Resident Evil 5 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 [both versions played for review])
Released: March 13, 2009
Capcom’s marketing for Resident Evil 5 proclaims it’s a “Fear you can’t forget.” But perhaps more apt would be “Fear you mostly remember,” as the series’ long-awaited current-gen entry shares more than a few similarities with its predecessor, Resident Evil 4. While that certainly isn’t a negative -- Resident Evil 4 is one of the highest-rated games in the series -- its reliance on some old, recognizable tricks sometimes makes it feel dated. Fortunately, Resident Evil 5 has a few new tricks up its sleeve in an attempt to keep it fresh, its key feature being co-op, which pays off in varying degrees.
The story finds Resident Evil protagonist Chris Redfield back in action as part of the ridiculously-named Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance, this time landing in Africa to investigate a potential bio-terrorism threat. There he meets his sidekick throughout the game’s six chapters, Sheva Alomar, an African B.S.A.A. agent whose job is to act like a tour-guide of the region of Kijuju, in what was intended to be a routine investigation. It’s not. One thing leads to another, as the story weaves a web of familiar faces and history that concludes in a way that ties up loose ends that should satisfy most fans.
Not only does the game's narrative have a Resident Evil 4 connection -- the Las Plagas virus introduced in that game is the catalyst for Chris' African vacation -- so does the game’s look and feel. From a control standpoint, the game has a near-identical setup to its predecessor. For better or for worse, the stop-and-shoot game mechanics and the over-the-shoulder aiming perspective make a return. Fans of the Resident Evil 4 setup will feel right at home; those who first played the title on GameCube won’t miss the big "A" button on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 controller. Even the old ammo-saving trick of shooting enemies in the legs and then running up to perform a context-sensitive attack works like a charm.
To address the cries of some gamers who insist Resident Evil 5 should have moved into the "new world" of being able to move and shoot at the same time, there’s some merit to that. The game features a number of different control schemes, including one that’s influenced by dual-stick third-person action games, but not a single one that allows you to move and attack. Both Chris and Sheva’s feet are always firmly planted in place when their weapons are drawn, able only to pivot to protect themselves from seemingly never-ending hordes of infected hosts. It’s a style of play that will frustrate many, and it’s a somewhat head-scratching decision, especially considering Resident Evil 5's emphasis on action. Still, it’s not a game-breaker once you accept the limitation, and it’s a constraint that arguably adds a sense of tension to the experience.
In fact, this particular limitation works in favor of the game’s real focus, cooperative play. From the opening when Chris pulls up to a squalid African town to the game’s final moments, Sheva is by his side. Right here it has to be said that Resident Evil 5 is game that begs -- no, it just about requires -- that you play it with another person. Whether you play it online, via system link, or on one television taking advantage of the game’s somewhat-gimped split-screen, the game cries out to be played with a human partner. It may also be one of the only things that can really make the game feel dramatically different from Resident Evil 4.
Watching each other's backs, communicating strategy, exploring new areas, and uncovering secrets -- this is the stuff that will make your Resident Evil 5 experience unique. Simply put, playing with others is fun in any game, and Resident Evil 5 is no exception.
It’s regrettable that outside of the one-on-one human interaction, the co-op experience is relatively unchanged from a single-player experience. Sure, there are some context-sensitive situations where both partners will be required to pull levers simultaneously, or push an obstruction with each other's help. But there are only a few situations where a partner is really necessary. One chapter, which takes place in a pitch-black mine shaft, has one player carrying a lantern to illuminate the darkness, while the other fights off attackers. Situations like these are few and far between, however; the game certainly could have benefited from some more imaginative uses of team mechanics like the aforementioned scenario. Keeping that in mind, the co-op is still immensely fun and gratifying, but not always wholly justified.
