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The Forgotten, the Maligned: Resident Evil 6

Thanks to Cart Boy for edits.

Resident Evil is commendable in its ability for reinvention. The first game from 1996 codified the entire survival horror genre, and when its tank controls and convoluted environmental design got played out, it reimagined itself nine years in. And twelve years later, when that action heavy formula played itself out, it reimagined itself again with Resident Evil 7 in a way that’ll likely be influencing horror and virtual reality games for some time to come. Series like Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda can change themselves dramatically, but those are often on an individual basis or gameplay experiments. Resident Evil goes through sudden evolutionary shifts, differing periods of teenage rebellion.

Jill Valentine in the remaster of the remake of Resident Evil, a paean to classic survival horror design with a ton of nifty ideas.

However, that reinvention has almost always been a response to need. In the series’ twenty-two years, both its two strongest formulas – the tank controlled survival games and the action heavy shooters – burned themselves out with oversaturation. In the mid-Nineties, having characters struggle to run, fire guns, or carry needed gear was revelatory; it was a world where nothing, the protagonist included, was reliable. By the early 2000s, moving clunky heroes through corridors became seen, not entirely without merit, as a gimmick for crudely forcing situations to be scary. The formula had become stale, not helped by a glut of re-releases and side stories. Their answer was Resident Evil 4, which in 2005 was just as revelatory. The same tank controls were easier to use, inventory management was clear and sensible, and action was prioritized. Leon Kennedy could blast away at dozens of Spanish cultists at once, but they were tough enough to stave off firearm damage and incredibly dangerous. The over the shoulder camera made manual shooting easier but still provided a limited view. Bosses were truly monstrous and horrifying.

The initial village sequence broke down how this marriage of action and horror would work.

It was an exhilarating experience, a horror game that eschewed the mechanical extremes of its genre while maintaining the anxiety and fear. As an action game, it was also excellent, one of the most influential shooters in modern history. The over the shoulder perspective, the gameplay loops, and the slow weapon upgrading all became central parts of shooters and action games today. That did, however, lead to a problem within survival horror. From the early 2000s onward, the genre became seen, at least by executives and publishers, as a dead genre with little appeal. This was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, given that the lack of confidence led to them getting less commercial support, but over the years the anxiety over clumsy tank controls was replaced with an anxiety over the value of the genre at all. Over the next eight or so years, blockbuster horror titles would be retrofitted as action games. Resident Evil’s classier counterpart Silent Hill got loud combat, though that might have been a feint to hide increasing creative difficulties. Bland action levels were added late to detective game Deadly Premonition, in a way that didn’t match its low key pacing and style. After the derivative Dead Space failed to hit the right sales numbers, its publisher demanded so many shifts into action that by its third game only a bit of its horror was still there. This was the mainstream thinking at the time, that horror was simply not sellable to a modern audience demanding immediate thrills. Today, that’s been disputed by mainstream horror successes like Until Dawn, Alien Isolation, and Resident Evil 7, but at the time it was verboten across much of the gaming world.

The Juggalo-looking enemies of Deadly Premonition, and the game’s combat as a whole, are very overtly out of place.

After inadvertently helping kickstart the trend Resident Evil itself fell prey to it. Resident Evil 5 came out in 2009, four years after RE4, and the shift was noticeable. A game set in a West African nation suffering a bioterrorist attack, it took a compelling horror premise – a story set in oppressive daylight – and turned it into an action romp. It was mostly a less interesting RE4 that pushed its action and aped its successes; the game was filled with enemies and sequences that copied its predecessor directly. It also included co-op play, a tactic that rarely adds to a sense of dread and helped make it more of an adventurous romp than anything else. RE5 is fun, but it’s also deeply reductive from its lack of original ideas to its tone deaf use of African cultural imagery, and it lacked a real sense of identity. It wasn’t sure whether to be a somber tale of colonial exploitation or a campy escapade where you blow up the mutant bad guy in an active volcano. It wasn’t able to balance aping Resident Evil 4 and bringing back all the confusing backstory that game pushed to the side in the name of accessibility. And it wasn’t sure how many of its horror roots needed to be kept as it pursued greater action – and with it, a greater footprint in the action-heavy American market. Unfortunately, while the lovely Nintendo 3DS prequel Resident Evil: Revelations managed to match RE4 gameplay with the more traditional horror of the series’ early games, for the next mainline installment the emphasis on combat and thrills would be taken to an obscene level.

