Resident Evil 6 ought to have been one of the greatest games of 2012. Instead, it will be remembered by many people as one of the year's biggest disappointments.
For sure, the game is sellingjust fine, but this isn't just about the latest sequel's sales. This is now a franchise-level problem -- now, the property is being frowned upon by many influential critics and players, and no-one is more aware of this than Capcom.
The company's execs may be able to convince themselves that the reviews have been, sometimes, a shade too aggressive, but they must also realize that they have delivered a sub-par game.
They can only protect the future of Resident Evil by trying something different, better, smarter next time. There is absolutely no doubt that meetings are taking place at Capcom, where execs and creatives are asking each other, "What the hell went wrong?"
Let's be clear. There are many people who are enjoying playing Resident Evil 6, and there are people who genuinely believe it's a good game. This article isn't an attempt to rehash the arguments made in the game's reviews, and in the fierce debates that followed. It's an attempt to understand the lessons Capcom will have learned.
RE6 has polarized players, and this will be of some comfort to the game's makers. Resident Evil still has many, many fans. But Capcom will be painfully aware that it's gone from media darling in 2005, when the sublime Resident Evil 4 scored a Metacritic average of 96 percent, to Resident Evil 5's 84 percent to a paltry 66 percent for RE6.
So what went wrong, and how can it be put right?
Losing the original vision
It's been many years since anyone could pretend that Resident Evil was about "horror." It's an action franchise, both via the games and through the movies. Mutant bad-guys leer into view and are dispatched violently. Repeat. The end.
But RE6 strays so far from Shinji Mikami's original vision that it shares almost no DNA with its forebear. It's interesting that RE6 is crammed with characters from the past and with familiar individual mechanics and elements, like healing herbs and limited ammo. But somehow, these faint reminders give the game the quality of a Resident Evil theme park, a rail-ride through the franchise's past that somehow entirely misses its cultural roots.
What's most concerning is that RE6 isn't scary -- as it's now an action franchise, we know this, but it bears repeating. In his campaign, main character Leon opens doors with an air of trepidation that the player cannot share, because what lies beyond is not a confrontation with terror, but a gaggle of ho-hum enemies patiently waiting to be dismembered. Resident Evil should sing for its supper by being scary, creepy, shocking. It needs to worry less about action set-pieces and more about making the player really think twice about opening that door. Contrast the expensively rendered, blazing urban apocalypse of RE6 with the cold forest of the genuinely frightening indie game Slender, and ask yourself which has been more successful in conjuring up an air of frigid terror.
All Things to All Gamers
When I was a boy, I remember a Christmas present. It was a box of games, a compendium filled with chess pieces, checkers, snakes & ladders, plastic magic tricks. You know the sort of thing. My father, perhaps sensing disappointment, pointed out how many games were in the box - dozens! Even so, I wanted a remote control car, something that did just one thing, really well. Resident Evil 6 is a big compendium of video games, none of which function particularly well. It has four campaigns, each of which are larger than most of the tightly-constructed games I've personally enjoyed the most this year.
Sometimes, RE6 is a Call of Duty knock-off and sometimes it feels like a bad tribute to Gears of War. Mostly, it tries hard to approach Resident Evil with varying degrees of Resident Evil-ness, because a big franchise like this has fans with different appetites, and thus, we have an ill-advised attempt to be all things to all fans.
It is not so much an action-adventure as a Great Big Video Game, a thing that aspires to that meanest of qualities, value.
There are many people who expect their $60 to pay for hours-upon-hours of entertainment. But there are plenty others who are happier to have played a 10-hour adventure that leaves them wanting more.
Instead of aiming for something massive and epic, Capcom needs to simply create a game that's paced, cohesive and fun.
We can argue about whether Resident Evil's galaxy of characters represent anything more than standard video game archetypes. We've been with some of these guys a long time and this brings a certain fondness, a willingness to look beyond their limitations.
But let's be honest here, they're a bit thin, aren't they? The damaged, drunken war-vet, the driven female secret-operative, the cock-sure young action-hero etc. Flinty-eyed and oddly coiffed, they strut through the game, less like mortals in an end-time scenario and more like poseurs in a bad pop video.
Let's look at some other zombie games this year for a compare-and-contrast exercise in emotional oomph.
In terms of characters, there's more in a shared glance between The Walking Dead game's Clementine and Lee than in all the posturing cut-scenes and eye-swiveling dialogue of RE6. ("You cannot hide from your past Chris, no matter where you go or what you do.")
In terms of place, RE6 zooms around the globe, without seeming to really go anywhere. One corridor of death or arena of slaying is much the same as another. And yet, a few gray blades of grass against a rusting tractor in Day Z seems to say so much more about the end of the world than teeming Lanshiang and its legions of demented bad guys.
Light and shadow are thrown across RE6's canvas like a 1962 student-art project, rather than being allocated with narrative care.
In 2012, we've come to expect games to maybe have something to say about existence and the world. RE6 is just a dumb action-experience and that's a shame. Because in the past it seemed to suggest actual ideas, and perhaps it will too in the future.
This is not the place to dissect every ill that plagues big-budget gaming today like queued-up QTEs and tediously graphical representations of violence and endless on-rails shooting scenes and sequences in which the player contributes hardly anything.
It just so happens that RE6 indulges in so many of these aspects of AAA gaming today, that it almost represents everything that is wrong with the form. This is, in a way, unfair on RE6, because as a romp through an action-environment, itís really not that terrible.
But perhaps this desire by director Eiichiro Sasaki and producer Yoshiaki Hirabayashi to create the all-defining video game experience has inevitably enraged those critics who are thoroughly sick of each and every gaming cliche, and are therefore going to go ballistic when they are all collected in one place, like some National Museum of Game Design Cliches.
Itís interesting that more than one review complained that the game seemed like a pastiche, a mockery of video games in 2012.
Again, the reason that these things are cliches is that they are so widespread. Here we are in October, and many of the yearís biggest releases have yet to land. No doubt, a few of them will be guilty of relying on lazy techniques.
But now that RE6 has disappointed so many, the next game needs to try something fresh, daring and risky, rather than paying tribute to mass-market conventions that are falling out of favor.
The Value of Polish
The downside of Sasaki and Hirabayashi's massive ambition has been that the game comes up short in the detail. It's really no good offering up a 50-hour adventure if it's filled with lots of moments of frustration and annoyance.
Various reviews have detailed the technical issues that have plagued the game, and even its biggest fans are mute in their defense of these issues.
It's the simple act of your character not interacting with the rest of the world that offers the most frustration. No-one is going to accuse RE6 of being an open-world, but still, if I am jumping onto a helicopter one minute, I sort of want to be able to hop over a desk the next.
Rooms full of enemies sometimes feel like a swooshing bath-tub of bad guys bobbing around like so many bars of soap, with me turning and splashing around, trying to grab one, then another.
Now, let's not go nuts here. There are plenty of times when the game feels perfectly reasonable, but there are way too many moments when it feels annoying and video gamey.
If Capcom had spent more time on perfecting its camera placement, and less time on adding an extra campaign, might this not have been a better game and a more enjoyable experience?
Whether or not you agree with those critics who gave RE6 a severe mauling, there's no doubt that Capcom will view RE6's critical reception as a problem. Resident Evil is its most valuable franchise. The next Resident Evil game will need to be very different from the one that's just released.
Colin Campbell is a features editor at IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx.