Friday, October 30, 2015

Resident Evil: The Umbrella Conspiracy

Hello everyone, and welcome back to The 31 Days of Evil! Today, we're finishing off this year's Anniversary Month with the second Resident Evil novel. I was scheduled to do this last Sunday, but then I found out about Resident Evil: The Beginning last week, and I had to push Caliban Cove off 'till next year.
And yes, I know I promised this review last year, but I didn't have time to get to it then.
Before we crack open this weeks book, let's go over the history of it, shall we?
The author's name is Stephani Danelle Perry, and she's spent most of her career writing Star Trek, AvP and Aliens novels, with a few one-off adaptations like her Timecop, Wonder Woman and Xena: Warrior Princess novels. As well as an original novel titled The Summer Man. Not to mention the seven books in this series.
Personally, I'm not too familiar with her work. The only real experience I have is the Resident Evil novels she's written.
I might eventually pick up the Aliens and AvP omnibuses containing what she's written for the series, but given my current workload, I really don't have the time for it.
This book was originally published in 1998 in America, (Two years after the original game and one year after the first publication of Resident Evil: The Book) which was then published in Japanese in 2004, a total of six years later! That was after the series had actually ended in America! Just... Wow. That's amazing. Just goes to show that regional delays in publication swing both ways, I guess.
They then had a second edition English version of all of the  published in 2012, with new covers for all seven books, as well as a slightly larger page-count. Since I was only able to get ahold of the first edition through the local library system, I don't know if there were any differences between the two editions, and since I don't read a whole lot of Japanese, I can't review the Japanese version of the book and see what was changed in adaptation.
From what I've read, Perry was given a copy (Or at least an outline of characters and the basic plot) of Resident Evil: The Book and told to use it as the basis for this novel. It doesn't make the transition perfectly, but I still like this book anyways. I tell you, that last-minute review of Resident Evil: The Book was pretty informative.
So, with that out of the way, let's start the review. Because I'm not done taking inspiration from Linkara, I'm gonna go ahead and talk about this cover.
Starting at the top, we see a silvered version of the original Resident Evil logo, with a red glow behind it. The tagline reads "The terrifying novelization of the bestselling videogame" that sounds a bit presumptuous, certainly, but as we'll find out, this is actually a pretty damn good book.
The subtitle, The Umbrella Conspiracy is a bit up-front with the whole... Umbrella conspiracy, but considering the fact that this novel was released two years after the original game, and a year after Resident Evil: The Book, and since we're edging up on the twentieth anniversary of the original game, it's not really a spoiler at this point in time.
Then we get to three members of S.T.A.R.S. featured, Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, and Barry Burton. For some reason, they're the only ones we can see, even though this presumably takes place after they touched down in the courtyard. Above them we see a Cerberus, a zombie, The Tyrant, and what looks like a giant eel. It can't be the Yawn, since the jaw is way too small, and its body is so much fatter than its head. But all in all, I think this is a pretty good cover.
The book starts out a little bit ambiguous, a bit like the opening of the original game. Except that it starts before Bravo Team has lifted off, as opposed to how the game started, which occurred after Bravo had vanished.
There's some hazy information about the background of the situation strewn throughout the opening. A few hints, here and there about the plot, which serve to intrigue the reader and draw them into the story.
The narration-style is third-person, and it begins from the perspective of Jill Valentine, as opposed to opening with narration from Chris, like how the game and The Book started.
They also expand upon Jill's character a bit, which isn't a bad thing. Save for the villains, and minor characters that we never actually see, the characters weren't really expanded upon inside the game.
The problem is that they've gotten a few things rather blatantly wrong.
In this version of the story, Jill Valentine is the daughter of a (presumably French) master-thief by the name of Richard Valentine. Jill was apparently his apprentice up until the point where her father was arrested and sent to prison, and she had recently moved to Raccoon City and joined S.T.A.R.S. to avoid following in his footsteps. Apparently the people in charge of S.T.A.R.S. don't care about your background, or where you got your qualifying skills.
Let's go ahead and deconstruct that, shall we? I know they didn't establish Jill as a former Delta Force operator until Resident Evil 3, but previous pieces of supplementary materiel had already established certain facts about the character.