There’s also this part of RE5 where you go inside a giant cylindrical tower of science stuff frozen in cryo, and a giant crab thing jumps down and attacks you.

It is obvious from the start that Resident Evil 6, released over half a year after Revelations in October 2012, was a far more aggressive attempt to corner the American market, and crumbs from action and shooter games can be found everywhere. Call of Duty is the most obvious one; there’s constant space for cover and the J’avo, this game’s parasitic monster group du jour, can wield assault rifles even after their heads or legs turn into insect appendages. There’s also a ton of Uncharted, namely through elaborate (and terrible) set pieces in which the game’s seven heroes escape collapsing buildings, evacuate boats, and drive cars or bikes through street races. And the co-op hems closer to Gears of War than RE5 due to cutting some of the more irritating item trading the latter employed. In general, there’s also significantly more firearms and ammunition, and even mechanics are more combat-specific: characters can slide into crawls, dramatically shoot while crawling on their backs, and dual wield guns. One horror feature that wasn’t cut, though? No pause mechanic. And while that could be justified for online co-op, it’s hardly acceptable for single player – especially when levels take up to ninety minutes to finish.

There is something deeply surreal seeing series staple characters in these military shooter levels, where even the monsters are just generic terrorists.

Like a number of other Resident Evil games, RE6’s is a nonlinear story, told through four interconnected campaigns. The first has Resident Evil 2 and 4’s Leon Kennedy and newcomer Helena Harper chasing the head of the NSA through two zombie apocalypses on opposite ends of the globe, after he orchestrates the first to assassinate the U.S. president. In the second, RE1 and 5 hero Chris Redfield fights mutated terrorists in ersatz versions of Serbia and Beijing with his incredibly boring partner Piers. The third focuses on grown up RE2 supporting character Sherry Birkin protecting sullen mercenary (and son of the series’ deceased villain) Jake Muller, whose blood can counteract a new deadly viruses, from the machinations of both villains and a giant monster trying to capture him. And in the final one, accessible only by completing the other three, Leon’s femme fatale rival Ada Wong runs through the plot to reveal the machinations behind it. Other new plot points include the new C-Virus (which is both the zombie virus and the monster virus), a mysterious world-controlling syndicate, and a doppelgänger of Ada leading the bio-terrorist group Neo Umbrella, whose name is sort of like a Jihadi ring calling itself Nü-Smith & Wesson.

I should also note that while the Edonian J’avo wear tracksuits and the Lanshiang ones Chinese opera masks, Neo Umbrella’s soldiers dress like…this.

I don’t normally do this, but it might be best to just get the story out of the way, because it’s a real bugbear. Much of the plot – and I’m including the sizable amount of supplemental details players must unlock – stems from Derek Simmons, the head of the NSA since before the late Nineties Raccoon City zombie outbreak. He’s also part of a secret society halfway between the Illuminati and Mafia and, in 2013, is worried the president will reveal clandestine details about the U.S. government’s relationship with Umbrella, the pharmaceutical giant that invented the zombie virus. He orchestrates for him to be assassinated via a zombie outbreak he releases, perhaps shortsightedly, from his organization’s own centuries-old church, lab, and giant underground city. He also blackmails Secret Service agent Helena Harper into helping breach the president’s security detail by kidnapping and experimenting on her sister, though it’s hard to understand how that fashioned into the plan of just turning everyone into zombies (via an airborne strain, so presumably everyone would be affected). Helena, trying to get revenge, works with fellow presidential guard Leon Kennedy to get to this church. They discover the lab, meet the mysterious agent Ada Wong, and kill Helena’s mutated sister. After learning that Simmons has left on a flight to the Chinese metropolis of Lanshiang, the three of them go – though Ada on her own.

