Horror isn't what it used to be. Villains like Freddy Krueger have fallen by the wayside. Ghosts and zombies are what keep people up at night.
In the same way, the face of horror has changed in video games. Gone is the golden age when terrifying titles could leave you screaming in the dark or give you nightmares. Nowhere is this more apparent than in two recent releases: "Resident Evil 6" and "XCOM: Enemy Unknown."
Both manage to instill an intense sense of panic and dread at times, but they don't do it as well as the games of the past. "XCOM" is an updated take on the classic strategy game. Players are in charge of a secret organization tasked with defending Earth against an alien invasion.
Players must figure out what resources to put toward research and development, how to build the base and which countries to protect. It's an overwhelming responsibility at first -- the learning curve is high -- but once players get used to the gameplay loop, it becomes second nature juggling satellites, equipment and squads.
That's half of the game. The more entertaining part is the ground missions, where players command a squad that's focused on objects such as alien crashes, abductions or rescues. This is when "XCOM" gets nerve-wracking as players guide their troops methodically over the map, checking around corners and buildings on a turn-by-turn basis.
A wrong move could leave a squad stumbling into an ambush or open for a counterattack.
A few bugs get in "XCOM's" way. The PC version is full of annoying moments when the user interface gets tangled up or the game just freezes. It even affects basic gameplay: One soldier I had was wounded for the whole campaign. The other problem is with the movement inside shuttles and alien bases. It gets difficult picking out where you want to move a soldier or trying to line up a shot.
But for all its faults, "XCOM" is still engrossing in the same way other turn-based strategy games are. I'm looking at you, "Civilization V." If the team at Firaxis just cleaned up the game more, it would be perfect.
Like "XCOM," "Resident Evil 6" has its flaws. In its new iteration, the series moves away from its survival horror roots and turns into an action game. It's less about the abrupt scares and exploration and more about fighting zombies and monsters.
Trying to start a new chapter, the game features familiar heroes such as Leon Kennedy and Chris Redfield along with new characters such as Jake Muller. The game is split into three campaigns, each telling a different part of the narrative about a zombie outbreak, purportedly from a terrorist group called neo-Umbrella.
Focused on cooperative play, it features a lot of gameplay design and choices of "Resident Evil 5." Players are supposed to work together online as they traverse linear levels and solve simple puzzles. But having a buddy takes away from the scares that made the past games great.
Capcom developers also fail to communicate to players parts of the control and level design. The lack of explanation can be confusing and make normally easy situations difficult, especially if you're stuck with a partner who has no clue about what he's doing.
It feels like the rest of the industry has passed the franchise by. There are more compelling zombie stories out there with "The Walking Dead" game and, at times, it seems as though Capcom is borrowing heavily from Valve's "Left 4 Dead."
Horror gaming needs a rebirth. "Resident Evil" has to lead the charge, but the latest attempt is more of a stumble.
'xcom: enemy unknown'
* * *
Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
'RESIDENT EVIL 6'
H * ½
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC