Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Resident Evil 6 - Chris Campaign (Capcom, 2012)
Whereas the Leon campaign in Resident Evil 6 was intended to evoke the series' 32-bit survival horror roots, the Chris campaign reflects the shift, ever since Resident Evil 4, toward action as the prime element. Chris's campaign, in fact, doesn't actually feel very much like even Resident Evil 4 or 5, as it carries the series considerably deeper into full-blown shooter territory. Well, maybe more like half-blown, as the end result is quite the trade down from Resident Evil 5's unique, albeit quirky, identity within the action game landscape to now the mediocre and generic third-person shooter that Resident Evil 6 offers in its Chris campaign.
Mechanically, Resident Evil 6 adds to the series several standard shooter functions, which were also available in the Leon campaign, but which are vastly more relevant in the Chris campaign. You can move while shooting now, roll to evade attacks, take cover, and also perform a Gears of War-style "roadie run." These are all important in the Chris campaign, because, unlike in Leon's game, where the most prevalent enemy was the classic lurching zombie, Chris Redfield and his partner, Piers Nivans, face foes that are, more often than not, packing firearms, which includes automatics and sniper rifles. Players encountered the occasional gun-toting B.O.W. (Bio Organic Weapon) in previous games, but here at last we arrive at the point where Resident Evil becomes an experience primarily composed of firefights.
That doesn't have to be a bad thing. I'm not one of those people who cries "betrayal" simply because a property I've enjoyed ventures into a different direction from what it used to be that I enjoyed. I liked the earlier survival horror games (really a subset of the adventure genre), and I also liked the more recent action installments. The only things they had in common that Resident Evil 6 lacks was the level of quality. Resident Evil 6 is not, unfortunately, a very good shooter. It's not the worst thing ever, but, keeping in mind I don't wade too deeply into the obscure recesses of the genre, it does rank closer to the bottom than to the top among those I've personally played. In some ways, it reminds me of Square Enix's Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII (2006) for the PS2, which was similarly a mercenary attempt by a Japanese developer to appeal to the larger Western market with an ultimately asinine take on a genre that they understood was successful here but which they themselves had no palate for. It feels like a shooter developed by people who don't even play many shooters, let alone make them.
The Chris campaign consists of a lot of repetitive room-clearing gameplay, where enemies, either already waiting in place for you or emerging seemingly out of nowhere, mostly stand there and soak up the bullets you unload into them. Eventually, after I don't know how many bullets (gone are the days of having to count and conserve your number of shots, but it feels like a lot), your target will go down, either to disintegrate into ash or annoyingly reemerge as a stronger, mutated form, which, again, mostly just stands and shoots or advances toward you in a linear fashion while absorbing bullets. On the normal difficulty, the game is not especially hard or especially easy, but it's always more frustrating than challenging. Chris and Piers hit the ground hard any time they get shot, which feels not only annoying but also unfair when you find yourself targeted by multiple deadeye snipers while simultaneously getting swarmed by guys on the ground distracting you from getting a bead on the snipers. Getting through most firefights, however, doesn't take a lot of skill or tactics, just a lot of patience and bullets. One oddity, I suppose, of Resident Evil 6 is that, whereas, in other shooters, your sidearm is typically a last resort, the handgun remains, even in the Chris campaign, your primary weapon. This is especially so when you play as Piers, who never even gets an automatic weapon. This doesn't mean much in practice, because there's not a lot of precision aiming in this game.
It's hard to quantify, but, regarding the feel of this game, the action just doesn't "make sense" in the way that Resident Evil 5 did. When I consider the 2-D action games of my childhood, the well-made ones always had responsive controls and felt very tight and consistent. An enemy might surprise you the first time you faced it, but, once you familiarized yourself with all its moves, winning the game became simply a matter of reading patterns, maintaining focus, and honing your manual skill. When you lost, you understood why. It was because your reflexes were a touch slow, or because you lost track of the pattern and responded incorrectly. The old games "made sense" in that way, and I felt that Resident Evil 5 had a lot of that same arcade DNA in its design. Its pace was measured and deliberate. Enemies always behaved in a consistent manner, and, once you learned to read and react to their animations, they would never betray your expectations. Resident Evil 6, on the other hand, feels like most shooters today, in that the action feels much more nebulous. There probably are patterns you can learn (although a lot of the better modern shooters purposely eschew arcade-style pattern-based gameplay as too simplistic or unrealistic), but the game never requires or encourages you to do so. It's much more efficient to just spray your way through the roughly 5-10 hours that the campaign lasts, all the while never looking back. The gameplay consequently never feels very rewarding, because it almost never evolves beyond you performing the bare minimum action of any shooter, which is to aim at the body and pull the trigger.
Well, actually, one other quirk of the Chris campaign is that the player characters' melee attacks, already super-juiced in the Leon campaign, are even more so here. The more evolved B.O.W.s that Chris and Piers face are more resilient than the zombies in Leon's game, but they also tend to be less numerous, which means that Chris and Piers can more often clear an entire room with just melee attacks without running out of stamina. Since the shooting action is so clumsy in this game, it is often more effective just to melee everything. It is not any more fun that way, however, since you're just spamming the melee button.
I'll say that one thing this campaign has over most other shooters is that it's actually kind of empowering taking on the roles of two admittedly conventional yet charmingly guileless, never crude or amoral action heroes as Chris and Piers. The stars of Resident Evil have never been the most outstanding in the pantheon of video game characters, and newcomer Piers is maybe the most blandly generic player character in series history (until a cheap yet memorable twist late in the story), but at least they have more personality than the average point-of-view character in a shooter. Soap MacTavish, star of Activision's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) eventually becomes a cool character, but not until the sequels, when he becomes the player character's AI-controlled commanding officer. In the first game, where you actually spend most of your time playing as Soap, he's just your typical faceless, voiceless first-person shooter protagonist. Chris and Piers, meanwhile, bring not just skills but also their convictions and badass attitudes to the story, and this rare male-male partnership (I believe the only other times this has happened in series history have been short sections in Resident Evil: Revelations (2012)) makes for an extra testosterone-heavy play session.
Compared to the Leon campaign, the Chris campaign feels more generic. On the other hand, if you're playing cooperatively with another person, it's a more streamlined and therefore better co-op experience than the Leon campaign can offer. Also, despite the whole game's many failures, it is nonetheless worth admiring once again just how much Capcom put into this project. The Chris and Leon campaigns converge for only one brief section. Disappointingly, that means Chris and Leon never actually meet in any playable segment, but it's also impressive that, within a single release, here are two full-length campaigns with virtually no recycled content. Quantity does not make up for lack of quality, but it's not that Capcom wasn't trying or that it spread itself too thin. The game is just held back by some rotten mechanics at its core.
The Chris campaign is, as I said, a generic and mediocre third-person shooter. It's serviceable, not terrible, but, for a franchise with such a strong history, that's disappointing enough. Remove the name and the incomprehensibly zany story, and there wouldn't be anything to distinguish this from any among dozens of other forgettable second-rate shooters.