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Hands-on: Evil Within E3 demo displays mix of familiarity and brilliance

By Tamoor Hussain on Tuesday 27th May 2014 at 3:00 PM BST

Expectations. We're betting that's what probably scares the people behind The Evil Within the most right now.

The triple-A survival horror is on its last legs, with pre-eminent franchises such as Resident Evil and Dead Space side-stepping into a more commercially fruitful genre, and their quality overall declining.

Shinji Mikami, widely considered to be the father of the modern survival-horror, credited as the mastermind behind Resident Evil 4, is helming The Evil Within, which is to be the last game he directs. Mikami's own teardowns of Japanese development and the declining quality of survival horror games are a comforting kind of awareness; he sees the sickness, and sounds like he has a plan to fix it.

But is The Evil Within really the cure? We recently had the opportunity to play the E3 2014 demo, and while we'd love to say it eased our fears, what we played felt more like the genre's reanimated remains doing the same old shuffle.

Resident Evil 4 cast a big shadow, and the games that managed to step out from it were the ones that captured its essence and offered a fresh take on it. Dead Space is the most notable success, with its sci-fi trappings, zero-gravity set-pieces and emphasis on strategic dismemberment.

The worry with The Evil Within is that it will be a bit too similar to Resident Evil 4, relying on the same tricks, themes and gameplay wrinkles as its spiritual predecessor, thus failing to differentiate itself or add anything new to the mix. And there was certainly a prevailing feeling of déjà vu while playing it.

In the first chapter, titled 'Inner Recesses', protagonist Sebastian Castellanos must travel to a hospice where a character named Leslie was treated many years ago. Since our demo skipped around chapters, much of the story was lost, so we're not quite sure who Leslie is and what he was treated for. Or the role the Doctor travelling with us has to play - other than to incessantly nag us for not going directly to the objective.

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In the basement of a sinister building, the rooms of which we've pillaged for ammo and healing gels, the mumblings of a madman can be heard echoing. As you approach the the voice becomes clearer.

"Hush, hush, don't you fret. The good doctor is here. Peel away, no tearing. Expose everything," he says from behind blood splattered curtains.

His portly frame can be seen craned over a body, the sounds of organs slushing and skin peeling are made that much worse by grunts exertion and heavy breathing.

"There was certainly a prevailing feeling of déjà vu"

Your companion, who is revealed to be the brother of this creepy Dr. Valerio, disturbs his gruesome game of Operation. He looks over his shoulder, and then turns to show the skin on his head has been ripped away. The good doctor then slowly advances towards Sebastian brandishing a knife.

The scene plays out like an almost shot-for-shot remake of the first time you encounter the axe-wielding Ganado in RE4. And the battle with him is equally familiar. The Evil Within uses an over-the-shoulder perspective, and the key to engaging enemies is to target weak points such as the head with a well placed shots.

Alternatively, areas such as the knees can be shot to stagger your foe, leaving them open to up-close melee attacks. While Leon would get to punching and stomping to finish the job, Sebastian uses matches to set enemies on fire. Naturally, these are a consumable object, scarcely hidden within drawers, cupboards and boxes.

On the one hand, the familiarity of combat is welcome; for those with RE4 experience, it's easy to slip back into the shoot-and-move style of combat. But on the other it feels slightly off, there's a noticeable lack of impact to the gunshots, even with the heavier weapon types. And Sebastian feels like he's a bit light on his feet, which means there's never a pressure of being overwhelmed by enemies.

"The Evil Within makes good use of moody lighting to compensate for its largely muted palette"

Where The Evil Within could set its gameplay apart is in its sneaking and cover. Environments are primed with places players can crawl under or climb into to escape enemies. During our play session we never encountered anything that put us on the backfoot enough to consider cowering, but the mechanic alludes to a enemy varieties that require a defter approach to overcome.

Enemies that we didn't engage head on, were toppled using one-hit melee kills. These are achieved using a low-profile crouch walk to sneak up behind and jam a knife into their heads. This low-profile also suggests a potential freedom to pick whether to engage enemies or not. In the final game, we imagine certain enemy types, like the previously revealed Butcher, will be better avoided than engaged.

Based on our experience however, the combat was a vanilla replication of Resident Evil 4's, perhaps simplified to place emphasis on other areas, such as presentation and ambience.

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Some similarities to Resident Evil 4 are a boon for The Evil Within. The first chapter is mostly spent exploring the dark corners of an abandoned area much like the sleepy little Spanish town where Leon began his mission. The Evil Within makes good on the atmospheric qualities of Resident Evil 4 and, backed by the power of new hardware, intensifies them.

