Up until now, the Resident Evil series has mostly been guided by Shinji Mikami. He directed, produced, advised or helped design almost every title in the series, and somewhere along the way also managed to get a story credit on Killer 7. This is not a man who puts a lot of stock in the concept of a linear narrative, and he's probably the reason why RE games all seem like a dispatch from a more surreal universe.
Mikami doesn't work at Capcom anymore. He was one of the developers who left the company when they dissolved the Clover studio, which means Resident Evil 5 is the first game in the core series that doesn't have his name on it.
Instead, RE5 comes to us courtesy of executive producers Keiji Inafune and Jun Takeuchi, who also brought us Lost Planet and Dead Rising. If you've played either of those games, you may have noticed that their stories made sense, their plots were straightforward, and they left no significant loose ends. The Williamette Parkview Mall was not staffed by compulsive diarists, did not have a surrealist lava chamber guarded by masked executioners, and did not lock its escape door with a scrap of poetry and the three-piece Zodiac emblem.
Under Inafune and Takeuchi, RE5 has become the strangest of all possible things: a straightforward action game with a straightforward plot. It can be most adequately summarized as a co-op multiplayer Resident Evil 4, and if you liked that, you'll probably like this. The fact that it isn't completely crazy does work against it, though.
In 2008, Umbrella has been officially out of business for five years and closed for 10, but most of its bioweapons have since reached the black market. Chris Redfield, one of the survivors of the original Resident Evil, is a founding member of the Bio-terrorism Security Assessment Alliance, an international brigade of specialized agents that do their best to keep a lid on future outbreaks. Chris has been fighting against Umbrella's legacy for the last decade, and it's taken a toll; he's worn down, suffering from the loss of his longtime partner Jill Valentine, and wondering if it's all worth it in the end.
In 2008, he's sent on a mission to the Kijuju Autonomous Zone in Africa, to track down an arms dealer named Ricardo Irving, and partnered up with a West African BSAA agent named Sheva Alomar. Chris and Sheva quickly discover that Irving is bait on a hook, as their support team is destroyed by a brand-new bioweapon, and the local villagers in the KAZ have all been deliberately infected with a new strain of the Plaga parasites, as seen in RE4. The village is a death trap, and the only way out is to go through it.
RE5 is designed to be played cooperatively, either in local split screen, system link, or via Xbox Live. Like RE4, you're essentially a mobile gun emplacement; when you ready a weapon, you stand in place and can freely aim in any direction. The challenge is in defending yourself against a large number of oncoming enemies by picking fights carefully and controlling space. This isn't a typical circle-strafing third-person shooter where mobility is your best weapon. Instead, the idea is to keep the other guy from being mobile.
In RE5, enemies are individually tougher, more tenacious, and more able to surround you than in RE4, because you have someone there to watch your back. RE5 uses an upgraded version of the inventory system from the Resident Evil: Outbreak games, where you can see what your partner is carrying at any time and request any item they have, but scenario items like keys and treasures don't take up space. Once you get used to controlling your inventory in real time, which is made a lot easier by the d-pad being used for a custom quick-select, it actually does a lot to keep the flow going. The game's default controls are a pain in the ass, but once I set it to Type A, which is based on the RE4 controls, I found it was a lot easier to play.
If you don't have a second player, the AI controls Sheva according to one of two guidelines; either you send her out on a one-woman killing spree, or she covers you. In the latter case, her AI's actually not bad at all. She goes through ammunition like crazy and doesn't target an enemy's weak spot, but she has remarkable accuracy — this is the first time an AI character's ability to put a bullet through a flea's ass at 300 yards has actually worked in my favor — and automatically works to circumvent any obstacle you run into.
As long as you understand she's going to dump 9mm rounds as fast as she finds them and work with that, AI Sheva's easy to play with. Just keep upgrading her pistol and stock her with medical supplies, so when you take enough damage, she'll automatically run over and heal you as best she can. It's probably indicative of how low my expectations are that "you can make the AI useful" is a point in the game's favor, but that's still a step up from "the AI is actively hindering you."
