Why the epic zombie soap opera "Resident Evil" should not be played in the dead of night. Plus: Baseball and Jet Li.

Published April 29, 2004 9:25PM (EDT)


Tom: They say movies are getting more like video games, but here's a video game that's practically a little movie.

Jeff: I can't decide if it's brilliant that Jet Li is leading the action-film-star pack by appearing in a video game built around him or merely succumbing to the first stages of career stagnation.

Tom: I haven't seen any big action-movie appearances by him lately, come to think of it. I think his career may have peaked when it was rumored he was going to be Boba Fett in "Star Wars: Episode III."

Jeff: Only you would regard rumors of an appearance in George Lucas' diminished franchise as a high point in someone's career, particularly a performer as cool as Jet Li. Anyway, he's still huge in Asia.

Tom: So that's a billion fans right there. And this game, I think, was explicitly made for the Chinese market, seeing that all of it is actually in Cantonese. A brave choice not to redub it for the American audience, I would say.

Jeff: Not so brave is your refusal to buy a new television, you self-styled literary intellectual, which is so small we can't read the subtitles.

Tom: Yeah, I really think we're missing out on all the Shakespearean cadences of the dialogue between scenes of Jet Li spin-kicking guys in the face.

Jeff: The big innovation of "Jet Li: Rise to Honor" is the fighting controls. Unlike most fighting games, which rely on the manipulation of the baseball diamond of buttons above the right joystick, "Rise to Honor" relies on the joysticks and only two "action buttons." Which means you have less control over what kind of moves you're doing. It's all just timing and watching the automated moves come to ass-kicking fruition.

Tom: The moves are cool.

Jeff: They're very cool. The graphics are stunning, the gameplay is smooth, the combos are wonderful. But it's a little unkinetic. It's kind of like an extremely sophisticated version of "Dragon's Lair." Though this is the first fighting game I've ever seen where you can use other people as a melee weapon. You can also throw chairs, aquariums. You can even pummel opponents with a frozen duck.

Tom: Nice move there, knocking that guy down and crushing his chest cavity with a swift and carefully placed heel stomp.

Jeff: Thank you. I wish I could say I meant to do it, but I'm just flailing this joystick around.

Tom: Let's talk about the other stuff Jet Li can do. He's like a little Asian Spider-Man.

Jeff: The motion-capture animation really re-creates the violent grace of the best Hong Kong action films. He flips over cars, jumps up buildings, runs along walls. And not a few of his kicks resemble a positively lethal form of break dancing.

Tom: The plot of this, so far as I can tell, is a bunch of Chinese mafia hooey.

Jeff: They're called the Triads.

Tom: So what do we like here?

Jeff: The game definitely gets better the more you play. It's fun to watch. There are a lot of save points, which helps, because some of the fights are impossibly difficult.

Tom: Mostly you're fighting a bunch of sweat-shirt-hooded, somersault-tumbling Adidas ninjas. The levels are good, but they're a little repetitive. An awful lot of the game involves chasing people to some rooftop and then having a final showdown-type battle, complete with dialogue along the lines of "Let's see who's better!"

Jeff: Here's a question: You're being chased. Where's the last place you'd think to run, the one place with zero chance to escape?

Tom: Uh, a rooftop?

Jeff: You'd think so, wouldn't you?

Tom: I just like the style. Whether outrunning a volley of machine gun fire or staying a step ahead of an assault chopper's Gatling guns, "Rise to Honor" has a ton of zazz.

Jeff: Zazz?

Tom: Zazz!


Tom: It's the top of the ninth, and your Boston Red Sox trail the fearsome New York Yankees 2 to 5. Two outs, runners on second and third, one strike, two balls, and Jason Giambi steps to the plate. Tim Wakefield looks in.

Jeff: Hey, Bob Costas, shut the hell up. It'd be a lot closer if I could figure out the defense. I can't believe you've hit two inside-the-park home runs on me during this game!

Tom: Three. I'm always amazed by how much fun these baseball games are to play. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot to them, yet they're always terrific fun -- almost as much fun as real baseball, except without all the pesky sunlight and distracting fresh air.

