Resident Evil 6 brings a unique take to co-op with three overlapping campaigns

After dipping its toe into the online shooter space with Operation Raccoon City, Capcom’s Resident Evil series is coming back in a big way on October 2, 2012 with the latest numbered entry in the increasingly action-packed survival horror series. Resident Evil 6 doesn’t stray quite as far from its survival horror roots as the aforementioned March release did, but you can do things like take cover and shoot while running now. It’s an addition that’s been stealing all of the headlines, but you might want to dig a little deeper before you start panning the tweaked gameplay.

In truth, the Resident Evil series has been inching more and more in the direction of being fun to control and play since RE4. Those who like to argue that the “tank controls” made for a more tension-filled experience can go back and play the earlier games; Capcom, meanwhile, has managed to strike a balance between fun gameplay and survival horror tropes, like resource management and carefully placed enemies. Once you accept that, you’re ready to embrace some of the upcoming game’s innovative new ideas, like Cross Over gameplay.

Cross Over represents an unusual new approach to online co-op. Resident Evil 6 basically breaks down into three separate but overlapping campaigns: one follows Leon Kennedy and his new partner, Helena Harper; one follows Albert Wesker’s son Jake Muller and Sherry Birkin, who was first playable as a little girl in Resident Evil 2; and the last follows BSAA captain Chris Redfield and a series newcomer, Piers Nivans. The three pairs don’t just run through parallel stories in the same world; their adventures actually overlap at different points, which puts an interesting twist on co-op play.

Two-player sections of the game unfold much like they did in Resident Evil 5, with each player supporting the other both in combat and with any collected resources. Whenever the pair that you’re playing as reaches a Cross Over point, however, the game will prompt you to open your game up to other live players. You can choose to opt out of this, in which case you’ll continue on through the story with the two Cross Over roles controlled by the AI.

Go for the online, however, and the game will pause while matchmaking brings in a pair of human players (or just one playing solo) for you to fight alongside. All players will have the option of limiting these connections to friends only, but bear in mind that such a restriction will require your connecting friends to be at the same point in their separate campaign that you are in yours. It seems that this Cross Over gameplay is geared specifically toward linking up with random players in the wider world.

For Capcom’s behind closed doors demo at E3, we saw a chunk of the game featuring a Cross Over between the Leon/Helena pairing and the Jake/Sherry pairing. The latter duo is recovering from a plane crash when they meet up with Leon and his new partner. It quickly becomes apparent in the scene-setting cutscene that the two men don’t particularly care for one another. They’ll have to put their differences aside, however, when a particularly fearsome B.O.W. shows up.

The Ustanak is a beastie that apparently tails Jake and Sherry throughout much of their campaign. It’s a hulking brute of an enemy, almost impervious to damage and able swap one of its arms as the situation demands. The battle against the Ustanak starts out with all four characters opening fire on the thing in a concerted effort to bring it down. Eventually, Leon sets up an explosive barrel trap when he climbs to the top of a shipping container and knocks the flammable materials into the fray. One giant explosion later and the Ustanak is stunned — not killed, mind you! — enough for Leon to get in close and beat on it with his fists. The B.O.W. retreats and our four characters start moving to hop a fence into the next area.

It’s here that we see one of the unique aspects of Cross Over play out. Leon and Sherry are the first two over the fence, but the Ustanak returns before Jake and Helena can follow them. Now our two pairs are split up again, only they’re paired up differently. We cut back to the action on Jake/Helena’s side of the fence and, once again, it’s a fairly straightforward combat sequence.

In a proper live game, all four characters will be controlled by humans, with Leon and Sherry performing a certain set of tasks on their side of the fence while Jake and Helena fight to stay alive. In this case, the Leon/Sherry task seems to involve getting a trashed double decker bus moving; after a few minutes of Jake and Helena fighting, that bus comes rolling into view and our four characters are reunited. Once these sequences end, each pair returns to its original state and the separate campaigns then continue along their pre-ordained paths.

During the brief Q&A that followed the live gameplay demo, we also learned a little bit about how Resident Evil 6 goes about extending its replay value. In past Resident Evil games you could buy and upgrade weapons in all manner of ways, even to the point that you find yourself with unlimited ammo. That can be pretty game-changing for something that is designed to be, at the core, a survival horror experience. It works similarly in Resident Evil 6, only you’re earning Skill Points as you play, and these points can later be spent on upgrading everything from your weapons to each character’s unique abilities.

I’ll admit to walking into the Resident Evil 6 demo with a certain amount of hesitation. I’m still not entirely sold on the Cross Over feature, but it’s encouraging to see Capcom trying out new things instead of simply adding features like running-and-gunning and cover-based combat to the fall 2012 sequel. I’ve yet to be convinced that we can still reasonably think of Resident Evil 6 as survival horror, but the E3 2012 demo at least did its job in getting me excited to find out when the game hits stores on October 2.

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