Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Resident Evil 7 DLC Review: "Not A Hero" and "End of Zoe"

December 12th saw the release of what might be the final pieces of DLC for Resident Evil 7 -- the free Not A Hero scenario in which you play as Chris Redfield trying to find Lucas in the moments immediately following the base game's conclusion, and the $14.99 End of Zoe (part of the season pass) in which you play as Joe Baker (Jack's brother) trying to find a cure for Zoe after she starts being crystallized by the mold, as seen in the base game. Each scenario lasts roughly two hours and provides closure for some loose end of the main story. This final (?) round of DLC feels like a nice coda for a game that I absolutely loved, the final bit of content to round everything out into a full and complete experience, and yet I also feel somewhat underwhelmed by them, and perhaps in the case of one of them, outright disappointed. See the full review for my thoughts on each one.

Not A Hero

Not A Hero had been teased ever since the base game was first released, back in January 2017, with a giant in-game splash image upon finishing main story, advertising that it would be available "Spring 2017." After the glowing reception Resident Evil 7 received from the general public, Capcom decided the already in-progress work on Not A Hero wasn't good enough, and announced that the free DLC would be delayed while they worked to bring it up to par with the quality fans would expect. It was kind of a weird statement to begin with, almost implying that they felt like Not A Hero was fine until they realized how much people actually enjoyed Resident Evil 7, and then only decided after that realization that they should actually bother to make Not A Hero good instead of just mediocre, as if they were content for it to be mediocre in the first place. But whatever. Nine months later they finally got around to releasing Not A Hero, and I eagerly played through it on launch day. It felt pretty mediocre to me.

Locating one of Chris's teammates in the mines.

Not A Hero takes place immediately following the ending cutscene of the base game, after Ethan defeats Eveline and meets Chris Redfield. You play as Chris, still with the BSAA but now cooperating with a rebranded Umbrella Corporation, who're supposedly trying to clean up for their past mistakes, trying to find info on "The Connections" who're ultimately responsible for the mold-like bioweapons by tracking down Lucas Baker in the mines near the Baker estate. That's the general premise at least -- in this scenario, you're sent into action to rescue three of your teammates who've gone non-responsive in the mines.

There's really not much more to the story than that -- the setup is a quick and simple matter of "rescue these three guys," and then the rest of the scenario is following paths until you find the key items that will let you reach the next guy, and killing (or running away from) a bunch of enemies that get in your way. It is, quite simply, a cursory game plot meant to give you objectives to complete without really telling a story. Any story elements you glean from this DLC are found in research notes and journal entries and things which clear up some of the base game's backstory, but I found most of this information to be somewhat humdrum -- most of it was stuff that everyone had already guessed a long time ago, anyway, and none of it really has any impact on anything except to make you scratch your head wondering why it's supposed to be significant or how this new information is supposed to mesh with the existing information we already had in the base game.

Exploding a molded into smithereens with a Chris Redfield punch.

As for the gameplay itself; Not A Hero is much more action-oriented than the base game, which is fine since I actually really enjoyed the feel of combat in the base game and first few rounds of DLC, but it lacks any form of survival tension because of how empowered Chris is as a character. As Chris you're equipped with a version of the powerful Albert pistol and a semi-automatic shotgun, plus a big-ass combat knife and health sensors that tell you exactly how much health you have left, and you even gain the newfound ability to execute brutal knock-down punches, Chris Redfield-style. Meanwhile, the game loads you up with tons of ammo and healing items. As a result of all that firepower, I never felt scared or vulnerable because I could safely blast (or punch) any threat that came my way. Even when the game traps you in a room the size of a broom closet with constant waves of enemies, you've got so much ammo and healing items that you barely even break a sweat.

The melee punch is a nice addition since that kind of functionality was completely missing in the base game and made certain situations feel clumsy when you couldn't push enemies away who got in close. But like everything else in this DLC its execution feels rough and unpolished. To execute a melee punch you first have to stagger an enemy with a headshot from a firearm, and then get in close enough and press the left mouse button to do the punch. It's pretty much the same system as the melee attacks in Resident Evil 4 except not nearly as varied or versatile, and the melee attack is bound to the same button you use to hip-fire a gun instead of being safely mapped to something different. In practice, executing the melee attacks has this awkward feeling where you stand around waiting for the HUD to tell you that you can do the attack, because it's sometimes hard to tell when an enemy is simply recoiling from the attack versus being staggered, and you don't want to accidentally fire your weapon when you wanted to punch, or miss a shot trying to punch when you thought the enemy was staggered.

A white molded.

For the most part, combat in Not A Hero plays exactly like it did in the base game and all the previous DLC (except with a lot less weapon variety), which combined with the overpowered arsenal and relative ease, made the "intense" action feel generally mild and underwhelming to me. The only twists on what is now a year-old formula that I've thoroughly exhausted across multiple base game and DLC runthroughs are 1) being able to punch enemies Resident Evil 4-style, 2) unkillable "white molded" that you have to avoid until you find a special type of ammo, 3) "Boomer"-style exploding kamikaze fat molded enemies, and 4) spider-crab molded enemies that scuttle on the ground in swarms. The new variety in enemies seems nice, but there are only a couple instances of each new enemy type in the entire DLC, whereas you spend the vast majority of the time fighting the same old boring molded from the base game.

The invincible white molded are an interesting idea, but they're mechanically shallow and under-developed, since all you really do is run away and avoid them (exactly like you do with so many enemies in the base game, just to conserve ammo (not to mention like you do with Jack, another invincible and yet ultimately much more intimidating enemy)), and once you have the special ammo you just shoot them anywhere and they die instantly in a rather unsatisfying anti-climax.

I see a little silhouetto of some mold

The level design suggests a type of Metroidvania-esque system of exploration where you're initially presented with a set of three branching paths, but you need to find the necessary equipment upgrades to actually explore different areas of the map. Much like the enemy variety it seems like an interesting feature at first, until you realize that the progression is entirely linear since you have to explore the paths in a certain, specific order, and that unlocking the new equipment upgrades doesn't actually change the gameplay or offer you any sort of unique abilities, it just enables you to walk down a path you previously couldn't, no different than if you'd just obtained a key and unlocked a door. It's kind of obnoxious, actually, how much you're railroaded into going certain ways in this DLC, like when you follow the mine shafts to get a special item and suddenly the return path has turrets and impenetrable bars forcing you to go a different way than you came in.

That's not even to mention the stupid HUD messages that pop up to blatantly tell you "YOU CAN'T GO THAT WAY YET" and "YOU CAN'T FIGHT THAT THING YET." Like yeah, thanks game, I really needed you to tell me that. Why not just let me figure that out on my own so I can actually feel like I'm playing the game and learning/experiencing things for myself, instead of forcibly dragging me by the arm through the whole thing?

Thanks for the warning, game.

Then you've got all the other stupid crap going on with the premise, like why does random grunt dude have an advanced gas filter on his mask but Chris Mother-F#$%ing Redfield doesn't? Or why doesn't Chris at the very least have a flashlight on him as part of very basic, standard issue equipment? Why does Lucas use instant remote detonations on all the other bomb collars when he wants to kill someone, but then put an unnecessarily slow-moving dipping-mechanism 10-minute timer on Chris's bomb when he wants to kill Chris? Why doesn't he just blow up Chris at the start? Why does Chris insist on running into certain danger with a bomb strapped to his wrist instead of immediately trying to disarm it? Why can I not even try to shoot Lucas through a window when he clearly doesn't realize I'm there? I get that all of these issues are necessary to facilitate gameplay (Chris can't see in complete darkness so he needs to fetch the night vision goggles) or to create drama (can Chris deactivate the bomb in time?) but it just feels like bad, lazy writing and scenario-design to me.

There's plenty more I could talk about with this DLC (like the awkward scene transitions (we just awkwardly cut from outside the Baker house to deep inside the mines? Chris shoots Lucas in the face, then the screen fades to black and suddenly there's a giant molded cocoon all over the ceiling and Lucas has instantly transformed into a giant monster)), but I'm already starting to get into nitpicky territory so I'll start to summarize my opinion here. If it wasn't obvious by the preceding paragraphs, I did not enjoy Not A Hero. It's hard to complain about a free DLC, but I feel like expectations may have been set too high by the absurdly long wait. Being told that the DLC "wasn't good enough" and having to wait almost an entire year for it to come out, to be left with what feels like a cobbled-together mess of poorly-thought-out and poorly-implemented ideas is ultimately pretty disappointing. There was good potential here, but the end product feels too much like a lame rehash of things things we've already seen and done before in the base game and preceding DLC.

End of Zoe

End of Zoe takes place weeks after the base game, following a canonical ending in which Ethan chooses to give the vaccine to Mia instead of Zoe, leaving Zoe to slowly crystalize under the effects of Eveline's powers. You play as Joe Baker -- Jack's estranged brother who lives by himself deep in the swamp and survives by eating bugs (among other things) -- trying to find a cure for Zoe. This involves a relatively long journey through the swamp into nearby Umbrella research stations, where they were studying the effects of the molded in search of their own vaccine, as you dodge lethal alligators and brawl with enemies in hand-to-hand combat.

Carrying Zoe through the swamp. Watch out for the alligator.

Unlike Not A Hero, End of Zoe feels like something a little more unique, since its focus on melee brawling greatly changes the feeling of combat from what you're likely used to, and it injects some more tension into the scenario by limiting your weaponry and healing items much more (you pretty much have to fight stuff with your fists, which puts you in much greater risk of taking damage) and mixing much more lethal enemies into the mix. Joe's a pretty tough dude who can dish out a serious beating (in a manner that almost defies the fairly "grounded in reality" feeling of the entire game, pushing towards comical absurdity), but alligators can kill you in one hit, and the four-legged crawling molded are insanely difficult to fight with your bare hands, plus several bosses and sub-bosses take a lot of precise timing to block their attacks and land successive combos.

The new melee combat system is fine, but isn't as deep as I'd like it to be. You essentially just alternate left and right click to punch with either your left or right hand, and you can pull off stronger hits by combining enough attacks together, but as far as I can tell it mostly amounts to button-mashing until it's time to press the space bar to block. As with Not A Hero you can also do more powerful attacks if you've stunned an enemy, except you can also curb-stomp enemies once you knock them down. There's also a newfound emphasis on stealth, with patrolling enemies that you're encouraged to sneak past or behind, allowing you to kill enemies instantly with stealth-kills if you can get in close enough undetected. This is a fun addition since it adds mechanical variety to encounters (you can choose how to approach each situation) while increasing the tension.

Grappling with a molded in hand-to-teeth combat.

The real issue with the combat has less to do with the melee combat system and more to do with the fact that they basically just took enemies from the base game and dropped them into the scenario without bothering to change their behavior or movesets to better suit melee combat. The four-legged crawlers, for instance, are really tough to hit because they're so low to the ground and move around so quickly, and the bile-spewing fat molded don't stagger and there's no reliable way to avoid their attacks except to constantly run behind cover (where you'll probably still get hit anyway due to glitchy hit-detection). The regular and "Travis" molded are better, but they don't put up much of a fight unless they come in groups, at which point their attacks start clipping through each other and you get hit by attacks that realistically shouldn't be able to hit you, and which you can't even see coming because there's an enemy in your face blocking your entire field of view. And you can't even fight the alligators in hand-to-hand combat (the real shame of this DLC -- not being able to wrestle an alligator). As a result, the only truly good fights are the ones against the recurring boss enemy, the one enemy who was actually designed from the ground up to be fought in melee combat.

Unfortunately, there's an annoying element of trial-and-error at work, here, where you can often and easily die in an instant because you didn't know something was going to happen up ahead. Early on, for instance, the path splits in two directions, one of which cuts through a tent where you have to avoid or kill a patrolling molded, and one of which takes the longer route around the tent. If you take the longer (but seemingly safer) route you come face-to-face with a four-legged crawling molded once you turn the corner, who will almost certainly kill you; if you'd gone through the tent, you'd have had a much easier fight against a much easier enemy, and would've come out behind the crawler where you could safely execute a stealth kill on it. When you first encounter the alligators, you have to use your limited supply of throwing spears to kill them at a distance, because there's no way to sneak past them or fight them head-on, and there's no way to learn this except to die multiple times trying different things. While not a huge deal (I typically like having to experiment to figure things out) it gets kind of annoying being ambushed and dying instantly, just because you didn't have the prescience to know that you were supposed to do something a little differently.

A church cemetery in the swamp? Ok, I guess.

Compared to Not A Hero, I enjoyed the combat much more (it actually felt intense and exciting being in enemies' faces and having to time my attacks more, rather than blasting everything safely from a distance with an overpowered shotgun), I enjoyed the environment more (the swamp felt more aesthetically interesting than the mine tunnels, and it also felt much more sinister), I felt more scared of the alligators than the invincible white molded, I enjoyed the protagonist more (Joe's commentary is actually kind of amusing, whereas Chris felt kind of bland), and I cared more about the people I was saving (we actually know and care about Zoe, as opposed to the nameless grunts in Not A Hero whom we've never seen or interacted with before).

Still, it feels like a missed opportunity to do something more with the characters. Where, for instance, was Joe during all the time that the Baker family was succumbing to Eveline's control, and why is/was he never mentioned by any of the other family members? He's not even seen in any family pictures around the house, as far as I know. There's no backstory for him, and we don't learn anything on his history or motivation, why he has such a deep bond with Zoe (but apparently no one else in the family?), and barely anything about his personality. Zoe, meanwhile, is incapacitated the whole time, so we don't really get to appreciate her, either.

Returning to the Baker estate.

While I enjoyed End of Zoe much more than Not A Hero, I'm not sure I would've been as happy if I hadn't already gotten it through the season pass. Paying $15 for a two hour scenario is kind of a tough pill to swallow, especially since the previous Banned Footage DLC packs give you more content for the same or less money. At the very least, it's good that End of Zoe has some good replay value with "Joe Must Die" mode essentially combining Madhouse Difficulty (from the base game) and "Ethan Must From Die" (from Banned Footage Vol 1), allowing you to replay the scenario with an increased difficulty level, limited save system, rearranged enemy and item placements, and randomized loot crates. I'm not sure I have the patience to do that (I sure as hell didn't want to bother with the knife-only "Professional Mode" in Not A Hero) since I'm kind of over my Resident Evil 7 craze (it's been a whole year, after all), but it is tempting. Either way, End of Zoe, like Not A Hero, serves as a decent coda for the base game, offering some resolution for some of the game's loose ends, but I don't think I could recommend it unless you're getting the season pass and planning to play everything.

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