For instance, before the game was even released, Jill had been established as the American-born daughter of a French/Japanese couple, which was why I mentioned Richard must be French earlier. Also, as established in the game itself, she and Chris Redfield had known each other for a fairly long time, as stated by Barry Burton in the beginning of Jill's story. Also as stated by Barry, he's known Jill for years too, as he says Chris is "our old partner".
Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield are about the same age, and are both presumably Raccoon City natives. This hasn't ever been established, but it makes perfect sense, because otherwise the formation of S.T.A.R.S. relies far too much on coincidence for it to be as small as it is.
I know that the canonical status of certain details in the original Resident Evil manual are either questionable or have been outright contradicted since then, but there are a few that still stand up, so please indulge me for now.
In the manual, Jill Valentine is stated to have been with S.T.A.R.S. long enough to have been able to save the lives of her team-mates on many an occasion. And then you've got the first novel, Resident Evil: The Book, which had Chris and Jill being good friends. Plus, as we've seen earlier this month, Jill Valentine was established as the Raccoon City S.T.A.R.S. team's explosives technician in the Marvel comic.
The summary on the back-cover mentions Barry Burton as the team deadeye, which the internet tells me is a term for an expert marksman. That's a perfectly fine assessment of his skills, but it doesn't mention anything about Chris Redfield's role as Alpha's sniper and sharpshooter, which is odd, since they mention it later in the book.
Also, Chris's background in the air-force is barely mentioned in this book, outside of Wesker acknowledging at one point that he's got a pilots license, and is a better pilot than Brad Vickers is. If they didn't mention it at all I could forgive leaving Barry out, but they out-right state that Chris has pictures of himself and his friends who served in the Air Force together.
Chris Redfield and Barry Burton served in the United States Air-Force together, until Barry retired, and Chris was discharged. The reasons for this aren't actually brought up in the games, but I like WildStorm's explanation, that he was kicked-out for disobeying orders on a secret mission and rescuing the crew of a crashed helicopter.
Then we get to Joseph Frost, who has quite a bit of dialogue in the book (Which is more than you can say for the games) but nary a mention of his background, role in the team, or accomplishments. Joseph Frost was Alpha's Omni-man and mechanic. He's an absolutely critical to keeping the teams weapons and vehicles up and running, as well as being a critical team-member in the field. Yeah, he died in the intro-sequence of both versions of the first game, but he was still a critical member of the team! And they don't even mention him in the blurb on the back cover.
Then we get to the novels mentions of when S.T.A.R.S. was founded. The prologue states that it was founded in New York in 1967, while the guidebook for Resident Evil Zero (And all future supplementary material) have stated that it was founded in Raccoon City in 1996, two years before the start of the first game. This is easily forgiven, since they probably hadn't established the specific year the team was founded by the time this novel was published. Honestly, I prefer the idea that S.T.A.R.S. was founded more than two years before the start of the game, it's a little more believable. However, the book specifically mentions cult-affiliated terrorism, as if the regular kind wasn't bad enough, they had to bring demons into it. Who wants to bet that Sparda was a member of the original S.T.A.R.S. team in this universe?
They also mention there being multiple S.T.A.R.S. units across the country, which is something I figured should exist anyways, since the general timeline of the series matches up to the rise in actual terrorism in the real world.
Another strange thing is the fact that S.T.A.R.S. appears to operate internationally as well, since Barry brings up a S.T.A.R.S. mission in Ecuador he was involved in. No, not an Air Force mission, a S.T.A.R.S. mission.

So, the book starts out with the always lovely Jill Valentine being late to the S.T.A.R.S. mission-briefing, while going over her back-story. She's carrying way too many files in her arms and drops a few of them. See, this is why I always make two trips, it takes less time than trying to pick up everything you dropped. One of the files contains pictures from a coroners report, and we're treated to a little bit of back-story that was lifted from Hiroyuki Ariga's Resident Evil: The Book, sans the part where Jill became the hero to Raccoon City's children.
You see, Jill thought life in Raccoon City was boring. and far too perfect to last, and she was planning on quitting S.T.A.R.S. and leaving town before Becky and Priscilla McGee showed up on her doorstep asking for help looking for their dog. Subsequently, Jill became almost a surrogate mother to the two girls. And then they got lost during a family picnic and were killed. Take your pick if it was a Cerberus, a Hunter, a Crimson Head or a regular old zombie that did it.
Seeing these pictures strengthens her resolve, and she speeds off in her car towards the RCPD building.
