It’s impossible to overstate how important Resident Evil 4 was to the zombie-smashing franchise, and (surprisingly) the industry as a whole. Within one game it banished the shambling undead, revamped the rustic, horrid controls and pioneered the over-the-shoulder view that countless games have since taken as their own (see: Gears of War, Dark Sector, Dead Space). It was the definition of revolutionary, and successfully reformed the aging series into a must-play experience.
Resident Evil 5, on the other hand, can’t possibly do all that again. It can’t set a new standard for third-person action as it so closely apes RE4 that it’s almost the same game with amazing new visuals and a few enhancements. In other words, kind of like what RE3 was to RE2 – a technical improvement but lacking in imagination.
Above: A rough analogy, but apt
However, RE5 does manage to improve upon certain gameplay touches we all adored in RE4, as well as deliver one teeth-shattering scenario after another, so don’t for a second think RE5’s come up short. It had an impossibly tough act to follow and even caught in the long, long shadow of part four, manages to stand out as one of the most memorable action experiences of late, particularly with two players.
But realize what we said – one of the best action experiences, because…
Resident Evil 5 humbles even part four’s more-fight-than-flight gameplay. The vast majority of the game, which takes bio-terror agent Chris Redfield from the sun-baked village of Kijuju to elaborate underground facilities, focuses on shooting the living hell out of anything that moves. There’s no fright, no jump scares, no sense of terror whatsoever. You’re almost always weighed down with ammo and top-notch weapons, ready to eviscerate infected Majini villagers, bat monsters or whatever other bioengineered horror is scurrying through the hallways (including one long-absent creature from the PSone days).
Above: Lickers are back!
Button-mashy melee attacks are far more prevalent than before, and are key to downing enemies quickly. Shoot a guy in the leg, for example, and he’ll stumble into a position where Chris can uppercut, then stomp his head into paste, saving several bullets in the process. You can even chain these together with a co-op pal, flattening some big baddies in no time. Naturally you’ll need to break out the firearms for groups or larger than life monsters, but there’s definitely a more visceral, in-your-face approach than before. It’s a drastic change, but one that makes asploding parasitic monster heads immensely entertaining.
Above: Chris winding up for a face-caving uppercut
Other action-oriented changes: the map is an easily read heads-up display instead of a separate screen, and you buy/upgrade weapons in between each level instead of tracking down a gravel-voiced vendor. Die, and you pop right back to that item screen for re-stocking, then return to the mid-level checkpoint. This ups the adrenaline and gets you back in the game quickly, but sacrifices any remaining chance of the game ever scaring you in any way. There’s hardly any sense of danger or loss at all.
Above: You know what’s not scary? Turrets!
The “KILL IT NOW!” direction makes repeat plays quite inviting, as you no longer have to worry about conserving ammo or losing tons of progress per death; you’re free to unleash hell at your leisure.
Combine this streamlined interface with enemies that are even more active than RE4’s bloodthirsty Los Ganados, and you quickly forget you’re playing Resident Evil. The afflicted Majini soldiers lay down cover fire, man boats, talk openly amongst themselves and deftly race motorcycles across bumpy African wilderness while firing automatic weapons. They’re about as far from zombies as you could get, but, in tandem with all the toothy monstrosities, definitely make for exciting shootouts and offer plenty of over-the-top gore-splosion moments.
Above: So many ways to die (boss spoilers!)
Control, usually stiff and limiting in RE titles, has been further tweaked to accommodate all the rocket launching, grenade tossing violence. You can now walk with the left stick and move with the right, plus quick-select weapons with the d-pad, enabling quicker responses than even RE4’s improved handling. Strangely, remnants of vintage Evil are still intact, squishing RE5 in between two disparate genres:
Above: It’s an action game with horror trappings
Despite the much-appreciated two-stick control, you still cannot walk and shoot at the same time. Capcom has said this is due to the series’ survival horror roots, but um, what “roots” are we talking about? The ones part four trimmed, or the ones part five douses in weed killer? If it looks like Gears, has occasional cover like Gears and has the same one-button partner revive like Gears, we expect to be able to at least walk and fire at the same time (hell, we’d even settle for a dive-away-from-danger jump like every other action game on the market).
The idea is that limiting your movement ups the fear factor. It worked for the first four games just fine, but given that RE5 is in no way a horror experience, it would have made a whole lot more sense just to let us move freely.
Other horror silliness disrupts the “go-go-go” gameplay, like puzzles involving crests and chalices (which are slowly working their way out of the series) and knee-high objects that neither Chris nor Sheva can step over, forcing you to sniff out the proper path when, if it were any other gun-heavy game, we could hop right over. If you’ve made your peace with this kind of stuff, it won’t bother you at all. If you’re trying RE for the first time because of the cool-ass trailers and explodaganza screenshots, such bizarre restrictions could irritate enough to make you put the controller down and fire up a game that doesn’t insist on clutching dusty old ideas.