Tall Oaks, the series’ latest urban hellscape.

Simmons is also dangerously infatuated with Ada, and years before the main plot he decides to create a clone of her who would love him using a new biological weapon, the C-Virus. The virus cocoons its victims before turning them into monsters called J’avo, and somehow this translates into scientists building an artificial Ada body into which a host can be forcefully shaped. After many subjects are killed, Simmons throws Carla Radames, the project’s top scientist, into the system due to her DNA being a match. She secretly still retains part of herself and, going against Simmons without his knowledge, founds the terrorist group Neo Umbrella and its goal of actual world destruction. Six months before the attack on the president, there’s a civil war in the former Eastern Bloc state of Edonia. An insurgent mercenary, Jake Mueller, has antibodies that could counteract the virus due to his being the unknowing son of bioterrorist Albert Wesker. After discovering this somehow, Simmons sends his agent (and adopted ward, though this is for some insane reason exclusive to the supplemental material) Sherry Birkin to bring him in – officially to develop a vaccine, in reality to strengthen the virus. He also sends Carla, who he calls and treats as Ada, though she betrays him; she tests the C-Virus on insurgents, and her giant J’avo grunt Ustanak kidnaps Jake and Sherry for experimentation in a Lanshiang laboratory. She also kills a platoon from the U.N’s Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance that had been sent to fight the insurgency, with only leader Chris Redfield and his (boring) partner Piers Nivens surviving a gas attack despite them only being separated from the gas by a portcullis. The two mistake her for Ada.

Carla confronts Jake and Sherry (offscreen) in the ice cave level.

All roads lead to Lanshiang. Piers rescues Chris from a drunken stupor to fight a Neo Umbrella attack in a slum. Leon and Helena crash a plane nearby. Jake and Sherry break free of captivity in Neo Umbrella’s lab / hotel, and in secret Ada helps them fight to the other four. Leon and Chris almost shoot each other over what to do about Ada. Leon gives Jake the side eye. Chris gives Jake the side eye. Jake returns both, then he and Sherry get captured by thugs. A Neo Umbrella agent shoots Simmons with a virus that turns him into a dog monster; Leon and Helena kill him via train before swimming to the nearby Tatchi district. Members of Simmons’ “Family” shoot Carla right as Chris confronts her on a ship. It turns out there’s a humongous underwater base next to Lanshiang in which Jake and Sherry have been imprisoned. However, despite Chris shooting down missiles in a fighter jet, one with the C-Virus still hits Tatchi, causing another zombie epidemic. Ada fights Carla, who survives her gutshot and hundred-foot fall before eating and becoming the ship. After blowing up her doppelgänger’s face brain with a nitrogen container, Ada saves Leon and Helena in a helicopter, blowing up other helicopters and Simmons – who becomes a dinosaur monster, then a cockroach monster – with the two of them. While Ada is busy impaling the head of the NSA on a giant obelisk (with his blood dramatically forming the Umbrella logo on the floor), Chris and Piers rush to save Jake and Sherry, but while doing so realize a giant slime man monster, Haos, is about to infect the entire world with the C-Virus. As the base begins to explode, the two soldiers run from the monster. Piers injects himself to grow an electricity sword arm, throw Chris in an escape pod, and sacrifice himself to kill Haos. Jake and Sherry flee the base, pursued by Ustanak; after Jake punches him into a sea of lava, the two shoot his heart as he attacks the tram they ride to escape. The world is saved, Ada destroys the evidence of the project, Helena visits her sister’s grave, Chris gives up the bottle, and a now heroic Jake declines shaking down either the U.S. government or a turbaned street urchin plagued by monsters.

Simmons’ “dino” form. What even is this thing? And the dog form before it has an “organic” machine gun that shoots its own bones?

