IGN Review of Resident Evil 5
Change can be a painful process. Just ask one of the unfortunate citizens of Kijuju, the fictional region of Africa that serves as the setting of Resident Evil 5, the latest entry in Capcom's ongoing zombie videogame saga. A power-mad corporation's evolutionary manipulations have caused a biological disaster that turns people into mindless hosts for a military-grade parasitic infection. And you thought the Bird Flu was nasty.
The citizens of Kijuju are going through some ugly changes, many of which involve tentacles, oozing eyeballs and heretofore unexplored bloodlust. And, as is the custom in a Resident Evil game, you drop into the situation woefully underprepared for what awaits. The resulting experience is an intense, action-packed adventure replete with satisfying combat, tight gameplay and gorgeous, well-crafted environments. Resident Evil 5 offers all those things and then some, but it doesn't do many of the things longtime fans of the series expect. It won't scare you. It won't fill you with creeping desperation. It won't have you collecting and counting bullets like they're precious stones. It won't, in essence, make you feel like you're playing a traditional Resident Evil game.
Like the story it's trying to tell, Resident Evil 5 is all about evolution. Capcom has gone out on a limb with the latest numbered sequel in its long-running survival horror franchise, and although one of your goals as a player is to survive the horrors around you, this entry in the series is a radical departure from the genre Capcom helped create near Raccoon City more than a decade ago.
You'll start out the game as Chris Redfield, who fans will remember as one of the co-stars of the original Resident Evil. But Chris is no lone wolf. Joining him on his mission is Sheva Alomar, an African national and bioweapons expert. Both Chris and Sheva are members of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance, a global outfit tasked with preventing the proliferation of "biological organic weapons."
And to date, the group has done a pretty poor job of it. From the incident at the Arklay Mansion (RE1) to the outbreak in Raccoon City (RE2) and the Las Plagas infestation in Spain (RE4), the B.S.A.A. and its predecessors such as the S.T.A.R.S. team have been one step behind the Umbrella Corporation and its mysterious backers. When we last left the story of Chris Redfield in Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles, he and fellow former S.T.A.R.S. member Jill Valentine were battling through Umbrella's Russian base. So why isn't Jill at Chris's side in RE5? It's a good question, and one you'll have to play the game to answer.
This time around, it's Sheva who has Chris's back, and she'll be with you every step of the way, whether you go it alone or recruit a friend to play along. On your first playthrough you're stuck with the beefy Chris, whose bulging biceps and gigantic torso make Street Fighter IV's Ken look like a stick figure. Once you complete the game, you unlock the ability to play single-player as the more compact Sheva, who can handle herself and just about everything else.
There are several scenes in RE5 where the more acrobatic Sheva will need to part ways with Chris to reach hard-to-access areas. It's a cool nod to the co-op nature of the game, but I felt Capcom could have gone farther with the concept. There are no moments when you truly feel separated from your partner, which could have upped the fear factor significantly. Part of the horror of past RE games lay in the cramped isolation of knowing you were all alone in a dark corridor. But here, you're never truly on your own, as Sheva is always at your side.
When Sheva is controlled by the game, she does a pretty fair job of staying out of your line of fire, watching your back for enemies and healing or reviving you when you take damage. But just like any partner, she does have her annoyances. In RE5, as in other games in the series, each character is limited to a set number of inventory slots, and making the best use of that space is one of the keys to doing well in the game. In single-player mode, you have access to both characters' inventories, and you can swap items back and forth between them as you see fit.
But Sheva likely doesn't have quite the same fanatical approach to ammo and health conservation that you do. She's a bit trigger happy, even when her targets aren't perfectly presented, and she tends to heal herself and Chris at the slightest sign of a flesh wound. But beyond that, I found her to be at the same time both refreshingly unobtrusive and surprisingly intelligent, as A.I. partners go. Some players will hand her a few weapons and let her loose on Kijuju, while others will likely restrict her inventory and use her as more of a pack mule.
If you're a hardcore fan of the previous Resident Evil games, you probably just shuddered at the thought of you're A.I. partner wantonly wasting ammo, which was notoriously scarce in earlier installments in the survival horror franchise. But to understand how the gameplay in RE5 is set up, you'll need to forget just about everything you know about the series.
