Resident Evil 5 by:Sandra Prior
You've come a long way, Resident Evil. We still remember your infancy as though it were yesterday. We laughed with you - well, more at you, really - as you learned to talk, watched as you took your clumsy first steps and never for a second imagined you'd grow so much.
And now look at you, the envy of all your peers and so very easy on the eye as well. But for all your new-found strength and good looks, there's still a certain stubbornness about you that refuses to acknowledge or change those negative qualities that so many have pointed out over the years. In spite of this, though, we can't help but love you - are we just suckers for your ample charms, or are you really just that good? Hmmm...
Resident Evil 5 is a game confused. Despite a level of aesthetic splendor that puts most other games to shame, and bouts of incredibly intense action the likes of which you won't find elsewhere, Resident Evil's stars still suffer from the same curious affliction they did when the series first appeared - the inability to move and fire a gun at the same time. In the case of the first game, pre-rendered backdrops made this, as well as the clunky tank controls, almost a necessity and it has been argued before that such static shooting was also a handy tool in easily heightening tension. But in the wake of games like Dead Space, our eyes have been opened to the fact that it's wholly possible to recreate all of Resident Evil's action-packed highs without the need to cling to the anachronistic lows. But whether through habit, laziness or misguided good intentions, the often criticized control setup returns here and will no doubt be the primary bone of contention in most RE5-based discussions. But you know what? It works.
Initially, those who have been pouring hours into other action games will be hit hardest by the almost retro control scheme of Resident Evil 5. It's not a bad setup per se, rather one that just feels a touch dated and clumsy in light of the more accurate and intuitive games to hit during last Christmas' deluge. Once you accept that standing still to shoot is a design choice - no different from not being able to jump in TimeSplitters, for example - and work around it, things start to fall into place. Indeed, within an hour you'll be so engrossed in the relentless action that any issues you may once have had with the way the game controls will quickly have faded into insignificance. Archaic it may be but the move/shoot divide does still add to the stress and panic of any given situation, a slightly battered and faded badge of honor that lets you know that despite major changes in other areas, this is still very much a Resident Evil game.
Of these alterations, the most notable is the addition of a true partner character in Sheva. Where previous iterations - most notably Resident Evil Zero - have touched upon this concept, RE5 embraces it as a core mechanic and introduces a series of other new features to flesh it out accordingly. But perhaps the most striking aspect of having two main characters - once the initial shock of having someone on hand to back you up wears off, at least - is just how clearly co-op-focused everything is, especially compared to the simple character-swapping of Zero.
From the fact that the action now carries on in the background while you juggle herbs and bullets in your inventory to the way Sheva needs to be present to leave any given area, you're constantly given the impression that this is an experience designed for two. This is even more apparent in the early stages of the solo game, with the Al Sheva getting off to a particularly shaky start. She haemorrhages ammo at an alarming rate before whinging about how empty her guns are, slowly improving as the game goes on until you're fighting alongside a conservative and genuinely helpful ally.
There's just so much more potential offered by co-operative play here, not least when it comes to proper inventory management. While it's easy to load Sheva with First Aid Sprays by the dozen and use her as a healer and pack mule - she won't use any grenades or mines she carries - a second human player is far less likely to see this as a fair way to enjoy the game. Making sure you have the right equipment for each area is crucial with only nine inventory slots each to play with. Key items, for instance, no longer take up precious space in your three-by-three carryall, with keys, plates and other stock Resident Evil non-uniform door-opening instruments now simply displayed at the top of the screen when collected since you'll never be far from the point at which they need to be used.
Playing down the series' trademark puzzle elements is surely rooted in the co-op aspect of the game. While a head-scratching moment is a great way to break up action in a solo experience, complex puzzles with two people could easily get confusing, messy or just plain dull. Resident Evil 5 has its own method of ensuring a well-paced experience, offsetting the plentiful angry mobs ominous quiet moments or less-populated are as akin to Left 4 Dead. These make each mass onslaught that much more impressive and overwhelming, while also providing the expected fetch quests and gentle puzzles for the occasional lull.
But with so many enemies attacking at once for the majority of the adventure's ten-odd hours, the most terrifying sequences are those when You and Sheva must split up to achieve your collective goal. These are usually kicked off by giving the new girl a boost up to a high ledge or over a gap, and as soon as the two of you are separated you can expect to get swamped in bad guys.
More often than not, one or the other of you will have the majority of the attention, the impetus on the other being to provide support from a supposedly advantageous position. It's a system that works well enough, but you'll long for a human partner in many situations because simply being able to communicate strategies, beyond issuing basic attack and cover commands to Al, would often be extremely beneficial.
It should come as no surprise, then, that bringing in a second human player is as integral to the experience here as recruiting three other real-world survivors for a proper Left 4 Dead session. Coordinating an intelligent attack whereby you have time to line up a headshot without your partner dropping the target to its knees - usually just in time for your precious bullet to sail harmlessly by - is a delight, as is the melee combo system that only really works in multiplayer. This allows you to stun foes with well-placed shots and strikes and then, just as in Resident Evil 4, follow up with a punishing melee finisher.
The key difference here, however, is that after your finisher connects, a nearby partner can follow your blow with one of their own, which you can chain into a big finale attack if you're still in range. Against tougher enemies, this is an invaluable way of piling on the damage without expending ammo by the box load, although co-op play is the only way to pull off these fancy combos with any degree of regularity.
Another praiseworthy aspect is the difficulty level, which is constantly challenging after the brief introductory period yet never strictly unfair... well, beyond a lone aspect that again relates back to our previous statement, at least. While you are able to heal Sheva should she be overrun by the horde, each time you do so results in less opportunity to rescue her should she fall again shortly afterwards.
Capcom is clearly well aware of the challenge it has set out for prospective players - the once-treasured First Aid Sprays are now freely available to buy in what Amy of Two referred to as 'mid-mission shopping' and they're handily affordable too. Only the confident and the foolhardy will leave the menu screen without at least two or three of these on standby, especially given that the more you have on hand, the less chance there is of Sheva taking one hit too many at an inopportune moment and whisking you back to the last checkpoint. Which, as it happens, probably won't be too far away.
There's not a typewriter in sight, so with proper saves only occurring between chapters, you'll be grateful for the commendably charitable checkpoint system, which means that no mistake will cost you too heavily. This is especially important with a couple of the more menacing enemies boasting one-hit-kill attacks, something that would be undeniably broken without this system. It's still frustrating, particularly when you find yourself suddenly cornered by one such adversary, and even more so with those who are less obviously capable of fatal blows the first time they bust them out, but with an old-fashioned save system, things would invariably be a whole lot worse.
And while there's a list as long as an account of all those who died in Raccoon City of things we can't mention with regard to the story, what we can say is that the deceptively basic narrative quickly opens up to fill in some of the Resident Evil universe's greyer areas. There are expected moments of daftness littered around - particularly towards the tail end of the game - just as there always are, but the fundamental setting and its ongoing explanation will surely prove interesting to those who have been following matters since the Spencer Mansion incident.
So there's very little doubt that Resident Evil 5 is a genuinely excellent videogame. It really is just that good and is arguably Capcom's most ambitious entry into the series yet - with the Outbreak games best described as 'delusional'. The majority of criticisms will be leveled at the new co-op element, but as we've already mentioned, neither control nor Al can ultimately mar such an intense and relentless action experience. Not only are the two issues being highlighted as more serious than they really are - mainly due to the lustre of the rest of the package - but also they are easily overcome with an hour-long refresher course and the introduction of a second player respectively. So, the best Resident Evil yet? We'd say so, if only by a Whisker.
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