Jeff: How do you warm up pitchers again? The setups are really complicated.

Tom: Figure it out yourself. Better yet, send your manager to the mound for a check-in. Great touch, that, even if it is totally pointless. It's almost as great as the "charge the mound" option after you get beaned.

Jeff: I like the "happiness meter" each player gets. If you visit the mound and destroy the pitcher's confidence, his happiness decreases and he plays worse. Same with if you put them on the trading block between games.

Tom: What I like most about "MVP Baseball" is the pitching control, which feels really new to me. The whole process requires a fairly delicate touch to achieve the velocity and accuracy needed to four-hit this struggling Red Sox team.

Jeff: Let's see how you handle Wakefield's fluttering knuckler. Strike 2!

Tom: To be honest, baseball games haven't achieved any kind of paradigm shift in recent years as far as gameplay goes, but they do keep improving visually. They've nicely rendered Giambi's batting stance, and Fenway looks good enough to eat a hot dog. Hear that peanut vendor in the stand? They've even got the new seats on top of the Green Monster. Although they'd need to stamp the game with a "Mature Audiences" warning to truly capture the atmosphere of a typically disgruntled Fenway crowd.

Jeff: Strike 3! Sit down, steroid freak! OK, Nomar, Ortiz and Manny are up.

Tom: You're a little bit overinvested in this, don't you think?

Jeff: Look, I'm a Mets fan, but you chose the Yankees and I wasn't about to feed the Mets' anemic lineup to them, even if the game doesn't reflect the A-Rod trade.

Tom: Mo Rivera deals. It's a long fly ball to the gap ... Matsui dives and makes the spectacular diving catch!

Jeff: Have you noticed how every fielding play in this game is a spectacular diving catch? Thank god there's no EA Sportscenter. The highlight reel would never end. All right. David Ortiz is up. And he singles!

Tom: Nice hit.

Jeff: Manny Ramirez up.

Tom: It would be nice if you could play with classic teams.

Jeff: They have all the double- and triple-A minor league teams. That's pretty great.

Tom: Yeah, but wouldn't it be fun to have Cobb hitting against Gibson? If I were playing Gibson I'd plunk him.

Jeff: Double! And the tying run comes to the plate. Here's Millar.

Tom: We should probably point out the other unusual thing about this game, which we discovered earlier in the evening. This is the rather odd presence in the San Francisco Giants left field of the rather conspicuously white "J. Dowd" rather than Barry Bonds.

Jeff: Yeah, Bonds dropped out of the MLB licensing deal this year, so we're stuck with "J. Dowd." Michael Jordan pulled this crap in a few of EA's "NBA Live" games and earned the enmity of any number of gamers and basketball fans. Damn again! Ground out.

Tom: And the Yanks are just one out from avenging the real-world sweep at home last weekend. And Jason Varitek steps to the plate. Runners on second and third. Strike 1!

Jeff: I dare you to throw that pitch again.

Tom: Strike 2!

Jeff: This time I mean it. Throw that pitch again.

Tom: Str--

Jeff: It's a long fly ball. It could be out of there. It's going, it's going, it might be, it could be ...

Tom: Gee, that's original. Maybe you should call games for a living.

Jeff: The Red Sox tie it up! The Red Sox tie it up!

Tom: Looks like extra innings. It's a good thing I'm drunk.


Jeff: You should begin by telling the now classic Tom-playing-"Resident Evil" story.

Tom: I'd actually really prefer not to.

Jeff: Should I tell it, then?

Tom: I would really appreciate it if you didn't.

Jeff: So Tom is playing "Resident Evil 3" alone. It's 3 o'clock in the morning.

Tom: I'm going to jump in here to point out that the "Resident Evil" games are incredibly scary.

Jeff: So I get a call. From Tom. At 3 o'clock in the morning.

Tom: It was more like 1 o'clock in the morning.

Jeff: No, it was 3. I remember it very well.

Tom: It was 2:30 at the absolute latest.

Jeff: As I recall, you were upset.

Tom: Look. It's a scary game.

Jeff: Quite upset.