Sure, there are parasite infected zombie-like enemies who want to kill you in Resident Evil 5, a situation that will be instantly familiar to fans. And there are some other through-lines as well. You can't run and shoot at the same time. Your inventory is limited. You can heal yourself by collecting and applying colored herbs. Weapons are upgradable. But there are also some looming differences.
For the first time in one of Resident Evil's main numbered releases, cooperative play has been made the cornerstone of the experience. Nearly every aspect of RE5 is more fun with a friend, either online or via split-screen, which is available in both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions. Just fire up a second controller, hit the Start button and join in. The game doesn't do a very good job of telling you how do accomplish this, but it's there nonetheless.
Split-screen play is handled a bit differently in RE5 than you might be used to. Rather than cut the screen evenly vertically or horizontally, Capcom has given each player an equal size horizontal offset rectangle, one on the upper left and one on the lower right of the screen. It's an odd effect at first, but the more I used it the more I liked it. Although there's less screen real estate in use, it's easier to stay focused on your own character because the two screens don't directly abut one another.
But most gamers will be playing Resident Evil 5's co-op mode as it was designed to be played: online. This is where RE5 truly shines, both literally and figuratively. With the screen all to yourself, you'll marvel at the beautifully rendered environments, from the dilapidated villages surrounded by golden sand to misty wetlands populated by shield-wielding tribesmen. And Capcom has included some major incentives to drink in your surroundings.
Scattered throughout the environments in RE5's six chapters are "treasures" that can be collected and sold for cash (some are also dropped by bosses and mini-bosses). You'll also want to be on the lookout for the B.S.A.A. emblems hidden here and there. Each one you find and shoot gives you points that you can later spend to unlock 3D models of the various RE5 characters. The detailed figurines are presented on pedestals like the vending machine capsule toys popular in Japan. It's a cool touch and just one of the many unlockable features that add to Resident Evil 5's high replay value.
One of the best rewards in Resident Evil 5 is the bonus of unlimited ammunition for fully upgrading a weapon over the course of the campaign. That's right, upgradable weapons are back, and they're a blast (see what I did there?) to use. There are shotguns, handguns, magnums, sniper rifles, grenade launchers machine guns and more at your disposal, and most of them can be upgraded into destructive beasts. And unlike Resident Evil 4, you don't have to wait for a wandering merchant to beef up your boomsticks. Just head to the inventory screen between levels and cash in your treasures or spend the gold you've picked up along the way.
There's been a fair amount of media discussion around the question of whether Resident Evil 5 has racist overtones due to its African setting and the fact that the main character (at least on the first playthrough) is a white man shooting black people in their native land. I personally didn't find Resident Evil 5 to have an overtly racist feel, but I did find one aspect of it a bit disturbing. It was a bit strange to realize I was wandering around Africa stealing the region's gold, precious gems and expensive native treasures, which I then cashed in to pay for weapon upgrades. Add in the fact that I ended up killing the parasitically infected villagers and townspeople of the area with said weapons, and the discomfort comes full circle.
But I long ago lost count of the number if videogames I've played whose in-game economies, storylines and character motivations made absolutely no sense. And I suppose the people of Kijuju won't be needing their treasures anymore anyway, seeing as they've all been infected with a parasite and then killed by me. Consider it money well spent on ridiculously powerful weapons.
If you play your cards right, you can finish the game with, say, a fully upgraded shotgun and then plow back through in the New Game+ mode with infinite shells. There are very few games that I've finished and then instantly fired up again for another go-round. Resident Evil 5 is one of those games. If you plow through without scouring every nook and cranny, expect RE5 to last you between 10 and 12 hours. But if you want to uncover everything, expect to easily invest double that. And even if you managed to find every treasure, every emblem and every secret the first time around, you'll still want to dive back into the game for the Mercenaries mode, which is unlocked when you complete the game. This timed arcade-like mode pits you against a flood of enemies, and you'll need to kill as many of them as possible until help arrives.