Although the streets were completely empty, the game manages to instill a feeling of apprehension, with presentation flourishes. There was always a feeling something that horrible is waiting just around the next corner.

It's clear careful craftsmanship has gone into setting each scene. Visually, The Evil Within makes good use of moody lighting to compensate for its largely muted palette, but it's the smaller touches that are most effective; the whistling wind that intermittently lashes out and whips foliage into the sky, making blades of grass sway back and forth hypnotically. Or the flash of lightning that feels almost strategically timed to make plates, cups and chairs cast a shadow that looked kind of like a person creeping up.

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There's some subtle audio touches too; a faint snarling sound that may or may not be coming from some unseen nasty hidden in the darkness; save room music that can be heard faintly in the distance, inviting you to take refuge.

There's an oppressive, unsettling ambience to the world and, encouragingly, we're given the opportunity to soak it in, instead of having waves of enemies thrown at us.

"The demo felt most interesting when it tried to mess with our heads."

It's easy to forget that The Evil Within is more of a psychological-thriller than a traditional horror game. In Japan, the game is known as Psychobreak, hinting at the game's intentions to assault the mind of the player, more than the fingers. And it felt at its best, and most interesting, when it was trying to mess with our heads.

Chapter two, 'The Cruelest Intentions', felt like a glorious throwback to the PlayStation One era Resident Evil titles, where you felt like a rat in maze, desperately scuttling to and fro solving puzzles to find a way out.

It opens by leading us into, yup, you guessed it, a mansion. At the center of its lobby is a giant, magnificent iron door with a strange contraption preventing progression: a giant head with gears representing different parts of the brain. In order to activate each gear, we must explore the mansion, uncover its various secrets and solve its challenges.

Some are simple, requiring us only to clear a room of enemies to reach a make our way to a small lab, where the dissected skull of a human remains. A short audio clip plays, with the voice describing in detail which area of the brain is being stimulated in order to illicit an emotional response. By consulting a nearby diagram, the player must guide a probe into the appropriate section mentioned in the audio clip.

As you poke and prod at the brain, the face - somehow still alive - contorts sickeningly, apparently responding to the pain of having needles jammed into it. Once the right is probed, blood is extracted and funnelled into a brain compartment in the main lobby to power the gear.

Occasionally the environment will unexpectedly spring traps on the player. In one hallway the floor suddenly became a conveyer belt, feeding us into rotating pillars with razor-edged blades on them. These require some quick thinking to escape first time - in this case it meant shooting a switch just above the death trap.

In another area Mikami and company took inspiration from The Shining's elevator of blood scene, which in our demo turned into comedy since work on blood clearly hadn't been completed, so it looked like a wave of red bouncy balls threatened to drown us. But we did appreciate what they were going for.

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One of the more memorable puzzles involved exploring to two separate rooms to recover the dials of a safe. However, the code needed to unlock it was cleverly hidden in the environment itself. In two of the rooms the same painting can be seen, except on one the upper-half is torn away, and on the other, the bottom.

Hidden in the music room of the building is a note: "Two worlds, separated by a jagged chasm. Above, faceless spectators mocking the tragedy. Below, helpless victims losing everything."

When combined the two torn pieces of the painting depict a women being beheaded. The combination to the safe is gleaned by using the clue in the note. The first number pertains to the how many faceless spectators there are looking down, while the bottom is the number of people partaking in the execution.

The clever puzzle design in this area is complemented by ambient storytelling. The building clearly hides a dark past, and when the puzzles are solved a ghostly apparition of a child appears, speaking to a doctor about some strange experiments he's conducted and large donations to a hospital in exchange for "materials". There's also the issue of missing parents, which is probably linked to the two decomposed bodies in the master bedroom.

There's an interesting story intricately woven into the house. Some players could completely miss it by streamrolling through the rooms killing enemies and solving puzzles, but those that pay attention to the details will be rewarded for it.

Unfortunately, our experience of playing The Evil Within suffered due to the disjointed nature of the demo. Without the connective tissue between the chapters and the ability to play through areas to the very end, the whole thing felt inconsistent.

In large part, it was a bit too familiar, relying too much on Resident Evil 4's conventions as a crutch, and not doing much beyond, and feeling a bit worn and pedestrian because of it. But at the same time there are were also moments of genuine brilliance; the ambient environments, puzzles and mini-stories.

Given the history and the pedigree of the developers behind The Evil Within, we've got our fingers crossed that this was case of muddled demo over muddled game.