For a series that stubbornly refused to modernise its controls for ages, Resident Evil sure has mutated a lot over the latter half of its 16-year life. During its first eight years, it relied on a nightmarish camera-relative "tank control" system that was much derided in the new millennium. Then Resident 4 came along and transformed the franchise into a tense, methodical action game. Then it was followed by the bombastic Resident Evil 5, which basically excised the horror elements completely in favour of action-heavy co-op.
This didn't go over well with the fans. It caused solo players to rely on incompetent AI and made everything less scary. Rather than kowtow to what fans wanted by excising co-op, Capcom stuck to their guns and decided to proceed further in that direction by improving and innovating the co-op experience.
Resident Evil 6 is split across seperate campaigns. One stars Leon Kennedy, another Chris Redfield, and another newcomer, Jake Muller. Each campaign is expected to last approximately 70-80 per cent of the length of Resident Evil 5. All three campaigns weave together at various points and cumulatively comprise one giant story.
Rather than simply make this multiple perspective a cute touch in the narrative, it actually affects the gameplay as well. If you're online and get to a section where the storylines intersect, other players who are at the same part in their parallel campaign will be added to your game. For example, if you and a friend are playing as Jake and his sidekick Sherry, and you get to a part where they meet up with Leon and Helena, two random other players at that point in the Leon campaign will enter into your game. Suddenly, what was two-player co-op has become four-player co-op. Sometimes the teams will mix and match too, encouraging friends to split up and work with strangers.
Some may not like playing with unknowns, but this feature can always be disabled and you can stick with AI partners for such occasions.
Of course, that brings to mind Resident Evil 5's biggest sour spot; Sheva, the inconsiderate AI partner who insisted on taking your ammo and using your herbs. When asked what they would do to fix this, Resident Evil 6 producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi assured us that they'd listened to player feedback and had altered the AI such that it wouldn't be a nuisance. Having played three separate demos from each campaign in single-player, I can say the AI companions here do an admirable job of staying the hell out of your way.
The first demo I tried was Leon's. It began with the chic-haired pretty boy zombie slayer and his partner, Helena, shooting the President evil right in the noggin before attempting to flee the premises. Only Leon flees like he's walking through molasses. Of all the recent trends to pick up on it had to choose "walk slowly while you can't aim and a bunch of scripted things happen to you."
We eventually come across a man whose daughter has gone missing. Helena doesn't see finding her as a priority, but Leon decides to put his PHD in maiden rescuing to work. The teenage daughter is found injured, leading to a scene where she goes all zombie in an elevator. Some stick-waggling quick-time event occurs and Leon fells the mighty undead teenage girl.
After this lumbering intro things gets vastly more interesting when we're assaulted by a horde of zombies in a parking garage. Resident Evil is notorious for its peculiar controls that don't allow you to move and shoot at the same time, but Resident Evil 6 gets with the times and lets you handle two mundane tasks simultaneously. Even more modern, it lets you run by pressing the stick forward all the way rather than by holding a button. Progress!
While Resident 6 updates its controls in this regard, it finds new ways to impair players. Most notably, aiming zooms in much further than in previous Resi games, meaning your peripheral vision is severally reduced. You also have a sliding dodge maneuver that ends with you laying on your back.
Some may begrudge that landing horizontally temporarily limits your movement, but I appreciated the visual flair of this move as well as the fact that it makes you more vulnerable. You're faster and more agile than in previous Resident Evil games, yet your narrow field of view and lackadaisical post-evasion pose still instill a feeling of weakness and desperation. Based on my hands-on time, it felt like a clever rebalancing.
Things got even more exciting in Jake's demo. This section begins with Jake and Sherry being chased by a colossal mutant zombie thing with what appears to be a grizzly UFO catcher claw for a hand. Let's call him Nemesis 2.0. This starts with one of those oh-so-fashionable "run towards the camera" sequences, followed by a similarly popular "run away from the camera" bit. This ends with the couple jumping off a ledge resulting in Jake making a soft landing while Sherry holds onto a pipe for dear life. This leads to the best -- and by which I mean worst -- line where Jake arrogantly remarks "It's always something with women."
Okay, so the Resident Evil series isn't exactly known for its great characterization, but it is known for its thrilling boss battles, and Resi 6's demo boss is no exception. Nemesis 2.0 catches up with Jake and Sherry in a warehouse filled with, would you believe, explosive barrels. This creature can't be hurt by conventional weaponry. Instead, you must lure him towards an explosive barrel and, well, you know what to do.
On paper it's trite, but in practice its remarkably tense. Partially because these canisters cause the biggest barrel-related explosions I've seen in a genre already over-saturated with explosions (sorry, Just Cause 2). It's also horrifying because regular enemies show up seemingly at random, all too eager to nibble your face off. Hearing Nemesis 2.0 growling heavily just out of view while you sprint away only for a zombie to pop up out from behind a stray pillar is riveting stuff.
The demo for Chris's campaign didn't fare quite so well. Spanning a series of rooftops in a ramshackle burg in Southeast Asia, Chris and his comrade Piers get a taste at Resi 6's long-range combat. Here, enemies spawn giant razor tentacle arms or what appears to be mutant bats out of their butts - charming. This section was highly reminiscent of Resident Evil 4's last chapter that focused on fighting infected military goons. The close-up camera and stodgy movement don't suit themselves for long-range combat, while the context-sensitive cover seems haphazard at best and it's not always clear what you'll be able to crouch behind rather than climb over.
Resident Evil 6 isn't the game old-school fans were hoping for, but it's not the train wreck those turned off by Resident Evil 5 dreaded either. It's a new beast entirely that sticks to its convictions.
Yes, it's an action game. And yes, it focuses on co-op. But early indications suggest that it does both these things well and could likely be a great action game if judged on its own merits rather than based on certain expectations. For many, the scariest thing about Resident Evil isn't the zombies, insects or vile corporations, but rather it is change. And Resident Evil 6 continues to evolve the series in new and unexpected directions. It's spooky and unnerving, but one can't argue that it isn't exciting.