Red Herb Review: Resident Evil 6

Resident Evil 6 attempts another full-blown evolution of the franchise, and coming from a true-blue fan that quite literally grew up with this series, the results are spectacular…And, sadly, also a bit hollow.”

It’s taken me a godawful amount of time and effort, but I come to you with my comprehensive review of RE6.  If you haven’t gathered it from the fact this blog is called The Red Herb, let me inform you that I’m quite a big Resident Evil fanboy.  As such – and given that a numbered title release ain’t too often of an occurrence – I indulged a wee bit (I mean to say a lot; a lot) in writing this review.  Dare to click the Read More at your own risk.

A Retrospective

I’m unashamed in admitting that this game has been my most anticipated release of the year.  Resident Evil and I go back quite awhile, back to a time where a lonely, impressionable gamer – a ten-year-old that probably had no right playing something that so magnificently deserves its M-Rating – stumbled upon a fledgling horror series that weaved together flesh-devouring corpses, outlandish monsters, and decidedly sinister corporate machinations within the confines of a modern, suburbanite nightmare.

And just like a little kid staying up late to sneak in a gore-drenched B-movie without their parents’ permission, I fell in love.  The first few Resident Evil games not only drew inspiration from obvious sources the likes of George A. Romero’s undead films, but also played on the Spielbergian notion of ordinary people facing extraordinary situations.  Sure, characters typically came from either para-military or police backgrounds but you’d be hard-pressed to say anybody is equipped to handle clawed, bio-organic demons and convoluted, not readily solvable puzzles laid out by a fucking madman.

Of course, after several years of replicating and improving this survival horror formula, Capcom listened to the steadily growing complaints that certain series constants – like tank-controls, auto-aiming, and incessant key fetching – were growing stale; becoming archaic.  As technology advanced, my beloved Resident Evil started to show its age.  The only choice for the franchise would ultimately divide fans right down the middle (a division that still exists today): the series needed to evolve.

Serving as the most ported, the most critically acclaimed, and, arguably, the most played title in the franchise’s history, I likely don’t have to explain to you how Resident Evil 4 was a game-changer for Capcom.  Borrowing a scant few conventions from the backtracking, item hunting survival horror days of olde, Capcom reinvented RE as an action-horror game.  It was the difference between Alien and Aliens.  The difference between running away from your fears and whipping around to shoot those same fears in the goddamn face.

Yes, purists felt betrayed by this ammo-generous, third-person shooter take on the series, most complaining that the game did away with its scare-factor.  But most, newcomers and veterans alike – myself included – embraced the evolution.  Capcom proved their title was malleable, able to redefine itself with the times.  Though RE4 may not have managed to recapture the white-knuckled feeling of fearing the unknown lurking behind the next door, it still managed to provide a memorably tense experience.  It’s means of putting you into a cold sweat may have varied, but were no less effective.

Seven years later and I feel we’ve hit the same crossroad with Resident Evil 6.  It’s deliberate evolution, just as it was back in 2005.  It’s Capcom’s attempt to catch lightning in a bottle twice after the cold embrace 2009’s Resident Evil 5 garnered.  I got a lot of mileage out of RE5 and despite its wall of criticisms, I found much to admire from that effort.  At a formulaic level, though, RE5’s only deviation from its predecessor was the inclusion of co-op.  It was a successful retread, mind you, but fans were quick to feel alienated by a rehash all the same.

That’s where RE6 comes into the picture.  The biggest, most ambitious title in the series forgoes replicating part 4’s structure in favor of striking the same kindling of innovation that sparked that new classic’s dramatic change.  A lot of risks are taken with the formula in the hopes of a grand payoff, including offering four different play-styles in order to cover all bases when it comes to fans’ tastes.  Instead of an incremental update like the last installment, Resident Evil 6 attempts another full-blown evolution of the franchise, and coming from a true-blue fan that quite literally grew up with this series, the results are spectacular…And, sadly, also a bit hollow.

Reformulated Evil

A source of contention for those without the stomach to master it, Resident Evil’s infamous tank-controls (which were still present all the way up until RE5 albeit in a more serviceable form) have been put to rest.  Falling in line with modern third-person shooters, basic locomotion has been simplified to a “push where you want to go” format with the right-analog stick controlling the camera.  I’ll say it, I mastered and love tank-controls (I’m set if I have access to a D-Pad during the zombie apocalypse) but RE6’s movement is smooth and thought-free, increasing playability tenfold.  You’re able to easily swing the camera to look behind you while moving forward and snap it to wherever your character’s looking with a single button press in a modernized version of the quick turn.

