Friday, November 16, 2012

Resident Evil 6: The Leon Kennedy Campaign

Meet Helena and Leon

I've been promising to talk about it for a bit, so here goes. To fill you in, Resident Evil 6 (currently only out on consoles although it sounds like a PC edition is slated for next year) features four entire campaigns, which interweave but are otherwise solid tales in their own right. This concept is not new to the franchise, which allowed for two separate tales in the very first game, where you could play as Jill Valentine for the easy mode game and Chris Redfield in the hard mode campaign. Back then the subtleties were slight; most of the two tales were fairly similar and all located in the Spencer Mansion, but fast-forward to the present and Resident Evil 6 offers three primary campaigns and one unlockable campaign on top of a multi-player experience. Each of these campaigns appear to be about as long as each prior campaign we've played, so the RE6 experience is directly equivalent, it would seem, to four other RE games bundled together.

Resident Evil 6 is also designed for co-op play, with split-screen support (A HUGE perk which all negative reviews to date have failed to consider; this game could be below average but split-screen play still bumps it up a notch for console gamers). This has allowed me to enjoy the single-player version while also playing the co-op version with another RE fan friend of mine.

Since I'm so slow on playing through this (reasons being: I can only take high-intensity 3rd-person shooter action in modest doses, can't even think of playing this game until my child is asleep, and I HATE QTE EVENTS) I will review each campaign as I finish it.

The C-Virus zombies are sprinters and leapers

The Leon Kennedy Campaign

First, Spoilers and all that. You've been warned!

Leon Kennedy's campaign starts with an elaborate "here at the end" montage of action events in a Chinese city Lanshiang where a zombie outbreak is afoot. Cut to the present (well, June 2013) and Leon Kenndy is forced to shoot the zombified president in the White House after a bioterrorism attack at an event where the President is about to reveal the truth of what happened at Raccoon City in 1998.

Now, there's a lot of exposition going on, and almost none of it is provided in-game in a memorable way; it took me a while to figure out what was going on, as the game focuses on a sort of action cinematic style initially, filled with QTEs (quick time events) before relecutantly relinquishing control of the plot and direction you must take and letting you explore a post-bioterror attack Washington D.C. riddled with zombies.

Before I bitch about the gameplay, let me finish the plot summary so I can complain about (or commend) various issues:

Leon is paired with Helena, a Homeland Security agent who's somehow involved and thinks she's responsible for the President's conversion to zombiehood and death (she is). She promises an explanation which will take maybe six to eight hours of playtime to get to before you really have a clue as to what is going on, and the enigmatic "I can't tell you, better if you see" explanation is so painfully lame when all is revealed that one wishes Leon was chaotic evil so he could explain to her how badly she screwed things up with her whole breathing and moving around and withholding information thing.

Seriously: if she had said five minutes in to meeting Leon, "My sister is being held captive by the head of Homeland Security who is off his rocker and forced me to release the C-Virus to infect the President because he's megalomaniacal and thinks that we all need to be reminded that we need Homeland Security to stop bioterrorism like the secret installation full of bioweapons he's manipulating beneath an old church on a high hill with a bottomless cave of evil beneath it and would you mind helping me out pleaze???" I think Leon, having survived RE 4 and RE 2, would have said, "Yeah, okay, let's do this. I've seen stranger plots."

Instead, Leon trusts blindly in her and her unbearable cuteness and follows her through hell and highwater, in order:

A zombie-infested White House and neighborhood, the sewers, subways, and blasted city streets of the Washington D.C. 

On a bus out into the woods through a scary graveyard, then a big old church in which sits on top of a big old hill, where a batch of survivors are holed up just waiting to become zombies.

Into the secret labs beneath the church where the C-Virus project was well underway, to try and develop a means of immortality (but of course it went horribly wrong).

Through the labs and into a vast series of catacombs that go ever deeper into the earth. Eventually they open up into a sort of Mister Toad's Wild Ride version of a giant mine/cavern of Temple of Doom level quality.

Out of the temple of doom realm and off to China, on a zombie-infested aircraft.

Crashland in Lianshang, China and wreak endless havoc through the streets of the city, including a never-ending ascent up a series of eroding skyscrapers.

Dude, you need a Mentos
The game plays out over five lengthy chapters, and it saves periodically, although not often enough (you'll wish it let you save wherever the hell you wanted to). In fact, on a few occasions I would log out at where I thought was a good spot, only to come back later and find out the actual checkpoint was twenty minutes of playtime behind where I'd stopped. Capcom, this We don't do that anymore. Seriously.

The game's choice of venue is a mixed bag. The city sections at the beginning and the end work well, except when they don't. There are moments where stuff is happening in tightly confined spaces and you will have NO CLUE what the hell is going on, just wildly swinging and shooting and trying not to die. The spots where the respawn point is way, way back are the most annoying.

The quicktime events are indescribably baroque and needless. Apparently you can bypass them by playing in easy mode, but I struggled through on "normal." If you're not partial to what mode you play in, I suggest easy so you can skip them. I have played games with QTE events before, and for some reason Capcom just doesn't seem to understand that these aren't actually fun, and in high-intensity non-stop action games like these, most gamers don't actually want them. When you give us a cool cinematic, we just want to chill for a few seconds and enjoy it. I do not like having to hold my controller with baited breath, waiting for the inevitable crazy-ass QTE icon to appear demanding I shake my analog stick while pressing A or whatever.

That's another thing. All these QTE commands? They suck. Stop it, please. It adds nothing to the game. I've thought about this...about the difference between QTE events and regular gameplay. Technically you can refuse to do either and the game simply stops....but with regular controls you have a range of options, and you have some autonomy in how to execute them and why. QTE's are for things which are bottleneck pass/fails. You either see this cutscene or you stop playing. Don't double-gate these moments with QTEs, Capcom, it ruins the experience.