I’ve cut out a lot of details – sequences or boss fights that aren’t tied to anything – but it’s frustrating how both aggressively over-complicated and frustratingly lazy the story is. A plot to stop the president from releasing information most of the world probably already assumed is charmingly quaint, as is Simmons’ clandestine society. Carla’s characterization, which should be this tragic and powerful thing to bring the whole story together, comes across like an afterthought (for one thing, the game doesn’t seem to recognize how tied her story should be to Sherry’s and Jake’s). It’d have been best for Tall Oaks to be folded into Lanshiang from the start, and the zombies especially are also completely extraneous. Aside from the C-Virus being such a absurd catch-all plot point that it has no emotional power, it’d have made more sense narratively and thematically for the J’avo to be involved at all levels, and the tiny pool of zombie types shows how less compelling they were to the development team. It’s just nostalgia, a way to bring in the franchise’s classic and beloved monsters, which had been largely cut from Resident Evil after RE4 introduced the more intelligent Ganados. I remember the massive cheers from fans seeing the shambling undead when the game got announced. All I could think to myself at the time was one question: isn’t this going backwards?

Even President Zombie is half-hearted; you’d think the game would have him be the tutorial enemy instead of being blasted in the first cutscene.

The perfunctory use of the zombies is indicative of how beholden Resident Evil 6 is to the history and iconography of its series, but in a way that fails to understand why that iconography is so strong. It’s a novelty Fifties diner or cheap amusement park for its own storied history, devoid of context. Here’s the part from RE4 where you fight a giant (except there’s now two, and you’re aided by dozens of soldiers)! Here’s the part from RE5 where you use giant guns on the back of a moving vehicle (and a helicopter, airplane cockpit, and motorcycle)! Here are Code Veronica’s and RE0’s gross insects (but with the imagery being random and uninspired)! Here are many, many bad guys who never stay dead, with Jake and Sherry’s unstoppable captor Ustanak – whose increasingly absurd revivals from deaths via mining drills and lava lakes quickly wear out their welcome – being the most extreme of the nods to RE3’s ceaseless heavy Nemesis. It’s aggravating dumping mountains of lead into each monstrosity, knowing it’ll soon be back on its equivalent of feet; one with an “organic” chainsaw comes back roughly five or six times within a matter of minutes. Nemesis was compelling because it did seem unstoppable compared to everything else, but what happens if everyone is? It’s part of this extreme fixation on giving fans what they’ve already liked, and making sure to double down until it’s oversaturated.

A rare moment in the giant fight when other characters aren’t crowding you out.

This is a problem that’s plagued Resident Evil for much of its history; it just can’t get beyond some of its most storied moments. The biggest is that ever since Raccoon City became a zombie hell in RE2 and got nuked in RE3, the games have fixated on that one catastrophe. And while it makes sense narratively – the attack is almost like Resident Evil’s 9/11, an American tragedy whose effects reverberate across the world – as a plot point, it’s worn out. This very game has two separate cities that become the site of fiery zombie apocalypses, with even multiple characters referring to each as “just like Raccoon City.” Resident Evil’s terrors aren’t cerebral; they stem from science and physical spaces, and the nightmare of a city literally eating itself alive is a powerful one. But it’s one with an impact that rings hollower and hollower throughout each campaign, with the same beats hit again and again. The series suffers this cheap pandering frequently, but it has never felt as constant or as intense as here.

The second zombie outbreak, though in Ada’s campaign, zombies show up in Lanshiang before it occurs anyway.

While the plot is focused on recapturing past glory, the mechanics are looted wholesale from other contemporary series with an aggressiveness that ignores obvious gameplay issues. The combat is functional, I guess, but the new mechanics for dual wielding and sliding never gel with the game’s comparatively slow combat pace. The latter is used for dramatic chases, and they and dozens of similar sequences are everywhere; they constantly demand you play in a specific way and punish any confusion with an instant, irritating death. The worst is a chase out of the underwater base at the end of Chris’s that demands perfect timing while it screws with the camera, but it’s everywhere. A bike chase where Jake fends off Molotov cocktail-wielding biker terrorists throughout city streets kills you constantly if you don’t leap the right car or avoid the onslaught of exploding cars. Many slow motion scenes where you have to shoot a bad guy in its weak point fail to tell you what to do. The quicktime events, which RE4 helped popularize, are somehow significantly worse in this one: shorter, ceaseless, and with no real clarity for why they’re happening.

What’s perhaps worse (beyond mechanical issues, like the execrable set pieces) is that at its best, Resident Evil has always managed to come up with all sorts of new ideas and push what its world can be. But there’s nothing new here. It constantly regurgitates imagery from its other, better predecessors, and the only new ideas are simply stolen from other series. The emphasis on cover shooting is clumsier than most modern shooters, and the set pieces are almost exclusively uninspired. One of the few exceptions, a neat puzzle where Leon and Helena are trapped in a meat district with a monster whose shot off limbs become new monsters, gets redone once for each of the other campaigns to less effect each time. And while the J’avo have over a dozen transformations of new appendages sprouting from their heads, limbs, or bodies, they’re all uninspired; it’s mostly just “insect appendage replacing a human appendage” with little warped imagination. The combat isn’t viscerally fun when every design feels like something that should’ve been reworked at the start of production.

As one of the main villains, Ustanak is notably bad about this; with his goofy prize grabber arm (which he replaces, action figure style) he looks like a latter day Silent Hill boss, or something from a more fantastical Saw movie.

That’s perhaps the saddest issue plaguing Resident Evil 6: for all its forgoing horror to emphasize action and thrills, its action is ultimately still far less engaging than anything in RE4. Part of this is due to the sheer number of set pieces, often throwing out the normal gameplay mechanics or pacing. It’s interminable and aggravating, partially because they – designed solely to make the player feel empowered and cool – are barely playable. I died constantly in Resident Evil 6, but never from enemies. It was all the chases that give no slack for the slightest mistake, crypto-quicktime events that expected you to suddenly know what it wanted, and new mechanics that don’t relate to anything else. It’s awful, and it also kneecaps whatever energy these sequences were meant to have. Of course, even if they were functional, it’d hardly matter. They’re all stuffed together so tightly that they all congeal into a mess of loud “stuff.” RE4 – and RE2, and the Resident Evil remake, and plenty of others – all had grandiose, memorable moments, but they were separated by quieter ones, many memorable in their own right. This game wants every scene to be the next “big” moment in gaming, and in its zeal they all end up crowding each other out. It doesn’t get that Call of Duty can only get away with that sensory overload with a short campaign, or that Uncharted isn’t just its beloved set pieces, or that Resident Evil itself is far more than zombie hordes and grotesque bosses. It’s the most pathetic of Pyrrhic victories.

For example, one of Chris’s chapters is all about fighting this giant invisible snake, and I completely forgot about it almost immediately after I killed it.

That lack of focus, the aping of past glories, and the inability to explore means that, bizarrely, the strongest part (outside its nifty collection menu, which is set up as series of Fifties prize grabbers / jukeboxes) might be Jake’s and Sherry’s story. Both of them are new heroes – Jake’s new, and the last time we saw Sherry was as a child – and both are notably children of villains. They carry the work of those men, with their mad science giving Sherry healing powers and Jake his magical super blood. In a game so pitifully crushed under the weight of Resident Evil history, there’s something potentially compelling about characters who are just as crushed, raised in a world where their parents’ work has made bioterrorism commonplace. Jake’s puckish rogue deal is beyond clichéd, but it’s also far from the anger Leon, Helena, Chris, and Piers endlessly seethe, and Sherry’s optimism is refreshing. To be clear, their campaign is atrocious, filled to the brim with barely playable sequences like that bike chase, and it’s only a bit better than Chris’s (the strongest is Leon’s, bland but functional, and whose scares land the hardest). And Jake’s writing is just as bad, culminating when he randomly threatens to kill Chris for killing his dad, despite us being repeatedly shown and told that he never knew and always hated his old man. But at least in comparison to everything else, his and Sherry’s campaign comes close to being an actual story in a game whose plot pushes out any real character development.

It’s hard to overstate just how overbearing the constant rage is. It’s also hard to state what even differentiates the personalities of Leon, Helena, Chris, and Piers.

