Demo’d: Resident Evil 6
Resident Evil has been around for so long and changed so much that you forget just how terrific the early instalments were. 1996’s Resident Evil brought the atmospheric chills and claustrophobic tension of Alone in the Dark to a mainstream audience, and was followed by two excellent sequels that refined the original’s formula, and a number of increasingly less successful spin-offs.
With their flagship series beginning to feel a little too predictable, Capcom shook things up with the release of Resident Evil 4. Stripping away the slow pace and most of the claustrophobic tension of the previous games, Capcom reinvented the franchise as a horror-themed action game. It was thrilling and engaging, but at the same time it felt as if something had been lost. The feeling of being utterly at the game’s mercy, that sense that every single bullet and inexplicable life-giving sprig of coriander counted, was gone. Resident Evil 5 added little more than than a clunky and infuriating co-op system that made trading items with your partner so unbearable that thousands of players actually immolated themselves alive in futile demonstrations of rage and frustration.
So now we come to Resident Evil 6. Or the demo anyway, which features samples of the three campaigns available in the full game. One of the pleasures of the series has always been the bewildering seriousness with which it treats its overarching storyline. Resident Evil’s plotline is galactically stupid. People quite rightly criticise the awful film adaptations, but any fan of the series will know that compared to the games, they’re almost Shakespearian. Alongside crunchingly awful dialogue and voice-acting, the latest game brings back several familiar faces from the series, absolutely none of whom have any personality to speak of. Leon is a haircut. Chris wears an army vest. Sherry is a woman. These are the limits of their personalities. Leon’s campaign opens with a hilarious sequence in which he shoots the zombie President. “I’ve just shot the President… he was a zombie…” our hero growls to a buxom mission controller, and I collapse into paroxysms of laughter. One of the main selling points from the game’s promotion seems to be that RE6 will tie up loose ends dangling from previous editions. Really, Capcom, it’s not Bleak House, it’s Troll 2.
Aside from entertaining schlockiness, Leon’s chapter isn’t much different from his previous excursion. There’s reasonably plentiful ammo and health pick-ups, a never ending stream of shambling zombie enemies to gun down, and the familiar murky environments with locked gates to open and keys to find. Healing is thankfully made easier this time around, allowing you to simply tap a shoulder button rather than cycle through a cumbersome inventory box. Changing weapons without entering the menu is now also possible, a belated change which goes some way towards improving the flow of combat. Unfortunately, despite the improvement in item management, the hateful controls endemic to the series rear their ugly head again. While some of the tank-like movement of the earlier games has been addressed, moving from room to room still feels terribly awkward and stiff. Picking items out of desk drawers involves rubbing yourself along the desk while desperately hammering the action button. The new cross-hair and red laser light combination for your gun seems unreliable, and there were several moments where I seemed to have lined up a perfect headshot only for the bullet to not register. I found myself pining for the efficient and responsive aiming of RE4.
Chris’s campaign, though, is where it gets truly awful. Capcom seem to have decided they want a slice of Gears of War‘s pie, so they’ve added in a military-focused shooter with lots of tanks, troops and explosions. And a giant zombie troll with an egg on its back. Naturally. Your main enemies seem to be mutant soldiers with the ability to grow spines and shields for protection, which adds some unpredictability and variation to the combat. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends. Guns feel flimsy and unsatisfying, movement is even more awkward when you can be flanked from absolutely everywhere, and objectives seem vague and unclear. A cover system seems to flit about in the periphery, but it’s loose and prone to slipping you out into the line of fire at inopportune moments. It all feels bewilderingly out of place in the Resident Evil universe, one which has traditionally focused on one man or woman fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds. The pleasure of the previous games was that you were constantly aware of your own vulnerability. When you’re charging about with a sackful of health items and guns, any sense of danger or atmosphere rapidly dissipates in favour of repetitive blasting. It smacks of a developer trying to have their cake and eat several other cakes at the same time.
Jake, who features in the third campaign, and who is apparently a young clone of nonsensically villainous series regular Albert Wesker, suffers even just as profoundly under the confounded controls system. Jake swaps Chris’s more varied arsenal of weapons for kicks, punches and superpowered slams which, due to the rigid over-the-shoulder camera, are never as fun to land as they should be. It’s hard to judge exactly how far your attacks will reach, so you often end up mashing the attack button until someone accidentally walks into you. Jake’s also being pursued throughout his campaign by a hulking monster, the Ustanak, but this never feels as threatening a concept as it did in Resident Evil 3, because our hero is a superhuman brawler, not an ex-Police Officer in a mini-skirt with three rounds left in her shotgun. And lets be honest, Nemesis would flush the Ustanak’s head down the toilet. After being spoiled by the excellent, flowing combat of Arkham City, Jake’s hand-to-hand approach feels like a clumsy afterthought.
When the series was in its prime it was easy to forgive such clunkiness. It actually heightened the terror of being chased down a corridor by something unspeakable when you couldn’t rely on a simple Shatner-roll to get you out of trouble. Finding yourself cornered in a dead end with only a combat knife was a terrifying prospect. The problem Capcom face is that this kind of uncompromising survival horror isn’t what the series offers any more. That torch is carried by the small studios producing low-fi titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, or indie hits like Slenderman. It’s a commonly accepted concept that rough edges actually help a horror game, making the terror feel more real and personal. But Capcom aren’t playing in that ball pit any longer. They’ve chosen to try and compete with the big names of the action game market, and as a consequence their games require a certain level of structural competence that they don’t seem to be able to meet.
The whole experience left me unsure as to what the future holds for the series. I can’t see Resident Evil 6 making a big splash with audiences who can find better examples of what it offers elsewhere. By spreading themselves so thinly, Capcom have created three distinctly different game modes that offer little more than new shades of mediocrity. It’s certainly not scary, there’s too much going on and too many guns. It’s not viscerally satisfying. The shooting is dull. The graphics are functional but spectacularly drab and ordinary. The story and voice-acting are still appalling. It will sell, of course, because its a Resident Evil game, but you wonder exactly how far people’s fondness for this venerable series will stretch. Once that’s exhausted, Capcom will need to bring something far more competent than this to the table.