Aiming and firing is reminiscent of 4 and 5 (you’re even able to change your gun’s reticule to the now “classic” laser pointer from those titles) with the bonus of being able to move while shooting and reloading.  Don’t confuse that with “Runnin’ and Gunnin’,” however; when your sight is aimed, your newly upped momentum is slowed, encouraging you to carefully plant shots to either score a nice, satisfying head-geyser or to force an enemy into a stumble which leaves them open to a powerful, contextually activated melee attack/execution.  If an assailant gets too close – and they will, often creeping up behind you – the Quickshot mechanic conveniently lives up to its name in order to give you some breathing room.  Fans of recent entries may have to adjust the emission of upgradeable weapons in favor of a skill points system which offers varied perks that can be preset into classes much like a certain famous FPS (hint: Call of Duty), and the perks themselves range from extremely helpful (increased firepower, higher chance of critical hits) to barely noticeable.  It’s an interesting mix up but I can already tell many players may not even screw around with these options since the upgrade system from previous games functioned well enough.

Your melee options have been greatly expanded past on-screen prompts as well.  Now you can punch, kick, or knock back ghoulies with a dedicated melee button anytime you want.  Of course, you shouldn’t disregard a sudden prompt since you can take advantage of devastating counter-attacks like ripping an ambitious zombie’s axe from its hands and sending the blade back into their soft matter or exploiting an enemy’s momentary weak point like the relentless Bloodshot’s pulsating heart that only reveals itself after pumping a few rounds into its horrific, Inside-Out Boy body.  Given their nearly over-powered nature, utilizing melee is your best bet at saving precious ammo which often is unevenly distributed at the cruelest of times.  Plus, jump kicking a crowd of walkers or shoving a zombie’s face into the hood of a car are some of RE6’s ridiculously fun high-points.

There Are Some Things Worse Than Tank-Controls…

Added to your new found arsenal of mobility is a cumbersome take on dodging and evading.  Initiating a successful roll away to either side requires you to aim your weapon, hold the left stick in a desired direction, and tap a face button.  This action can’t even be mistaken for intuitive, which is a crying shame since the game often sends zombie limbs, bullets, and tendrils flying your way on a near constant basis.  Keeping the sights held after rolling gives you the ability to shoot from the ground, a design choice that punishes you for even daring to try it – in the time it takes you to have your aim reorientated, zombies and B.O.W.s especially can swipe at your health or outright fall on top of your ass.  I can firmly say worse games have managed better dodge mechanics than RE6.  The absolute most praise I can muster is that the forward sliding maneuver is the most solid component to your dodging prowess as it both adequately lets you dart out of harm’s way and lets you smash into crates; and let me tell you, smashing crates is far more useful than getting murdered on my backside.

I want to take a moment to speak on the real horror plaguing Resident Evil 6: Quick-Time Events.  Now, unlike many of my peers, I’m not one to damn Q.T.E.’s as lazy game design or consider them a nuisance where a straight cutscene could have been instead.  When they’re done right, they’re fun distractions, like having brief mini-games break up the whole.  When they’re mishandled, though, they illicit a hot darkness from within that causes obscenities to punch their way out of my mouth.  From stick waggling that doesn’t quite function no matter how close I get to breaking my controller to surprise pass/fail moments that leave me staring at a “You Died” screen before I knew what went wrong, RE6’s Q.T.E.’s are as poorly implemented as they are goddamned plentiful.  I find it more tolerable to have my health impacted or, hell, even more Q.T.E.’s initiated when I’m slow to react.  Instantaneous death – or, in video game terms, “Pulling Me Away From the Fucking Game” – is downright frustrating.  Give me tense, give me nerve-wracking.  Don’t give me frustrating.

The Perks of Friendship

Transcending the depths of flawed design, co-op returns to the Resident Evil universe once more to triumphant result.  The three main campaigns support co-op play both split-screen and online.  As comeuppance, solo players are yet again forced to drag along an AI partner, but changes to item drops and the revival system make up for the computer’s idiotic lapses in judgement.  Those same changes serve online to keep the wheels greased and turning on RE6’s persistent, inertial action.  If a partner is tied up and you’re down, for instance, you’re allowed to fend off attackers in your downed state with whatever you have (I’ve been known to slash at shins with my survival knife) while you wait out a meter that gets you up and back into it after filling.

Herbs and ammo drops will also appear for both characters even if your partner nabbed the item already, isolating players’ inventories from one another so as to keep your head in the game (online only, that is, split-screen isn’t quite so kind).  Unfortunately, this and the ability to inconsequentially carry any and every weapon you find at once almost completely eliminates the need for inventory management – a series staple that has died with tank-controls.  The trade-up here is that co-op feels more cohesive, placing greater emphasis on teaming up to quell threats and keeping each other from getting downed.  There’s definite hiccups in co-op design to be found, including tiresome instances where your partner is tasked with opening a door for you while you’re left to stand around in the dark as well as a serious overabundance of doors that both players need to kick through to progress (an arbitrary means of confining partners to the same area).  Ultimately, the game is built on the laurels of cooperative play and despite some rough corners, Resident Evil 6 is at its finest with a friend.

