Resident Evil 5 – hands-on

We’ve all had that chat. You know, you’re sitting around with your mates, and you all say that you’d be safe in a zombie apocalypse, because you’re fast, strong, or good with a knife. Within a few seconds of watching Chris Redfield surrounded by a marauding pile of walking, hellish “undead”, he lived out what we all imagined we’d want to do – he rears up, grits his teeth, and pops a zombie in the face with a haymaker. Nice.

The fifth Resident Evil takes place in an as-yet unnamed African nation, with hordes of undead beating you up under a constant sheen of burning sunlight, giving the game an eerie, washed-out feel. Throughout RE5’s dark tale you’ll find the origins of the viruses that have plagued Redfield and the rest of the S.T.A.R.S. team for ten years. While this isn’t the last Resident Evil game, the return of a big name lead and the promise of some answers to old questions certainly suggest that this could be the beginning of the end for this strand of the franchise.

The cause of the virus is being left a guarded secret until the game releases next year (no spoilers here), but its effects are obvious. The term ‘zombie’ is used loosely – while these are shambling, groaning drones that have a hunger for flesh, their rotten brains haven’t quite lost their vigour, somewhere between 28 Days Later and Land of the Dead’s Big Daddy. Zombies may teeter uneasily on their tattered legs, but they also run, jump and claw, pick up huge great-axes and other implements, and can be intelligent enough to even – unbelievably – ride motorcycles. At one point in the game, Chris fights a horde of zombie bikers (the most apt use of the term ‘Hell’s Angels’ that you’ll ever see) armed with a gigantic machine-gun, shooting at both the bikers and their pals standing on atruck to the very right of Redfield’s ride. It’s an on-rails shootout, but one delivered with such an explosive thump you’ll think MGS4’s bike equivalent was a Sunday afternoon picnic.

Said biker-beating vehicle is being driven by Chris’ new ally, the pretty-faced, yet no doubt sassy Sheva Alomar, a member of the African equivalent of S.T.A.R.S., the B.S.A.A. – the same organisation that leads Chris into the fray. Luckily for those of you with friends, she goes beyond a simple damsel in distress. RE5 finally breaks the series out of one-player mode and lets you bring a friend along for the ride, making the previously lonely experience a much more rounded zombie-shooter, like the latter part of Night of the Living Dead but with a happier ending. This isn’t to say that those of you who want to play in single-player are left out to dry. Miss Alomar can be AI-controlled, and even then, if you meet someone who has RE5, they’re able to drop in no matter how far you are in the game.

It’s a good thing, too, because the Resident Evil 5 universe is far more hostile and frantic than anything the series has shown us yet. While the hordes in Resident Evil 4 were scary, they had a tendency to feel linear, while RE5 has made an effort to be more open-plan. You’ll be holed up in a ruined building, shooting bullets through the windows and crossing your fingers that you’ve got enough ammo to silence the thrall, when you see the door thump open and four of the bastards trundle over the threshold, eagerly leading the rest of their mates in for an impromptu flesh-barbeque.

While we hesitate to get techy, the physics engine that Capcom is employing adds a great deal to that ‘oh crap’ atmosphere. Just after the door splits open in the room we were trapped in, a gigantic hooded humanoid beats down the wall with an axe – somewhere, Boris Johnson sheds a tear. This guy vaults with frightening speed at our onscreen Chris Redfield and Sheva, and his axe smashes anything it comes in contact with. This can be anywhere from the melons left on a table, to the weak shanty-town decor, to the malleable skulls of the walking dead, and while it may be a dangerous tactic, we were able to egg the vicious brute into chopping apart his own kind. Be careful, though – he’s able to end either character’s life in a single blow.

Running away from him and his party crowd of skin-eaters is a lot easier, thanks to the more open-plan feel of the levels. The African terrain is very different from the stony corridors, mansions, cityscapes and villages, full of makeshift housing, old caravans and concrete buildings to leap across, with the way sometimes up rather than through a predictably placed corridor. This faux-open world – it’s still somewhat linear – makes the experience far more horrifying than before, with the reassuringly noticeable path not quite so obvious amid the flock of angry cannibals chasing you. It only makes matters worse when Mr. Axe decides to break down a potential hiding spot with one swing of his weapon, narrowly missing your head.

He’s nigh-on invincible, shrugging off an exploding oil-drum, a forceful mouthful of buckshot, and even a grenade as he rampages towards Redfield and Company. Luckily, his gigantic axe means that you’re able to escape to the rooftops, albeit followed by the remarkably intelligent zombies who climb after you. The engine has also been adapted for these unfortunates, as anywhere you shoot reacts realistically. A shotgun shell will erupt through a zombie’s skull (which opens up like a weird plant), and a bullet will send them tumbling backwards, possibly knocking a bottle out of the hand of one of their friends, or even into the path of the aforementioned axe-maniac.

One worrying problem is that the game still feels a little awkward. It lacks the smoothness of its peers, and while the cover-system is present, it better be slickened up a fair bit before release. This also very much ‘feels’ like Resident Evil 4 – the same over-the-shoulder camera, the same slightly wonky animations, the same godawful voice-acting and over-drama. One of the new lead villains screeches from his yacht: “Splendid timing, yous two are just in time for the firework show!” in a strange, half-Brooklynite accent, and we can’t help but cringe.

Regardless, we’ve all forgiven Capcom their dramatic transgressions for nearly 12 years now, and while we wish they’d grow up, we’re still excited about the chilling goriness that Resident Evil 5 is promising to deliver later this year.

Sep 5, 2008