Mercenaries is the most edge-of-your-seat experience in the entire game, and the only time I truly felt scared of death at the hands of the infected horde. You can't bring your massive arsenal of upgraded weapons into the arena, and you'll need to scrounge for ammo and health just to stay in the game. In fact, Mercenaries was the only place where I actually actively avoided enemies rather than methodically hunting every last one down. My only complaint about Mercenaries is that it doesn't support co-op online play, which is a major disappointment. For a game so heavy on online co-op, this seems like a crazy exclusion. But despite that restriction, Mercenaries is a blast, and it is the part of RE5 that's most like the earlier games in the series, which emphasize caution, planning and conservation over running and gunning.
Actually, I should probably revise that to "running and then gunning." With RE5, Capcom has essentially created an action game with some of the Resident Evil survival horror conventions laid over it. One of those conventions is the restriction of movement while shooting. Unlike a third-person shooter like Gears of War, which allows you to strafe and fire, Resident Evil 5 requires you to stand still while shooting.
It was a deliberate choice, and producer Jun Takeuchi has said he feels it adds to the intensity of the experience. This, along with the real-time inventory system (which is always restricted to nine slots and can't be upgraded) keeps RE5 in a sort of limbo between full-fledged action game and methodical survival horror game. I didn't mind the control style (which you can switch up with alternate layouts if you choose), but it does feel a bit outdated. Basically, if you played the demo and didn't enjoy the experience, then you won't like RE5, because what you see is what you're getting.
And what's amazing about that is just how successful Resident Evil 5 is as a game, despite its seeming reluctance to commit to one genre or the other. The levels are laid out and paced well, the weapons are balanced nicely and I never got bored moving from one infested area to the next. Past Resident Evil games pushed you along with fear and instinct, forcing you to move from one area to the next to stay alive. RE5 pulls you ahead, enticing you toward a clear objective with the promise of more killing.
The combat is truly the focus here, and the fight is at its best when you're tackling the baddies with a buddy. In addition to using the standard weapons and explosives, you're encouraged to get up close and personal with melee attacks, which are triggered via context-sensitive face button presses. Popping an enemy with one or two handgun shots will usually cause them to stagger a bit, which opens them up for a melee strike. Get in close, and a button icon will pop up. Hit it in time, and you'll pull off a flashy move like an uppercut, somersault kick or impaling stab. For the most part, these work smoothly, although there were times when I felt the game wasn't recognizing the opportunity for a melee attack as quickly as I would have liked.
The A.I. does a good job of recognizing when melee attacks are both advisable and effective, but you'll get the most bang for your buck when you're playing online. It's quite satisfying to work as a team to pull off impressive weapon-and-melee combos, and this teamwork approach carries over to the boss battles, too. Like every aspect of RE5, the bosses and mini-bosses (including the dreaded Chainsaw Majini) are best tackled with a partner.
Many of the boss battles involve quick-time events that require you to alternate between firing your weapons at an enemy and quickly pressing buttons at a specified time. Some of these mega-fights, like the one with the giant troll-like creature who wears a belt of dead people, are a real adrenaline rush. Others, like an early fight with a monster that needs to be burned in an incinerator, are more of an ode to past RE games where beating a boss was often equal parts puzzle solving and shooting.
Putting down a big boss rewards you with a bit of the RE5 storyline, which follows Chris and Sheva as they attempt to stop a suspected weapons deal being spearheaded by an unsavory fellow named Ricardo Irving. This gem of a character boasts some of the worst voice acting I've heard in a game in years, with the writing to back it up. Irving looks like a reject from a Miami Vice episode and talks like Jimmy Durante and Gilbert Gottfried's love child. But would it really be a Resident Evil game without the convoluted storyline, overflowing cliches and campy writing?
I can definitely report that silly storytelling and B-movie bad guys are a Resident Evil convention that Capcom left untouched with this release. As one character is rapidly evolving from a human into a hideous aquatic tentacle monster, he screams with glee, "I just had an extreme makeover!" Classic.
In some ways, Resident Evil 5 is more like the many motion pictures spawned by the earlier videogames in the series than those early games themselves. There's more action, more adventure, more explosions, more vehicles and overall more of an over-the-top thrill-ride feel. It's Black Hawk Down meets Resident Evil: Apocalypse instead of Resident Evil 4 continued. That's not a negative, but it's definitely a departure. And whether or not it sounds like a romping good time or the death of everything you know and love depends on your perspective. For my money, fun is fun, and RE5 has near infinite ammo in that department.
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