What’s the difference between a game launched in the middle of a recession and one made during financially rosier times? Resident Evil 6. Featuring four distinct campaigns that span around 24 hours in total, seven playable characters and a wealth of online modes and functionality, this is the biggest Resident Evil game, if nothing else. And that’s exactly the problem, because in those previous, rosier years, Capcom apparently had the time and the money to throw content away.
It happened with Resident Evil 2, with series creator Shinji Mikami turning up close to the end of development and instructing RE2 director Hideki Kamiya to throw everything away and start again. And it famously happened with Resident Evil 4, a series of prototypes either evolving into other games like Devil May Cry and P.N.03 or just being abandoned completely. In both cases, that willingness to make difficult, dramatic, painful decisions with those games resulted in end products that weren’t just the highlights of the Resident Evil series but lessons in great sequel design and staggering reinvention respectively. Oh, and one of them is easily a contender for greatest game ever made.
Resident Evil 6 desperately needed a Mikami moment. Not necessarily Mikami himself, who has certainly underperformed in recent years, but someone in the position to take an objective look at the game and lop off the dead tissue, no matter how painful it may be. Yes, Resident Evil 6 may be four games in one, as the marketing would have you believe, but much of that content is bloated, badly made, dull or just totally unnecessary.
Take the structure, for example. RE6’s story is divided into three main chapters, one starring Leon S Kennedy and partner Helena Harper, another starring Chris Redfield and team-mate Piers Nivans, and a third starring new protagonist Jake Muller alongside RE2’s child star Sherry Birkin, now all grown up. On top of this, there’s an unlockable single-player chapter in which you play as surviving Resident Evil antagonist Ada Wong. It sounds great, doesn’t it? A return to old-school Resident Evil conventions and perhaps, as games™ speculated months ago, an expansion of Resident Evil 2’s Zapping system, in which actions made in one campaign would subtly affect the other.
Resident Evil 6 doesn’t do any of that. Instead, the interaction between the three main campaigns is passive and limited to narrative alone. At certain points in the game, two plots will cross over for a few minutes. At best, this means that four players will get to work together during online co-op, and that’s it. It really is just a navel-gazing way for fan favourite characters to meet each other, but even within that context it disappoints. It’s unbelievable that flagship characters Chris and Leon might not have met before, so when they eventually do it should be a monumental highlight. It isn’t.
What you get is a brief cut-scene in which the two flail and flap their limp wrists against each other like cowardly schoolboys, while their partners pull the sourest faces they can during a Mexican standoff. Then there’s a bit of shouting before everyone makes friends and goes their separate ways. There’s very little to it, not even the QTE fisticuffs that made Leon and Krauser’s showdown so memorable in Resident Evil 4. Furthermore, these crossover chapters suffer because they’re essentially the same thing twice. There may be very minor variations in what is expected of you each time but, by and large, you’re playing the same set piece or objective through a second time, with a dull familiarity and, even worse, a bunch of cut-scenes you’ve already watched once before.
It’s an idea that sounds good on paper but falls apart in practice, and we can’t help but think that the game would have been better structured as one large, linear campaign that swaps between protagonists every now and then, much like Resident Evil Code: Veronica. Such a structure would have also allowed Capcom to trim away some of the fat. All three main chapters suffer because they’re slow to start, in some cases taking half their own length to get to the good bits, while certain set pieces flop completely. A badly designed boss battle here, an underdeveloped vehicle section there. In isolation they’re not so bad, but there are so many weak sections like this throughout Resident Evil 6 that it becomes a little like Swiss cheese. You start to focus on the holes more than the good stuff.
Much has been made of the difference in play styles between the three stories too, and although there are some subtle tonal differences, it’s mechanically all very similar. Jake Muller is the most diverse of the characters. All have hand-to-hand abilities, used by hitting the trigger buttons without aiming a weapon, but Jake’s are more powerful, chargeable, and can be used without running down his stamina gauge. It’s hardly Devil May Cry, though. His moves are context-sensitive, and Jake players will still need to rely on artillery at long range before getting in close for the kill, so even this is still very much the modern shooting game that Resident Evil has been working towards since part 4.
