These days, gaming's mega-franchises don't really compete with each other - you'll notice that the launch of Resident Evil 6 on October 2 carefully dodges both Assassin's Creed 3 and the latest Call of Duty. Instead, they try to repeat and top their own history, which means Resident Evil is caught between two extremes - the original's solitary horror, and the pulse-pounding reinvention of Resident Evil 4. Where the fifth game in the series havered, eventually plumping for '4 with co-op' and satisfying few, the pitch for Resident Evil 6 is no less than this: it will be all things to all fans.
A brief recap of what that means: three distinct single-player campaigns, each with their own style and theme that crossover at certain points, all playable with online co-op. To this add a newly-revealed fourth campaign starring Ada Wong, an unseen 'Prelude' campaign, and at least two competitive online modes, Agent Hunt and Mercenaries. Capcom staff are talking of a 50 hour campaign in total, a claim that needs to be taken with a big pinch of salt, but it's a sign of the scale and scope of Resi 6 that such numbers are even vaguely plausible.
The recent release of a demo, available to Dragon's Dogma owners, did not make a good first impression. It was a poor showcase, composed of three brief snatches from the game that, out of context and badly-tuned, gave me the wrong kind of horror. Having just spent two days at Capcom's Osaka HQ playing the more-or-less final build of the game, including a new online mode and across both Hard and Professional difficulty settings, such misgivings are scoured from my mind. Resi 6 may yet have one or two things to be concerned about, but be in no doubt that this is going to be an absolute monster.
The existence of Ada's campaign is the event's big 'reveal', except of course it's been more or less known about for a while. It's unlocked after beating the first three, and then gives an alternative perspective on events. The section available to play began with an amazing view over a cathedral, and a shot of Leon and Helena entering the grounds, before you take Ada down to ground level.
Even more so than Leon's campaign, this graveyard and what lies beneath show the work that has gone into re-building the MT Framework's lighting tech. Outside, the rain creates misty nimbi around the scattered light sources. Dropping into a pit beneath a headstone puts Ada into a maze-like crypt section that goes into a whole other level of detail. Some games have an unmistakeable style: as you move down moss-mottled stairwells, past rusty railings, over flagstones, and spy a slightly incongruous barrel in the distance, you know this is the world of survival horror.
A small fire bathes the drab walls around it in an orange glow, making a nearby puddle shine at the right angle, and distracting the eye from the room's dark corners. The shadows in Resi 6 are as much a part of the effect, capturing every motion a character or enemy makes down to the slight jerk of Ada's elbow as she fires a rifle. By the time you see a torch swinging back and forth in a cage, illuminating a sewer passage in lattice waves, Capcom is just showing off. I was pinning enemies to the walls just to watch how the torch-glow slightly coloured their mottled skin. The lighting in Resi 6 is something else.
Ada's campaign seems to be a bit of everything rather than variations on a theme - combat, puzzle-solving, and big set-pieces all crop up. The three major puzzles in this section were surprisingly good, considering that a Resident Evil puzzle usually involves carrying a square peg to a square hole. All had totally different solutions that took a bit of head-scratching, and manipulation of the room's elements in non-obvious ways. A good one is set in a freaky place filled with hanged figures, their heads covered in woven sacks and their lifeless hands bloodied from struggle. It's an interesting environment to manipulate and be confused in.
"Ada's campaign seems to be a bit of everything rather than variations on a theme - combat, puzzle-solving, and big set-pieces all crop up."
The underground maze ends with a few cunning traps and group encounters that Ada has to fight her way through, before bumping into Leon and Helena just in time for a boss fight. This particular monster is a naked woman whose back sprouts giant killer tentacles, and she kicks things off by collapsing the cathedral's floor - after negotiating a giant staircase that spirals downwards into the bowels (a section that splits the characters into different teams) you end up in an extended arena match.
More giant contraptions get involved, there are further floor collapses, and you end up in a crazy minecart ride with the determined naked lady hanging on the front for grim life. Let me remind you: from the outside, this building looked like a cathedral. The way this sequence escalates can't help but remind you of Resi 4's winning habit of jamming one-off deathtrap rollercoasters in wherever it could, and hints that perhaps a little of that grisly, freewheeling imagination is coming back.
There are two other things to take away from this sequence. The first is that the new controls enable a significant improvement in the boss fights, primarily down to the dodge. In previous Resi games, no matter how deadly they looked, bosses had to be designed around the fact that players could only turn slowly and run in straight lines. Now that you have freer movement and a dodge the attacks can be much quicker, and this monster is much more aggressive in closing and swinging at Ada.
