PREVIEW: Given the ubiquity of the zombie genre and the general populace's complete familiarity with its haggard tropes, creating an even mildly disturbing undead-centric survival horror campaign is a very tall order nowadays.
This is doubly true if you happen to be 20 games deep as Capcom is with its Resident Evil series, and the Japanese developer essentially conceded as much when 2009's Resident Evil 5 eschewed the tension of its forebears for all-out action.
Even so, Resident Evil 6 is hedging its bets, mashing together the series' survival horror roots with the gruesomeness of Resident Evil 4 and the action emphasis of Resident Evil 5 in a ballsy attempt to please everyone and capture the widest possible audience.
Resident Evil 6's campaign is split into three, each of which follows a duo as they play their part in overcoming the ravenous hordes which are now a global concern. Resident Evil 1 and 5 protagonist Chris Redfield is joined by Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance operative Piers Nivans in what is clearly the most shooting-oriented of the three paths.
The pair are called to the fictional Chinese city of Lanshiang where, along with their squad, they must eliminate a biohazard that includes new enemy the J'avo - humans mutated by the C-virus who have retained the ability to organise themselves and use weapons, but who also have the nasty habit of mutating into other horrors including man-moths and weird spider-things.
They can also sprout tough mutations that they use as shields and clubs, as well as heal themselves. Here, the game's currently slightly awkward cover mechanic is most useful as Chris and Piers make their way across cluttered rooftops, sheltering themselves from J'avo gunfire.
Simultaneously, series regular Leon Kennedy is joined by Secret Service agent and series newcomer Helena Harper for a campaign that seems to hew closest to Resident Evil 4's nasty brand of survival horror. The pace is noticeably slower despite its escape theme, and what could generously be called puzzles feature heavily in this section of the game.
Finally, Wesker's son Jake Muller and Resident Evil 2's Sherry Birkin flee an Eastern European town as it is levelled by the authorities. Muller is somehow immune to the C-virus, and his blood is a crucial key of the fight against global infection, but he's reluctant to help unless the price is right. His specialty is hand-to-hand combat, and his melee attacks are much stronger than those of the other characters.
With each campaign feeling substantial length-wise, that's a lot to pack into one game. Taking into account a fourth unlockable campaign and a tacked-on survival mode, for volume alone Resident Evil 6 is already a winner. Despite the odd low-res texture present in this build, it looks incredible too, and the animation - particularly that of enemies - is top-notch. Sound design is uniformly great also, despite an overcooked and intrusive score. It's a true triple-A production with the lavish cutscenes to prove it, but less than a month out from release this preview version suggests there are some not-insubstantial icebergs looming in the path of this enormous luxury cruiser.
The game's comically restricted over-the-shoulder view is a clear ploy to ratchet up the tension, however like scanning a room by looking through a pair of empty toilet rolls binocular-style, it encourages only motion sickness and permits close-in enemies to disappear from view all too easily.
This problem is compounded by the character standing a good four-fifths of the way to one side of the screen, making one side of them incredibly vulnerable. It's a forgivable choice given the game's genre, however the decision to drop the camera to thigh-height and focus on the player rather than where they are going when running is a should have been vetoed at the earliest opportunity. More exasperating are what it's best to assume are fleeting faults with the game's wearying shakey-cam effects and angle shifts. Currently, they cause the camera to twitch violently and zoom in and out as the player walks, but these are issues that will surely be excised from the title's final version.
Gameplay has come a long way since Resident Evil series began, but it isn't quite where it wants to be right now. That Resident Evil 6 marks the first time it has been possible to move and shoot at the same time can surely be attributed to design, but characters' pauses after completing mundane tasks such as melee hits or even button activations may be temporary quirks, as these break leave players unfairly vulnerable too frequently.
The combat gauge is another divisive design decision; a recharging meter of energy that determines what a character is capable of at any given moment. Some will relish the realism it brings, others will believe it serves only to slow the action and pointlessly handicap the player.
Combat-wise, very careful aim is required as ammunition is pleasingly scarce. It takes many bullets to put a zombie down for good, and even headshots may simply carve a chunk from a shuffling adversary's head rather than vaporise it. Fortunately most zombies are slow, although some break character and leap purposefully at the player from improbable distances, or lurch forward with sudden bursts of speed to catch the inattentive off-guard. Should a zombie grab the player, a quick-time event is initiated that determines not only how much damage is taken, but also whether the player is downed by the attack. Once on their back, a player may aim and shoot as well as shuffle about, or simply stand back up.
A much-improved melee system means that close quarters combat is often effective, although it would be charitable to call it solid as it currently stands. Each character can throw a three-hit combo that instantly kills low-level opponents, but the act of using melee feels somewhat unwieldy at this stage. Melee attacks are also comically short-range - particularly Helena's, whose feeble pistol whip resembles a throw of rock-paper-scissors. The safest bet is to melee from behind after spinning a zombie around by winging it with a bullet.
Downed enemies may be struck at close range as well, but currently some targeting issues make this a dicey proposition - chances are that despite a melee prompt, the character will simply punch the air rather than aim downwards, and will be duly ankle-bit for their trouble. When a ground attack is successful, it ranges from a mostly-harmless stomp on the chest to something like Miranda's head-destroying elbow drop depending on character position and enemy strength.
Story beats have never been Resident Evil's strong point and true to form, what's offered here is well-trodden territory spliced with a number of truly improbable incidents - even given the nature of the game - as well as some sub-Michael Bay dreck that will wrench players out of the narrative, assuming they were ever in, that is.
All of this is only what is visible above water, but this is a preview build. That Resident Evil 6 as it stands appears to suffer from overreaching is obvious: attention to detail beyond presentation is largely absent, but there may have been some vigorous polishing since this build was first released. Many of the issues cited above could be rectified come launch day, but it'll be interesting to see what Capcom chooses to do about things such as bullets having no effect on corpses until they 'wake up', the player being unable to use weapons that zombies can, the player's inability to pick up ammo for a weapon that they don't already have, and the waypoint makers that remove the puzzle element from the puzzles.
Capcom has announced that its aim is to deliver "the most impressive Resident Evil title ever both in terms of scope and production values", and that it expects this game to sell 7 million copies by the end of this fiscal year, putting it in a likely place to become the best-selling Resident Evil game ever. This version of Resident Evil 6 certainly has the ambition and some of the right ingredients to accomplish such feats, but it remains to be seen if all the dangling threads have been tucked away in time for the game's launch on October 2.