It may be possible to argue, you know, just theoretically, that the world doesn't need another zombie franchise. There have been a few recently, you may have noticed.
Nevertheless, The Evil Within, a game that has a variety of monsters including the undead, is hotly anticipated, thanks to its enviable pedigree. The man behind it is Shinji Mikami, the designer and producer responsible for bringing us the Resident Evil games and virtually inventing the "survival horror" genre.
Given that legacy, The Evil Within will generate few surprises. It’s a classic survival horror game, with a deliberate clunkiness to the controls, very limited resources with which to eliminate enemies (so you have to employ brains and stealth much more than fast-twitch reactions), some memorably twisted puzzles and a relentlessly and often scarily surreal horror film atmosphere. In the last respect, it goes much further into psychological dread than Resident Evil ever did, entering territory more akin to the Silent Hill series.
Cult horror in the house of hell
Our extended playthrough at E3 revealed something of a cult classic in the making. From the off, it’s dark, moody and disturbing. You play a cop called Sebastian Castellanos, who starts by investigating a gruesome mass murder that may be part of some sort of conspiracy. However, he and his partner are attacked by an invisible entity and he's bopped on the head, only to wake up in a sort of nightmare horror world, populated by monstrous creatures and full of horror-movie tropes like mysterious hooded figures and underground corridors with walls that spontaneously rearrange themselves.
At first, he must escape – a process that involves a certain amount of initiative (thanks to those rearranging walls) and plenty of stealth (hiding in cupboards and under beds is a prominent gameplay mechanism). But gradually, he acquires zombie-killing objects like a handgun, shotgun and bolt gun – and then there are the deadly traps. For example, in an early showdown in a sewer, an assemblage of spikes falls from the ceiling, and these can be triggered manually after you attract the attention of the nearby zombies. Squish! You suddenly have fewer zombies to worry about.
Combining exploration and trap exploitation is paramount, as ammunition for your weapons is in almost comically short supply. Shotguns, for example, can only load two cartridges, and take an age to reload, and when you do manage to find ammo for them, it's only two or three shells.
Later on, when you regularly encounter clusters of zombies, you discover the usefulness of matches. You can stun enemies with a single shot to the head, or a nifty kick when they get too close. And once they are down, the application of a single lighted match will cause them to burn, transforming them into green gunk that you can scoop up and use for upgrades.
The fact that you can only carry five matches at a time rather sums up the sheer rigour of The Evil Within's fiendishly challenging system. However, you soon get into the minimalist spirit, deriving vast amounts of satisfaction from, say, dispatching two zombies with a single bullet followed by a single match.
Brain sucking puzzles
We played one chapter of the game set in a deliciously creepy mansion, reminiscent of the original Alone In The Dark, or of course, the Umbrella house from the original Resi. The site of some sort of neuroscientific laboratory, this place provides some of the most ghoulish puzzles we’ve ever encountered. Every so often you pass some beautifully rendered brains in brass mountings; and in order to open a certain door, you have to extract red fluid from one such brain by plunging probes into precisely the correct area, aided by clues embedded in the experimental notes strewn nearby. So that's nice.
Those who demand nothing but originality and a previously untrodden approach from their games will disdain The Evil Within as something of a throwback – it certainly conforms to Mikami’s tried-and-tested blueprint. But they would be in danger of missing out on something rather fabulous. Mikami has exercised his love of the grotesque with much more exuberance than in the past. The Evil Within also achieves the aim behind all good survival horror: to put you at the controls of a truly chilling and disturbing horror film.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010