If for whatever reason you can’t find a friend to tag along for the ride, it’s possible to play the game "alone," with an A.I. controlled Sheva by your side. At best, Sheva is completely out of your way and is never a true burden. You can go about your business, entirely ignoring her, only occasionally keeping an eye on her health and well-being. At her worst, she’s wasting ammunition or using healing items at the moss aggravating times. There are a few basic actions you can command Sheva to follow, but they unfortunately don’t include "shoot those guys in the damned legs and then I’ll punch them, because I’m out of handgun ammo," or "please stop failing and go away."
With that said, there are some interesting benefits to playing alongside the A.I., which can lead to some frustration when partnered with a human player. There are a few examples where A.I. Sheva will offer hints or gameplay suggestions, sometimes pointing out things in the environment or in boss fights that players might otherwise be oblivious to. For example, during one particular boss battle, a method we had been trying had led to failure, and eventually aggravation. Playing the same battle alone, the A.I. Sheva’s dialogue actually offered an outside-the-box solution that helped us go back and complete the battle cooperatively. It’s an odd choice to include certain helpful dialogue that can only be heard when playing alone, especially when the game designers seem to want you to play it with another human.
To be clear, the game contains plenty of "horrors," including monsters-turned-biological-weapons and seemingly mindless drones hell-bent on making sure your last breath is truly your last. Also, bat monsters, homicidal dogs, big dudes with axes, thin dudes (and dudettes) with chainsaws, and some terrifying-looking spiders. And while survival is certainly key, the traditional "survival horror feel" has been stripped away from the series for Resident Evil 5. It’s an action game, through and through, with your characters always strapped with the latest and greatest in military-kill-em-all technology. Surely, you’ll want to conserve bullets for your most overwhelming moments, but there are few times in Resident Evil 5 when you’re not shooting at something to kill it, or making something explode in an effort to kill something else.
The game puts itself firmly into its new third-person action shooter shoes about halfway through the game, when it begins to introduce a context-sensitive cover mechanic that owes as much to Gears of War as Epic’s shooter owes to Resident Evil 4. Not all of the levels are designed around this cover-and-shoot style of gameplay, so Chris and Sheva will only be able to take cover in areas where the designers think you should; not every box or door can be used as respite. These cover mechanics happen to fit nicely into place in areas of the game where your adversaries are wielding their own machine guns, shotguns, chain guns, and rocket launchers. Yes, this happens; it's particularly prevalent in the second half of the game, which has a significantly different feel than the first.
So you’ll want to arm yourself to the teeth with weapons that can be found or purchased, and then upgraded. The bad news is that our old friend, the "Merchant" from Resident Evil 4, is nowhere to be found. The quirky, memorable character has been replaced by a banal organization menu that can be accessed from each continue or between chapters. In Resident Evil 5, organization is extraordinarily important, as you only have nine slots to hold items while you’re playing. This isn’t upgradable, so you have to choose your items carefully and accordingly. This can become a real hassle during gameplay, as slots get filled up quicker than ever. On more than one frustrating occasion you can find yourself out of ammo and unable to pick up anymore because of a lack of slots; the game doesn’t even give you the option, at the very least, to pick up what could be emptied into your gun's clip.
Because of this, you’re going to spend more time shuffling items around than ever, making decisions on what to keep in a stand-by inventory (which can only be accessed from the item organization screen) and what to drop. This kind of inventory management is more of a pain in the ass than it is a fun meta-game, and Resident Evil 5 sometimes suffers because of it. Even more puzzling is the fact that you can share ammo and other items with your partner, but not weapons; they have to purchase or find them on their own.
This won’t be a problem for most, but imagine a scenario where you’ve played a game alone up until Chapter 4, with your weapons and the aggression of your enemies scaling accordingly. Inviting a fresh cooperative player into the game (a "newb," if you will) equips them with only the most basic of weaponry, putting them at a significant and irritating disadvantage. For a game whose focus is on cooperative play (and allows drop-in and drop-out play), the inability to openly share every item in your cache is puzzling to say the least.