Next page – how co-op makes the whole thing better
Playing alone, RE5 is a great game, not an exceptional one. Fellow BSAA agent Sheva Alomar is hardly the best AI combat partner we’ve seen, and the whole game feels like it’s too scared to do anything but replicate RE4 with a fresh face. On the other hand, grab a friend to chew through the campaign together, and suddenly RE5 becomes a whole new experience, and in our eyes, the only way it should be played. Teaming up to one-two punch a chainsaw-wielding maniac or using mounted machine guns to mow down an oversized meatsack who wears bodies on his belt is exciting no matter how similar the gameplay feels or outdated the controls are.
The levels are built around two people playing together, with Sheva usually wandering off to open a door or to pull a distant switch in tandem with Chris. If a split-headed dog or an infected Majini grabs one player, the other can rush to their rescue and plant fist into bloodshot face. Similarly, when one of you dies, there’s a period of time you can be revived a la Gears of War, ready for action all over again with slightly recharged health. These ideas have all been done before, but somehow the mixture of Gears-style camaraderie with familiar RE trappings makes it seem a bit fresher than it did even in Gears 2. The same goes for the bosses, which are mostly designed in a way that both players have an active role in its destruction.
Another co-op boon is the doubling-up of sellable treasures. Any diamonds or goods you find can be sold by Chris and by Sheva, so there’s never an argument over who gets more money. It’s totally equal, enabling you both to equip your character as you like. This blessedly allows one player to be the sniper, and the other can forgo long-distance weapons and focus on machine guns or grenade launchers. In RE4, limited storage space meant you had to ignore some weapons entirely.
Above: 54 items can be stored, but only nine taken into each level
Now any weapon, no matter the size, only takes up one slot. It’s less entertaining than RE4’s Tetris-like attaché case, but makes a lot more sense in a fast-paced game meant for two people.
There are some unexpected drawbacks to the otherwise outstanding co-op. First is an RE standby that never bothered us until now – the long-winded block of text that describes, in detail, all the myriad viruses and bases Umbrella has employed over the years. Fine to read by yourself, but imagine playing with someone else, maybe someone who’s entirely engrossed with the story and really wants to read everything:
Hm, this is relevant to my interests
Ah yes, that would follow
Oh… there’s more? Very well, I like Resident Evil’s nuanced, carefully constructed storyline
Good Christ there’s more?
Keep in mind you HAVE to scroll through all the pages
You aren’t forced to read it along with the partner, but while they’re poring over every sentence they’re literally standing still, staring at a piece of paper. Should you also check it out? If you don’t care, should you progress and accidentally trigger a cutscene that interrupts their reading? It’s very disruptive and after the third or fourth ream of exposition we both agreed to ignore them and, you know, play the goddamn game.
The other setback is the fact that Sheva stops delivering helpful dialogue during co-op. Playing alone, she does a great job of pointing things out with quick quips that guide you to the next plot point; playing co-op, this dialogue doesn’t occur and you both have to figure out a lot of obscure stuff yourself. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but some areas required such specific triggers to advance we spent hours trying to deduce just what in the blazing heart of Satan we were supposed to do. Trying the same areas in single-player, the AI Sheva made quick sense of the situation.
Above: Sheva up close, with Chris in the distance pulling a switch as well
Without these prompts and no clear direction, a handful of areas are damn close to awful, and once we finished them we swore to never, ever discuss them again. Can’t recall any place in RE4 that elicited such a strong negative reaction, an effect that’s intensified when two people have to suffer instead of one. On that note, let’s hear from Mikel Reparaz, our dedicated Sheva player and professional Player Two.
Playing as Sheva isn’t fundamentally any different from playing as Chris. She can use the same weapons and items, and despite Chris’ balloon-armed physique, the two seem to be about the same where strength and speed are concerned.
The biggest difference is that you’ll always be the one who gets boosted over obstacles or across wide chasms, after which you’ll need to figure out how to clear a path for your partner. So while Chris spends a small but significant chunk of time either covering you from a distance or staring at the walls, you’ll need to wade through hordes of Majini, alone, to find the door (locked “from the other side,” naturally) that’ll let Chris in to resume your normal tag-team ass-kicking. These solo sequences are more dangerous than usual, because there’s nobody to heal you if you get mortally wounded, but they make playing as the sidekick in co-op a little more interesting.
Also, splitting up can sometimes get you out of trouble, as it did in one of the wetlands villages we explored later in the game. Here, Chris had to boost Sheva up to grab a key item from a hut on stilts, because the ladder was broken. Grabbing the item magically caused a Majini swarm to fill the village, and while Chris was stuck on the ground, Sheva had a safe place from which to snipe.
