undead freak after another. But whereas House of the Dead never got any more complex than offering a few branching paths, The Umbrella Chronicles proves a deep entry in the light-gun shooter genre.
One key mechanic is the addition of a knife action, which you accomplish by holding the A button and shaking the Wii Remote. Slashing is often preferable to shooting foes in close quarters — this may be the first shooter where the enemies are actually harder to hit the closer they get to you. The knife is also faster than the guns in most cases.
Which is not to suggest that firearms are ineffective. Most of the classic Resident Evil weapons show up, such as the pump-action shotgun and the rocket launcher. Depending on your performance in each level, you can earn stars to upgrade your weapons. That, plus an option to play each level as one of two different characters, accords a substantial degree of replayability to an otherwise brief game. There are several side missions, as well.
And Capcom has one more ace up its sleeve: the ability to draw on the rich history of one of gaming’s best and most enduring franchises. The Umbrella Chronicles would be a blast on its own, but packed as it is with callbacks to signature Resident Evil moments, as well as Easter eggs for hardcore fans of the series, it’s like a visit to an old friend. Controlling such classic characters as Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine and reliving boss battles against iconic monsters like Plant 42 from a fast-moving, first-person perspective is worth the price of admission.
The drawbacks are minor but irksome. The Wii doesn’t seem up to rendering some of the more graphically intensive scenes. The artwork is fine, but a chugging frame rate isn’t uncommon. And though the gameplay is difficult (but not grueling), the developers could have hooked a brother up with a few more checkpoints. Sometimes it’s astonishing how far back you restart after your character dies. Still, the gameplay comes fast and furious enough to justify these frequent detours.
The Umbrella Chronicles is one of the first games designed for the Wii’s Zapper peripheral. Although I didn’t play with the Zapper, it’s hard to imagine how the new gadget would improve the experience. By default, the B button on the underside of the Wii Remote acts as the trigger, and since the Zapper positions that button on the front of the gun, the operation may even seem counterintuitive. And the flicking motion necessary to use the knife would seem more difficult to achieve when the Remote is stuck in a plastic frame.
Either way, the standard Remote and Nunchuk set-up doesn’t lack effectiveness. It may just be less æsthetically appealing if you’re a he-man in your own mind — and isn’t that why we play games in the first place?