Part of the QTE problem is that there really are a lot of scripted events in the Leon Kennedy campaign. So many scripted events that it becomes clear after a while that Capcom probably realized that they were pulling a Squeenix* and that they had too much movie and not enough gameplay going on. The solution? QTEs! Wrong.

Something is really wrong with Japanese game design. They seem obsessed with this idea that Simon Says is the pinnacle of game design.

Beside the QTE problem, there's a second issue, and it relates to the autonomy issue I mentioned. The best moments in the game so far are those bits where you have some measure of autonomy. There aren't too many of them, but they do exist. The graveyard, for example, or the bit when you're in the secret labs. There are a couple spots where it is not immediately clear you are in a linear corridor shooter, forced to travel a straight-line path (no matter how dolled up the graphical environments, it's still a straight path), often being interrupted by moments where the game specifically wants you to do something a certain way, and of course forces you to do it.

This heavy-handed scripting is what makes Resident Evil 6 (so far) less satisfying an experience than prior games in the series, although we see the obvious origins of this approach in RE 4 and RE 5, especially #5 where the linearity is obvious and a number of QTEs rear their ugly head.

I did have a problem with the way the Leon Kennedy Campaign slams us with non-stop action, and how it boils over the top and dribbles deep into Video Game Logic on several occasions. Those are the moments where you realize you're playing a video game, that no matter how much it pantomime's reality through good graphics, you are forced to concede that what is happening is just about as logical as Mario or Qbert's realities.

Be ready to get killed by trains a few times in the subways

For example, when they find the catacombs and then the vast mine shaft beneath the hilltop church and laboratory, I was at first interested. Admittedly, I was perplexed at who built these amazingly well-populated catacombs, and what purpose they served....the game offers pretty much no story exposition like prior tales in the series, with no video recordings, diaries, scribbled notes or even just an occasional comment by the characters to explain where they are and what's up with their crazy environment. This is a huge mark against the game, as such extraneous story bits were pretty much vital to the story and atmosphere of prior games.

So not only would I like to have known who made the catacombs and why, I'd like to know why so many zombies were running around rigged to blow with dynamite, or had burning ember spears (there's enough that one would expect to encounter a factory churning them out). The implication is that Director Simmons, evil mastermind of Homeland Security, is behind all this....but there's a massive bridge in logic between "I'm using C-Virus research to perfect human immortality, and also job security by staging my own bioterror attacks" to "I also like to release dynamite-wired zombies into a vast network of hidden catacombs and mines, and also experiment on sharks and stuff."

I've never been to Washington D.C. though, so maybe the region is riddled with bottomless chasms filled with old mines and catacombs. If so, I need to move, that sounds like a lot of dangerous fun.

Speaking of mines, the catacombs eventually connect with a vast mine and a staggeringly deep pit filled with precarious stone pillars. This is one of those moments where you know you're deep in Video Game land, that special place where underground architecture is completely unrelated to the real world, and you might as well be snorting herbs to heal up. Oh wait.

Anyway, after starting in the church, descending to the labs, descending again to the catacombs and then descending into the deep pit, then the mines, then the mine-carts, then the water level with a giant mutant shark-fish that takes you deep, deep, deep into the bowels--BOWELS I SAY!!!!--of the earth, you emerge somewhere outside along a river, just in time to watch Washington D.C. get nuked.

I am still very, very bothered about just how much space...and depth....was inside that church hill.

Amidst all this there's a lengthy boss encounter with Deborah, Helena's sister-turned-C-Virus-Super-Mutant. It was actually one of the better boss fights in the game, and I wasn't insanely frustrated (unlike the first boss when you get to Lianshang, which was tedious and painful). It was also more than a little disturbing just how much effort the Capcom programmers put into Deborah-mutant's naked model. She's disturbingly realistic, in a sort of "undead mutant erotica" kind of way that taps deep into the insane well of Japanese crazy culture.

No stills I have seen remotely do justice to how erotic and disturbing Deborah is

Throughout the campaign Ada Wong shows up. She's alive again (I won't say how) and up to form, providing enigmatic clues and assistance to her remote action boyfriend Leon Kennedy. I appreciated the Ada who shows up to make things more confusing for a change, instead of the weird Aliceverse Ada of the recent movie who actually helped explain everything clearly.

By the Lianshang chapters, once you survive the painful plane crash and first boss encounter in the city, the game once again feels fairly Resident-Evilish, and the final boss encounter (once I looked up what I was doing wrong on gamefaqs) was actually pretty easy to snuff out.

It's a weird campaign. Early on I was bouncing between hate it/love it, with moments that felt very Resident Evil ruined by claustrophobic encounters that didn't work well for the point of view of the camera and controls. Midway through I was cursing it and ready to quit in annoyance and disgust, and then suddenly I was through, only to be assaulted by two inanely painful experiences unrivaled in recent years by other games, followed by a more familiar series of events that were quite fun. Then I had to climb a god-damned skyscraper with my bare hands on dangling cables and was busy trying to figure out where John Maclaine was hiding. Then a series of increasingly irritating boss fights that kept making me wonder just where the boss's extra mass was coming from (all pretense of science is out the window by now) and finally it all ended. It was bittersweet.

If this was all there was to the game, I'd give it a C- and state it was worth playing if your tolerance level for QTEs and railroaded action sequences is sufficiently high. It is also worth it if you are, like me, a Resident Evil fanatic. But there's more to up, the Chris Redfield campaign!

Leon gets all the girls

*A Squeenix: making a movie full of cut-scenes before remembering you're supposed to be making a game. See Square/Enix's Final Fantasy XIII for an egregious example.


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