"Take that! Ha!"
It perhaps indicates that I've reached that dreaded point in any gamer's life when you realise that it's taking you months to complete lengthy games, but I've devoted a lot of my Wii time to Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles this past month precisely because I know that it's easy to pick up and put down. This is a game divided into discrete, bite-size, but inter-related chapters - each of which, while often nicely challenging, can typically be completed in twenty or thirty minutes. Compared to the main line of Resident Evil games – exploration-based with an emphasis on the conservation of ammunition, full of tough boss fights and with save points moderately spaced – this all-guns blazing rail shooter is definitely Resident Evil: The Casual Game. Not that this is a bad thing.
As the title suggests, Umbrella Chronicles spans the events before Resident Evil 4, detailing the rise and fall of the Umbrella corporation from the first grisly events in the Raccoon City forests to its last desperate gambit. Along the way we retread, in rail shooter format, the events of Resident Evil 0, Resident Evil and Resident Evil 3, before unveiling the previously unrevealed swansong of Umbrella, deep in the frozen wastes of Siberia. Completing these chapters also unlocks a number of side-misions, filling in the stories of secondary characters, with an especial focus on unflappable, black-clad Albert Wesker.
Gameplay in Umbrella Chronicles is, on the face of it, very simple. The wii remote acts as a pointer for a set of crosshairs and pulling the trigger-like B button fires your character's gun. The screen takes a first person view, creeping carefully through claustrophobic corridors and devastated streets. Perhaps because this movement is largely out of your control, Umbrella Chronicles does a better job of creating a sense of POV than most first person shooters. At times the characters do seem to be a bit dense in terms of when they choose to look at obvious threats, but typically there's a nice pace to things, as the view sweeps around fearfully, with little clue as to when danger will strike.
An additional layer of complexity is added in the form of special weapons with limited ammunition, and difficult-to-perform critical hits that can allow you to defeat dangerous or plentiful foes with your infinite ammo handgun. There's also a fair bit of button bashing and wii-mote waving to avoid attacks during boss fights and cut scenes; while quickly shaking the wii-mote after a zombie latches onto you will cause your character to pull off a stylish counter-attack. Some of the characters seem to just perform the same boring punch, but Rebecca uses a grenade, Jill tasers and kicks (while shouting "Take that! Ha!" a line I must have heard about a hundred times already), while Wesker and Hunk perform their trademark 'thrust punch' (think The Matrix) and 'neck snap' (a move as balletic as it is brutal) respectively. It's an interesting mechanic in that it shows how a player who is doing badly can both be leant a hand by a game (when it's been a bad day for aiming, I've counter-attacked my way through whole hoards of zombies) and even be given a conciliatory reward in the form of a neat little cut scene (and catchy exclamation - "Take that! Ha!").
As a digest of the story so far (RE4 and RE: Code Veronica notwithstanding), Umbrella Chronicles naturally seems like a good stepping-on point for those unfamiliar with the series, while by fleshing out some of the events taking place in the shadows, there's also plenty here for die-hard fans as well. Similarly, the system of ranks and rewards means that playing for fun, or playing to obsessively hone your skills, are both equally valid approaches to the game. Above all, though, owning Umbrella Chronicles means I can always spend twenty minutes killing zombies with some of my favourite video game characters. Simple, undemanding, engaging, and above all: fun.