Perhaps the biggest advantage Resident Evil 4 had going for it was just how unexpected it was. The third numbered sequel in a franchise many felt mired in the past, appearing on a diminutive little lunchbox of a console, and relatively free from the tremendous hype-machine that typically accompanies all ‘must have’ titles were all working against Capcom’s massive push to reinvent their game of survival horror. Except none of that mattered, as the game was largely considered a masterpiece of gameplay, visuals and gameplay design, and pushed the bar so high that most current titles are still grasping to understand its influence, let alone match it.
With the release of Resident Evil 5 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (the first multi-console release for the series, by the way) the circumstances have been reversed, as the franchise now manages (once again) to find itself highly anticipated, with they hype-machine in full swing. You can thank the excellence of RE4 for most of that, but the new game easily holds its own against today’s most action-packed thrillers, although diehard fans might have trouble recognizing their favorite series among the multitude of explosions, speedy chases, and total lack of typewriter ribbons. There’s plenty of the itchy, but what about the tasty?
Chris Redfield returns as the protagonist, having enlisted for a dangerous mission to the African desert of Kijuju for reasons both professional and private, and is soon joined by the beautiful and capable Sheva Alomar, who’s destined to be a fan favorite. Nuanced and passionate in ways few of the series most popular females are, her design and motivation show a willingness of the design team to think outside their cultural box and the results are extraordinary. Familiar faces also show up at various points, helping drive the story forward and filling in necessary back-story bits that should put smiles on even the most jaded fan while helping keep newcomers interested.
While RE5 serves as a direct sequel to RE4, it draws upon much of the Resident Evil lore and mythology, and isn’t afraid to create some havoc when necessary. There’s a real feeling that Hideo Kojima’s sense of storytelling has injected the franchise, with several key characters assuming roles that wouldn’t look out of place in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, nor would the impressive cinematic moments. The growth in narrative and storytelling from previous entries is astonishing, as there is every effort to solidify and make sense of the sometimes confusing storyline that’s driven previous games. Of course, there’s still plenty of silliness and absurd moments we’ve come to expect, but its generally a mature and thoughtful affair throughout.
Technically, Resident Evil 5 is outstanding, a marvel of current console technology that really drives the chilling mood and terror home like few can. While much of the game’s visual goodness will be credited to the silicon, it’s the stunning art direction and attention to detail that really brings it all together. Of course, having the mysterious and sweaty African desert would inspire anyone, as the continent’s natural and terrifying beauty is sorely underused in game design. Claustrophobic machinery and (from what I can tell) faithfully accurate designs help solidify this world and it looks great.
Much like the similarly-modeled Gears of War 2, the package is complete and accomplished, so comfortable with itself that our eyeballs can’t help but feel grateful just to gaze upon the spectacle of it all. The cinematic cut-scenes are also exemplary, directed and acted (usually) so well that I actually found myself enjoying them. Likewise is the game’s audio work, with a spectacular and booming soundtrack that never outlives its welcome, great sound effects, and some of the strongest vocal work I’ve ever heard in a game (and considering how bad offenders the Resident Evil games are, this is truly something). One character nearly manages to derail the whole thing with his buffoonish performance, but thankfully he’s turned into a hideous squid monster and soon dispatched; big calamari equals big favors.
Out of fairness, both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions were virtually identical and played exactly the same. Minus the now-standard loading times owing to Blu-ray, the Xbox version was slightly faster between loads and appeared to have a more consistent frame-rate throughout. The online experience was also noticeably better, a factor which should be taken into account if you have luxury of choosing between the two versions given the emphasis on multiplayer.
While RE4 began the franchise’s evolution from matte-horror into adrenaline-pumping action, RE5 nearly finishes the job. So much so, that many of the series most recognizable elements almost feel vestigial at this point. With the exception of how much power they restore First-Aid cans and mixed herbs are exactly the same (how does one spray an herb?), while the occasional “find the broken such-and-such” quest is how puzzles are handled now. Two of the series most tedious of stalwarts, saving and maps, are now handled automatically, with standard checkpoint saves streamlining the process. A simple, yet effective on-screen GPS does a good job at pointing where Chris and Sheva are located, and where they need to be without excessively holding the player’s hand.
The most radical change is the addition of multiplayer, another first for the franchise and exemplary how its executed. The entire solo campaign is smartly built for this, with the computer controlling Sheva’s basic actions and teamplay commands with stunning accuracy. The game was built with this functionality from the ground-up, with specific moments requiring a great deal of teamwork and unconventional partnering, so it feels every bit as integral as it really is.
