Let me qualify that title statement, for fear it merely conjures images of a game in which you're supposed to be endlessly surprised to find more zombies lurking behind the next hedgerow. A good (or, indeed, bad) b-movie is not someone sprinting aimlessly around and being constantly jumped by monsters, but rather it's scene-by-scene situational. What fresh horror awaits in the basement, what tricksy traps and obstacles must be overcome to make it out this house alive, and oh no what just happened to that helpful man in the sensible pullover?
In an hour spent playing Bethesda's upcoming survival horror sequel The Evil Within 2 [official site], I found a game that was striving to be a cat's cradle of micro b-movies, spun across a freely-explorable, monster-blighted town. I also found a game that was trying so hard to be scary that my only true fear is that it isn't scary at all.
Let's tackle that last point first; get the gripes out the way before moving onto hopefulness. In a lot of ways, The Evil Within 2 (at least what I played of it, all of which you can watch for yourself in this commentary-free footage of my preview session) was exactly what I expected it to be, which is a third-person horror game very much made for the age of grown adults mock-screaming for coins on Twitch streams. Surprise A HORRIBLE THING and now surprise ANOTHER HORRIBLE THING, and so forth.
I skipped over the first Evil Within despite generally being partial to games about conserving ammo and creeping fearfully around each new corner, partly because SO MANY GAMES but mostly because everything I saw of it suggested a game throwing every horror trope at the wall at high velocity and hoping something stuck, or at least slithered down to the floor with suitably blood-curdling menace. I know that computer game graphics can effectively show us anything in extreme detail now - that's not enough for me anymore, particularly in terms of a horror game. A grotesque distortion of a human body is not a pleasant sight, sure, but without some kind of context - who this is, what do they mean to you, why did the evil Photoshop man do that to poor Lara Croft's neck - it can wind up not meaning much more than a big pile of hitpoints.
Which is exactly what happened at multiple junctures during my time with EW2 - a wearying barrage of Things To Be Frightened Of and little done to make the situation mean anything more than 'don't let your character get killed.' Contrast this with the recent Resident Evil 7 (the latest instalment of a series created by original Evil Within lead Shinji Mikami), which worked hard to give its major enemies definable personalities, motivations beyond slaughtering you and, ultimately, tragic backstories.
Clearly, it's only fair to give EW2 a chance to put weight behind its monsters, and not judge this side of it on the opening hour alone. But there's a big difference between feeling very clearly that I was in a place with actual but corrupted human beings behaving in appropriately unpredictable ways, as I did in RE7, and feeling that I was in a scripted playground full of pop-up things that go bump in the night, as was my initial response to EW2's assorted nasties. Sacks of hitpoints or pillars of graphics I just had to run from until I passed a certain scripted threshold: a fear more of having to repeat myself if I failed than of their grotesquery.
Even an Evil Within 2 sequence that made Adam deeply uncomfortable, in which a monsterised woman force-feeds sickening viscera to a helpless captive, came across to me like more desperate capering for attention. It's icky alright, but what does it matter? Who were these people? What were they to me? Well, one of them has to be shot three times and then it's on to the next house, and the next monster.
Maybe more thoughtful writing and especially acting could have put more meat on those bones - that this has thus far been Generic Videogame Man offering endless gruff, one-note variations on "what the hell was that?" and "where is my daughter?" certainly didn't help. It's pretty clear, despite only passing familiarity with EW1's tale, that All Is Not What It Seems in terms of what the player-character perceives as reality, but he doesn't sell it. I did not care about the raspy-voiced man or his missing daughter, whose only personality appeared to be Missing Daughter. Of course, one doesn't exactly look to b-movies for nuance either, but equally I wouldn't sit through a 12 hour (n.b. I'm guessing entirely at EW2's length here) b-movie for precisely that reason.
Then I stumbled off the beaten track, and found what could be, if handled with consistent verve, EW2's redemptive masterstroke. If I'm reading it right from that hour, it's not one 12 hour b-movie, but rather a confetti-scattering of capsule b-movies, to be discovered and experienced in an order of your choosing. I.e. "Today I'm going to go over there into that part of town or that house or that sinister basement hatch and have a mini, semi-self-contained Resident Evily experience for 45 minutes." That I am absolutely down for.
For context: I played EW2 at an event attended by around a dozen other assorted media, and, once we’d all emerged from the opening monster-monster-monster sections, whenever I glanced over to someone else’s monitor, they were doing something very different to me, in a very different place to me. They wandered in different directions and explored different houses: as simple as that, and yet an oddly rare proposition in the survival horror pantheon, which tends to push one in specific directions.
Specific directions are available if one wants to stick close to the EW2 core plot, but as well as missing out on its clutch of side missions and hidden dungeons, you’ll miss out on a whole bunch of weaponry and other upgrades. In that, it’s a bit like a Far Cry – combing the environment for goodies before you tool up and tackle the big bads. I didn’t get the sense that EW2’s town was as large as a Far Cry, but a) I could be wrong and b) I’m not sure it needs to be, as each location is, hopefully, a little timesink of its own.
This is a game about poking your nose into the next house you stumble past and finding out what’s in there. Of course, usually it’s a few monsters - most of which are zombies by any other name – and a few boxes of ammo or skill upgrade thingers to find, but even then there is the satisfaction of clearing out/surviving a house, a sense of completionism that finishing a level and sitting through the next cutscene can’t provide.
Sometimes though, as it was for me, a house is not just a house – it’s effectively a portal to another world. I used a PC in one and found myself transported to The Armoury, a clearly faraway (or really real?) place of some military function, a maze of oppressive corridors and industrial doors with weird waveform-hacking security and, yes, not-zombies lurching at me from darkened corners.
On its own, not necessarily novel, but again there was that sense of diving off somewhere I hadn’t expected to find, tussling with the evils within it and then leaving it with a sense of completion. I survived The Armoury! I could have run right on past that house to the next and I’d never have seen it, never have known what The Armoury was. The demo ended a little later with – what else? – a giant pop-up monster accosting me unexpectedly as I crept through the streets, and I was left frustrated.
Not from any urge to know how Gruff McGruff-Face survived that encounter, if he ever found Missing Daughter again or if this was all a twisted fantasy of some kind, but simply because I wanted to know what I’d find in the next house if I sprinted off to the East or West or North or South. Because I wanted to play through another little b-movie of my own.
I will accept the game as whole’s apparent absence of wit and over-reliance on Oh No Yet Another Horrible Thing if it really is the case that I can burn through my own private hell for kicks over a lunchtime. I’m not interested in repeatedly screaming at things made of bones and sundered flesh and teeth and spikes all put together in the wrong order, but I am interested in trotting off to a random compass point and surviving whatever horrors lurk behind the next door I choose to open.
The Evil Within 2 is due for release on Friday, October 13.