Tom: I don't know why you're getting into all this.

Jeff: You asked me to come over. You offered to pause the game until I got to your apartment because you were about to enter a room you hadn't been in before and you only had three shotgun shells left.

Tom: I needed ... I was looking for support and friendship. I was going through a lot at that particular point in my life. Not all of it was about "Resident Evil 3." And anyway, you refused to come over.

Jeff: It was a weeknight!

Tom: I was upset and in need of simple human support and friendship and you declined to help me. And I haven't forgotten it. Again, "Resident Evil" is a frightening game. Playing it takes a lot out of a person.

Jeff: So that's the classic Tom-playing-"Resident Evil" story.

Tom: Like you haven't stayed up half the night playing soccer.

Jeff: I've never called you in tears at 3 in the morning, though.

Tom: I was not in tears!

Jeff: In Tom's defense, the "Resident Evil" games are pretty intense. They are probably the most cinematic games I've ever seen, and with their constantly changing camera angles, real-time pacing, and relentlessly creepy and blood-spattered environments, they ushered in a whole new genre, that of "survival horror."

Tom: Note the "horror" part.

Jeff: Do you want to give us a walk-through of the "Resident Evil" story line? It's fairly complicated.

Tom: I'm no expert. There are whole Web sites and timelines dedicated to piecing together the story, which is more elaborate and features more dropped narrative threads than "Infinite Jest."

Jeff: Let's begin with the first "Resident Evil."

Tom: Right. You're a part of an elite force known as S.T.A.R.S., or "Special Tactics and Rescue Squad." The characters you can control are Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, and you're aided by Rebecca Chambers, Barry Burton and Albert Wesker. All of you flee some mutant dogs by running into an abandoned mansion. The nearby town of Raccoon City is experiencing a zombie crisis you've been called upon to investigate. But no one knows what's going on. It's chaos, urban warfare. As it happens, the zombies have spread to the mansion, and you have to go through killing them room by room while finding clues to piece together the conspiracy that created the zombie outbreak.

Jeff: The Umbrella Corporation.

Tom: I'm getting to that. Umbrella is this big multinational research company. Germ warfare, biochemicals, and what have you. So as it turns out, Wesker is a traitor, there's this big monster called the Tyrant chasing after you, and there are also giant spiders and reptile-human creatures called "Hunters" that are very fast and deadly ... and I'm getting upset again.

Jeff: It's OK. I'm here now.

Tom: So you make it out of the mansion. But Wesker escapes, and the town of Raccoon City is pretty much taken over by zombies.

Jeff: I love that -- Raccoon City.

Tom: This is a Japanese game. I think they were trying for some kind of all-American, idiomatic-sounding city name. But I agree, it's weird. A lot of it is weird. In fact, much of "Resident Evil" gets filed in the little box I keep in my brain marked "Reasons Why the Japanese Are Weird."

Jeff: And then there's the elaborately bad dialogue and acting.

Tom: Which is classic. Some great, Japanese-scripted, woodenly acted lines from the first "Resident Evil": "Lost your courage already?" "I'm sorry for my lack of manners, but I'm not used to escorting men." "Well, I think I'll go outside to get some fresh air for a change."

Jeff: On to "Resident Evil 2."

Tom: An amazing game. Here you're Leon Kennedy, a rookie cop about to report for his first day of duty as a Raccoon City cop, and Claire Redfield, Chris' sister, who's searching for her brother. You fight your way out of Raccoon City, stumble into the bowels of the Umbrella lab, and again fight the Tyrant at terrifyingly random points. You also learn that something called the "T-virus" is responsible for the outbreak. The game is nonstop, zombie-shotgunning action. A masterpiece. You just haven't experienced survival horror until you've taken a zombie's head off at point-blank range with a .38.

Jeff: Many of the "Resident Evil" games offer this great concurrent story line, wherein you're seeing the same boards and story lines from a slightly different angle or just moments after the characters from the last game visited them. It's an interesting way to create a mythology. Or a zombie soap opera. So now "Resident Evil 3."