You Won’t Find a Better Looking Nightmare

For a game that revels in skull-crunching gore and biological monstrosities, RE6 is positively gorgeous.  The environments are beautifully rendered, richly detailed, and some of the very best in the series.  It’s too bad the game contents itself on whisking you through backdrop to backdrop at breakneck speed given that I often wanted to soak in the artistry put into the scenery.  The visual atmosphere is bolstered by the developers’ clever manipulation of light and dark; rather than mimic real world lighting, the brilliant decision to replicate horror movies’ exaggerated play on darkness was made.  You’ll find moments where things creeping in the night cast long, foreboding shadows or moments where the contrast between murky, pervasive darkness and blinding, overexposed light fit together like yin and yang.  It’s creepy, gorgeous, and breathes a horror movie life into everything from locales teeming with detail to sparse, claustrophobic corridors.

Our heroes are rendered articulately and their animations are polished.  Yet a  larger surplus of macabre imagination was fed into the creature designs.  The newly conceived C-Virus gives way to constantly mutating abominations that glisten and twitch and even morph further in retaliation to your attacks.  The bosses especially (even some of which who fall into RE’s uncreative “giant animal” category) are sickeningly crafted and gleefully horrifying.  Chris and Piers’ tussle with a certain gargantuan B.O.W. at the end of their campaign plays host to one of my favorite monster designs in the game – a freakshow that matches its unprecedented scale with effectively unsettling detail.

Four Brands of Evil

Resident Evil 6 stuffs a lot of content into one package.  After my first playthrough, I had thirty-five hours clocked into the campaign alone.  It’s a gracious amount of gameplay, but at the end of it all, the longer the runtime is padded out, the thinner the experience can seem.  That said, there’s truly lengths of sheer brilliance to be found amidst the three dominant campaigns and the additional fourth somewhat shorter but still sweet campaign.  Right off the bat, you’ll find RE6 to be a solid cinematic experience that rips its pacing from Hollywood action flicks.  Borrowing from the scenario system introduced in Resident Evil 2, each character pair witnesses more or less (sometimes definitely more) the same set of events from different perspectives.  It’s less Pulp Fiction and a little more scatterbrained but we’ll get into that later.

You can take on any of the initial story arcs in whichever order you’d like, but as it’s ordered in the menu, Leon’s story is up first; this is either done as a clever hook for players beginning their journey or a grave mistake because this is hands down the best campaign in the game.  Leon’s campaign recalls the older titles more than any other segment in RE6: a dark, brooding atmosphere, an almost strict adherence to the undead as enemies, and freer sense of exploration within its richly rendered environments (including a fantastic bout through a gothic cathedral where puzzles and traps take precedence over lining up headshots).  Several chapters keep the tension aloft by persistently sending zombies after you, forcing you to check the shadows behind you every time you move a few feet.  The game’s superb sound design comes into play here by alerting you only with a faint moan and shuffle – noises you’ll soon learn to dread when your stock of herb tablets is low.

Mr. Kennedy returns to the series with a sliver less swarm than usual thanks to the death of his friend and the nation’s President as well as being rattled by a disaster so eerily familiar to the Raccoon City Incident.  His partner and new face to the franchise, Helena Harper, makes a strong case for her character when, in previous games, she would have easily fell into the trap of a Jill or Claire stand-in.  Instead, Helena is given her own temperament that sometimes conflicts with Leon’s unshakable calm while also having a serious stake in the events unfolding.  In any prior Resident Evil, you wouldn’t be able to tell if your character had a headache even if their skull were split open; that’s how improved upon the storytelling is this time around.

Chris and Piers’ campaign stands as the red-headed stepchild of the bunch, though, as it plays like a hackneyed Army of Two spin-off featuring mutating J'avo raining gunfire on your head.  Chris’ new characterization as a broken solider snapped by the trauma of fighting a war on bio-terrorism only serves to make him seem angry and irrational all the way up until the final chapters of his story.  Stoicism and a one-dimensional “Man on a Mission” motivation would’ve been fine all by themselves but Chris spends his campaign barking suicidal orders at his comrades while belittling his bland partner Piers, finding a way to make himself unlikable at every corner.  Piers obviously serves as a time-stamp of how Chris used to be – hopeful, determined, dead set on justice – but he’s rarely given a moment to transcend sidekick status (until the very end).

