Resident Evil 5 Review--
To say Resident Evil 5 is arriving under a cloud of anticipation would be the understatement of the year. 2005’s Resident Evil 4 was nothing short of a revelation (and received X-Play’s Game of the Year) in how it took a series that was getting seriously long in the tooth and reinvented it wholesale without making it entirely unrecognizable from it’s predecessors. Four years have passed since its release and in that time the quality, ambition, and innovation in videogames has accelerated at an astonishing rate making the formula that Resident Evil 4 brought to the table less impressive by contemporary standards. Unfortunately, not enough has changed with RE5, in all level of its design, to help it keep pace with the new standards in gaming.
Resident Evil 5 returns somewhat to the main storyline, abandoned since Resident Evil 0, with Chris Redfield on the hunt for bioterrorism in a fictional African country. As luck would have it in these games he stumbles upon a plot that involves a virus similar to the Las Plagas nastiness of Resident Evil 4. From here the game devolves into a pursuit of various characters and “the truth” behind the experiments that are the backbone of the Resident Evil storyline. While it begins with promise to wrap up the lingering details with the operatic pomp of Metal Gear Solid 4, RE5’s narrative quickly turns clumsy and slapdash. Secrets that are reveled are so blatantly telegraphed from the outset that they lack punch, and the thrust of the narrative is so adolescently linear and told through such embarrassing dialogue that any resonance that was hoped for at the end of a thirteen-year story arc are lost forever in the mess. While storytelling has never been the hallmark of the Resident Evil series it’s unacceptable that what’s in the game is holding to some time-honored tradition.
… Like in A Fiddler on the Roof
Regrettably, tradition plays yet another role in RE5’s flaws. The control scheme mirrors that of RE4 which was an improvement for the series back then but comes across as an unfortunate anachronism wholly unjustified by the game in 2009. Chris Redfield and his co-op partner Sheva once again move with plodding sluggishness that is only partially relieved by running and still cannot move while shooting. Rotating the character to aim or just see what’s happening is equally slow and the quick 180-degree turns so frequently discombobulate your perspective that the aggregate effect of the controls neuters the satisfaction of combat. This is not to say that the controls render the game unplayable, but it is baffling to figure out how the experience is enhanced by what comes across as arbitrary impediments to gameplay that only serve to heighten the tension by virtue of the frustration incurred. RE5 is, first and foremost an action game, what little puzzles elements that characterized the series before are few and inconsequential, with that in mind, the decision to disregard the gameplay standards in third person action games over the past five years seems nothing short of myopic given the numerous gamers brought into the fold during this generation who will undoubtedly find themselves hamstrung by the controls.
Curiously the game itself doesn’t seem to accept its own control scheme. Quicktime events appear frequently during combat offering melee attacks and during boss battles for dodge rolls. It seems like a cop-out to include these options at the whim of the game rather than organically incorporate them into the control scheme, they’re clearly deemed useful to survival in the game or they wouldn’t need to be included. The dodge roll in particular would alleviate the awkwardness of the quick-turn.
Another instance of the controls and the game seeming out of sync is the inventory system. Unlike previous Resident Evil games, opening your inventory occurs in real-time, it does not pause the game. Nonetheless the inventory is as cumbersome to navigate as in previous installments with each item having up to five different uses. Thankfully a quick select is made available for four items tied to the d-pad, but each character only has nine slots available overall, making each slot woefully significant. Between the challenge presented by the controls in combat and the difficulty navigating the inventory in an efficient amount of time accessing those five other slots in combat can prove to be yet another unnecessary burden.
Brain-Fed Zombies and Brainless Sidekicks
In a nod to other games, RE5 allows the player to take cover, which becomes essential in the latter section of the game as the zombified enemies have guns (yup!). Although, once again, this attempt to accommodate contemporary game design is hampered by the game’s fidelity to its control scheme, once in cover you cannot move in cover nor can you alternate your viewpoint from right to left and must leave cover, move, and take cover again to improve your vantage point.