Tom: Right. You're Jill from the first one again. More zombies, more terror. This one took a lot out of me. I swore off "Resident Evil" after finishing it. I figure life is too short to get that upset.

Jeff: Which means you missed "Resident Evil: Code Veronica," which I played and quite enjoyed. Wesker comes back in this one, and actually injects himself with the T-virus. Chris and Claire get reunited, and there's a ve-he-he-ery creepy incest subplot involving blond twins.

Tom: I wouldn't put incest past Umbrella. Bastards.

Jeff: So here we've got "Resident Evil: Outbreak," which places you in Raccoon City in the midst of the first stages of the city's zombie-infection. Looks very promising. You can be eight different characters, and rather than one straight story you get different snapshots of action that take place during all three "Resident Evil" games. You can also, to quote the promotional material, "enter the ranks" of the zombies when you die. You can play as a zombie!

Tom: Philosophically, I have to say, I'm opposed to this.

Jeff: "Outbreak" brings back all the classic "Resident Evil" motifs: the standard handgun, the shotgun, the weirdly antiquated typewriters you save your progress with, the even weirder diaries and newspaper clippings you find, the 8 million keys you need to find to open doors, the "green herbs" you eat to restore your health.

Tom: Green herbs! Love the green herbs. You can also find liquor bottles and make Molotov cocktails. But you need the lighter. Wait. I wonder if you can combine the lighter with the green herbs, if you know what I mean.

Jeff: How's the gameplay?

Tom: Awesome. But unlike previous games, you can't instantly reload on the inventory screen. You have to sit there and patiently reload while zombies are coming at you. Jesus Christ, hurry up! There's also a lot more you can do and fight with: pipes, butcher knives, mop handles, flame throwers. Tons and tons of new stuff. You can hold doors shut to keep out zombies! The zombies are faster and more rapacious too.

Jeff: This game does manage the most faithful rendering of death-by-zombie I've ever seen.

Tom: Back too is the utter tedium. Waiting for the load screens, for instance, which are longer than ever. Trying to figure out all the "Myst"-like puzzles, for another instance.

Jeff: I like the tedium. It makes the terror that much more punctuated and upsetting. You do realize that a zombie's eating you right now.

Tom: I'm not used to having to wait this long to reload!

Jeff: Also new in "Outbreak" is how you're acting in tandem with your fellow survivors. You can give them stuff, take stuff from them, and when they're hurt and knocked down, you have to help them up and carry them to safety.

Tom: Fuck that. They're on their own. This is scary enough without having to worry about helping other people.

Jeff: Listen to yourself. You're no better than the zombies, playing like that. Or Wesker, for that matter.

Tom: I'm running through a hallway and zombies are chasing me. I'm out of ammo. Jeff, I'm telling you: I really hate this game. I don't like it. It makes me upset.

Jeff: You know, I sort of miss the pool of blood that used to spread out beneath a zombie when you finally, really kill it. Now their undead bodies simply disappear.

Tom: I'm glad you're feeling relaxed enough to make such desultory observations. But I'm running for my fucking life, here.

Jeff: I also like how clumsy the controls are. Which is by design, I think. You're not that fast, it's hard to equip weapons, moving around is sometimes tricky with all the changing camera angles.

Tom: Would you shut your mouth for five minutes? I'm trying to think.

Jeff: You're limping and leaving behind a blood trail. And the graphics depicting it are just beautiful, too.

Tom: I have so much hatred for you right now.

Jeff: If you're thinking like that, then the zombies have already won.

Tom: Go to hell.

Jeff: So, in summation, should people buy this game?

Tom: Only if they don't mind urine stains in their undies. And have better, more supportive friends than you.

By Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell spent five months living in Vietnam in 2004. "The Father of All Things," an account of his first journey to Vietnam with his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, will be published by Pantheon early next year. A portion of the book recently appeared in "Best American Travel Writing 2005."

MORE FROM Tom Bissell

By Jeff Alexander

Tom Bissell is the author of "Chasing the Sea." Jeff Alexander is a writer living in Brooklyn. Their book, "Speak, Commentary," a collection of fake DVD commentaries, was published by McSweeney's last fall.

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