Thanks to the sub-constant need to avoid enemy fire, Chris’ campaign places the harshest spotlight on the ill conceived cover system.  Your character automatically goes into cover near an applicable surface when your gun is aimed, a choice that’ll often glue you to a wall when you mean to simply shoot.  You’ll find yourself wishing the cover system worked well, too, since some encounters practically demand you master it.  Chris’s campaign also houses the first of many vehicle sequences; it’s easy to tell these portions of the game were only worked on insofar as to function and not much beyond that, giving a mixed feeling of enjoyment between each segment (Chris’ chase sequence being a bottom rung example of the feature).  Technical flaws aside (a persistent theme in this game), this campaign indeed owns up to bright patches of inspired design including a hair-raising struggle through a ship’s hull, desperately searching for parts of passcode as a writhing, undying B.O.W. hounds you, or a fantastic plunge into an underwater laboratory that both reminds me of games past and gives you a true idea of this title’s sense of scale.

Bringing back quality and imagination to the overall game, Jake and Sherry’s campaign is a refreshing blast of smartly executed action and well paced tension.  It also helps that the duo has the most interesting dynamic out of RE6’s ensemble.  The new kid, Wesker’s attitude spewing progeny Jake Muller, gives the best performance of the bunch despite a vocabulary built on the back of one-liners.  But Jake might have easily been a cliched reworking of Devil May Cry’s Dante if not for the emotional tether provided in the strong-willed, level headed Sherry Birkin.  I won’t be surprised to see fans call for Jake and Sherry to return in their own game sometime in the future, and that speaks tones about how well their partnership works.

Their campaign shares more similarities with the J'avo smashing action featured in Chris’ than Leon’s trek through zombie infested hell, but run-in’s with the daunting Ustanak lay the foundation for a tenser, Nemesis-like fight for survival.  More than that, this campaign allows itself stretches of breathing room between rollicking action set pieces.  A quiet, unnerving hunt for intel through a pitch black, snow swept mountainside and exploring a beautifully crafted Chinese palace later chapters do well in opening up RE6’s experience, making you feel like you aren’t caught on a rail pulling you from firefight to firefight.  Plus, any climax that reminds me of Terminator 2’s finale is an ending I can’t help but love.

Just when you thought it was safe to put down the controller, Ada Wong’s bonus campaign unlocks with the promise of revealing all of the story’s mysteries.  Despite having more screen time than any previous game, Ms. Wong remains as enigmatic as ever, barring the audience from her true intents with a steely resolve.  Unlike the three main story arcs, Ada travels her campaign alone, only barging in at intersection points where she either helps in another character’s boss fight or remains hidden away, defending others from afar (the latter feeling very much in character for her).  There’s also a unique focus on sneaking past enemies that serves as a change of pace compared to this game’s obsession with entering rooms in a blaze of gunfire.  Surprise instances of puzzle solving and fending off the undead by yourself may sound like the good ol’ days on paper, but Ada’s campaign still feels like a modern actioner dropped snugly in between Leon’s and Jake’s play styles.

A Flawed Beast: Closing Comments

Resident Evil 6 attempts quite a lot, more than any other title in the series – intersecting campaigns, periodic four-player co-op, a skill point system, a globetrotting narrative – yet the game trips on its own lofty ideas at crucial points.  The story is bigger, and in some ways a little more down to Earth when it comes to not just the fight against bio-terror but the consequences of bio-terrorism winning.  But I find myself having wanted to experience the plot sequentially instead of ingesting revelations in sporadic doses while sitting through retreaded cutscenes and set pieces.

And then there’s the complete abandonment of the survival horror structure that kept me up at night when I was a kid.  Suffocating darkness, hapless heroes, gothic scenery, grotesque monsters…It has the right ingredients, but mixes it into a linear action game that’s much too gun-centric to be scary and too bogged down technically to stand leagues above modern third-person shooters.  By default, it’s competent and absolutely playable; too often, though, it stoops to frustrating lows that are intolerable for a AAA budget game, and especially from a franchise that has set so many precedents in quality production.  But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s utterly fantastic – the perfect blend of design and execution, and supremely fun.

Resident Evil 6 is definitely a shift for the series, but not the perfect evolution the developers intended.  Resident Evil 4 did away with stale conventions for the sake of innovation.  This entry is more hesitant of shaking action game pratfalls once lauded as intuitive for fear of losing sight of the formula put forth by that previous effort so many years ago.  Despite its impressive size and scope, this installment feels like a transitional stage before we get to something not just evolved, but better.  Until then, Resident Evil 6 is a helluva ride and if you’ve stuck around the games this long, you won’t want to miss it.

[This review was done on the PS3 version of Resident Evil 6.  The game is also available on the Xbox 360 with a PC port soon to come.  If you’re having trouble unlocking sexy costumes in The Mercenaries, add me at KevinApoc, and I will show you the magic of Sherry’s short-shorts.]

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