Every stage in RE5 tends to deteriorate at some point into a mad struggle for survival. You can handle a mob of pitchfork-waving peasants fine as long as the shotgun shells don't run out, but then giant insects show up, the peasants' far more durable big brother shows up waving a chainsaw, one of the enemies climbs to the top of a building and pulls out a crossbow, or you find yourself crammed into a very small room with six to eight angry men with knives. At its best, RE5 is pure adrenaline, where you barely stay alive from moment to moment, the ammo's running out, and you have to improvise.
A lot of the incidental craziness from RE4 has been taken out or streamlined. Buying new equipment or upgrading old weapons is taken care of on a screen before each stage, so the merchants are gone. Instead, you can drop out at any time to the upgrade menu, rearrange your inventory, and restart the stage with a better selection of weapons.
That's often necessary, because as you move into the endgame, RE5 turns into more of a traditional shooter. You could see the influence RE4 had on third-person action games over the last few years, and some of that has come back to RE5. You can take cover around corners and behind short walls, popping out to take potshots at distant enemies. In the endgame, when the infected ditch their kitchen knives and machetes in favor of assault rifles, this is often a lifesaver.
The biggest problem I had with RE5 was one that I only really noticed while the credits were rolling: It's almost too linear. RE4 was insane, yes, but the good thing about a game being totally insane is that anything can happen. Once you realized that RE4 was not set in a sensible universe, the sky was the limit, and it took advantage of that with deathtraps, treasure hunts, gimmick boss fights, shooting galleries, and the part where you're running away from a giant animated midget statue.
RE5 doesn't go for that kind of thing. It occasionally throws a truly enormous monster at you just for the sake of doing it, but it doesn't have RE4's lunatic edge. There's nothing here to break up the flow of gunfight to gunfight except the occasional slightly different gunfight; there are no puzzles or mini-games, no one in the game really has a sense of humor, and all the environments are uninspired stuff we've seen in a hundred other games before now. There are some genuinely tense sequences and great fights scattered around the game, but it's not willing to get crazy if it has to, and that hurts it.
Another point against RE5 is that for the most part, it's surprisingly easy. The Normal difficulty, barring a couple of stages (stage 1-1 is in the demo and is actually considerably harder in the final release), is practically a gimme. It'd probably be very difficult if you never played RE4, but that game trained its players to become Shaolin masters by the end. Veteran puts the difficulty closer to where it should be.
Really, the second biggest problem RE5 has is that it's not RE4. In a world where this was RE4, this would be an extremely solid game; it's a little short, but that'd be the worst thing you could say about it. The problem RE5 has is that in almost every area where you can compare it directly to RE4 — and since the two games use the same engine and play very much the same, that's every area — it comes off badly.
The biggest problem RE5 has is in its extremely unwise choice of antagonists. RE5 was apparently inspired by the movie "Black Hawk Down," which is why it's set in Africa and why the first level looks the way it does. As such, RE5 wound up being a game where a white guy and his mixed-race sidekick kill hundreds of black people.
This is a take-off from the plot of RE4, which introduced parasites that turned their hosts into psychotic killers. In both games, the villagers you're fighting are victims, who've been deliberately infected by an incurable parasite for no reason other than that they were there. Their behavior isn't indicative of anything about who they used to be before the infection, and no one in the game claims otherwise.
Nothing about RE5 is racist … except that you're a white guy killing hundreds of black people. Even better, you can do it with things like context-sensitive unarmed combat. The rest of the game could be a loving hymn to racial tolerance and harmony, emphasizing teamwork and trying to unite disparate creeds and colors into an international, intergenerational coalition of peace, and then I would take my white hero and kill a black guy by stomping his ribcage in and it'd all go straight to hell.
Like I said before, this really isn't that bad a game on its own merits, and I enjoyed it most of the time. It's easy for what you're doing to creep into your head at the worst possible moments, though, turning an otherwise satisfying victory into something awkward. On some level, this is actually the only horror to be found in RE5; it's not at all scary on its own, but look at what it made you do.
If you never played RE4, Resident Evil 5 is a good game, and you should follow it up with RE4 just to see what all the fuss is about. If you played RE4 to death like I did, play RE5 on Veteran with a like-minded friend and you'll probably have a blast, but keep in mind it's not as good as its predecessor. The real question about Resident Evil 5, though, is whether or not you'll reach a point with what's happening where you just have to walk away.
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