Meanwhile, at the hall of justice, Chris Redfield is having a conversation with another of his old friends, Forest Speyer. Forest is another character that had little to no dialogue, even in the game that was supposed to be about Bravo Team.
Forest in this continuity is from southern Alabama, and has a southern-twang. Then again, this could be true in the main universe, because we've never actually heard Forest speak, much less gotten much back-story.
Forest and the rest of Bravo are about to fly out to the forest and search for the perpetrators of the recent murders, Bravo having already been briefed on the situation at hand.
Chris then grabs a can of club soda from the vending-machine. I'm a Mountain Dew guy myself, but whatever you like I guess.
We then come to another aspect of The Book that carries over into this, and if Jill's back-story being completely different didn't tell you that these two books take place in different continuities, this pretty much seals the deal.
Chris starts thinking about his old friend, Billy Rabitson. As before, he worked for Umbrella, and wound up vanishing. Not declared dead, just gone missing.
Billy called him up and told him to meet him at the diner in town, rather than at the lake, like in The Book. But he never showed up. Chris didn't run into any monsters at the diner, he just waited there for a few hours with nothing happening.
Let me explain the mindset I was in when I originally read this book. I had just finished Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil Zero a month or two before I got my hands on this novel. Naturally, I figured that the "Billy" Chris was talking about had to be Billy Coen, the Marine who was framed for mass-murder and sentenced to death before escaping captivity due to a Cerberus attack. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Apparently Billy was only conceived during the initial development of Resident Evil Zero for the N64.
The S.T.A.R.S. Alpha team spends some time talking about the Spencer Mansion, which was built by George Trevor, who was a hot-shot architect who built a lot of crazy buildings back in the sixties, before vanishing entirely after completing the Spencer Mansion.
You'll remember George Trevor as the guy who got cut from the final version of RE1, and who was later included again in Resident Evil on the GameCube.
This actually fits pretty well into modern Resident Evil canon. I wonder if Capcom actually had their ducks in a row on this, or if they just decided to copy something out of the novel.
I found Alpha's discussion of tactics, the team's Q&A, and their planning quite interesting. Gets you wondering how a Resident Evil tactical RPG would go down. Then again, I'm the guy who wants a tactical RPG spinoff of everything ever, so I'm a little biased.
A few minutes later, the team gets a static-filled call from Bravo, telling them that the chopper is crashing, and then cutting out. Wesker mobilizes Alpha Team immediately, and gets them armed for bear and ready for anything.
Then we get to Wesker's internal narration, which sets up a very different picture of the character than you would think given what we know about him now. It makes it seem like he's actually the commander of the team, as opposed being just an infiltrator and conspirator. Upon rereading this book, I started wondering if Perry had maybe been writing this book before Wesker had even been confirmed to be the villain, which would have had to been sometime in 1995.
A guy named Trent ambushes Jill in the S.T.A.R.S. locker-room and gives her a heavily-modified handheld computer, (It's amazing how specialized technology had to be before smartphones came to be.) telling her that he's a friend to the team, and that he's loaded the thing with documents pertaining to the case before vanishing like he's the god-damn Batman.
We get some more character development on the flight out to the forest, Barry thinking about his history with the members of Bravo, Chris thinking about a fatal helicopter crash he was party to while he was in the air-force, (Maybe the one that got him discharged) and Jill thinking about what Trent told her.
Again, Joseph doesn't get a whole lot of development, but he's got a bit of personality to him, which is more than you can say for the games portrayal of him, where he was essentially just fodder for the Cerberus'.
Something that's a little strange is that Chris mentions that Forest is the pilot in this continuity. Now, they never established who Bravo's pilot was in the original game, but Resident Evil 2 and 3 showed Kevin Dooley (Who was Bravo's pilot in Zero and the remake) posing with the S.T.A.R.S. team in a picture on the wall of their office. I don't know if he was established as such, or even given a name then, so I can forgive this for now.
But, as far as the original continuity is concerned, Edward Dewey was a pilot who served as rear-security on Bravo-team. It was never actually stated whether he was their pilot, but he played a rather pivotal role in the opening of the first game. It was his hand that Joseph found in the field. We'll get to that little tidbit of story in a paragraph or two here.
They see smoke coming up from the trees, and they wonder how the chopper could have caught fire, considering that S.T.A.R.S. helicopters are supposed to be pretty much foolproof.
