I can’t confess to have played every Resident Evil game in the world, but I’ve certainly played my way through my fair share of them. And I suspect I wasn’t alone in missing one or two out along the way, until Resident Evil 4 came along and gave the whole series – and genre – a substantial shot in the arm. It’s the overhaul and reboot that Capcom managed with Res 4 that’s one of the primary reasons why game five in the series (okay, it’s clearly not game five, once you factor in Code Veronica, Survivor etc, but you get the idea) is one of the most eagerly awaited titles of the year.
And it’s got a lot to live up to. Resident Evil 4 wasn’t just a massive overhaul of the franchise, it was a major shot in the arm for the survival horror genre, and flat out one of the best games of recent years. Resident Evil 5 isn’t any of these things, but it does contentedly stand on the shoulders of its predecessor, injecting better graphics (and that’s an understatement) and a shovel-load of extra gore. What it doesn’t do, though, is deliver anywhere close to a better game.
This time round, you’re in control of series regular Chris Redfield as things kick off, and the action has moved to Africa. Even the broad daylight of a dirt village can creep you out, we quickly learn, as with bright sunshine comes vast, dark shadows. But once in a while you will always no doubt find yourself in the gloom of mountain mines, and even shallow alligator-infested waters come with their own eerie qualities. It straddles, successfully, looking beautiful yet grimy at the same time. And it can still creep you out, seemingly effortlessly.
You are ably assisted by a female counterpart, Sheva Alomar, who works well for the most part, although from time to time you need to help her out of a fix. She still works out more value than not, but she’s not without AI quibbles. She’ll happily stand there shooting away, but rooted to the spot, leaving you both exposed. A further example is a mine sequence, which finds you holding a torch whilst she is meant to be doing the shooting.
This can be very fiddly when your partner is on a coffee break, meaning you have to fly through your inventory to get a gun out to protect yourself. Sadly, when changing items you are holding (and thus fiddling around with the inventory) takes time, but the game continues around you. That can be frustrating when the only reason you’re having to mess around anyway is because your AI partner is letting you down.
The game utilises the similar over-the-shoulder perspective, which presents the odd camera problem, and thus Resident Evil 5 does reward taking some time to get used to the controls, which will be familiar anyway to veterans of the franchise. As will the fact that it’s not too long before all hell breaks loose. And this is one of the plus sides of the game: it doesn’t waste time getting started. This may make the story and characters suffer a little at first, but tension is pretty much constant, and it does build things up well.
I do have a problem with boss battles, though. There are moments, though, when the bigger and badder beasties (or level bosses) appear that you think perhaps it’s taking flights of fantasy a little too far. It isn’t so much zombies, as parallel dimensional monsters that look like they belong in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Sometimes fighting a monster over 20 times the size of you can be a bit much, although it has clear advantages as a spectacle. Obviously, being end of level boss characters they each come with only a certain way you can destroy them, which needs to be figured out quick before you become people pate. These battles also take place in a select arena before you can move on.
If you are a fan of these types of scenarios then RE5 has plenty of them. But surely we must be approaching a digital age when these types of battles can be written in such a way as to expand them into the game map as a whole? It’s frustrating that there are still some constraints here, and expanding out the geography of boss battles is an evolution surely waiting to happen.
Quibbles aside, though, and Resident Evil 5 is a fine game, even if it’s living in the shadows of its forerunner. It’s got a few rug pulls, but little in the way of genuine surprise, but at its worst, it’s still very good.
Hardcore audiences shouldn’t be saddened by this venture, nor should they be surprised, though. It’s best viewed as simply the next fix, rather than any kind of reinvention. It’s good in solo mode, enjoyable in co-op too, but we can’t see people coming back to it again and again in the same way they have with Resident Evil 4.
Resident Evil 5 is still a strong game, and one of the best of 2009 thus far. After a nigh-on four year wait, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have expected a little more, but Capcom’s premier survival horror franchise is still in fine shape, and RE5 does enough to make RE6 something to still salivate over.