The second is that the script indicates a return to that sweet spot between schlock horror and the odd cheesy joke last seen in Resi 4. It's as simple as Leon stepping on the minecart and saying "all aboard!", or Ada chucking him a ring for a later puzzle and adding "don't get the wrong idea" - sounds like slight stuff, but it's a tone entirely absent from the steroid-chugging Resi 5.
So to Agent Hunt. The most obvious inspiration, though it's somewhat of a lopsided one, is the 'invasion' mechanic from Demons/Dark Souls. Agent Hunt lets you enter a random player's game as a monster (exactly what kind depends on where they are in the campaign), with up to two invaders at one time possible. In case that sounds a little overpowering, let's get one thing clear - you will not win a head-to-head fight with an agent.
"So to Agent Hunt. The most obvious inspiration, though it's somewhat of a lopsided one, is the 'invasion' mechanic from Demons/Dark Souls."
The section I played is during the Jake/Sherry campaign, where they're facing off against multiple J'Avo while progressing through streets filled with rickety walkways and wrecked cars. Spawning as a J'Avo there's a choice of possible locations, and picking the closest one I ran straight at Jake and got absolutely nailed. If a player sees the threat and starts firing, you're done. So the trick, really, is to make sure they don't.
The J'Avo feels clumsy at first, lacking the fluid attacks and quick positional adjustments you take for granted with Resi 6's controls. But if you manage to sneak up behind a player that's focussing elsewhere, you can get in multiple damaging swipes without them having the chance to respond, by which time the AI will have swarmed a little closer. It is extremely difficult to kill an agent outright in one attack, but the victory condition for Agent Hunt is simply killing them - so anything you can do to distract, do damage or make them panic is a winning tactic (medals are awarded at the end of each 'Hunt' for inflicting damage, killing agents, using finishing moves etc). Each time you die, there's a short countdown before a respawn.
Unless you mutate, of course. One of Agent Hunt's best features is that the J'Avo can randomly become more powerful after being struck down, either growing a giant whipping tentacle arm or morphing into a new creature entirely, the needler. The former is unwieldy, but capable of devastating hammer blows and grabbing agents from a distance. The latter is terrifying in capable hands, scurrying about like a rat before puffing up like a king cobra and firing spines at a target for major damage.
Keeping the pressure up, and always trying to hit players on their blindside, is a neat inversion of the usual Resi combat. Though the mode draws inspiration from other games, the quick respawns give this an arcade sensibility that works well with the monsters' own idiosyncratic attacks - if you get blown away, have another pop. And playing as an agent, it gives you that unmistakeable buzz of fighting against something that's more than AI, that has the intelligence to watch and work around you. You can choose to have Agent Hunt off while playing campaign, but as far as I'm concerned bring it.
The Leon, Chris and Jake sections available at Comic-Con were also on offer, so I thought it would be rude to say no. Leon's chunk, set in the 'Ivy University' (thumbs up, naming chaps) has walls more reminiscent of a dilapidated tenement than a university. The environment retains that odd Resi hallmark of superb general texture work filled with individual assets that, up-close, are low-resolution.
It's still a fascinating environment to poke around in, and the zombies as enemies have a totally different vibe to the J'Avo, more about sudden rushes, surprise grabs and the occasional swarm. I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that I am so gay for Leon it's absurd. But this escape from the university has the kind of clever little touches and proper fake-out scares that suggest his full campaign may be special indeed.
The Chris sections suffer from the cover mechanic requiring two buttons to operate, which instantly makes it feel less satisfying and smooth than Gears. This isn't quite a cover shooter, but still. The squad mechanic means less scares, more big fights, and I much preferred playing the second time through as Piers - Chris's younger partner is a sniper, with his own weapon loadout, who can sit at the back and burst those heads through a heat-seeking scope. One absolutely gorgeous touch here is that when you pull out of the zoomed view, the scene is out-of-focus for a second or two as Piers' eyes re-adjust.
And then there's Jake. Jake is a mystery to me, half-shooter and half-brawler, all-powerful yet possessed of a stamina bar that rapidly turns him into a wheezing wreck. It's incredibly easy to run out of ammo in Jake's section, and it steers an uneasy middle ground between being comfortable and then whamming you down with little warning. The fighting does have more of a sandbox feel to it, with open environments that have multiple entry points for enemies, but I never quite got into its rhythm.
You can't have one opinion on Resi 6. It has to be several. No other big series could make a game like this, because no other blockbuster has such a divergent history. Capcom, faced with fans of every hue screaming blue murder for their own favourite take, has done the bravest or most foolish thing it could have, and it's made 'em all. Four campaigns, plus a prologue, plus Agent Hunt, plus Mercenaries, plus anything else they're saving up for a last-minute surprise. This is easily going to be the biggest Resident Evil ever. The best? After that demo, I can't believe I'm writing this. But it's got a shot. Several, in fact.