Resident Evil 6 has been illuminating. A surprising number of critics are ready to cast the game into a bonfire, and some incredulous fans wish the reviewers would join it. There's a perceptible feeling of disbelief amongst everyone involved, as if such a big, glossy production - with hundreds of developers behind it – could never lead to divided, divisive opinions.
It's happened before, of course, with Assassin's Creed in 2007. But that game landed on different expectations, its future as a franchise uncertain. The historical action game won fans and detractors in almost equal numbers at first, and went on to become one of Ubisoft's most powerful and most nurtured franchises. Players expect Assassin's Creed 3 to maintain the upward curve of quality, and the game's familiar mechanics and motifs make a massive critical failure almost unthinkable.
Therein lies the deceptive assumption of "AAA" games. With enough history, fan feedback, financial support and developers, we expect a well-tuned machine to emerge every time. There's a balance in the dialogue between players and creators, however, and Resident Evil 6 is a good (or bad, depending on your viewpoint) example of what happens when one drowns out the other. I couldn't even tell you if fans demanded too much, or if Capcom was too intent on placating them, to the point of ignoring its own design expertise.
Resident Evil 6 does not seem carelessly made. In fact, most reviewers seem to think that the presentation, whether observed in the rich environments or improved acting from the game's unnaturally kempt cast, is the best it's ever been. The point of contention is in the game's split, trident-tip focus, and how it offers explicit, delineated campaigns for every kind of Resident Evil fan - those who like the more action-heavy progression of the franchise, those who crave a return to spooky mansions and old-school zombies, and those who love the over-the-top escape sequences that seemed so surprising in Resident Evil 4.
The overwhelming issue, which a significant number of writers identified, is that Resident Evil 6 lacks a coherent vision. There's no clear stamp of an auteur, and its desire to be an all-encompassing action game isn't unique in the realm of big-budget games – everyone wants to be THE action game. What made the franchise memorable is slowly being eroded by the huge number of people that now have input on its ongoing direction.
The extensive marketing and brand recognition (furthered by Resident Evil's successful line of film adaptations) assure a sales victory for Capcom's latest game, though it may be whittled down by the negative reception. The level of vitriol being directed at unpleasant reviews suggests the game's uneven construction comes as a shock. How could this happen?
Conversely, the lack of constraint, of no one person saying "no," can be a subtle liability. These games can fall victim to a creeping homogenization, as reflected in the safe, often mocked scoring range (somewhere between 7 and 10) employed by reviewers. Is it because writers aren't telling us how they really feel? Or is it because so many games hit a similar, acceptable level of production and incorporate so many familiar, proven mechanics?
In a way, Resident Evil's bellyflop is a welcome sign that AAA action games can't coast on being magnificent productions or fastidious box-tickers, and can be faulted on holistic terms. The well-tuned machine, the one that takes hundreds of workers to run and cater to as wide an audience as possible, got the better of Resident Evil in this instance. It's a cautionary tale, and one that will seem less surprising as budgets balloon and risks become unpalatable to the powers that be.
Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq.com. He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.