Friday, October 14, 2011

Countdown Vampires: Creatively Bankrupt Survival Horror

With Halloween not far off, I feel like I should write about some survival horror games. Thankfully, the late nineties have left behind a massive amount of poverty horror games meant to cash in on the success of Resident Evil. Probably the most egregious level of copying can be found in 1999's Countdown Vampires, the first game developed by K2 LLC. There is a certain sense of comedy about the fact K2 was acquired by Capcom in 2008. Of course, being unoriginal is only one of a multitude of problems, which I will attempt to document henceforth.

I think the best way to introduce the game is with the above video, which is the intro to the game, and anybody that makes it all the way through it can see that it is completely inscrutable. Oddly enough, this completely baffling intro is actually really accurate to the portrayal of the quality that the player is getting into with this game. Anybody expecting any sort of continuity or sense should have their hopes thoroughly dashed upon seeing the video. The point of a CG intro movie like this is to set up the plot and setting, and I guess it technically does that, but not very well.

Whether it was set up well or not (it wasn't), placing a horror game in a dance club is a bizarre choice, even if it is a horror themed club. The plot doesn't make any more sense than the setting. I guess this game's schtick is that, instead of zombies, the enemies are vampires. So, at least half of the title makes sense. I suppose I could be wrong, and “countdown” has some sort of significance to the plot, but I've seen through the entire first disc, and I would rather not see enough of the game to find out. The “vampires” are terrible because they don't really look or act like vampires, but I'll have more on that later when I get into the mechanics of the game.

Anyway, the main character is Keith J. Snyder, a very Playstation-era handsome homicide detective that fucked up in some way and has been assigned to work a security detail at this horror-themed nightclub. He kind of reminds me of the naked dude from the beginning of Hybrid Heaven, except he also has a douchey tribal tattoo. My favorite part about the character, other than the fact his first instinct during a hazardous situation is to take off his jacket, which he wasn't wearing a shirt under, is his voice, which is completely incongruous to his character model. This can be seen in the intro, and it is one of the many reasons it makes me laugh every time I see it. It is just another example of how either localizers in the 90's didn't give a fuck or Japanese studios did English voice recording in-house. Whichever it was, it didn't work.

Being disciplined by being forced to go to clubs seems like a pretty sweet deal, but, of course, everything goes horribly wrong as . . . something happens. I'm not entirely sure what is supposed to have caused it, but whatever it was turned everybody into vampires. These vampires can be dispatched via conventional means, such as shooting them, or they can be returned to human form by exposing them to “white water.” Whatever that is. Please provide your own sexual joke here. One might think this would lead to an early incarnation of a morality system based around whether or not the player kills the vampires, but no.

It's Kenneth from the STARS Bravo team.  Dude can't catch a fuckin' break.
I suppose I should state clearly that Countdown Vampires is one of the most shameless ripoffs of Resident Evil that has ever been made. Seriously, every detail of the way the game controls and the way it is structured is exactly the same. The player wanders around a large building made up of pre-rendered backgrounds, finds items, solves puzzles, and battles monsters using limited ammo and tank controls. When researching the game I expected to find that the creators had been sued by Capcom, but I guess they were discouraged from bringing legal action after somehow losing to Data East in that Fighter's History thing. That is conjecture on my part, of course, but that is the only explanation I can think of.

The vampires in the game are weird. I would like to say that they “aren't vampires,” but everything that Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer have done to the definition of what a vampire is, the word has basically become meaningless. It's a lot like “4G” after the American mobile phone companies got through with it, actually. What I'm trying to say is that the vampires in Countdown Vampires are boring. They're pretty much just the zombies from Resident Evil, but they walk a bit faster. At best they are ghouls. One strange feature of the game is the way the type of vampires and their behavior and animations are determined by what blood type the player inputs at the beginning of the game. This would be a cool feature if the game warned the player of it in any way. Instead, it is sort of like an extra difficulty setting (because some vampires are harder to deal with than others) that is completely unknown to the player.

Sadder than the fact that K2 had to copy the Resident Evil formula so closely is that they clearly weren't up to the task. I know a lot of people complain about the odd camera angles and kill-screens of Capcom's games, but I didn't know the meaning of “bad camera angles” until I played this game. As it turns out, Shinji Mikami knew what the fuck he was doing, because he always placed his cameras and transitions in a way that the player has a sense of continuity of movement from one to another. With this game the camera transitions are so abrupt that it is relatively common to get lost within a single room because transitions are so confusing. It also does not help that the transitions are sometimes way off, in that the player can stand in the same geographic location on more than one camera.

Getting lost is made even easier by the monotonous environment. Instead of locked off doors being marked by keys with different crests such as shield and helmet, this game marks their doors with various female names. The player will inevitable run around in circles, trying to remember if the door in that direction said Carol or Cheryl. Combine this with a bunch of rooms that look visually similar, and it is a formula for walking around in circles for hours. The worst is this one series of bland hallways, and the only difference along the whole way is that they change from brown to blue at some point.

Some areas look downright sparse, but others are so cluttered it is impossible to find the items or pathways required to move on. All of this is embarrassingly terrible design, but nothing is quite as terrible as the puzzles. They are sort of like the ones found in Resident Evil games, except without all of the hints and solutions lying about, let alone any sense of logic or reason. So, yeah, completely opaque. I wouldn't recommend this game, but if I were to assault someone with the experience, I would probably be nice enough to provide an FAQ. Another awful design decision: the inclusion of a monetary system to purchase health items from vending machines. Yet another awful design decision: the game needs to played through again after completion in order to get the full story.

The only area of the game that K2 seemed to have attempted any innovation whatsoever is the in the combat, and even there it was in baby steps. Admittedly, the addition of a quick weapon switch outside of menus is a good idea, and it can be helpful, but it is crippled by the tranquilizer gun permanently being in the secondary weapon slot. Another good idea is the ability to quick reload outside of menus at any time, instead of only when a weapon's magazine is empty, though the game allows the player to reload a full weapon for some reason. Instead of a knife, the melee weapon of the game is the “Stun Globe.” I'm pretty sure they were going for “stun glove,” but the image that the former conjures in my head is far more comical.

Pretty much this, but with more electric effects.
Oddly enough, this stun weapon kills enemies, and the only way to “save” vampires is to knock them down and then pour “white water” on them, in a process I call “sprinkle some crack on him, let's get out of here.” Like most everything in the game, I don't understand the point of saving people. Once the player leaves the screen and returns, they disappear, and as far as I can tell there is no reward for saving them. If it weren't for the inconsistency in the amount of ammo found throughout the game, I would just suggest murdering everyone because it is faster, but there are points when ammo is almost nonexistent and others that it is way too plentiful.

Basically, Countdown Vampires is a cut-rate Resident Evil clone. The story doesn't make any fucking sense, the design of the setting and camera positioning is awful, and any good ideas it added to combat were offset by bad decisions and a general sense of all around rottenness. I know there are worse survival horror games on the Playstation, but none are quite as uninspired as this. At least it has an introductory scene that always makes me laugh, which I guess puts it on par with the original Resident Evil in one way.

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