After working for GamingExcellence for nearly two years, I've had many titles come across my inbox for review. I've played great games, lousy games, ok games, games I've anticipated with bated breath, and games that I had never heard of.
Resident Evil 5, however, trumped them all for sheer anticipation and excitement. You see, I've been a huge fan of the series since I first acquired a copy of Resident Evil 2 at the age of 14. When I first played that game, it completely blew me away. This was a game that was gruesome, intensely scary, was a blast to play, and had a great dual story line to boot. Since that fateful encounter with Leon and Claire ten years ago, I've been a faithful fan of the canonical entries of the series. As big a fan I was of games like Resident Evil Zero and the remake of the original on the GameCube, I feared that my precious survival horror series was getting stale. Of course, we all know now that my fears were unfounded with the release of the incredible Resident Evil 4. Few games I've played in the last decade have stuck with me so fully and intensely as Capcom's GameCube masterpiece.
Therefore, I found myself drooling at the freshly sealed copy of Resident Evil 5, my fingers even trembling a little bit as I put the disc into my Xbox 360. Would my youthful exuberance and enthusiasm for the game be rewarded?
In RE5, you once again step into the shoes of Chris Redfield, who we last encountered in Resident Evil: Code: Veronica, as well as the original game in the series. Chris is now working for the BSAA, an international crack squad of agents who scourge the earth looking for biological terrorists and containing outbreaks. The evil pharmaceutical conglomerate Umbrella is no more, which has made Chris' job that much harder. Now that there isn't a singular entity causing viral outbreaks, as now there are dozens of people getting their hands on Umbrella's former research, including a new company that goes by the name Tri-cell, and has some strong ties to events in Chris' past. Chris has been sent to Africa to apprehend a man named Irving. Of course, things aren't what they seem, and the African village that he finds himself in is soon overrun by zombie like mutations not unlike the Las Plagas found in the Spanish village of RE4. Rest assured RE fans, this latest instalment will answer many questions you may have from past games, while tossing an unexpected twist or two your way.
Enemies in the game are pretty standard if you've played RE4, but that's not a bad thing. There's something inherently frightening about "zombies" who are smart enough to talk, wield tools, and retain enough expression to flash you a murderous gleam of the eye when they stalk you. There are some cool bosses and new enemies to contend with as well. It's also still unsettling to score a headshot on an enemy only to have a bladed tentacle start flailing around where their head used to be.
While I'm on the subject; in this game, like most of the other RE games, you'll fight a boss that used to be human but then injects himself with the virus to become a huge monstrosity. Given that these people are usually businessmen or scientists, I want to know how they intend to go back to work at the lab or attend the latest board meeting as a pulsating, frightening mutation? If anyone knows, please let me know.
As the game begins, the first thing you'll notice is how much bigger Chris is. With all this talk about baseball players and steroid use, I think it's time we start testing video game characters for performance enhancing substances. Chris is so beefy in this game that I didn't have to wonder where Jill Valentine or his sister, Claire Redfield, was. He obviously ate them. With a heaping handful of steroids on the side. And some spoonfuls of creatine.
In a strong departure for the series, RE5 is entirely designed around the co-op experience. Very early on, you're partnered with fellow BSAA agent Sheva Alomar, a tough as nails female compatriot who remains by your side for the whole game. Whether Sheva is controlled by a friend on the couch, a friend online, or the AI, you'll find her to be an invaluable resource in surviving the many encounters in the game.
The AI for Sheva is quite good, but not without a few annoying quirks. You can have her set in two modes: cover and attack. When in cover mode, Sheva will conserve ammo and equip the weakest weapon she has in her inventory. She'll typically stay by your side as well. If you switch her over to attack mode, she'll dispense bullets like penny candy, equip her strongest weapons, and charge forward into battle with reckless abandon. She's also really good at healing you when you need it. She'll even hand over ammunition for guns that you have and she doesn't. On the other hand, you can't direct her to a specific spot on the level, and she'll sometimes charge forward and get herself killed, forcing a restart. Still, Sheva's AI is quite impressive and never so bad that it makes you want to play something else.
Despite the good AI, nothing really measures up to playing with a real person at your side. When playing split screen co-op with a friend on a couch, it becomes much easier to cover each other and co-ordinate strategies. Unfortunately, when playing split screen, Capcom decided to utilize a bizarre screen splitting that leaves about 30 per cent of the screen completely black, and each screen is not aligned. I can't for the life of me understand why they decided to do this, as I've never had any problems with the standard screen splitting that I've used in every co-op shooter since Halo. Even Gears of War, with a similar camera viewpoint was more than fine with the standard screen split.
Online, when playing with friends, is when the game truly shines. You'll have the full view of the sweeping vistas and gorgeous graphics, and the co-op is nearly lag free. When you start a new game or load up your save, the game gives you the option to have your game open to all of Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. However, if you open your game up to the online denizens, you likely won't have a very good time. Most of the people I got paired up with ran around, hogged the ammo and healing items, and got themselves killed left right and centre.
At least the option to replay levels online adds a significant amount of replay value, as do the loads of unlockable weapons, costumes, action figures, and backstory.
Fundamentally, RE5 plays a lot like RE4. The game uses an over the shoulder camera, and shooting involves standing still and placing your shots. Some people may have issues with this gameplay element, but every Resident Evil game ever made has forced you to stand still while you aim your weapons, so why should this one be any different? It's not like raising your gun takes a long time, and you're still more manoeuvrable than you were in the earlier titles in the series. I had no issues at all with the aiming system, even after extensive experience with games like Gears of War and Army of Two. Overall, I found the extensive gunplay extremely satisfying.
Those weaned on the aforementioned shooters however, may have some issues wrapping their head around the control schemes. The controls are certainly not bad, they're just extremely different than anything else out there. For example, with the default control scheme you can strafe with the left analog stick, but as soon as you hold down the run button, the stick reverts to controlling turning instead of strafing. Reloading is accomplished by holding down the aim button and pressing A/X. Even quick turning around is done by pressing down and A/X. The controls are actually pretty good once you get your head wrapped around them, which takes about a level or two. Those who have Gears of War hardwired into their skulls may take a little longer.
The game utilizes the same context sensitive as RE4 as well. Whenever a context sensitive action is available, a prompt will appear on screen telling you about the available action. Actions can include flipping levers, taking cover on walls, punching out enemies and climbing ladders. It's a quick and easy to use system, and it works just as well as it did the last time around. Quick time events have come back for this go around as well. They're still fun, but no where near as revolutionary as they were when we first saw them half a decade ago.
It's a good thing the context-sensitive system works so well, because RE5 has taken on a significantly action-heavy slant as opposed to the slower paced horror vibe of previous games. In fact, there was not a single moment in the game's 10 or so hours that I felt frightened in the slightest. Unfortunately, the fear of past games has been entirely left out of this game in exchange for pulse pounding intensity. There are certainly a few nerve wracking encounters that will quicken the pulse, but nothing that will make you lose any sleep at night. I blame the fundamental shift to a daylight setting and the co-operative nature of the game for killing a lot of the tension as well.
One thing that the Resident Evil series has never seemed to truly get right is the inventory system. Gone is the suitcase of RE4, replaced with a 3 X 3 grid. Each slot can fit one item, whether it's the smallest green herb or a heaving rocket launcher. The reason for the change is to allow for simple swapping of items between the two partners. At any time during gameplay, you can bring up the inventory screen and request items from your partner or sort through your items. You can only bring along nine items at any given time, and everything must stay in your grand inventory that you can access between levels and after deaths. The inventory system gets a little annoying because the game doesn't pause when you access it. Therefore, trying to equip your grenades when you're under attack by the many hordes can sometimes result in a few cheap hits. To help alleviate this, you are able to quick select whatever items are in the top, bottom, left, and right portions of your inventory by pressing the corresponding button on the D-Pad. It helps, but the inventory system is still rather clunky and annoying.
In between levels and after you die you'll come to an overall inventory screen. From here, you can purchase and upgrade your weapons, sell treasures you've found, and swap items with your partner. The purchasing system works every bit as well as the "creepy weird guy" system from RE4, without the nonsensicality of the former.
RE5 has done away with another venerable Resident Evil staple: the typewriter. In a series first, saving is handled via checkpoints and autosaving. The checkpoints are reasonably spaced, and death rarely means having to go back more than a few minutes.
In terms of graphics, RE5 shines as brightly as the African sun that bears down on Chris' shoulders. Textures are exquisitely mapped, the characters boast an insane polygon count, and character faces are shockingly expressive. This is one of the few games I've played where the eyes of the characters don't look dead, and suggest life and intelligence behind them. That is no small task considering that Chris Redfield has the personality of a pricky pineapple. Environments are similarly stunning and varied. The levels are packed to the gills with little details like fallen debris and crumbling architecture. Throughout the game you'll visit tribal villages, an oil field, marshlands, and urban areas, among a few others that I don't want to spoil. Each looks distinctive and fantastic. Even the frame rate stays smooth throughout. A few slight animation hitches do little to mar one of the most beautiful games of this hardware generation yet.
Audio is pretty good as well. The voice acting is good yet charmingly cheesy, which is nothing less than I would expect and want from an RE game. Such enthusiasm with the admittedly hokey dialogue is great. "I've just had an extreme makeover!" exclaims one character who injects himself with a virus and mutates into a giant fish. The weapons in the game sound throaty and powerful and the directional sound effects place you right into the heat of the action.
In the end, Resident Evil 5 did not deliver what I was expecting when I excitedly ran the game for the first time. I was expecting a scary, methodical, survival horror experience like the previous games in the series. What I got was an action packed evolution of the Resident Evil formula that I've loved since I was a teenager, but nothing as revolutionary as its predecessor. While the addition of co-op play and focus on action is great from a gameplay perspective, it hurt the atmosphere and tension that the series is renowned for. Depending on whom you ask, that's either an improvement or a disappointment. I personally found Resident Evil 5 to be a great addition to a beloved franchise that has been going on for nearly fifteen years, even if it doesn't represent the series' finest hour.