Next – Mercenaries mode and our final verdict on Resident Evil 5
Following in RE4’s footsteps, part five offers several damn good reasons to keep playing even after the credits have run their course. There’s The Mercenaries mode, which has you selecting a character and running through an area of your choice with a time limit, racking up combo kills for a high score (more or less as it was in RE4). It was supremely addicting four years ago and still retains that “just one more time” appeal, and now that your various records are (allegedly) trackable online, there’s even more incentive to squeeze every last second out of your timed assault.
Now here’s the utterly confusing bit – Mercenaries does not support online multiplayer. It has to be played split screen with someone sitting next to you. The entire campaign is co-op, so it’s correct to expect a simple shooting gallery mode would be online as well. Comparing scores on leaderboards is one thing, but we want to hook up with friends from all over, not force them into the same room. Stranger still is what the split screen actually looks like. Take a gander:
Several other 360 games offer split screen play, but none we can think of shrink the screen and present each player in an off-center window. It’s a little distracting at first and doesn’t make any sense at all, but at least it’s not horribly distracting.
Update: We have confirmed with Capcom that Mercenaries mode will be online at launch via a free downloadable patch. Also revealed are other new multiplayer modes. These additions do not affect our 9/10 score, but do remedy one of our concerns. See you online!
Then there’s the densely populated Library, which is packed with ultra-detailed, Smash Bros.-style figurines and hundreds of pages explaining every character, every virus, every company we could think of. It’s a wonderful tome of knowledge for anyone enraptured with RE’s labyrinthine story, though the presentation is dull as can be – just text on a bland, boring background.
Add in the requisite silly costumes and hidden weapons (which we dare not spoil, that’s half the fun) and there’s definitely more to do than wade through the surprisingly straightforward story. But, as we’ve alluded to throughout the review, it’s all stuff RE4 did quite well, so ultimately…
From top to bottom, RE5 is a copy of its groundbreaking predecessor. The enemies animate similarly, some of the bosses are clearly one-upped versions of RE4 favorites and the weapons are pretty much identical. Trouble is, the moments meant to pay homage to RE4 lack weight, because there’s no mystery, no suspense at all. Compare fighting the fish boss in RE4:
Above: Leon on a leaky boat, with hand-thrown spears
With the aquatic boss in RE5:
Above: Chris and Sheva on a cruiser with machine guns and rocket launchers
It’s the same general idea, but ratcheted up to high hell and stripped of surprise. There’s no spooky “why are the villagers acting this way?” atmosphere, your partner is a highly trained specialist instead of a helpless girl and the story exists only to give Chris and Sheva a reason to strap on more ammo. It’s still damn good fun, and extremely recommended for co-op, but feels like a Hollywood-ized take on the RE4 experience with a few (much appreciated) control improvements and admittedly gorgeous visuals.
Then there’s the matter of the alleged “racism” that’s followed RE5 since its African setting was revealed. Amidst all the screens and videos you may have noticed Majini enemies wearing grass skirts, brandishing tribal masks and giant spears. In-game excuse or no, they could be the subject of much discussion, far more than the images that’ve already caused a stir. If you’re dead set on pursuing this topic, consider this article on the subject.
Gears of War 2? It’s on par in overall excitement, with plenty of bloody spectacle and gleeful ways to annihilate your enemies. Neither are scary, yet are populated with nightmarish creatures that, in a proper horror setting, would have us reaching for the light switch. Multiplayer belongs to Gears though.
Dead Space? It borrowed heavily from RE4, but not as much as RE5 – Dead Space was at least filled with a few cool new ideas that made it stand as its own game. Plus it’s a lot more forgiving with aiming and attacking, unlike a certain sequel we happen to be reviewing right now (you still can’t walk while holding a knife!). These two are very close, but we can agree that Space’s solo is stronger, while RE5’s co-op makes it just a bit better.
Silent Hill Homecoming? We’re only putting this here because these two series used to be bitter rivals and comparisons are bound to be made. But it’s just not applicable anymore, as Silent Hill embraces its clumsy horror background and strives to provide a genuinely unsettling, disturbing story, while, as we’ve mentioned to death, RE5 is more like Gears with a few switch puzzles.
Resident Evil 4 taught the industry so much, and in turn we expected RE5 to at least learn from what others have since added to those accomplishments. Instead, it jams the series full of gasoline-enriched testosterone, keeps outdated inventory and control ideas and refuses to admit the franchise is now more action-adventure than survival horror. Don’t let the negatives fool you though – it’s still one of the best balls-to-the-wall co-op excursions you can buy.