It’s also something close to positive, a feature which, despite all of RE6’s many attempts to be thrilling and dramatic and memorable, is sorely lacking. I think that, and a sense of fun to go with it, is one of the big elements the game misses. Prior Resident Evil games were gross and terrifying and action heavy and at times tragic, but there was always an occasional sense of silliness. You healed by combining herbs, police stations and mansions and laboratories all had huge and grandiose puzzles, and the stilted and trope-laden dialogue made its world weirder and more eccentric. All of that’s there, but it’s muted; the writing especially trades in things like “Jill sandwich” and “your right hand comes off?” for generic barks and three uses of people saying “let’s get the hell out of here.” The series’ old villain (and, again, father to one of our heroes) Wesker was absurd, a leather trenchcoated knockoff of Agent Smith from The Matrix who weaponized his sunglasses, tried to commit genocide on everyone on Earth who wasn’t immune to a poisonous flower, and died after a fistfight with Chris in an active volcano. But his stupidity carried an often fun campiness, something apparently beneath this game. Given how goofy the plot is – and segments like a mini-game where Jake has a Street Fighter bout with Ustanak – even some self-awareness would have helped.

To be fair, the easter egg of Chris riding a panda toy is at least one moment of much needed levity.

This is, to be clear, not just a tonal problem but a mechanical one, as the series’ understated virtues – a sense that each location was a distinct world, a powerful use of quiet time – have been replaced with loud, overstated, and especially indistinct action. Levels are just constant barrages of combat and shooting and set pieces, and there’s never a sense of place or comedown. Leon and Helena’s first chapter goes from campus to subway to street to gun shop to bus, so breathlessly that it starts to feel like a fugue state. The enemies don’t matter, the areas don’t matter, and the characters don’t matter. And this feeds back into the story, because if these carry so little weight, than the drama the game’s going for can’t work. But beyond all of that, spending forty minutes in an attack helicopter firing bullets and rockets at a giant dinosaur in a corporate lobby isn’t Resident Evil or horror, but it’s especially not fun; it’s Jurassic World 3.

Speaking of, there’s also a sequence where you jump from one helicopter to another helicopter and then shoot down fifteen other helicopters.

With 8.7 million lifetime sales since its 2012 release – 5.3 coming from the first twelve months – Resident Evil 6 is one of the best selling games Capcom ever produced. But it took it on the chin from critics and still underperformed at launch, the latter possibly a consequence of it being a bloated, overproduced mess. It was quickly seen by fans and critics alike as the wrong lessons of Resident Evil taken to a hellish extreme, with little understanding of what people actually liked about the series. Of course, Capcom was able to bounce back yet again a few years later, when 2017’s Resident Evil 7 course corrected RE6’s issues and then some. A first-person horror game set mostly in one manor, it called back to the first game only subtly, and its emphasis on only a small number of enemies – most of the time, you’re trapped with just one demented family – was extreme and intense. It garnered critical acclaim and strong sales from being daring, bold, and experimental, partially through its innovative use of virtual reality. RE7’s success has been followed up by the just-released remake of Resident Evil 2, giving the debut of Leon, Sherry, and Raccoon City a nice and scary, albeit safe, makeover.

Younger Sherry on the right in the RE2 remake, with Chris’s sister Claire.

That remake has been getting acclaim for “going back to the series’ roots,” mixing Resident Evil 4’s control scheme with Resident Evil 2’s pacing and tone. Resident Evil 7 was acclaimed for being new and inventive, ignoring fan expectations to come up with something great. Resident Evil 6 was pilloried for failing to do either (something Capcom and producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi publicly waffled on), yet it made an obscene amount of money. Maybe its gargantuan set pieces and monsters lent themselves to easy advertising? Maybe it was just the Resident Evil brand, and the success of its last two main installments have little to do with their quality? But I think this is important when we talk about RE6, and bad or disliked games in general. We can talk about how poor it by so many metrics of quality, but this pariah was still a massive undertaking by Capcom and an unambiguous commercial benchmark for the franchise. As much as we may justifiably mock it, it still laughed at that mockery all the way to the bank.

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