They get to the smoking helicopter and find that aside from the oil-fire in the engine, the vehicle is essentially intact. Aside from their side-arms and regular equipment, most of their loadout is still in the chopper.
Jill thinks that this doesn't make a whole lot of sense, due to the fact that it's only been about fifteen minutes since they lost contact with Bravo. This is going to produce a bunch of plot-hiccups about the time the Resident Evil Zero adaptation rolls around, but that's something for a later date.
The team fans out to search the woods, and Joseph finds a severed-hand locked around the grip of a S.T.A.R.S.-issue Beretta. Jill and Wesker rush over towards him, since they didn't get a good look at what he found, but he's taken down by a pack of Cerberus' before they can get to him. Chris and Wesker unload their guns into the dogs, but they're too late to save Joseph.
They cease fire once they've killed the dogs, but are then set upon by the rest of the pack. Wesker orders them back to the chopper, almost as if he's got some actual concern for the lives of his team.
But, as it's gone in every. Single. Version of the story, Brad Vickers lives up to his nickname and chickens out, lifting up before Alpha can get in the chopper.
Alpha pours out hot-copper at the Cerberus pack until they manage to reach the Spencer Mansion and barricade the door.
For some reason, they mention that someone before them broke the lock before they got there. Mind you, they didn't break the deadbolt, just the regular latch. For some reason, Umbrella forgot to check the deadbolt. See, this lack of attention to detail is what caused the outbreak in the first place. At least if you're not counting Resident Evil Zero as canon.
Since we're actually getting into the meat of the game, we start seeing a lot of direct changes, as opposed to the indirect ones we've seen earlier. In order to get around the rather strange continuity issues of the original game, Perry combines the two stories, splitting the major events of the game between the two protagonists in some places, and combining them to make sure both characters experience the same thing in others.
Also, they completely ignore the fact that Chris doesn't have a gun in the game, and much for the better, because the games never actually provided a decent explanation, so why bother at all?
This is where the writing really comes into its own. Perry manages to capture the mechanics and general design of the game in such a manner that it actually out-performs the source-material in the atmosphere department. Aside from a few differences here and there, you'd almost think this was based on the 2002 remake. Even though they copy several lines of dialogue straight from the game, the horrible acting and direction doesn't carry over. Plus, a lot of the dialogue has been changed, except for some of the iconic lines.
And most of the time, whenever something strange is said, the narration of the characters mention that it's strange.
The little details are really what make this novel for me. The narration talks about the characters body-language, the intonation in their voice, and the way the character feels about the situation at-hand. The spirit of the story is kept, while removing things that would break the atmosphere. And they exploit George Trevor's eccentricity to explain not only the puzzles, but other aspects of the plot necessary to telling this kind of combined story. Since it's well-established within Resident Evil that George Trevor was pretty nuts, and that his employer, Oswell Spencer was equally eccentric when having his mansion designed, so this fits in pretty well with the canon as far as I'm concerned.
Chris investigates a crashing sound to the west of the foyer, and finds a zombie, who he then takes down with five shots, since it didn't go down too easily.
Naturally, Barry and Jill go off to investigate, leaving Wesker to stand guard in the foyer while he waits for backup, since they apparently don't have a radio on them. Never mind that there were decent radios handheld radios in the seventies, and that most police have decent radios on them at all times, apparently S.T.A.R.S. doesn't require radios as standard carry. For some reason.
Barry and Jill run into a zombie, which they kill, and the body of Kenneth Sullivan, who is depicted as having a missing arm in the book.
That's a little strange, to say the least, since his character model had both of its arms intact, even though he was missing his head. Also, I thought it was supposed to be Edward's arm they found in the courtyard, not Ken's. I mean, Ken is black, as the game shows, and the hand found in the opening FMV is obviously white, in all versions of the game. Then again, I like the fact that they found a way to tie up the loose-ends a bit, so let's just move on.
After they check all the doors and find them locked, they go back to the foyer and find that Wesker has vanished. They split up, and start searching the mansion.
Reading this for the first time, I thought that Wesker's motivations in this book were pretty decent, and looking at them for a second time, they're actually not bad. But he grabs the villain-ball a little too hard, and doesn't do things the logical way.
See, he vanishes without telling his team where he's going, and then takes a rather roundabout and bizarre approach to his end-goal.
See, Wesker was supposed to take the two S.T.A.R.S. teams into the mansion and blow it the hell up, and they weren't supposed to incur an casualties. Bravo's chopper going down was completely unplanned, as Wesker himself states.
