With just over a month to go before the game's finally released, we sit down for an extended solo play session with Resident Evil 6, digging into the game's story campaigns.
Resident Evil 6 is built for online; screams online to you. From two-player co-op play (that doubles to four during key scenes), the introduction of scoreboard-driven ResidentEvil.net, to the all-new Agent Hunt mode that let's you interfere in another player's game in the role of one of the game's creatures, this is a game that should say online is the only way to go.
But Capcom remember its market. For a game that tears away from may of its past conventions, it makes a point to remember its origins. Or more precisely, its original players.
Having split-screen local co-op is a great inclusion, but making the trio of massive campaigns entirely engrossing and tonally different for the lone player - no concessions, no stripped down experience, no (so far) technical issues with AI - is great for those of us who know horror's better experienced without a sharpshooting friend with a semi-automatic rifle covering our back. (At least on the first play-through.)
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We're stuck into a generous ten hour plus portion of the game via a new preview build. Whereas beforehand we didn't think the game gelled with expectation, afterwards we're hoping the team can sustain what they're attempting through the other thirty hours plus.
We've now got a bigger, better picture of what they're trying to achieve, which is something far grander in scope than achieved previously. A continuation towards big budget, all-out action. But crucially it doesn't curtail the horror: instead, the studio's embellished it.
Thanks to a mixture of great new creature designs, visual effects and escalated threat levels, there's multiple moments within in which we've been scared (genuine jumps and fear for our survival), sickened (creatures that, thanks to the new tech, evoke memories of Carpenter's The Thing) and revolted (it's a game that doesn't shy from the brutality of your actions).
The studio's taken a new tack with zombies, and monsters in general. Everything feels fresh, scary. Some zombies leap when they're within grabbing distance. Jump out unexpectedly from behind doors and sewer ducts. Those undead that were once armoured soldiers now targeting practice because of the need to score crucial head shots. Ex-survivors still clutch rifles and accidentally trigger a barrage of bullets. There's new danger in every ravaged face.
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The developer's even managed to carve out something new with the bigger bio-organic weapons of mass destruction while not make them feel a direct response to the modern set of successful zombie shooters. Many warrant applause for both look and abilities. While there's a wish not to spoil anything - because boss fights feel invigorating with multiple surprising attack patterns - a special mention needs to be made of an introduction in a cathedral early on, that gave us both a sinking feeling in our stomach and an admiration for the studio's ingenuity.
The team mentioned in an interview recently that it was worried that the work that went into the lighting effects wouldn't be noticed by most: in play it's hard to ignore them, as they factor heavily in restoring the classic atmosphere of the series, and give us some new scenes to appreciate.
The lack of strong colour during Leon's campaign through the American town of Tall Oaks initially looks off until you realise it's all to emphasis that lighting. Tackling a small zombie group at a train station platform becomes strangely frenzied due to a now-intense spotlight shining directly in your eyes - the horde merely black spots nearly swallowed by the overwhelming white flare. In contrast Redfield's campaign is a flood of rich colour - roaring red infernos, sparkling skylines against the night sky. Even the cold climate of Europe portrays ruined housing and mountain stretches with a crystal-cold filter.
Comparison of the campaigns for these franchise mainstays offers the best indication of how Capcom has managed to make the same gameplay mechanics and escalated threat levels feel so different for Leon and Chris.
Character control has edged once again towards a greater flexibility, the benefit of which you'll only note when you force yourself to use it. It's easy to play as standard RE - still that element of tank movement, point, shoot, melee, repeat. But it's creator insists you pay attention to the new additions through repeated loading screen tips - and rightly so.
Holding down LT sets you up for aiming and firing. Hold it near a corner to stick to cover. Tap A to momentarily duck, hold a beat longer near a low wall to go into cover. But with a direction push and a tap of A you can roll, dive forward (or slide if you're running) or leap backwards - keep LT held down and you'll remain in the prone position and can continue to shoot, or shuffle around. The trick works too if you get pushed down by an enemy.
Coupled with the new emphasis on timed melee attacks (which can result in quicker and more rewarding takedowns if used right), fighting has become a lot more kinetic in Resident Evil. This is Resident Evil doing covering fire. Doing dodge moves. Doing Die Hard. Resulting in multiple last-ditch saves seen in any good zombie movie - such as the glorious moment when downed and surrounded, we used our last bullet to shoot a nearby red barrel and send attackers flying. It's great stuff.
You'll use the full range of moves, particularly the covering system, a lot more in Redfield's campaign, which feels like the showcase of where Capcom's taken the action-horror strand of the series. This is World War Zombie as you join a city-wide assault mid-way through the battle with a full fire team in tow. Covering fire makes a lot more sense in context, and wholly natural, and ammo clips are dropped by downed enemies, the game enforces you to charge and attack rather than defend and hold.
Whereas with Leon, while ammo is as generous, and the pace as quick, the zombie count is double, even triple what you'll take on with Chris at times, and desperation kicks in. That his stretch of campaign played was at night, trekking through cemeteries, sewers and caverns, coupled with faster, more problematic takes on the undead menace, its a complete contrast to Redfield's, even with the same mechanics in play.
The brilliance of all this is it doesn't feel like a concession to that ever-merging blend of genres. This doesn't feel like Gears, Ghost Recon nor a half-dozen other all-too-similar action titles. It doesn't even feel like Mass Effect's crawl towards centralisation. This feels and plays like Resident Evil. The closest approximation is Metal Gear Solid 4: familiar move sets reconditioned to a bigger battlefield.
There are some issues though. Get knocked down with low health, and if they're close (or not in one of the many alternative paths that split up some levels) your AI partner will come revive you. However, if you're downed by a boss, or downed and surrounded by multiple enemies, many times you'll get knocked down again even before you can get back up. It's inevitable and the wait for it to happen draining.
Timed QTEs, while implemented well, don't auto-lock the D-Pad's item menu selection. As the menu doesn't pause the game, it's lead to us accidentally nudging it open while hammering the pad and ultimately to our death.
For such a huge game we haven't come across any fat - but there's the potential of action burn out. Leon's campaign proved more full-on than we initially thought, with nearly two hours of unrelenting shootouts and escapes before the introduction of the first puzzle (item finding and object moving fans rejoice!). Luckily more pile up in short order, suggesting there's a better balance to come.
Story-wise we've entered into late 24 season territory: government conspiracies on our own soil, and a - until reasons are revealed - a rather bizarre amnesia sub-plot featuring one of the central characters.
In having to expand the scope of the bio-terrorism outbreak the studio's had to employ Hollywood thriller tropes that are the weakest part of the whole package. Thankfully the personal stories still resonate - how could they not? We've been with these characters for fifteen years now - and the player-created moments will be what we'll be talking about for months to come.
We've pointedly left off touching on Jake's campaign. The newcomer to the series, and who's section we're most unsure of. Given how much both Chris and Leon's campaigns continued to get better the more we played, we've decided it appropriate to wait until we've got the final, full build and see Jake's through, and how everything ties together before commenting.
And this, just a play of the standard campaign on single player. Without touching upon the multiple modes and alternate scenarios that are built into this monster of a game. We're now genuinely excited to see the final game and if the studio can hit the heights they're aiming for. Whether they succeed or fall just short, the message is clear: Paul W.S Anderson, this is how you do a zombie apocalypse on a global scale.
"No Hope Left" could be the motto for Resident Evil fans predicting the armageddon of the series, rather than the advertising campaign for Resident Evil 6 teasing the in-game global apocalypse to come.