Evil Dissected

by David Trammell - September 13, 2001, 9:28 pm PDT

Come take a look at the motivations behind Capcom's stunning announcement and the mechanics behind Resident Evil's stunning visuals.

The entire Resident Evil series is coming to GameCube. Shocking and completely unexpected probably explains this sentence best. As most of you now know, Capcom just made some huge announcements regarding the Resident Evil series and GameCube. No less than six games are planned in all. These six games include the entire series thus far plus two new games. The old games will be rebuilt "from the ground up" according to the creator of the series, and they will feature massively updated graphics if nothing else. Finally, the anticipated Resident Evil 4 itself will be the capstone of this massive project, and the kicker is that all six games will be exclusives to Nintendo's GameCube.

This bit of news certainly provokes a lot of questions. Number one on the list is probably why Capcom would take a franchise that started on the PSX and make it a GameCube exclusive. That's a huge question, and the answer isn't simple (especially considering that much of it is speculative). In addition to this, I think a lot of people are confused as to how this game looks ten times better than Rogue Squadron and every other beautiful game shown on the cube so far. So, stick around and find out everything you didn't want to know about Resident Evil 1.

First lets try to answer the original question: why? We can start with comments from Shinji Mikami, the creator of the series. First of all, he said that he wants all the games on one system from now on. Ok, but why this system? Well, in an interview with Core Magazine he said "[Game Cube is] very powerful and easy in terms of software development. The one thing I want people to know is, we haven't necessarily received money from Nintendo for deciding to make the Biohazard series exclusive to GameCube. More importantly, we believe the GameCube is a machine which will definitely have a five-year life cycle, if not longer. So it will provide the stability needed for the future of the Biohazard series." Ok, good answer. You didn't necessarily receive money? Ok!

They may or may not have been slipped a wad of cash by Nintendo, but it doesn't affect my ideas at all. Maybe money was just icing on the cake for him. I think that Shinji Mikami, and perhaps Capcom themselves want GameCube to be the dominant console. Think about it. It's graphically superior to the PS2, and it's easier to program for (which means more visually impressive games in less time and for less money). Mikami-san has already stated the obvious, that GameCube is going to be supported by Nintendo no matter how good or bad it does. Most importantly, the only thing you can do with a GameCube is play games. That means there is no competition for game developers from movies, music or anything else you can do with a multimedia machine. Sure, if you own a DVD player and a GameCube, there will still be competition in the marketplace. However, if they play on the same platform, then while you're watching a movie, no one else can play a game. This might increase the life of a game artificially by preventing people from playing it. I'm not sure why Sony was so hell bent on doing the multimedia thing. The money is in the games. I guess we'll find out just how true that statement is in the coming years. Now, what about our other question?

How does Resident Evil 1 look so damn good? When I first saw the shots, I couldn't believe it. They looked better than anything else I've seen on GameCube to date. After further investigation, I believe Capcom is cheating a little bit, but the results are still very impressive. To explain, we have to go back a little bit and look at the traditional Resident Evil games and how they work.

For those who don't already know, the graphics in the Resident Evil series have always consisted of 3D characters on static backgrounds (with the exception of Code Veronica, but we'll ignore that for now). The way this works is that a very high quality environment is created on a powerful computer. Then a snap shot of this environment is taken from a certain angle. In the game, a very basic 3D mesh of this background would be created for your character to move on, but this mesh is invisible. What you see is a 2D snap shot of the beautiful 3D creation with your 3D character superimposed over it. The trick works well enough, but the camera can never move from its locked position, and in the past, your character looked very low quality next to the CG background.

When I first looked at the new shots of Resident Evil 1 on GameCube, I assumed that the shots were entirely real-time since the latest game in the series, Code Veronica, was done in real time. Apparently, I looked to quickly though. In the movie I downloaded, the cameras were always in fixed positions. Now I understand why the game looks too good to be true. However, all is not lost. Although the game is apparently going back to its pre-rendered roots, the graphical tricks allowed by GameCube are nothing short of state of the art.

The following information is purely speculative, but it's based on what I've seen in the screen shots and movies and what I know about the previous Resident Evil games and computer graphics in general.

So, lets dissect the methods used for creating these beautiful images. The first part of the graphics would be the "fake" 3D background. As in the past, the environments would be created on a powerful computer and a snap shot of this would be used in the game. Here's where the first difference comes in. On lesser consoles, the snapshots were in 320x240 resolution, and the low color depth and image compression resulted in some nasty visual artifacts. In the revision, you can expect full 640x480 resolution images with practically no image artifacts for the backgrounds. These backgrounds will be a mere drop in the bucket for GameCube's massive texture resources. So, with this simple trick accounting for all of the complex structures in the room, how does the lighting work? How can everything be lit in real time if it's not really 3D? Well, in the previous games, the character moved on a simple (and invisible) 3D mesh. In the GameCube revisions, I suspect that a much more complex 3D mesh is being used. It's this invisible mesh that would be painted with dynamic lighting. Since this mesh would fit perfectly with the snapshot, painting a shadow on it would have the effect of darkening the image beneath it. It doesn't matter that the image isn't actually 3D. So, it works exactly the same as 3D shadows in any other game. The shadow is a 3D object, just like the character and zombies. The lighting effects should work on similar principles. In fact, this has been done before in Alone in the Dark 4, a survival horror game that will be released very soon for Dreamcast. The lighting quality isn't as good as it is in the Resident Evil 1 images, but it's the same basic idea. In fact, with a 3D mesh in place, a lot of texture effects can be done, just as in a traditional 3D game. For example, there is a chandelier in one shot, and you can see that its six globes are intensely lit. I'd imagine that there is a lens-flare "sprite" in front of each globe that has a mild pulsing glow giving the lights intensity. In addition to this, there are some visible 3D objects in the scenes as well. The opening doors in some scenes, like the zombies and characters, would be actual 3D objects. But with such a small amount of real 3D to do, the quality of these objects is enormous compared to normal games. It looks so good, that the doors and zombies fit perfectly with the background making a seamless image. In other scenes, parts of the background move. For example, there is a moving fan that casts crazy shadows all over the place in one room. The fan could be an actual 3D object as well, but it's probably just a 2D animation of the CG background. The background image isn't actually one big image; it's laid out like a set of floor tiles. Because of this, they could animate just the section of tiles with the fan in it while the 3D engine handles the lighting and shadows as usual. The zombies and characters would be placed in the midst of all this, but now they will cast shadows as well, and they will be affected by the lighting in the room. The truth may be more complicated than this, but I think I'm basically on the right track here.

I suppose it's remotely possible that the game's engine is 100% 3D (I'd love to eat these words), but I'd wager that it's not. Still, this is how Resident Evil was always experienced, and it's nice to see how much better this system works on a powerful console like GameCube. The only exception to this design was Resident Evil: Code Veronica for Dreamcast (and now PS2). We don't know if the remake of this game will be in full 3D as the original was, or if it will be brought in line with the rest of the franchise. Ultimately, I'm very impressed with the Shinji Mikami's ideas and the direction he's taking the games. I love the idea of remakes and I can't wait to play the series on GameCube; especially the new installments.

If anyone has any comments or questions about this editorial, send them directly to me at: David@PlanetGameCube.com.

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