Exploring the flavors of fear: Resident Evil 6 hands-on preview

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What kinds of things scare you? Do you fear being alone with no help and any number of terrors possibly lurking around the corner? Does the thought of facing off against an overwhelmingly strong force keep you up at night? Are your nightmares filled with scenes of you running away from a fearsome, unstoppable presence? The roots of fear spring from different places, and Capcom ambitiously hopes to explore this idea in the three story-driven campaigns that make up the whole of Resident Evil 6. There will also be a fair amount of co-op gameplay, which is definitely intriguing. The publisher’s latest hands-on demo for the game, which I sat down with during a recent preview, is aimed at highlighting this core difference between the three campaigns.

The Leon-focused story is probably the one that falls closest to the original Resident Evil experience and to traditional definitions of survival horror. The tone is all about building a creeping sense of dread in players, a feeling that you’re not alone in some dark space, and that whatever’s there with you is out for your blood. You might have actually seen the demo’s particular chunk of gameplay already, since Capcom recently released roughly 20 minutes worth of footage compiled in a two-part YouTube video.

The Leon section fills in a lot of the details surrounding the moment in the debut trailer when the veteran of many Resident Evil games is forced to put down a newly zombified President of the United States. The setting for this grisly scene turns out to be a convention hall serving as the site of a campaign rally. It’s hard to showcase survival elements like resource management in a 20-minute hands-on demo, but this chunk of game does what it needs to in highlighting the slower pace and environmental tension-building that is the focus of Leon’s campaign.

My only worry for this chunk of game — and it’s really unique to this particular campaign — is what the presence of Leon’s partner, Helena Harper, will do to defuse the rising tension. I understand from a gameplay standpoint why Capcom would want three co-op-driven campaigns, but having a buddy always there, even an AI-controlled one, carries with it the danger of diminishing the fear factor. It’s impossible to make any judgments until the full game is ready to be evaluated, but it’s definitely a potential sticking point that I’ll be paying close attention to in the finished product.

The next chunk of demo focused on Chris Redfield and his BSAA partner Piers Nivans, as they work their way along the shadowy, neon-tinted rooftops of Hong Kong. This particular campaign is built around the idea of facing off against an overwhelming force; in this case, Chris, Piers, and the rest of their team worked their way along while zombies — of the melee and gun-toting variety — came at them from all sides. Seriously: all sides. They jumped down from above, came up from the sides of buildings, streamed out of roof access doors… everywhere.

I was worried going into this section that all of the new combat mobility features would make Resident Evil 6 feel too much like an action game, but that worry turned out to be unfounded. While there certainly is more of an action focus with the combat, the play stills feels like a Resident Evil game, particularly RE5. The crush of incoming zombies is heavy and your resources continue to be as limited as they’ve always been. The enhanced mobility in combat balances out well with the zombie hordes that challenge you; if you’re not constantly pushing forward toward your goal, you quickly run out of resources and are left with nothing more than your melee attacks to keep the danger at bay.

The design of the environment also helps elevate the fear here. Hong Kong’s rooftops are frequently bathed in darkness. More than that, there are all manner of HVAC units, minor structural flourishes, catwalks, fire escapes, scaffolding… all manner of obstacles that, together, create some claustrophobic pathways. Between that, the unending darkness, and the tightly pulled in camera, the very act of navigating your way from one point to the next can be disorienting. Perhaps that isn’t intentional, but it definitely heightened the sense of tension for me.

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The final chunk of the demo focused on Jake Muller’s and Sherry Birkin’s campaign, a story which is meant to tap into fears of constantly running from some pursuing, malevolent force. In the case of our two protagonists, this force takes the very real form of the hulking B.O.W. called Ustanak. Little is known about the creature beyond the fact that it’s pursuing Jake and Sherry for much of their time together. It also seems to be invulnerable to most forms of attack, and so this campaign is largely constructed around the idea of slowing the monster down and escaping to fight another day.

The demo started out with Jake and Sherry running toward the bottom of the screen while the raging Ustanak chases closely behind them. There’s no trick or subtlety to this section; you simply have to run, and run fast, without stopping. A few cinematic moments pop in here and there as Jake and Sherry manage to hold the beast up a couple of times, but it always manages to catch up and begin the chase anew.

The Jake/Sherry demo culminates in an under-construction building made up mostly of bare concrete. Scattered throughout the room are red explosive barrels. The idea here is to get the Ustanak chasing you and then, before it can close the distance, shoot a barrel while it’s standing close to one. The core focus of this boss fight is still a chase sequence, only instead of being a flat-out run, it’s a more tactical escape of run/dodge/shoot/rinse, repeat. Zombies spawn in throughout the fight, popping in all over and providing a ready supply of resources should you need it.

That’s where things stand right now with Resident Evil 6. I find it fascinating how Capcom has managed to distill these basic fear impulses into three very different campaign stories. We obviously need to see the whole picture unfolds before any judgments can be made, but this most recent hands-on demo certainly succeeded in highlighting the three levels of fear that the game explores.