Resident Evil 6 review: Splitting pairs

It's no longer clear what makes Resident Evil tick, so Capcom is dissecting it. Resident Evil 6 is a steel tray of plump, disconnected organs, each representing a crucial element of the monstrous franchise. There's educational worth in this exercise, but the gross sight of it in progress can be hard to stomach.

The three primary campaigns in Resident Evil 6 are the excised parts, and only by sampling them all will you begin to see the full picture. Stoic series stalwart Leon S. Kennedy (the "S" stands for "Salon," by the way) leads with Helena Harper, who clues him in on a new contagion giving rise to the dead worldwide. The two really are the worst match if you're looking for rapid plot development – she's basically a viral marketer, and he's bizarrely skeptical for a guy who is statistically likely to be in the room whenever someone sprouts tentacles and extra teeth.%Gallery-156925% Whereas Leon and Helena come closest to channeling the pressure-cooked action of Resident Evil 4, Chris Redfield and Co. crank up the body count with a militaristic bent, swathed in disposable enemies, automatic rifles, tanks and cover-based shooting. And finally, Jake Muller and Sherry Birkin (all grown up after Resident Evil 2) cater to that fan who plays Resident Evil for the wicked wrestling moves. Muller has a deep understanding of melee combat, which puts him at a significantly higher level than whoever designed the melee combat in this game.

There are three clearly delineated styles, intersecting whenever the associated characters bump heads. They're all Resident Evil, capturing what the series was and how it has changed since beginning on the original PlayStation, but there's no heart or vision tying them together, and they all lack strength because of it.

Leon's part has a good balance of methodical shooting and frantic sieges (a la the opening of Resident Evil 4), though the level layout often roots you in a small space swarming with enemies. These scenarios can wreak havoc with the awkward camera, which is so close it robs you of important peripheral vision and, when you aim, puts the biggest blind spot right in front of your face. Some standout moments – like a tumultuous mine-cart boss battle, and a brief alliance with civilians in a monster-infested town – are scattered throughout, making this the best, most rounded campaign of the bunch. Sadly, as distant as the survival-horror tone is by now, there's still a noticeable lack of tension and breathtaking enemies. The monsters in Resident Evil 6 arrive in all horrific, slimy shapes, yet none of them inspire the panicked repulsion that accompanies the chainsaw man with a bag on his head.

On the surface, Chris Redfield's shooter campaign is barely recognizable as Resident Evil, which has always struggled to formalize its tendency toward more action. Given the benefit of the doubt, though, it's not so far removed as the war-torn Eastern European setting may imply. The big change is in the pacing and the increase of projectiles, which is where the cover system comes in. It's jagged and eccentric, and perhaps not entirely compatible with the bothersome camera, but at least it works. Whether you enjoy behaving so aggressively and imprecisely in a Resident Evil game, however, is something you'll ponder while playing.

And then there's newcomer Jake, the man saddled with terrible combat the moment he puts the gun down. His truly dreadful campaign is where all the other ideas go to die: slow-controlling snowmobiles, motorcycles and boats; tedious stealth sections; mind-numbing key hunts; and the most obnoxious case of QTE thumb-stick wiggling – ever. Jake's all over the place. Ironically, that makes him emblematic of Resident Evil 6 as a whole.

The problem isn't that Resident Evil is changing direction over time. No, it wants to go in all directions at once. It wants the creeping pace and the hectic shootouts, and the blockbuster set pieces, the vehicle chases, the resource management, the hand-to-hand combat, the online co-op, the drama, and the extravagant boss fights. You might not fault Resident Evil 6 for its attempt to be an action game for all, but there's no choice but to speak up when the overall result feels unpolished and scatterbrained. It's chaos.

If there's a unifying thread of hope, and a direction worth pursuing with focus, it's the co-op. Picking up where 5 left off, Resident Evil 6 features asymmetrical co-op sequences and often splits players up to accomplish missions and outsmart bosses. There's still too much reliance on QTEs and cranks, but these sequences feel more satisfying and genuinely cooperative than simply spotting and shooting in the same room. And kudos to Capcom for utilizing split-screen and system link, and for making the process of joining a game so effortless. In a nice touch, the game will automatically find online pairs from other campaigns when the story calls for all four to cross paths.

If every idea had come together without friction, and with the aid of Capcom's top-notch presentation, Resident Evil 6 would have been a tremendous action game. Instead, it's a fully-featured, sloppy, frequently frustrating attempt to do well by everyone. Everyone would do well to study its anatomy, to learn what happens to a series stuck somewhere between a new life and an old body.

This review is based on a final Xbox 360 version of Resident Evil 6 provided by Capcom.

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