But even now, there's no reason for him to abandon his team in this situation. He took stock of the situation, and determined that manipulating Barry Burton would help you out the most.
Or, you know. He could say that he found the master-key and code-list when you were searching the mansion. And you could explain your disappearance by saying you heard a scream coming from upstairs and went to investigate. That would easily work. His team trusts him. He could run around on his own, destroying all the evidence that attaches him to the mansion and laboratory. I mean, it's not like he doesn't have a decent amount of plausible deniability. It's not like this operation hasn't already gone belly-up, five of your team-mates are missing and possibly dead, you've been attacked by zombie dogs, and are now trapped inside a mansion designed by a lunatic. You can get away with a lot in this situation, especially considering the way S.T.A.R.S. works as both a unit, and in relation to the RCPD.
The way he brings this up to Barry is actually pretty dang stupid. Wesker's best two options in this situation would either be to stick with his team and not say anything while taking the initiative to getting ahold of evidence and destroying what points to him, or to go off on his own and destroy the evidence without raising the suspicions of his team and then make up an excuse as to where he went. Seriously. It doesn't make any sense.
Wesker takes such a bone-headed approach to this, that I wonder if someobody at Capcom said that he was being too nuanced, and needed to be more of a cackling "for the laughs" kind of villain. He could have kept his cover by looking for the key medallions himself, or by telling Barry that he'd found a note saying that there were medallion-keys scattered around the mansion and that he'd found a few keys labeled "master" and given one to Barry. And it's a shame, because I think that Wesker as a character has a lot of potential for interesting storytelling. At least in the game it was implied that Barry had found evidence linking Wesker to the crimes, and that Wesker had then blackmailed him into not saying anything about it, as opposed to just blowing his cover like that.
I've already covered the rest of the plot in previous reviews, so it'd just be redundant to go over it again. Instead, let's talk about some of my favorite moments from the book.
Thanks to this being a survival situation, the characters are forced to loot the corpses of their fallen comrades, and it's treated with the appropriate gravity. A moment that's stuck with me since I first read the book was when Chris found the eviscerated body of his best friend, Forest Speyer. You can practically feel him holding back tears upon seeing the body as he goes over how unjust the situation is, and you can practically feel the pain he's in as he's forced to scavenge equipment and ammunition from the corpse.
The book addresses a few logical flaws with the gameplay, using not just weapons to kill enemies, but brute-force as well, and not just working to solve the puzzles, but taking logical shortcuts that would make sense in real life. Yeah, it kinda ruins the pacing of the game, but it works better as a book this way.
The characters are pretty well developed over the course of the book, and I like what it does. Despite a few hiccups earlier in the story, it does actually manage to show that people lived and worked in the mansion before the outbreak. And they manage to give Wesker a few humanizing elements to his character as well. Not exactly enough to make him sympathetic, but enough that we know that he's got some kind of decent motivation. He's being paid to clean up this mess, and he wants to do as little work as possible. No, it's not exactly consistent with things he said earlier in the book, but it's at least something.
Something that I find a little strange is that the characters are a lot more foul-mouthed than they are in the games. Resident Evil was rated M, but this book came from the teen section of the library, with a teen age rating printed either on or in the book itself. I had to return the book, and I won't be able to get it back by the time this review needs to go live, so I'm just working off of notes I took last year that I'm unsure are entirely accurate.
Another odd thing is the fact that there are odd random typos spread throughout the book. As an officially licensed product based on the game that defined survival-horror, I'm sure Capcom would have wanted to take a little more care in proofreading it.
So, what did we gain from reading this book?
Well, we're introduced to an original character named Trent, who has a recurring role in the series, a few bastardized elements of Resident Evil: The Book and all in all a generally decent novel that does its job pretty well. It was a good read, and I highly recommend picking it up, if only because the flavor-text is brilliant. I would hope that the second edition fixed all the typos, but I don't know for sure whether it did or not. Wesker pretty much had no opening given in this book for him to come back to life, and the fact that he isn't killed by the Tyrant seems a bit anti-climactic, although he's still hoist by his own petard.
All in all, I liked it, and I'll probably read it again sometime. I'm gonna give it an 8.5* rating.

Thanks to everyone who's read my reviews for this years Thirty-One Days of Evil! I hope to see you again next year! Same bat-month, same bat-website!