Resident Evil 6: The Third Guy Is Wesker's Son

And the blonde girl is Sherry Birkin. Also: real zombies, "horror entertainment."

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Is the future of Resident Evil action or horror? The series of late has been evolving towards action, and you could call it adapt or die; the producer of the 3DS instalment Revelations says the market is too small to support horror as we once knew it. But the makers of Resident Evil 6 talked up a "return to horror" at Capcom's annual Captivate showcase, where they balanced the all-out action of January's announcement trailer with a slower, darker gameplay presentation.

First things first, though, since they settle a great wodge of the speculation raised by that trailer. Resident Evil 6 stars a trio of protagonists: series veterans Leon Kennedy and Chris Redfield, plus buzz-cut mercenary Jake Muller, son of one Albert Wesker, the longtime Resident Evil villain last seen taking a faceful of rocket inside a volcano at the end of game five.

Each member of the trio has a story path to tread. Leon's begins in the American university town Tall Oaks, where a bioterrorist attack has zombified the visiting president, while Jake starts out in the fictional Eastern European nation Edonia. In the course of the game, he and Leon converge on Chris in China, Resident Evil 6's main location, where the bulgingly bicepped one and his squad are tackling further bioterrorist atrocity. And with three tales to follow, each a bit shorter than Resident Evil 5, expect a reasonably lengthy adventure.

In the actual action, which we are, by degrees, getting to, each protagonist also has a partner. Leon's is US security service agent Helena Harper; Chris' is sharpshooter Piers Nivans; Jake's is Sherry Birkin, daughter of Umbrella scientist-turned-mutant William Birkin. As in Resident Evil 5, these partners are controlled by the computer or a second player--but with less fuss than in the previous game, we're promised, now that co-op play is properly drop in and drop out.

In old-school Resident Evil fashion, you choose the order you play each of the main characters, though executive producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi says he would prefer you take Leon first. Accordingly, the Captivate demo took in the very first part of Leon's story, which "really encapsulates" the horror flavour of Resident Evil 6, claims Kobayashi.

The longish section is dark, spooky, slow, and taut, set in a big old university building that harks back to the haunted mansion of the first game. How fully it represents the whole game experience remains to be seen, but this early segment could have been engineered specifically to placate grumpy survival horror fans. In it, Leon has just been forced to kill the zombie president and must escape the university and the city with co-op sidekick Helena.

They work their way through the Tall Oaks campus building, navigating grand lobbies, dark corridors and kitchens, and a great dining hall still decked out with streamers and balloons for the presidential reception. The lights are out in the wake of the attack, a storm flashes outside, and a handful of victims' corpses lie slumped along the way, awaiting eventual reanimation.

For entire minutes, though, there's nothing to shoot at or run from, just dark rooms to explore, a survivor hunting for his student daughter, and a spot of mysterious distant piano playing. It's a slow and deliberate buildup to a genuinely good jump scare, embellished with the classic violin horror sting. If anything spoils the atmosphere, it's the waypoint marker, hovering white and obtrusive over the gloomy environment.

But determined to show off its horror chops, the game quickly follows that fake-out scare with a grisly real scare: Leon and Helena trapped in a lift, in pitch blackness, as the survivor's daughter suddenly turns zombie and tears into her dad. In the dark, flashlight swinging about, there are only glimpses of gore, but the squelchy, gruesome sound effects are more affecting for it.

The panicky lift fight marks the demo's shift into upper gear, as from here on there are flocks of zombies to battle through. These are honest-to-goodness real zombies, too, as the gamemakers take pains to point out: shuffling, shambling zombies, slow at a distance but with a fast lunge up close. Leon wades out of the lift into an underground car park, busting out his new melee moves--a wide-ranging mix of contextual strikes and grapples, among them an unlikely running bulldog takedown.

The controls are "all new," we're told, and though a hands-off demo can't prove they feel right, they look just the job, properly enabling--whisper it--moving and shooting at the same time. It's not quite flat-out running and gunning, but that suits us fine. There's dual wielding too, and shooting from prone; after diving to the floor, Leon can blast away at the swarming undead from on his back.

Among the horde of "real" zombies are a few with weapons, a point of contention for purists, but for what it's worth, the weapons are things they would have been carrying pre-zombification. One ghoul swipes at Leon with a pipe; Leon can wrench it away in a contextual melee move.

Leon and Helena at Tall Oaks' Ivy university.

Everything looks mighty fine, as dark and moody as Resident Evil 5's opening was bright and jarring, but it's the minor show-off details that leave an impression. When Leon gets bitten, his arm spurts blood. When he shoots a zombie in the midriff, fleshy chunks blow off. When you steer him against a doorframe or a banister, he reaches out to touch it, convincingly natural.

It's all very promising, then, but is it horror? Kobayashi diplomatically calls it "horror entertainment"--horror in the service of a plot rather than horror for its own sake. That's borne out by the second, story-led trailer, which emphasises the three protagonists' intersecting paths and the game's globe-trotting plot, playing down the full-on action elements of trailer one (gunfights, a cover system).

It's telling that our demo didn't include the game's "main" enemy, a quick-mutating creature called the J'avo. Leon's mooch around an ominous old building could play the same part in Resident Evil 6 as the opening of Resident Evil Revelations, in which Jill explores an abandoned luxury liner (another haunted mansion stand-in): a slower, spookier intro to anchor a game that later tips the scales away from creeping horror and towards frantic action. But what we've seen so far is encouraging--if finding the perfect balance between the two is the future of Resident Evil, so be it.

Capcom has brought the release date for Resident Evil 6 forward from November 20 to October 2.

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