Thursday, 20 September 2012

Resident Evil 6 Public Demo (360) First Impressions

Needs a feather duster.

As a long standing fan of the Resident Evil franchise I am of course a glutton for punishment. Shinji Mikami's medium-shifting franchise has not been one to except change gracefully, a fact easily seen by the period between the first game in '96 and Resident Evil '04 showing almost no experimentation or improvement with the existing formula. Granted the Outbreak multiplayer spin off was the exception, and pioneered a lot of the concepts that would be later improved upon by Valve's Left 4 Dead games. However, Capcom has a business acumen which thrives on finding anything of worth and cloning it endlessly until it has nothing left to give, so it took the diametric shift in style and gameplay Shinji marshalled in RE4 to give life back to the ailing series.

Sweet candy.

RE4 informed a new paradigm in game design, integrating RPG style mechanics with skill based gameplay which reinvented the Survival Horror genre. Although it did that by turning it into the Third Person Action game genre, forcing fans of gaming horror to take solace in the ailing Silent Hill franchise, and otherwise scuttle off to find sustenance in the Indie scene. Like I did, but I'm not bitter.

By the time that RE5 came out four years later, it was into a market that had already changed in the wake of it's predecessor. Visceral's Dead Space had taken the features RE4 innovated and made it's own action/horror identity, and hell, even lousy imitations and shovel-ware had clogged up the market, like Cold Fear. RE5 desperately needed something to make it stand out and compete with not only it's predecessor but also the upstarts clinging to its coat tails. Instead it shilled in co-operative multiplayer in a misinformed attempt to compete with other Triple-A games and doused the experience with plenty of uncomfortable and not at all intentional (honest) racism.

The Cannibal Holocaust game we never knew we wanted.

So RE6 has to pull off a hat trick:
  1. It needs to re-establish good faith with old fans.
  2. It needs to endear itself to "mainstream gamers" to compete with the likes of Gears of War and Call of Duty.
  3. It needs to infatuate new fans with the franchise to assure it's future.
And now we have a PUBLIC demo to gean whether or not Capcom can pull it off. Really, it's labelled PUBLIC demo. It's like they didn't even look at the file name before sticking it on XBLA.

This demo was actually available to people who bought Dragon's Dogma at retail early this year. Supposedly anyway, because the promotion code I got with the game didn't goddamned work, but as a consolation Dragon's Dogma was a much more entertaining game than RE5, for all it's flaws.

It's like Dark Souls without a broken controller!

Back on track though, the demo is trifurcated into episodes for each of the three plot threads running through the main campaign. Each are co-op based, the first with Leon and Helena, then Chris and Piers, and lastly Jake and Sherry.

6 feels mechanically different from 5. It's new melee system allows fist fighting to be initiated without first shooting an adversary, and has a surprisingly natural feel as one move flows into the next. Unfortunately it does place an emphasis on physically brawling with enemies, which might make sense when fighting mutant mercenaries but is more than a little incongruous when trying to survive an attack by a horse-sized skinless abomination. It's one thing to establish the player character as a badass, it's quite another to have them head lock a wretched monster covered in acidic sputum and knee it repeatedly in it's fanged maw.

Behold the new butch Leon!

The new emphasis on gun wielding enemies is not a comfortable one. The cover mechanics are amateur and uncomfortable, putting your character's head in the line of fire more often than not. Blessedly enemy gunfire tends to do no more than knock you over into the downed state, where you can scoot about on your buttocks or return fire quite comfortably. One bizarre omission is that there is no grenade warning system; in Chris's chapter many of the mercenaries chuck grenades, and no indicator comes up to warn you of their proximity. Thankfully though the problems with gun wielders is mitigated by the presence of J'avo mutations; when struck on certain parts of their bodies, random enemies will undergo a mutation that transforms them in creative and disgusting ways. Quickly battles that in other cover-based shooters would be run of the mill devolve into chaotic affairs, as enemies randomly mutate powers and new forms that force you from a comfortable firing position and drive you to adapt. As long as there are plenty more of these in the full game, and they require new strategies to combat, some of the battles should prove to be quite memorable.

Tremble before Big Man With Arm Thingy!

Other than the mutations though there are very few new mechanics to speak of. The new inventory system feels even more fiddly than the one in 5, perhaps to discourage dicking about with it in combat, but it's still counterintuitive and lacks that OCD-inducing charm of the grid-based one found in RE4. There are no puzzles to be found in the proceedings, which does not bode well for the final product, which has promised at least a few diversionary brain-teasers to keep the gameplay fresh. The soundtrack does seem to have regressed in quality from 5, with several of the themes seeming closer in composition to tracks found in the Playstation 1 games, and not the best ones either. Some of the Quick Time Events can seem excessive and out of place, whereas others which allow for more precise player interaction can be a lot more fun. The new medical system uses a segment system reminiscent of that found in Far Cry 2, where each character has multiple health cubes and if one is only partially drained it can be healed over time. To recover lost ones the player must pop one pill each, which looks just as derpy as it did in Max Payne 3. When downed altogether the player can defend themselves with whatever weapon in hand and get revived by a team mate as long as an enemy doesn't one-shot them while they're vulnerable, but thankfully that's unlikely to happen often.

Leon's stages are sculpted for maximum manipulative nostalgia.

On that subject though the demo is very easy, with health items already abundant in each character's inventory and the characters can shrug off injuries with ease, to say nothing of standing directly in the line of fire without being downed for minutes on end. Furthermore some of the characters, particularly Jake, are grotesquely overarmed for scenarios that can be survived with little more than a pistol and some ingenuity. It robs the demo af any sense of drama or urgency, and makes it feel even less like a tense action/horror and more like a puerile shooting gallery.

There are plent of flaws on display in this demo, and yet a few delicate wisps of decent ideas can be found glimmering in the mire. As long as the difficulty is a little more balanced and the cover system has a few tweaks, we might have a decent third person shooter here. We probably won't have a great Resident Evil game though.

Oh, and what do you want to bet that this never happens in RE6:

RE6 Trailer 

...just like this never happened in Resident Evil: Revelations on the 3DS:

RE:R Trailer

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