In 1996, a game called Resident Evil was released on the Sony PlayStation and invented a new genre.
There had been scary games before, and gory games before, and zombie games before - Doom was all of these, for instance. But Resident Evil was something new, something distinctly cinematic. And so the survival horror was born.
It had a story rather than a setting, and set-piece events that played out like the most terrifying moments in a Wes Craven film. It was actually worse than that, though, because you were an active participant. In fact sometimes it was so scary that you weren't really sure you wanted to play any more. But at the same time, you didn't want to not play either. And when a game toys with your emotions like that, it's doing something right.
That The Evil Within manages the same trick is to be applauded, but it's also hardly surprising given that the man behind it is Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami. What is surprising is that nearly 20 years on from his first game, he's moved on so little. Is that a problem? Only if you're more bothered about history than you are about being creeped out.
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THERE WILL BE BLOOD
The Evil Within is a deeply unsettling game. You play Sebastian Castellanos, a detective investigating a murder who soon finds himself trapped in a nightmare world in which strange creatures roam through abandoned villages and blood is never far away.
We played two chapters, four and eight, and saw more of the red stuff than in a dozen Call Of Duties. But it's far from a combat-filled slashathon. Instead, The Evil Within is a true survival horror in the RE tradition: ammo and health are scarce, and your best bet is often to avoid the various grotesques you encounter.
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
Chapter four starts outside of a ramshackle village. Various buildings are on fire and menacing sounds can be heard nearby. A doctor character appears and urges us to get inside. Though he has a beard, he's clearly no fixie-riding hipster, so we decide to trust him. But before legging it into the nearest hut, we assign our weapons to shortcuts on the d-pad. Not that we get many. There's a revolver and a shotgun, plus a crossbow which can be equipped with various bolts, but hardly any ammunition.
We also get a lantern, but using it tends to attract the undead like milkshake-hungry boys to Kelis' yard. Plus, we get some matches. These are essential, because while a single headshot will down most enemies, they won't stay down for long unless you set fire to them.
We follow the good doctor inside in search of safety and soon meet his brother, but before long we're being attacked by shuffling maniacs and tearing down corridors away from hideous somethings. It plays nicely enough, and looks good, but it's not exactly groundbreaking.
And then things start to get weird. A ghostly hooden figure called Ruvik appears in front of us and suddenly the door that we were heading for is gone. We turn round but the door behind us has also disappeared. This Ruvik, who the doctor seems to know, appears to be shifting the environment around us.
We escape, somehow, only to plunge down a chute into some kind of abandoned warehouse filled with chest-high water. Only it's not water, it's blood. Flies buzz around, corpses are piled up everywhere and it's really not the kind of place you want to hang around in.
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CHUTE TO KILL
Still, at least there's a bit of time to think down here. Nothing appears to be moving (other than the flies) and we're in no immediate danger. So we look around. Pulling a lever disgorges another corpses into the pool. Another one drains the blood away, revealing some much-needed ammo.
And then, just as we're starting to relax, we trigger an explosive trap and die. We were told by Bethesda reps beforehand that in the final game you'll be able to save at regular points, but in our demo we're reliant on checkpoints. So it's back to the blood pool for us.
The traps are a recurring hazard in The Evil Within, and they can also be used to your advantage - assuming you spot them in time. If you do, you can disarm them (via a simple mini-game) and salvage the parts; these parts can then be used for upgrades, presumably to your weapons, though this mechanic was disabled in the demo. Alternatively you can leave them armed and use them against the zombies.
On the second time round, we make it as far the only door out. And then - bam! - Rovik's there again, the door's gone and we're trapped. Worse still, all of those piled-up corpses are now moving. Oh, and when Rovik touches us, it drains our health to one bar. We don't last long.
On the third go, we're prepared. We use the traps against the zombies, ducking under tripwares and blowing them apart. As we set fire to the last one, the door reappears and we're outta there.
Not that it makes much difference. Within a few minutes we've encountered a hideous spider-demon-girl-thing who seemingly can't be killed. Running away is the only option - at one point, we even have to dive under a closing door, Indiana Jones-style. It's heart-pumping stuff, but a bit on the relentless side and much of it passes too quickly for us to really appreciate it.
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In fairness, chapter eight is a little less frantic. It's set in a mansion which appears to have been some kind of hospital. The doctor's back, with his brother, but they dart through a pair of metal doors before we can catch up with them. The doors lock behind them and when we notice that the mechanism is missing a few parts, we realise that we're going to have to find them within the distinctly uninviting bowels of the mansion.
Now by this time we know what's coming, so we don't really want to do that. But at the same time, we want to know who this doctor is, what he's got to hide, how his brother fits into it and who Ruvik is. That, and we're on work time here, with very little desire to head back to the office. So onwards we creep.
The mansion is less overtly grim than the warehouse in chapter four, but every bit as dangerous. Most rooms contain zombies, Rovik keeps popping up and there are a couple of set-piece QTEs to navigate. In one of these, we're dragged towards a set of whirring, whirling, grinding rollers and have to shoot out the power switch before we're turned into paté. We manage it the second time.
At one point, we stumble across a room which appears to be a lab of some kind. There's a brain on the table, and we soon learn that we're supposed to stick a probe into it in order to... make something happen. This we do, and are rewarded with a sort of holographic playback of a conversation between the doctor and his brother. Later on, we find another of these brains but plunging the probe in merely ends up killing us.
And that's doubly annoying, because checkpoints on this level are few and far between, so we end up playing and replaying the same section again and again. It's presumably not a problem that will exist in the finished version, but it rather spoils our experience of the level and we eventually give up rather than spend another 20 minutes retreading the same path and dispatching the same zombies.
THE EVIL WITHIN: INITIAL VERDICT
There's not much that's new about The Evil Within. If you've played Resident Evil, Silent Hill or The Last Of Us you'll be at home here, and if you loved those games then from what we've seen you'll love this too.
Although 'love' is perhaps the wrong word. It's unsettling, creepy and disturbing, possibly more so than any of its predecessors - if only because of the better graphics on offer on the next-gen consoles.
It's also really quite hard. Death is inevitable and we never, ever felt as if we could drop our guard.
But then that's the essence of a good survival horror game - to keep you constantly on edge. And The Evil Within certainly does that.
The Evil Within will be released on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC on October 21/24 (US/Europe).
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