2009 is already shaping up to be a big year for Capcom; it's a year full of remakes, sequels and fresh ideas: First off was the return-to-its-roots Street Fighter IV, and now it's the return of Chris Redfield in Resident Evil 5. Though the hype prior to RE5's release was more about its social themes, its reception now turns to how it plays. As the series' premier on the current generation's hardware, it's evident there has been a lot of work put into eeking out as many polygons as possible, to make for gorgeous, albeit monstrous, eye-candy. However, the jump to 720p isn't the only noticeable change for the series, as new tweaks to gameplay make, and will for some, break, the overall experience.
For the life-long Resident Evil fan, Chris' appearance in the fictional, autonomous African nation of Kijuju marks the continuation of a story that's nearly a decade old, and unfinished. With the Umbrella Corporation destroyed, leaving more than just Raccoon City reeling in the wake of its zombie-creating virus, Redfield has taken on a role as part of a global police force setup to stop biological attacks, the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA). With a new outbreak of a stronger strain in the small African nation, Chris and the BSAA have the assignment of tracking down the origins of Umbrella's virus. To help you in the country is Sheva (pronounced Che-va) Alomar, and while Chris' mission is to investigate the outbreak, he makes it clear that he has a personal stake in the matter—finding out what happened to his former partner, Jill Valentine.
Though Chris' is no stranger to the virus at hand, it's easy to catch up on all of the references made throughout the game of events past, as well as become interested and engrossed in the present story as it unfolds. For those new to the series, much of the first half of the game might feel inaccessible, but as you play through the six chapters, everything begins to make sense. For what's a long-running franchise, RE5 does well at not creating a convoluted story; it's done not through vain or paltry attempts at forcing a gluttony of backstory into a brief prologue, but with a tasteful reliance on interactive scenes as well as journals, letters and other documents strewn throughout the game.
Creating such a digestible story element is only made easier by stellar animation and visuals, which do superbly in expressing subtle emotions and nuanced reactions. Also, except for a few hiccups in transitioning between outcomes of either accomplishing or failing at quick-time events during cutscenes, for a game that handles these portions in-engine, and pulls them off with detailed textures and precise movements (including lip-sync), they're a great feat. True, RE5 does have its fair share of drops in framerate, but these instances usually occurred usually during non-interactive sections, and were hardly a nuisance during our sessions.
What might be the deal-breaker, however, is the gradual transition of the game, and thus series, from survival-horror to stand-and-shoot action adventure. An over-the-shoulder, movement-friendly perspective complements the now plentiful amount of ammunition available through most of the game—though, take this as a tip, you might want to stockpile some extra bullets for the latter stages—along with successively powerful, upgradeable weaponry, just as other contemporary adventure titles. Unfortunately, all the scare of the series seems to have been replaced in favor of killing-motorcycle-riding-zombie action.
Yes, dark hallways, abandoned houses and “Watch out!” moments may be clichéd, but nothing about this Resident Evil breeds fear, despite what the back of the box says. Suspense does build as lumbering giant scythe or ripping chainsaw-wielding zombies march on you, but once the lurkers swap knife for handgun, start to take cover and shoot back at you, things begin to feel generic—it's just that you're shooting at infected people instead of your everyday henchman.
Boss battles on the hand, is where the gunplay shines, and outdoes others in its quasi genre. Each encounter has something different to offer in terms of a puzzle. There are still moments where the shiny thing is obviously the weak spot of an enemy, but uncovering such a weakness takes some tactical maneuvering and teamwork, as well as a fair bit of trial and error. Though, if you think things get stale after you figure the puzzles out, try them again on a harder setting—yeah. Essentially, offered here is a great take of the classic boss encounter formula.
There are a few other, more traditional puzzle sections, though they're nothing as laudable as luring a ghastly B.O.W into an incineration chamber, instead of bombard it with a rain of bullets. And dispatching these enigmas really boils down to teamwork, and although the friendly AI does okay in getting the job done, it ends up feeling like an overly clingy golden retriever, with saddle bags: it finds hidden goodies and holds on to your essentials, but gets in your way when you're trying to get work done. This is where the drop-in and out cooperative play comes in use. Having a competent, human partner to help you along the way is definitely welcomed in this horror-turned-action title.
At least for the PS3 version, co-op is relatively painless as you search for open games online, or play splitscreen—yes, it still exists! Those hosting a joinable game, however, may find it a bit annoying as they either have to hope the other person waits for them to reach a new checkpoint, or reverts to an old one; either way, it requires a pause, followed by a bout of item management, just to continue on with a friend or stranger. Also, the obvious omission of in-game voice chat (substituted by simple commands and responses shouted by your character via the circle button) can make deathtraps a multi-trial affair—that is if either player has the patience to stick with each other. There is the option to always create a chat channel, but, again, it's another pause in the action, and if you play with multiple people in a single session, you're looking at a measurable amount of lost time.
Multiplayer action also finds its way into the unlockable Mercenaries scenarios, which puts you and another partner, or AI, (or just yourself) in one of several different locales, staving off hordes of area-specific enemies in survival-type gameplay as a character with preloaded equipment. The idea here is, though the clock counts down to your rescue, you want to find bonuses that add time and multipliers so you can kill more zombies and rack in a higher leaderboard ranking. It may seem like a tack-on, and the whole zombie survival thing may feel a bit exhausted at this point, but interesting traps in the levels and the pursuit of additional, unlockable characters makes for necessary and addicting teamwork.
It isn't all praise for Resident Evil 5, however. For a game that seems to have gone the way of Tomb Raider or the more recent Uncharted, focusing more on gun fights and finding treasures—by the way, there's a full chapter that puts you in an underground city, complete with shimmering jewels and chests of gold—it seems like the action has outpaced the dated controls. Standing in a spot and lining up a shot was all well and good, if not the only way to get things done, on the Playstation, but with dual analog sticks and gun-toting zombies, it's a pain to shoot, run, shoot, run, and repeat. Ironically, this lack of fluidity keeps the game from fully committing to the action genre, so it seemingly boils down to a stubbornness to keep the game in the vein of its predecessors.
Despite its outdated control scheme, its ambiguity of being either survival game or action thriller, and the abandonment of all things scary, Resident Evil 4's true sequel is a completely satisfying experience. An intriguing story, matched by convincing visuals (save for some light issues) and audio accouterments, as well as loads of replayability found not only from the Mercenaries mode and the upcoming expansion, but the availability to unlock additional content and upgrade equipment, makes for a game worthy of its hype—the kind about how it plays, not what it might or might not characterize about controversial themes.