Without doubt, Resident Evil 5 is an over-the-top, edge-of-your-seat, Hollywood thrill ride from start to finish. Explosions are more common than ever before, and the game features some wild boss battles that won’t disappoint. The game’s presentation is especially amazing, with cut-scenes and action sequences that rival the best that Hollywood offers. You can see in the screens and video for yourself, but it has to be said: the game looks absolutely stunning. Whether in-game or during the pre-rendered cinematic sequences, Resident Evil 5 is easily one of the best looking titles on any console to date. Had Capcom strung together the game’s core scenes into a single, narrative movie release, it would easily be a better, more visually arresting piece of work than any of its previous film efforts.
While it’s already been publicized that Resident Evil 5 can be completed in a short amount of time relative to other games in the series, Capcom has packed in plenty of extras to make replaying it worthwhile. While we were originally asked not to "spoil" the game’s unlockable "Mercenaries" mode, the cat’s already out of the bag, and it’s going to be the reason players keep coming back for more. Playable alone or cooperatively, the arcade-style shooting mini-game has you picking off enemies for points under the duress of a time limit; it’s a welcome addition to a package that already includes a bevy of unlockable weapons, costumes, and more.
In a world where Resident Evil 4 doesn’t exist, Resident Evil 5 probably would have been a more mind-blowing overall package. But in that same world, there wouldn’t have been a string of games that have benefited from its influence. Unfortunately, those same games took the ball and ran with it in new, exciting, and relevant directions that further expanded multiple genres. Resident Evil 5 is an outstanding and gripping experience, one that shouldn’t be missed. Still, it’s more of an evolution, and not quite the revolution gamers should expect.
Nick did a great job of talking about the details of what Resident Evil 5 has to offer, but I am going to take a different approach -- an approach that involves an unhealthy amount of comparisons to Resident Evil 4.
"But Resident Evil 5 is its own game and should be judged accordingly, right?" Usually I would agree with this, but when a game has so much in common with a predecessor that has had such an enormous influence -- both critically and commercially -- on the videogame industry, you better believe comparisons are going to be made. And, honestly, I feel that that’s only right, given how many people played Resident Evil 4 and want to know how this sequel stacks up.
When I finished Resident Evil 4 a few years ago, I was hit with the feeling that I had just played a game that will always be remembered as one of the greatest videogames of all time. If someone asked me why I felt this way, I would give them three answers:
1. The experience is terrifying. Being chased from building to building by the chainsaw-wielding madman during the game’s opening sequence is one of the scariest, most visceral moments I have ever experienced playing a videogame.
2. The presentation is jaw-dropping. The Del Lago boss battle on the lake remains to this day one of the most epic and beautiful videogame confrontations of all time.
3. The game is full of surprises. The biggest one being the reveal that, unlike previous Resident Evil games before it, Resident Evil 4 is not set in the confines of one area -- instead, leaving the initial Spanish village setting and expanding to the far reaches of an ancient castle and giant island fortress.
So going into Resident Evil 5, I -- as well as every other gamer on the planet -- had high expectations.
While I am happy to report that the three things that made Resident Evil 4 so great are intact in Resident Evil 5, something about them just doesn’t feel as special this time around.
Let’s break it down:
1. Is the experience terrifying? Not even ten minutes into Resident Evil 5, protagonist Chris Redfield is chased through an impoverished African town by a swarm of infected villagers. This sequence -- extremely similar to the one that opens RE4 -- is exciting, but lacks the shock that the previous game’s now-famous scene elicits.
In fact, the entire game has this same been-there-done-that feeling. While there are a few nice scares (alligators are back!), you can see most of the “horror” bits coming from a mile away.
2. Is the presentation jaw-dropping? This one is much easier. The answer is a resounding “YES!” But, again, it comes with a little asterisk.
I can name ten sequences off the top of my head that literally made me gasp in Resident Evil 5 -- some of the creative bosses and high-def set pieces are so awe-inspiring that I was left with a loss for words -- but once I beat the game I realized that a lot of these ideas have been used in other videogames. And while it’s true that almost all the high-quality gameplay in Resident Evil 5 is pristinely polished, it still doesn’t change the fact that the stripped down versions of every sequence have been seen before.
Everything in Resident Evil 5 is gorgeous ... it’s just not that new.
