Jake Muller: Zombie Puncher
HIGH Watching a chrysalis hatch, dreading what's going to crawl out from inside of it.
LOW Struggling to get the cover system to work while surrounded by snipers.
WTF Okay, that is definitely larger than a conventional house fly.
Indiana Jones couldn't see the boulder.
While audiences were passively thrilled by the sight of a giant rock coming within a hair's breadth of killing our hero, the active participant (Indy himself) was busy looking straight ahead and navigating around obstacles to escape in the nick of time. As game devs have tried to recreate the thrill of that scene for decades now, they somehow miss that simple fact.
Video games have offered endless iterations of this sequence, and every time it appears, it's a complete disaster for one simple reason—the developers don't seem to understand that video games aren't movies. In games, the player takes on a hybrid role; he or she is both an audience looking for entertainment and an active participant in every scene, and it's impossible to feel like a part of the action when a game cuts the field of vision off a foot in front of the character's face. Every time I find myself forced to control a character as they sprint directly towards the camera, I suspect the developers were more concerned with appearances than how their game is played.
Resident Evil 6 (RE6) did nothing to dispel me of this prejudice.
The 6th or 35th game in the Resident Evil franchise (depending on how you count), RE6 is the largest and most ambitious title in the series' history. With seven playable characters, a twenty-hour ( ! ) main storyline, and a host of online features, the game has more raw content than almost any other comparable action game.
The plot follows four separate campaigns as familiar faces and newcomers alike battle across three continents, attempting to stop the "New Umbrella" organization from destroying the world.
If the story is classic Resident Evil overblown madness, the gameplay sets itself apart from the rest of the series by branching out into two previously untapped areas—a new cover system to enable intense gunfights, and revamped melee for brutal, close-quarters combat. One of these changes is a near-total disaster, the other is an incredible (if slightly qualified) success.
The success is the melee system. Resident Evil 4 let players execute stunned enemies by getting close to them and tapping a button. It's never been a key part of the gameplay, but it was a nice addition. RE6 has expanded on this mechanic by including strikes and counters that can be used at any time, rather than only when the enemy is vulnerable.
Whenever the player isn't actively aiming, tapping the "fire" button throws a punch or kick that's capable of staggering an opponent. When an enemy is dazed or on the ground, a whole new set of moves opens up, allowing for brutally efficient executions. The whole system works surprisingly well, and finally gives Resident Evil players an option other than spray-and-pray when enemies get in close.
What keeps the melee from being pure win is how poorly the game explains it. With no printed manual and its only mention being a single nod in the tutorial, it's presented as nothing more than a last resort when the player runs out of bullets. I can't fathom why the developers dropped the ball so completely in explaining how their game was meant to be played, especially since it's so simple to lay out: against humanoids and some BOWs, melee is often more effective than gunfire.
The other big twist is the addition of a skill system. During play, the heroes will find currency by killing enemies and searching the levels. Instead of spending it to upgrade weapons, they'll buy new abilities—abilities like making the player's hand steadier during sniping, adding bonus damage, or increasing the number of items that enemies drop. This skill system is a fundamental change to the way Resident Evil is played, and like the melee (and everything else about the game, really) the developers' lack of instruction can have a significant negative impact on the player experience.
Even worse, skills can only be changed between levels. Essentially, this structure forces the player to sit down and imagine which combinations might be good for certain situations, and build those in advance. There's no reason the game couldn't have been more flexible for player convenience, and frankly, the developers couldn't have made the system more convoluted if they'd tried.
While the melee is basically great and the skills can be dealt with, the new gunplay is miserable. The developers are obviously aping Gears of War by allowing players to run cover-to-cover, blasting enemies from relative safety. While this doesn't feel like the survival horror that Resident Evil has been known for, the main series has moved so completely out of that genre and into 3rd-person action/shooter territory that this direction isn't exactly a shock.
In theory there's nothing wrong with giving RE6 a cover system, but this particular one is terrible. Players go into cover by holding down "Aim" and pressing against a barrier of some sort—no confirmation or button presses required. The result is that players will often find themselves behind cover without intending it, frequently breaking the flow of action. It's also fatally easy to accidentally leave cover.
This flawed cover system is needed since the developers have gone whole hog after testing the waters with rifle-toting Majini in Resident Evil 5. The game is filthy with mutated gunmen and snipers—so many, in fact, that RE6 often feels like Uncharted 4. The one thing that keeps this shabby gunplay from completely ruining RE6 is that most of it is sectioned off to one quarter of the game—out of the four separate campaigns, only Chris Redfield's features constant shooting.
This isn't to say there aren't bright spots to the new gunplay; the quick shot and new dodge mechanics work great to add options that keep combat fresh and interesting. Now players can run towards a horde of zombies, jump-kick into the first few, knock another down with a split-second blast from a shotgun, and then finish off the rest with their bare hands.
I mentioned earlier that the game's main quest is 20 hours long, and that's not hyperbole—it's common for a chapter to last nearly as long as it took to beat the original Resident Evil on a speed-run. In one way this makes me want to applaud the game for the giant amount of content it offers. In every moment of the campaigns, something exciting is happening, and to keep from getting stale, play styles frequently switch—players can go from regular combat to a vehicle section, then to an obstacle course and a rail shooter over a single stage, so there's always something new around the corner. The crucial problem is that there's no mid-level saving allowed.
While frequent checkpoints keep death from being a nasty punishment, there's no way to stop and take a break without losing progress within a chapter. Start playing, and a commitment has been made to spend at least 60 minutes, or else forfeit all progress. This is an unacceptable design decision, and there's absolutely no reason that each campaign couldn't be broken down into smaller acts. I don't know if this bizarre choice has something to do with the online co-op or if it's just terrible design, but something should have been done. This lack of saving makes the game far less accessible than it ought to be.
Now that I've talked for a thousand words about the technical aspects of the game, what about the story? The plot is surprisingly more coherent than the last two Resident Evil games, but is tripped up because the developers never decided in which order it should be told.
At the outset, the player can choose from the three beginning campaigns (the fourth unlocks when the rest are completed) but they are given no hints as to which they should choose. This will probably suggest to players that Leon's story should come first since he gets top billing, but that would be a terrible mistake. Why? Because the campaign for new character Jake contains a major plot twist. If any other quest is chosen at the start, that twist will be revealed in a passing comment, stripping it of all dramatic effect when the player finally sees it firsthand.
The game's main antagonist is treated similarly. Played in the proper order (Jake, Chris, Leon) the mystery of the villain's identity grows until the big reveal. In any other sequence, the villain seems less relevant. I'm not saying the developers should have forced the players to go in a certain order, but it would have been nice to have at least offered a suggestion. After all, players generally want bosses to go big, bigger, biggest. Anything else just doesn't make sense.
For players interested in a multi-oriented experience, it's important to note that RE6 now features "intersections" in the campaign. This new concept allows two players to go online and battle through the story cooperatively, and to also have that team's story cross over with another team of real, live players. In effect, four players can work together in particularly tough fights.
In one scene, Jake and Sherry burst into a plaza to find Chris and Piers being menaced by a helicopter, or vice versa. In a single or co-op game, it's the player's job to rescue the other team, who prove inept at dealing with flying machines when controlled by the AI. Entering that same fight with intersections enabled pauses the game so the server can check if anyone else online has just reached the same point with the other characters. If so, players suddenly find themselves with double the effective firepower as both teams work together. I've tried it a few times and the system works great—the only drawback is the wait time as the game searches for other teams. However, intersections can always be skipped if the player chooses to opt out.
The other major multiplayer feature is "Agent Hunt," a counter-op mode in which players control monsters attempting to kill the main characters. Just like in Left 4 Dead, the player can choose where they'd like to spawn and then use their various special abilities to try and slow or finish off the heroes. The interesting thing about this mode is that there's no commitment necessary. Starting a game doesn't mean hunting the same two players for the next hour—they're just randomly dropped into someone's game to cause some chaos. For the monsters, this is just five or ten minutes of fighting, and they can jump in or out whenever they like. For players on the other side, it creates a constant threat of enemies suddenly becoming far more deadly.
After all is said and done, Resident Evil 6 isn't a runaway success, but most of the time, it succeeds at what it sets out to accomplish. Unfortunately, it's such a departure from the rest of the series that those expecting more of the same will find themselves frustrated and foiled—despite the "6" in its title, this is an entirely new animal, and the developers have hamstrung their own work by doing an unforgivably bad job of explaining what the game is, and how they intend it to be played.
Like all the other developers who've tried to recapture that thrilling runaway boulder, Capcom falls prey to the same errors by focusing on scene-setting and appearances, and not on how it actually feels to be the player running away from that big rock.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 20 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 times) and 3 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, suggestive themes. Don't let your kids near this one. Boozing, drugs, omnipresent brutal violence. It's just extreme and nasty from beginning to end, with depictions of torture, execution, and mass-murder. Just in case that wasn't enough for you, one of the bosses is a naked woman. She may be as smooth as a Barbie doll, but she's still every bit as sexualized as you'd assume expect a nude woman boss to be. Hell, one of the villains is partially motivated by a clearly sexual obsession with another character. This is all bordering on AO territory. Take the M-for-Mature seriously, please.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You're going to have some trouble. The camera is very close to the action at all times, so it's hard to get decent situational awareness going without the ability to hear the monsters sneaking up on you. There's no clue about where an attack is coming from until you're actually being attacked, so you're going to have some trouble with the higher difficulty levels. Consider playing co-op, so you'll have someone to watch your back. All cutscene dialogue is subtitled, but in game comments aren't—you'll miss colour, but no content.