Chris and Leon play identically, and it’s only the tone, pace and enemy design that distinguish the two, making Chris’s sections feel more militaristic while Leon’s lean closer to horror adventure. A nightmare vision of what Resident Evil 5 would have been like if it was anywhere near as bad as some people made out, Chris’s campaign far too often sees him caught in the crossfire of infinite bullets that practically force you to play the game like a cover shooter. Only Capcom forgot to implement a good cover system. Getting into cover requires far too many buttons to be pressed at once, while peeking out of cover to fire a few shots involves more, different, inputs, like Capcom learned everything it knows about cover systems from Time Crisis rather than Gears Of War. Worse still, some enemies seem to have a magical ability to simply shoot through cover, making the whole frustrating experience entirely pointless.
Leon’s campaign fares a little better. Though marred by the same mechanical issues, it asks less of them, setting a more horror-heavy tone that aims to get the pulse racing through atmosphere, art direction and pacing instead. The opening section in Tall Oaks University boasts moody lighting, extremely detailed gothic environments and a horror flavour that flows between suspense, shock and panic with expert timing. As the campaign progresses, we’re treated to the Leon game we always knew could exist if only the technology could make it happen. Stuck in the middle of Tall Oaks as it’s consumed by the C-Virus and descends into a chaotic zombie apocalypse conjures memories of Raccoon City but in glorious, next-generation HD-o-vision, and the results are utterly captivating. The mood is perfect and a great sense of panic permeates, but without descending into a military corridor shooter – instead it feels like an extreme survival scenario: hold your ground, work with the few remaining survivors, and just try to outlast the carnage. This bit, as fleeting as it is, is the Resident Evil sequel we’ve always dreamed of.
From there, Capcom allows the tone of Leon’s campaign to expand a little. A detour into unexpected Dark Souls territory, complete with body horror bosses, gloomy underground caverns and ancient, armour-wearing mummified zombies, may be one of the least obvious chapters in Resident Evil history, but it’s also one of the best. Like all RE6 protagonists, however, Leon eventually reaches China, where the game takes a more action movie approach, but by then his campaign has worked hard to get you on board and you’re along for the ride.
Jake and Chris’s stories, by contrast, are exactly the opposite. They each take several hours to pick up steam, and players will have to fight through a glut of tedium, frustration and boredom to get the decent bits hidden towards the end. Thankfully, these chapters are just about worth playing through to. The final chapters of each feature some of the greatest boss battles we’ve ever seen in a videogame and find Capcom doing what it does best. That in both cases it manages to take a boss battle and essentially make it last for an entire hour-long chapter, shifting its location, design and attack patterns enough to stay exciting for the duration, is the sort of accomplishment that reminds you why we place so much faith in the studio to begin with.
It’s not just the bosses either. Level design, plot and pacing all improve significantly towards the end, rewarding those willing to stick it out all the way through. Enemy design, especially, should be commended. Aside from the standard J’avo, a stock enemy capable of firing back, the enemies found in Resident Evil 6 are consistently brilliant. Right down to the basic zombie, each will fight to the bitter end, and with AI routines that finally evolve those of Resident Evil 4. It feels like every new enemy type brings its own unique behaviour and requires a fresh strategy to beat it. Some will surprise you with the inventiveness of their design; others will just turn your stomach. Either way, they’re a great reminder of what Resident Evil does best when it’s on form.
Finally, there’s Ada’s campaign. Much more than the bonus levels tucked away at the end of the PS2 and Wii editions of Resident Evil 4, this story is a full game in much the same way as RE6’s other stories, except it’s single-player only. And while this may seem like the short straw of the bunch on paper, it’s actually a smart idea. Making it a solo, offline experience allows the developer to slow down the pace a lot more than in the other campaigns, so Ada’s stages are more complicated in design – the opening stage is a sinking submarine, whose layout changes as it twists over and gradually floods with water – and more puzzle-heavy. It’s not quite as puzzling as the first Resident Evil, of course, but the chapters here are certainly more taxing than either Resident Evil 4 or 5. And since this story crosses over with all three other protagonists, it allows Capcom to cherry-pick only the best locations of the game. Along with Leon’s story, Ada’s campaign is the highlight of Resident Evil 6. It’s just a shame you have to slog through a lot of rubbish to get to it.
There’s certainly no denying the argument that Resident Evil 6 represents great value for money. The single-player content alone represents a hefty package before you even throw in the likes of Mercenaries mode (now open from the start) or the Dark Souls-inspired Agent Hunt mode, but this vast quantity and variety comes at the cost of consistent quality. There are moments in Resident Evil 6 that peak as high as the very best games in Resident Evil history, but there are so many more that settle for mediocrity or much, much worse. With a nip and tuck this could have been something very special indeed. Instead, it’s a great little Leon campaign with a hell of a lot of content that you should consider a worthwhile but extremely flawed bonus.