Resident Evil 5 Impressions: Neck-deep in Kijuju

I'm finding it hard to talk about Resident Evil 5, in the same way that one would have a hard time talking about the kid that dropped out of school. I had such hopes.

My love for Resident Evil 4 is no secret. It was a rare late-in-the-series sequel that redefined the franchise without reshaping it, keeping the concept intact while upping the action and atmosphere. It was fundamentally well-designed, with brilliant mechanics and stages, and an unusual amount of memorable gaming sequences.

Going into the anticipated "next-gen" sequel, I didn't expect, or even necessarily want, Capcom to attempt to top its most recent masterpiece. Instead, I figured I'd be happy with similar mechanics, the addition of co-op, and a few surprises.

Unfortunately, the real surprise was my disappointment.

Who's The Boss?
I wasn't playing Resident Evil 5 to hunt for racism. I don't particularly care how silly the story is. I didn't want to criticize its controls--which I am partial to, in fact.

What I wanted to know was whether it had the same sorts of memorable moments that Resident Evil 4 did. Would I get the same thrill that I did from the brilliant, chaotic opening? Would there be anything to compare to the Night of the Living Dead, holed-up-in-a-house sequences? Or the wonderfully-staged boss fights?

Well, Resident Evil 5 does have those moments in its first three chapters. The problem is that they are clearly those moments--and beyond the obvious, derivative nature of them, Capcom has actually managed to make them worse.

The easiest way of singling out the differences is by looking at the boss fights, and the best example is a boss encountered halfway through the second chapter. After escaping across the African desert in a jeep, using a turret to shoot zombie motorcyclists, I was reintroduced to the infamous ogre-like El Gigante creature from Resident Evil 4. This time he had a new hairstyle. BOOM video 1303

The first battle with El Gigante in Resident Evil 4 was fought on the ground, with only a few wooden huts to provide cover. Like most great boss fights it was intimidating as hell, which made it all the more meaningful when you were standing over the thing's corpse.

In Resident Evil 5, you fight El Gigante using a turret mounted to the back of a stationary jeep. You point the cursor at his eye, hold down the trigger, and repeat. Occasionally you have to duck one of his attacks in a Quick Time Event.

Why El Gigante doesn't just kick over the jeep and instantly flatten your stationary ass is beside the point. The fight itself is just plain boring, and it's not the only one. Capcom has taken its cues from Resident Evil 4, but the underlying design feels less sharp across the board.

The chainsaw bosses are back, but this time they pause before attacking you, eliminating the scary abruptness of their decapitations. There's an unimaginative monster of a boss that you have to chase around a circular path in broad daylight--too easy and typical of a fight to be tense in the least. There's another giant, water-bound boss, but its design is not nearly as effective as the giant alligator from RE4. And it's fought from--wait for it--a turret.

Turn The Bird Crank
Singling out the boss fights is the easiest way of illustrating my disappointment, but that's not my only beef with Resident Evil 5.

Gone is the captivating atmosphere, the gritty setting that was RE4's Spanish backwoods. In its place is a bright, dusty and ultimately dull version of Africa, with a scorching sun that eliminates any chance of spookiness.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_
In fact, the first three chapters of Resident Evil 5 take place almost entirely in the daytime, with only a few dark clouds dotting the sky at times. There's nothing scary, or even remotely creepy, found in the game's level design. African tribal huts and a basic oil refinery amount to the most exotic locations. A boat sequence through a murky marshland, zombies shooting away at you from the shore, was mostly tedious. Rather than a cute homage, the appearance of more big alligators was another reminder of how little RE5 brings to the table in its initial chapters.

Just as the weapons are almost entirely identical to those in Resident Evil 4, most of the standard enemies from Resident Evil 4 return. You have your regular zombies, your zombies with shields, and your zombies on turrets. There are a few new surprises, a few beefy guys that certainly get you running in the other direction, but none of them were very notable. In fact, many are downright annoying, such as the fast zombie dogs and flying monsters that require pin-point shots to take down.

The only tension left in the game is due to its combat mechanics, which famously force you to stand still while picking off targets. But as much as I enjoy the Resident Evil 4 control scheme for that game, I can't help but wonder if the internet ire over this scheme has more to do with Resident Evil 5's tone than anything else. This game feels more like a straight shooter than Resident Evil 4, and I have to admit to the possibility that a less restrictive mechanic would have better matched the overall shift.

After all, the tension during combat has already been left a bit toothless due to the forgiving health mechanic. A press of a button now revives a near-dying teammate, making it difficult to actually die in this game.

So much for survival horror.

A Match Made in Kijuju
The bad news: It's no RE4.

The good news: Resident Evil 5 isn't a bad game.

Resident Evil 5 is almost Capcom's rendition of Half-Life: Episode One, in that the primary showcase here is the addition of a female cohort named Sheva.

Playing in single-player mode, the AI-controlled Sheva impressed me at first. Through the first section of the game, she managed to cover me and stay out of trouble, for the most part. She was even proactive enough to break open a few barrels.

But as the game wore on, Sheva became more of a burden than a help. I often found her being swarmed by zombies. Several times I had to give her some of my own ammunition, just to ensure she wouldn't be so easily picked off. Sharing with humans I can stand, but giving up my hard-earned ammo to a machine is a bit much.

As the demo has proved, playing with humans will surely yield some entertaining cooperation. Co-op play is made easy by way of the excellent inventory management system. Sharing items between players, either in AI or co-op mode, is simple matter of selecting them and hitting a button. Discussing who will take what gun and when will surely provide some interesting tactical strategy.

In terms of capitalizing on co-op shooter gameplay, Resident Evil 5 is hit and miss. The design is strongest when the level encourages the two mates to split up, as seen in the second level of the demo. Moments when the game requires you to cover a teammate from afar, or try to pick off a giant monster in tandem, work well.

But other co-op stages fall flat. A short sequence set in a cave requires one teammate to essentially put away their gun and hold a flashlight--not the most exciting cooperative task. Similar stages require one player to turn a crank as the other runs down to a bridge--a pointless exercise, made interesting only by the ability to lower the bridge as your teammate runs across.

Resident Evil... 5
You have to admire the dedication of secondary Resident Evil characters.

Bodies of his squadmates flayed out next to him, a random soldier dutifully tells hero Chris Redfield with his dying breath: "You've got to... get this data... back to HQ." So much for his wife and family.

By the end of my journey through the first three chapters of Resident Evil 5, I felt a bit like that dying soldier. My hope for an exciting successor to Resident Evil 4 was slowly being extinguished, stage by stage.

"Come on... Capcom... you've got to... stop with these silly turret sequences. I mean, come on."

When I was finally kicked back to the menu screen, I thought of replaying the entire preview section. I thought about giving it another chance.

Instead, I dug through the layers of dust coating my Wii, grabbed a Wavebird, and loaded up Resident Evil 4.

I had a much better time.