These instances when the game’s design and control come in conflict with one another pale in comparison to the experience of playing the game in single player, with the co-op character Sheva being controlled by A.I. The concept clearly is that the challenges presented by the controls and the more 360-degree nature of the combat are alleviated by having another character that can flank enemies and offer assistance. While that doesn’t excuse the control scheme, it would make it acceptable if Sheva was reliable when being controlled by the computer. She isn’t. As Chris Redfield you can offer up two commands “Attack” and “Cover.” In “cover” Sheva stays close to you and conserves ammo, primarily by leaning on her weakest armament. In “attack” Sheva will more aggressively go after the enemies and default to stronger weapons. Problem is in “attack” she unloads all her ammo indiscriminately without judging or prioritizing the enemies at hand, in addition she exercises a fearlessness that results in many deaths, which forces a restart to the section, whether nor not you are still alive. Typically you’ll want to have Sheva near you, with weapons you do not intend on using and the majority of the health (she is good at healing you at the right time), as you take on the lion’s share of the death dealing.
It’s perfectly fine to play the game with this strategy, but the game is designed for two efficient players. Several set pieces, especially the boss battles clearly are laid out for strategies where both characters attack the problem from different angles, the workaround approaches to accommodate the A.I.’s limitations leaden the experience and only heighten the frustrations with the game’s decision on the controls and inventory. The survival horror motif, as established in the Resident Evil series, has always been about enduring with limited supplies. Playing RE5 alone, the limitations seem to be the game itself as it continuously gets in the way of an enjoyable experience.
Playing co-op is a different story, as the game opens up dynamic approaches to its challenges and the frustrations are fewer and further between. Playing co-op actually feels like a different game with the levels opening up new opportunities to experiment with play styles that had no easy application in single player. Perhaps the greatest surprise is the split-screen mode which doesn’t follow the traditional 50/50 split but instead doesn’t use the entire real estate of the screen in favor of maintaining the correct screen proportions in both halves. It works amazingly well; in fact it sometimes works better than online as RE5 is well suited to strategizing with someone right next to you rather than over a headset. Either way, co-op is the way the game should be played, although its rather long running time does require a good commitment from a friend.
While RE5 is far more accessible in co-op one thing it doesn’t fix is the uneven nature of the game’s design. There are some great sections in the beginning of the game, in particular the coastal shantytown at the beginning and the “native village” a little further in. Both of these sequences are fraught with a compelling atmosphere; that of a society in collapse and a dank foggy swampland, and both stand out as fresh and new. The rest of the game is nowhere near as compelling with overused locales of laboratories, a cargo ship, and a temple that seems more appropriate to Tomb Raider thanResident Evil. Moreover the scenarios also becomes increasingly contrived with conveyer belts, lever puzzles, and the odd decision to give the infected enemies guns and grenades, reducing the game to a strange and unsatisfying derivation of Gears and multiple other third-person shooter. As is traditional with the series the Boss Battles are standouts although the latter third of the game has a few that left me scratching my head as to their logic and design. While RE4 did eventually drag on, there was a sense of consistency and invention that propelled the game, here many of the elements feel piled on without much care or enthusiasm.
History and Context
One more matter does need to be addressed. Ever since the first trailer, there has been concern aboutRE5’s portrayal of Africans. Frustratingly the majority of the thinking has been a zero-sum debate as to whether the game is racist or not, as if those are the only two labels that can be applied. Let me be clear, the game is not racist, insofar as it in no way attempts to advance an agenda of one group’s superiority over another. Nonetheless the game does traffic in some truly loaded images, the most blatant of which are the residents of the native village who are adorned in grass skirts, tribal masks, and spears; images that held much currency through the centuries of colonial rule and were used to justify the imperialism vis-a-vis this “otherness.” In addition, the allusions to Mogadishu in the beginning and an enemy who is meant to evoke African strongmen dictators like Idi Amin also serve to provoke more contemporary anxieties through their exoticism. These caricatures are not being utilized in RE5 to reconsider their significance or re-evaluate our seduction to their implications but are merely vehicles for our entertainment by virtue of their exoticization. For me, the use of these images feels careless and exploitative and casts pallor over what is nothing more than escapist entertainment, were they not employed, they would not have been missed.
Resident Evil - Degeneration
Alright this review has been decidedly cranky-pants so it is worth reiterating that the game has its high points, especially the astonishing visuals and the effectiveness of co-op play. Resident Evil 5 is mired in poor design decisions that drag down the experience and render single-player campaign a tedious exercise in working around the game. It’s frustrating to see a game that I so looked forward to playing and carried with it such potential, sabotage itself in so many ways. Compared against the ambition of games like Bioshock, Mass Effect, and Assassin’s Creed; Resident Evil 5 seems timid, unwilling to move out of its comfort zone. It’s a shame.