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E3 2016: Resident Evil 7 ushers in a new age of horror

Like a zombie rotten with T-virus, Resident Evil died, rose from the grave, and expired again.

"The idea was, if you look back at the original Resident Evil games, the core PlayStation [One] games that sparked survival horror as we know it, that was one specific type of horror," explained Capcom USA staffer Tim Turi. "Then Resident Evil 4 came along, and is still one of the most revered games of all time, and evolved the series in a new direction, which incorporated more player agency as far as shooting and a focus on action."

Where RE4 managed to balance large-scale battles with environmental tactics and creepy atmosphere, RE5 and 6 veered closer to Call of Duty campaigns. Horror DNA flaked off like putrid skin with each additional bombastic set piece until no trace of Shinji Mikami's trademark don't-pee-your-pants brand of terror remained.

Resident Evil 7 marks a third evolution, and a back-to-basics approach for a series that could not afford one more misstep. Photorealistic visuals are overcast with a grainy filter that evoke feelings of unease and a veneer of classic horror films. The E3 demo I played, available to any PS4 owners who subscribe to PlayStation Plus, takes place in an derelict plantation house cloaked in shadows and littered with mannequins and carcasses. Your goal: find a way out of the house, where you can hear something unseen shambling one floor above you.

Eschewing third-person, RE7 plays out through your eyes and offers no clue to the identity of your avatar. One thing's for certain: don't expect to gaze into a mirror and see a familiar face staring back at you. "Even though RE7 is set in the same universe, we're focusing on a new cast of characters. I've talked with the development team in Japan," said Turi. "They know what fans expect from their characters, and they're creating new characters with that in mind. As far as direct connections with other characters, there's nothing to say right now."

RE7 offers a fresh perspective for more reasons than shaking up the franchise's cast of characters and third-person view. Integration with PlayStation VR, due out this holiday in advance of RE7's release, also seems to have guided Capcom in its choice of PV. "PlayStation VR is the sole VR destination for Resident Evil 7, but the game will be on Xbox One and PC as well," Turi says.

Learning that RE7 will be playable from top to bottom in VR raised my hackles. Most VR games are games in name only. They're short and gimmicky, glorified tech demos engineered to immerse players in particular scenes without filling in details around them, like theater sets with beautifully painted fronts but bare cardboard backs.

"Without getting into specifics, it's going to be more in line with previous Resident Evil games," Turi said, implying that an eight-to-10-hour experience awaits players next January whether they play with a headset strapped on or staring at their TV screens.

PSVR and Resident Evil 7 work well together. The game's scratchy visuals are stylistic, and play to the strengths of a VR headset that will never hit the high technical bar set by PC headsets like Rift and Vive. Flies swooped in and out of my line of vision, and more than once I reached up to brush away cobwebs and pull at light cords hanging in my line of sight. Heavy footsteps off to one side made me jump and look around frantically, trying to find an alcove to duck into.

RE7 seems content to introduce mechanics at a steady drip. Getting out of the house involves a scavenger hunt for items that open up new areas containing puzzles and yet more items that lead to new rooms. I was able to piece together solutions logically. There were no callbacks to the outlandish puzzles of Resident Evils past (find a lighter to ignite a painting that causes a ruby to poke through canvas), further enhancing the sense of dread and realism laid out by the PSVR headset strapped to my face.

"What you see in the beginning of the Resident Evil 7 demo is sort of proof of the atmosphere, visuals, and tone we're going for. But you're also seeing aspects of exploration and puzzle solving," explained Turi. "Puzzle-solving and exploration are going to be important gameplay mechanics, but there also will be other mechanics. You'll have to fight to survive."

If the slice of Resident Evil 7 that Capcom served up for E3 is an indication of the final product, consider me impressed. Rolling out mechanics and puzzle pieces at a steady pace spoke to the confidence the game's developers seem to have in the direction they've chosen, but in a technology in need of a killer app.

"I love seeing all the different shapes and forms the series has taken, whether it's a side step, an experiment, or an evolution like RE4 was," Turi said. "I'm proud that the development team takes risks and is delivering a horror experience that maybe we didn't even know we wanted."

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