(I know the timeliness of this blog is a bit off, but various real-life issues and my continued obsessions with Borderlands 2 and X-Com prevented me from finishing it last weekend. Since I had already put a decent chunk of time in it I figured it would be a waste not to wrap it up, so here it is.)
What was it about Resident Evil 5 that got people like me, the Achievement/Trophy-ambivalent crowd, to play it over and over again, S-Ranking it almost by accident? It certainly wasn't the story. I have no problems appreciating campy fun, but once-through should be enough for anyone. No, what it came down to was the gameplay: the purity of experience only possible when every key system and mechanic hums together in perfect harmony. Capcom, in particular, has excelled at delivering this balance of design throughout the years from Mega Man to Street Fighter to Devil May Cry to Monster Hunter.
So what happened to RE6? Where did Capcom lose the plot and, in their attempt to please everyone, end up pleasing almost no one? It's easy to decry the "actionification" of the series and speak of nebulous things like "feel," but we need to know exactly what went wrong before we start talking about how to make it right. And before we can do that, we need to understand the symphony that was RE5.
Controller Meet Hand, Hand Meet Controller
Right now I imagine I sound crazy to some of you. After all, RE5 was also heavily criticized for the way it controlled. Moving like a tank and having to stand still to aim your gun seemed incredibly backwards for a shooter in 2009. What most people don't realize is that RE5 wasn't a shooter at all (despite what Capcom marketing might have wanted you to believe); rather it was a strategy game more akin to a real-time version of Valkyria Chronicles.
You heard me. The controls, systems, enemy behaviors, and environmental designs combined to create a metered, tactical gameplay loop focused on resource management and efficiency.
The RE series has been moving further and further away from the horror genre since RE4, but survival was still the name of the game all the way throughout RE5. Enemies in RE5 hit hard, would absorb tons of bullets unless you were targeting the right place, and health and ammo were limited. This all would have been bad news bears if not for three key things: the enemies, the environments, and the shooting.
The Majini were tough to kill. A few shots to the head did the trick, but the only thing a full clip to the chest got you was an angrier Majini. In a world where bullets weren't hanging off of every tree and a strict inventory system forced players to carefully pick and choose between versatility and longevity, it was a blessing that the enemies were so single-minded in their purpose. Their pace was slow and their approach direct, giving you a very clear timer in which to land the shots you needed. The threat was real and if you missed a few shots you were in trouble, but as long as you stayed calm and played smart, standing still wasn't a problem.
Of course staying calm and playing smart would have been moot if enemies were spawning right on top of you and you had limited space to work with. Thankfully the designers of RE5 thought of this and almost every environment was perfectly tailored for the encounter. Major battles took place in large arenas designed with obstacles to impede enemy movement without obstructing the player's aim. These areas offered looping paths for players that wanted to kite or bottlenecks for players that wanted to stand their ground. The environment was a tool players could use as they saw fit to take full advantage of their particular load-out.
These various elements wrapped up as a cohesive package of sublime gameplay in the hands of the player, thanks to the shooting. Sure, Chris and Sheva may have moved like tanks, but they also shot like tanks with a mechanical precision. There were no aiming reticles showing you the general area through which your bullets were flying, there was a laser sight that painted a big red dot on the exact spot you were going to hit. It was exactly what players needed to tackle each scenario as the tactical combat-puzzle it was meant to be.
RE6 Meet Controller, Controller Meet Wall
Unfortunately, it seems the designers of RE6 either lost focus or were completely unaware of what made RE5 so great to begin with, and as a result we are left with a game that is the worst possible combination of survival and shooter. Enemies still hit hard, can still take a lickin', and ammo and health pickups may have been increased but are a far cry from abundant.
The new J'avo are even tougher than the BOW's that came before. They come with head armor by default and actually become stronger if you happen to shoot them in the wrong place. They would much rather duck and weave and shoot as they wait for you to hit them in the arm so they can transform and charge into melee range while using their mutated arms to cover their face.
Unfortunately, the much more linear, cramped environments of RE6 are constantly getting in the way as you try to take your enemies down intelligently. The increased emphasis on shooting means that every area is full of various forms of cover, cover which exists for the sole purpose of obstructing aim. Navigating the environment is rarely an option as it doesn't take very many enemy bullets to permanently lose a chunk off your health bar, but standing your ground is also difficult unless you're willing to waste most/all your ammo trying to take out the melee J'avo before they reach you.
And you're going to waste ammo. A lot of ammo. Because in addition to the faster enemies and cramped environments, the developers felt like RE6 needed one more feature to make it feel more shootery: aim variance/sway. The concept of an aiming reticle is simple: rather than indicate a point of contact for your bullets, a reticle designates the general area through which your bullets will fly. This is a thing that shooters do and so, with a total disregard for the experience of the player, a reticle was forcibly inserted into RE6. In order to "balance" this, the optional laser-sight that was rock-solid in RE4 and 5 now swims across the screen as if Chris and Leon have since been struck by some sort of degenerative nerve condition.
One Wrong Note
There was something magical about the way the various elements of RE5 came together to form a shooting experience that actually felt suited for a console (yes, I'm one of those Mouse & Keyboard snobs that finds games like Halo and Gears frustratingly boring). And maybe these faster enemies and cramped environments wouldn't have felt so bad on their own despite the laughable inclusion of "moving while shooting" that is so slow, you might as well be standing still. It's the loss of precision that has changed RE from a math problem, something with a solution that can be approached intellectually, to a dice-roll gamble every time you pull the trigger.
If RE5 is a symphony then RE6 is a cacophony, a wall of contrary noises forced to play simultaneously, assailing the senses in a manner devoid of any foresight or forethought. It straddles the line between RE5 and console-shooter, inheriting qualities of both but the virtues of neither. Is it the worst game ever made? Certainly not, and considered objectively, it's not the utter disaster most video game coverage outlets and internet forum-goers are making it out to be. But as a Resident Evil game it completely misses the mark, stripping key qualities from the experience in an ill-conceived courting with mainstream appeal.
Resident Evil will return, and when it does it will be on a new set of shiny boxes. Hopefully Capcom will get the message and make sure that someone in a position of power understands that mechanics for the sake of mechanics does not a good game make. I'm available on a contract basis.