Genre: Survival Horror
Release Date: 2009
Japanese gamers got a treat this past weekend when a playable demo of Biohazard 5 (Resident Evil 5) was made available on Xbox Live. While Capcom isn't currently offering the demo directly to U.S. or Europe (boo!), the demo itself is region-free, so if you have a friend with a Japanese system and can snag a copy of the demo, it'll work just fine in your U.S. system. In fact, the demo is completely localized, which means that it uses English text and displays the Resident Evil 5 (as opposed to Biohazard 5) branding when run in a U.S. Xbox 360.
As far as the demo is concerned, what's on offer is a meaty chunk of the upcoming game. There are two large areas to explore, plenty of enemies to fight and full support for co-op play, both online and local split-screen.
The single-player portion of the demo drops you into the role of Chris Redfield. Fans of the series should recognize the name, as Chris was one of the two main characters in the original version of Resident Evil, back when phrases such as "master of unlocking" were high art in the video game world. It's now a decade later, and Chris is working for the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA) based in North America. An "incident" draws him out to Africa, where virus-infected zombies are once again wreaking havoc.
Instead of being a completely solo affair, Chris is accompanied by Sheva Alomar, another BSAA agent based out of the West African branch. Sheva fills the role of Chris's partner, and she's no shrinking violet. While you will occasionally have to come to Sheva's aid, the AI driving her character is more than competent. She has no problem attacking enemies, using items and, when the need arises, coming to your aid.
For the most part, Sheva is fully independent, though you can order her to either attack or cover. When told to attack, Sheva takes up an aggressive stance and actively seeks out enemy targets. The cover order, which is the default, has her at your side and playing a more defensive role.
The only area in which you really have to manage Sheva has to do with supplies. Whenever you find an item, you are given a choice to pick it up or give it to your partner; you can also use the inventory screen to request items from your partner. Keeping everything for yourself might sound nice, but it quickly starves Sheva of ammo, and if she can't use her gun, she's not going to be as effective a fighter. Playing through the demo a few times, we noticed that Sheva would generally let us decide what to do with the resources that were discovered, but if she was low on ammo or health, she would also actively seek them out.
Jumping into the demo, you are presented with a choice of two scenarios: Public Assembly and Shanty Town. The first scenario is a somewhat confined area that requires you to fight off attacking zombies until BSAA can send a rescue chopper, while the second is a more traditional point A-to-point B exploration romp through a town. Neither level features a proper boss fight, but there are two mini-bosses available to challenge players.
Public Assembly begins with Chris and Sheva sneaking into a small shack while observing a gathering of villagers who are all listening to their leader speak over a megaphone. His words are not subtitled, but it's obvious he is presiding over an execution. A man dressed in what looks like a white turban is recognized by Sheva before losing his head to a massive executioner with an equally massive axe. Chris and Sheva are spotted and the villagers all turn to attack, with their red eyes revealing their infected status.
Initially, keeping the attackers at bay is a straightforward matter, as they have to climb a fence as well as break through the windows protecting Chris and Sheva. Unfortunately, they have numbers on their side, and picking them off with a handgun only works for so long. Like previous Resident Evil games, there's also the issue of ammo management. If you don't make your shots count, you'll quickly run dry.
A strategy that seemed to work well was using the handgun to shoot the weapon out of an attacker's hands and then using the knife to slice and dice in close quarters. Alternatively, you can also stun your attacker with a headshot or kneecap hit and then follow up with a Quick Time Event-style attack to knock the zombie across the room. The stun/QTE one-two punch is pretty much a required tactic if you want to take out the executioner mini-boss.
Once the zombies break through the windows and walls, the fight moves outside to a multi-leveled courtyard. You can move about on the ground, using the maze-like area for cover or attempt to fight on the rooftops, using high ground to your advantage. Explosive containers can be shot, providing temporary cover thanks to a gasoline-powered wall of flame. Be warned, however, these aren't the zombies of old. They can move quickly and don't often offer breathing room., so getting swarmed is often a near-death experience.
Shanty Town, the second area in the demo, feels a bit larger than Public Assembly, yet still offers just as much in the way of challenge. This level starts out with a small zombie fight before introducing some nasty flying creatures into the mix. This is also where Chris and Sheva split up for the first time.
At two points in the level, there are areas that are inaccessible by either player acting alone. The first one is a rooftop with a partial ladder. You can skip this one and simply fight your way around the building with Sheva, but if you give her a boost so she can reach the ladder, she'll not only collect the ammo stash hidden on the roof, but she'll also help snipe enemies from afar as you make your way around the building.
The second point occurs as the two of you fight your way into a damaged building lining a street. The ground floor door leading out into the next area is locked from the outside, so you are forced to head up. On the third floor, there is an opening, and Chris can give Sheva a boost, allowing her to jump across the street to the next building. At this point, you need to follow her downstairs and offer her cover, sniping enemies from afar, until she can get to the ground floor and unlock the door blocking your path.
This leads into a second mini-boss fight, where you face off against a chainsaw-wielding maniac who looks like an emaciated version of the Scarecrow of Batman lore. The chainsaw zombie is no pushover, and he doesn't fight alone. While he's attacking, a number of standard zombie villagers also come out of the woodwork, forcing you to balance crowd control with the frontal assault. Using Sheva's attack command here can be quite handy.
Combat is only as good as the control setup, and the developers have obviously been working on that aspect. The Resident Evil 5 demo offers four different control options, including one that attempts to mimic that of the Resident Evil 4 control setup. For the most part, it works, though you still have the inability to move while firing. This is an artificial limitation that simply doesn't make sense. As a trained tactical officer, Chris shouldn't have an issue moving and firing at the same time. If there's one thing we would change about the game, this is it right here. Otherwise, the controls are effective and relatively intuitive.
After you've finished exploring in single-player, it's time to give the co-op mode a go. Co-op features the same two levels, but instead of playing through with an AI partner, your companion is another human player. Going online via Live gives both players their own screen, while playing locally gives you the old-school split-screen interface.
Playing as Sheva is the real draw in co-op, as she isn't simply a clone of Chris. Sheva has the same basic controls, but her animations and QTE attacks are different. Of the two, we're almost inclined to say that she's the more violent sort, so if you enjoy tearing zombies limb from limb, Sheva's your girl.
While it is only a small taste of the game, the Resident Evil 5 demo is certainly an appealing appetizer. It looks good, plays well and offers more content than the Resident Evil 4 demo did when it was first released. In short, if you're a fan of the series, the demo is something of a must-have. There's no official word as to why Capcom has chosen not to officially distribute the demo in the U.S., though we suspect more information will be forthcoming next week as Capcom is hosting a Resident Evil 5/Bionic Commando event for San Francisco gamers. WorthPlaying will be there, so check back next week for the full scoop!
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