Multiplayer gives control of Sheva to a second player, with split-screen and online options available for both consoles, and the quality of performance really depends on the quality of your partner. Like Capcom’s own Street Fighter IV, an option exists to allow people from the online world to ‘enter’ a single-player game when approved, allowing for some strange combinations in how the game itself can be completed. Players joining in will have to wait until the host player finds a checkpoint or restarts, but that’s the breaks. There are already plans to expand these options with post-release competitive modes, so best keep an eye out.
While purists will bemoan the simplification of many of the game’s auxiliary changes, things start to get a bit more muddled when it comes to defining just what sort of game RE5 is, and what it wants to be. Action fans will most likely eat this one up, as much of its fundamental design and charting has been tailored to meet their twitch-style gameplay needs and expectations. For the first time, the zombies (or infected) are really hordes, as there’s simply no end to their swarming and relentless attacks. Gone is every trace of the sublime subtlety a single brain-chomper used to provide – it’s still survival horror, but only if you count surviving the horrific onslaught.
A few of the game’s most visceral moments would’ve fit right in most other action series, including a technically brilliant escape from zombified bikers (cool stuff), guarding a fellow soldier’s computer work, as well as taking down well-guarded turrets. Change the perspective from third to first, and you’ve got the standard recipe to just about any modern FPS…including the zombies. While many of these sequences were executed well and looked tremendous, to me they’ve come at the expense of what made Resident Evil so unique and fundamentally its own genre.
Further complicating the game’s lack of identity are the somewhat unsuitable controls, curiously one of the few holdovers from the franchise’s past life as a true “survival horror” game. Chris (and Sheva) still control like tanks, complete with forward and reverse and strafing for the most basic movements. Of course the quick-turns are still present, but so are the dated combat mechanisms. Nobody in RE5 is very good at multitasking, as each action must be handled independently, regardless of what’s happening on-screen. That means all combat is stationary – no running and gunning here, even with the game’s bigger and bombastic guns. Same goes with reloading and swapping/using any of multitudes of health items and explosive weapons. The inventory system has been dramatically simplified from RE4, and now each item occupies a single space, and each item can be swapped between Chris and Sheva as long as each character has the room. However, the entire HUD now been integrated into real-time gameplay (think Dead Space), which further complicates the already clumsy combat system and leads to some of the most infuriating moments imaginable.
Let’s say you’re battling one of the game’s more aggressive bosses, where excessive firepower demands you constantly swap weapons and replenish health. You’ll have to access the inventory system while being chased, swap weapons, and even then have to physically stop and reload if you need to replenish. Double this procedure if Sheva needs assistance (she will), and triple if you need to replenish your health or toss a few grenades. Upgrading your weapon’s reloading capability and capacity helps somewhat, but it’s a system that’s simply not fluent or intuitive whatsoever, and should have been adapted to better serve the frantic action happening onscreen.
Prior to the game’s release there was some concern over whether RE5’s setting might suggest a type of racism, whether indirect or implied, as the white protagonist was shown laying waste to African villages and black people. Newsweek’s own N’Gai Croal, one of the rare respected and usually level-headed thinkers the industry has produced, led the charge by suggesting racial insensitivity on Capcom’s part, perhaps owing to their Japanese ancestry, might not consider the historical tragedy of colonialism on the region.
Playing through the various chapters, I couldn’t help but feel overcome by the effort that went into accurately bringing these gorgeous African locales and beauty to the screen. What’s really tragic is how unlikely this game would have ever been made by a Western developer. A profound misunderstanding of how dangerous the zealotry of political correctness has been to our own cultural understanding has sterilized much of modern entertainment. Its remarkable how any number of stereotyped black characters populate many of today’s most popular games, yet showcasing black zombies grabs the headlines.
This isn’t fair to the game, and it’s not fair to the team of Japanese developers who refused to back down or alter the game to appease the uninformed. My deepest thanks to these champions of good sense, as reality has once again squelched another imagined controversy.
Despite the misdirected control mechanics and somewhat clumsy interface, those willing to deal with its shortcomings will find Resident Evil 5 an exceptionally good action game. A technological stunner, its strong narrative accomplishments help push the very genre it helped create forward with explosive results, and a host of multiplayer options and unlockable features should help extend its lifespan far beyond its excellent solo campaign. It may not be the singular masterpiece it predecessor was, but the experience is more than thrilling and definitely worth taking.