3. Is the game full of surprises? In a similar vein to RE4, Resident Evil 5 takes place in some of the most unlikely of levels, and I loved it for it! But, again -- and I hate sounding like a broken record -- it sticks to a structure that is almost identical to the game that came before it. Even the storyline never really offers anything you haven’t seen in previous Resident Evil games. (Although, I have to admit: one major reveal around chapter five really got me and is going to be adored by fans wrapped up in the Resident Evil canon.)
So what does this all mean?
Well, it’s hard to say. Short explanation: If I had to compare Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5 I would easily say number 4 is the better game for all the reasons I listed above.
But does that make Resident Evil 5 a bad game? Not at all. In fact, despite all its similarities to Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil 5 is still one of the best and most memorable games of its type ever made. The bosses are spectacular and very memorable, the characters and voice acting are birthed from classic Resident Evil loins, the set pieces are awesome, and the gameplay -- if you liked Resident Evil 4 -- is addictive and very satisfying.
Sure, like many others, I am a little concerned about the Resident Evil series slowly turning from survival horror to straight-up action, but when Resident Evil 5 blows your mind with stunning sequence after stunning sequence of incredible action, you start to miss wandering around a confusing mansion with nonsensical items a little bit less.
One thing that Resident Evil 5 does not have in common with any of the other iterations of the series is its inclusion of two-person co-op gameplay. It is obvious from the get-go that Resident Evil 5 is designed with two players in mind, so, as Nick says, playing as Chris with a friend controlling the beautiful Sheva feels very natural. Surprisingly, though, I don’t think co-op is necessarily the definitive way to play.
It might have a lot to do with the fact that I am a huge single-player guy, but, to me, playing co-op almost makes the game too easy. One thing I love about the Resident Evil games is how helpless you feel at times when being bombarded by a horde of the infected. Playing through the game on co-op (yup, I played through the game once on single-player and once with a friend) takes away that feeling of loneliness and completely eliminates any chance of being scared in the slightest. Playing Resident Evil 5 with the lights off (obviously the only way to play any Resident Evil game) is not nearly as scary when someone is constantly talking to you in your headset.
It is also worth mentioning that Sheva’s A.I. -- while far from perfect (stop using healing herbs when they’re not needed, dammit!) -- comes in handy more often than you would think. At one point I was battling a monstrous, screen-filling boss with no indication of where to shoot. Sheva, being controlled by the computer, immediately started firing at the exact spot on the creature I needed to aim for. It is a little cheap, sure, but when you are running low on ammo and super stressed out this little addition comes in handy.
On the other hand, there are parts of Resident Evil 5 that are darn near impossible without having a real-life friend to help you out. There are many times -- particularly in boss fights -- when Chris needs to be in one spot and Sheva in another. The computer A.I. is usually effective enough to make this happen, but sometimes, it isn’t ... at all. In situations like this you have to rely on some serious luck if going at it alone, and that can lead to some major frustration.
I see the pros and cons of both styles of play, so I really can’t say which one is better. For a classic, more challenging Resident Evil feel, I say go with single-player; for an experience that definitely feels deeper and more rewarding, go with co-op.
In a way, it is like Resident Evil 5 is two completely separate games. Some may look at this as a negative, but I say it just gives you more reason to play through the excellent campaign one more time.
As much as I compare it to Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil 5 still stands on its own as one of the best games in the series. I can already predict this game is going to polarize a lot of people, though. Some are going to see it as a shiny version of Resident Evil 4 with the addition of some cool co-op play and some truly amazing gameplay sequences. Others will bemoan the sluggish controls and the loss of everything that made the early Resident Evil games so special. Me? I fall in the former group.
I really had a great time with Resident Evil 5. It’s not going to revolutionize videogames and is definitely not a huge step forward in the series, but it contains some of the coolest set pieces and most incredible boss fights I have ever seen in my entire life. And that makes me very happy.
Now go out and play it so I can talk to you about some of my favorite parts. It is killing me not to spoil anything!
Overall Score: 8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)