Resident Evil: The Umbrella Conspiracy (S.D. Perry)
The Umbrella Conspiracy is the first novel Resident Evil novel published, though it is contradicted and partially retold through the most recent, the prequel novel Zero Hour. Fleshing out the events of the classic original video game in the survival horror series, this novel does a passable job of getting into the heads of the various characters, while more importantly providing a suitably creepy atmosphere to unfold the events of the story.
Players of the original game will find little in the way of variation here, although there is some effort to utilize both playable characters and reconcile their storylines. Outside of this fact, the book is nearly an exact re telling of the events of the game. We get some more back story in which the author does a great job of building a sense of tension and foreboding, and a new conspiracy side plot involving a mysterious figure named Trent. Trent plays a minor but noticeable role in the events of the story, guiding the S.T.A.R.S. members at key moments and seemingly working counter to Umbrella's goals. However, we don't know the ultimate role of this character by the end of the story, and future novels will go a long way towards determining the character's effectiveness.
The story itself is the tale of a specially trained police force's excursion to the outskirts of Raccoon City. Attacked by murderous dogs, the survivors are forced to hole up in a nearby mansion while trying to find a way out. The mansion is littered with traps, puzzles, and secrets; not to mention the deadly secrets behind the virus that has wrecked havoc on its developers. Most of the story concerns the slow crawl of our protagonists through this dilapidated setting, attempting to find their way home, with very little in terms of actual substance in the plot. Luckily this book eschews nearly all of the ponderous puzzles from the game (a trait that its spiritual predecessor, Zero Hour, failed to possess) instead opting for complete elimination of the challenge in question or a quick and easy workaround that better utilizes the characters and cuts down on the implausible amount of coincidences and happenstance that formed the crux of many of the puzzle solutions in Zero Hour.
Besides a few minor details concerning details of character deaths, locations, sequences, and etc. there aren't many other new elements to this story. One of the best concerns the development of Barry Burton. Something of a one man cheese dispenser in the game, Barry was relegated to being an idiot companion and uttering some of the most infamously bad lines in gaming history. The bad lines are still mostly intact here, but luckily we learn quite a bit more about the character and his predicament. Forcibly recruited by Wesker to manipulate his friends, Barry is torn between duty and family, as his daughters and wife are supposedly in danger of being killed should he fail to carry out Wesker's orders. Barry's inner turmoil is captured very well and helps to flesh out a conflict that wasn't seen much in the game. Jill's dynamic with Barry is of particular interest as he struggles with telling her the truth or manipulating her to ostensibly save his family. In addition, this side plot has the benefit of making Wesker out to be a more effective, merciless antagonist. Not that he is a bad antagonist to begin with, just somewhat on the bland side. Unlike what we know of him in Resident Evil V, here Wesker is just a garden variety backstabber looking for profit. His motives are simple, he does little to assert himself other than manipulating Barry, and he has a tacked on fate directly contradictory to Resident Evil canon, one that wasn't shown or even hinted at in the game.
The playable characters from the game, Jill and Chris, are our central protagonists for the game. Unfortunately they aren't memorable as characters. Their voice and personality seems to be nearly identical, and they lack any kind of tension or conflict with the other team members. Both are generic survivor archetypes, albeit with slightly different backgrounds and combat strengths. The only other character that gets significant face time, Rebecca Chambers, is as dull as she was in Zero Hour, being portrayed as nothing more than the fresh faced, highly skilled rookie. Perhaps the biggest failing of the characterization is that the tense atmosphere created by being trapped in a mansion infested with hordes of undead does little to truly shake our characters. Conflicts and tension between the squad mates is non existent, and the rapport they develop is not believable.
Despite the lacking characterization, The Umbrella Conspiracy does find a few ways to shine. One of the best elements of the book is the solid writing style. It is a safe style that uses little in the way of truly creative structuring, but it is used to excellent effect to describe the gore and carnage that surrounds our team. The author does an excellent job of using sight, smell, touch, and hearing to bring the horror of the infested mansion to life. In addition, the decrepit interior is perfectly fitting and expertly envisioned. If there is any flaw, it is that the settings that we experience after our heroes leave the mansion proper are kind of bland. We are treated to some underground caverns, a bunkhouse, and a (yawn) secret laboratory. None of these evoke the same haunted, forlorn feel that the mansion so perfectly creates. Action scenes aren't quite up to par though, with the primary failing being that even the most fearsome creature seems to be little match for our heroes. This can be attributed to the fact that none of the four protagonists that survive the initial events of the story die. We get a large amount of "off-screen" deaths early on, a gunshot inflicted fatality near the middle, and a lame death since demolished by canon at the end. Because the "expendable" characters are thrown away so early, the remaining creatures, no matter how menacing, lack any kind of punch. Fans of ceaseless violence will enjoy the book as zombies are being blown up every other page or so, often in gloriously explicit ways. Even with all of the action scenes, or perhaps because of them, the final boss fight is woefully inadequate, showcasing a visually impressive villain that never manages to seriously put the outcome in question.
The Umbrella Conspiracy is far from a great book, with decidedly mediocre characterization and little to differentiate itself from the game it is based on. It is much better than the previous book in the series, and a fairly engaging read, due to the excellent descriptions and Barry Burton's dilemma. Action packed, fast paced, and relatively shallow, the Umbrella Conspiracy is a great book for die hard fans, who will appreciate the minor variations and in depth look at Barry Burton's character, and readers who have little familiarity with the universe, as the story and its characters will seem more fresh. It is less entertaining for anyone who wants a fresh story with engaging characters set in the world of apocalyptic zombie outbreaks and corporate cover ups, but overall it is probably worth a look.