Release Date: March 13, 2009
Life hasn't been terribly kind to Chris Redfield. He used to be in the Air Force, but they kicked him out; he used to be a cop, but most of his unit was killed in a biohazardous outbreak near Raccoon City, courtesy of their traitorous commanding officer Albert Wesker. Chris went solo for a while, trying to take down the corporation responsible, but promptly found out that Wesker was not only still alive, but was now a superhuman killing machine. Chris, despite being dumb enough to try to fistfight the guy, barely escaped.
In the end, Umbrella got shut down by what amounted to bad publicity. Rather than go down with them, most of the other pharmaceutical companies on the planet pitched in and helped the world's governments shut down Umbrella and dismantle their holdings.
It's been 10 years since Raccoon City's destruction, and Chris is now one of the leading field agents in the Bio-terrorism Security Assessment Alliance, or BSAA. After Umbrella's destruction, many of the produced bioweapons wound up on the black market, destabilizing developing nations or turning terrorist attacks into zombie outbreaks. Chris' partner throughout all of this was his old police buddy, Jill Valentine, but she's been gone for a while now. Chris is essentially fighting alone.
Chris's latest mission takes him to the Kijuju Automonous Zone in Africa, where he's supposed to track down an arms dealer named Ricardo Irving. He teams up with Sheva Alomar, a BSAA agent stationed in Africa, and promptly discovers that the local population is being used as a test bed for some kind of new bioweapon. By the time Chris figures out he's dealing with an enhanced version of the Plaga parasites, as seen in Resident Evil 4, he and Sheva are cut off and fighting for their lives.
The ensuing gameplay is, essentially, a cooperative version of Resident Evil 4. A lot of changes have been made to that game's formula to adapt it for multiplayer, such as the addition of checkpoints and real-time inventory management. You can assign weapons to the d-pad to serve as a quick-select, but you don't get to calmly pause the game, shotgun a few health items, and then return to the slaughter.
There are a lot of small touches to the system that remind me of an evolved version of Resident Evil: Outbreak, with its focus on cooperation. Your individual inventory has a limited amount of room, so you'd be screwed if you were alone, but as a team, you usually have all the space you need. Fortunately, treasures and quest items don't take up inventory slots; unfortunately, RE5 also doesn't ladle on the ammunition the way RE4 did.
Many fights in RE5 are about distraction; one player sets a boss up to reveal its weak spot, and then the other attacks. Even when you're up against normal enemies, it's difficult to find a bottleneck and simply defend your zone the way you could in RE4. While RE5 is all about point defense, the same way RE4 was, you're surrounded by a greater number of enemies that are coming from multiple directions, crashing through windows, and sometimes backed up by one of several kinds of power-tool-waving nightmare bastards. Not only can you not opt to go solo, but you really don't want to.
In single-player games, Sheva is controlled by the computer, with the player allowed to set one of two behaviors: you can either have her stick close to you and watch your back, or go on a complete homicidal rampage. Given the limited inventory space, you'll usually want to have her cover you, and honestly, she's good at it. AI Sheva can thread a needle with pistol bullets and automatically heals both you and herself if you get too low on health, so she's genuinely useful.
(There are a couple of occasions when I would've preferred having another actual player, like the rare events that force you to split up, but that was outweighed by the times when she shot a guy dead from 300 yards with a 9mm pistol. Finally, a modern video game's AI's supernatural accuracy has worked in my favor.)
As you progress through the game, you can find various new weapons, as well as gold and treasure. At the beginning of a stage, you enter an inventory management screen that allows you to sort your items, upgrade your weapons in exchange for cash (and the old RE4 trick, where upgrading your clip capacity also refills the clip, still works), trade stuff between Chris and Sheva, and sell treasure to buy more guns or first aid sprays. If you enter a stage and find you're not using the right equipment for it, you can easily restart, reshuffle your gear, and enter with the correct guns in hand.
This can come in handy because you're being graded on this. Unlike RE4, RE5 features a chapter select and a fairly in-depth ranking system, which awards you points at the end of each chapter based on your clear time, number of deaths, enemies defeated and accuracy. Ever since the PlayStation days, the RE series has attracted a weird culture of power players. RE5 is set up to reward that by letting you focus on individual chapters, and I anticipate a lot of really ridiculous gameplay videos in the months and years ahead.
As a fan of the series, what really jumps out at me about RE5 is the change in tone. RE has always been a series about B movie shenanigans. Code Veronica was about quasi-incestuous ant fetishists, RE4 featured a zombie midget Spanish pirate trying to take over the world with brain parasites, and RE2 and 3 were set in a bizarre parody of an American city, like Omaha if it were 90 percent back alleys and had no bathrooms. RE5 is straightforward, sober, and bizarrely matter-of-fact, with no real attempts at humor or deliberately crazy plot elements.
Unfortunately, at the same time, it sets itself up for a pretty big fall. Ever since the trailer came out, RE5 has been the subject of a debate about race; Chris is, after all, a big pasty white guy who's been sent to Africa to shoot hundreds of black people.
Granted, the black people are the victims in this; as some of the trailers have shown, they're infected by the Plaga parasites from RE4, which drive their hosts into a homicidal frenzy. RE5 could just as easily be about any people anywhere, and is apparently only set in Africa because one of the producers saw "Black Hawk Down." That doesn't change what you're seeing or doing when you play the game, though, and everything you do in the game is tinged with that level of self-aware horror. Resident Evil 5 is going to be controversial for a good long time to come, mostly because of this.
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