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Resident Evil 5 Review: Gears and Cranks

by Nick Breckon, Mar 12, 2009 12:15pm PDT

I had a hunch that Capcom was heavily influenced by Gears of War when developing Resident Evil 5. But sometime during the fifth chapter, when the zombies with AK-47s forced me to take cover behind conveniently placed barricades, it became less of a hunch and more of a verifiable fact.

Resident Evil 5 is truly a strange beast; a Zonkey of a game. Consider the following observations:

  • It's the first numbered Resident Evil game to feature cooperative play.

  • It may be the first Resident Evil game that doesn't include a full stage set at night.

  • It features zombies that shoot AK-47s.

Of course, these oddities seem like minor elements at first. In fact, Resident Evil 5 mimics the broad strokes of Resident Evil 4 well. It has a similar sense of pace, beginning with the "surprise" of a zombie infestation, and steadily building toward encounters with enemies of an increasingly insect-like appearance.

The changes all sounded great on paper. It takes place in Africa, which seems like an interesting setting, in theory. It tacks on gun-toting co-op sidekick Sheva, which appeared to be a logical addition, especially after carting around the helpless Ashley across half of Spain.

But after playing through Resident Evil 5's main campaign, it becomes clear that, for all its similarities to the previous entry, Resident Evil 5 is actually a stab--albeit not in the dark--at something different. And at the end of the day, that stab amounts to a disappointing whiff of the knife.

Resident Upheaval

When it comes to creating tension in horror fiction, the setting is often as important as anything else. An abandoned hotel. A shack in the woods. A shopping mall.

There was something very primal about the woods and castles of RE4. It was a genuinely atmospheric setting, a series of gothic locales that didn't quite feel like anything I'd seen in a game before. It wasn't ever terrifying, but it was certainly creepy; there were at least a few moments where I yearned intensely for the soothing sounds of a typewriter save room.

Resident Evil 5, by comparison, rarely takes you to anywhere remotely creepy--the most blatant evidence that this game is trying something new. Even in its most cavernous scenes the game defies true spookiness, giving you a bright lamp to light the way, or a puzzle centered around sunlight reflection.In the latter section of the RE5 you'll journey deep underground, only to find yourself inside well-lit subterranean ruins.

Throw in fluorescent zombie military compounds, and zombie bikers tearing through sunny African markets, and RE5 may as well take place in an infected level of Army of Two. It's a veritable zombie spring break--Zombies Gone Wild.

Surprise Me

The lack of captivating environments speaks to a larger problem with Resident Evil 5--there aren't many surprises to be found in Kijuju.

And when I say surprises, I don't mean "dogs jumping through glass" surprises. The surprises that made Resident Evil 4 great weren't shock-style scares, but instead came in the form of an unexpected boss, or an inspired Alamo-in-a-shack sequence. Moments that at least felt fresh, and had you sitting up straight in your chair.

The intended surprises in Resident Evil 5 come off as cheap and uninspired. Major setpieces are centered around repetitive turret combat. Zombies on motorbikes trigger one of the silliest quicktime events ever fashioned. Big alligators are back, but this time they'll swallow you up from out of nowhere--more frustrating than shocking.

In fact, many of RE4's bosses and combat scenarios are recycled here. The guys with chainsaws return, but are oddly ineffective, pausing before every attack. The giant El Gigante shows up, but you battle him from a stationary turret in one of the more boring boss fights in Resident Evil history. A later encounter with a sea monster, reminiscent of RE4's alligator boss, is similarly fought from behind a mounted gun.

Minor, expected surprises, such as RE4's eccentric weapons merchant are absent. As superfluous as he was, I always found his "welcomes" to be a satisfying in-game reward. In Resident Evil 5, all weapon buying and selling is performed in a dull, bare-bones menu at the end of each chapter.

Even the surprise of death has been pushed to the background in RE5. When the enemies manage to finally knock you out, you enter a "dying" mode, allowing your co-op partner some time to revive you. As the levels are largely linear, rarely requiring you to leave your squadmate's side, you are typically free to constantly spam the resurrection, repeatedly coming back to life as zombies cordially watch from the sidelines.

This resurrection spam effectively kills the tension in almost every otherwise-intense combat scenario, including boss fights. In fact, I died more often in quicktime events than I did fighting actual enemies.

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The same amount of care evident in nearly every zombie attack in RE4 has been replaced with hordes that simply mob you at every turn. Whereas a typical RE4 encounter might entail several zombies ambling toward you down four walkways in a large room, RE5 generally sticks every zombie directly in your path, rarely affording you many interesting combat choices. In RE4, I felt like each monster was placed in the world with care; in RE5, I feel like most were dropped onto the ground without much thought.

All of this amounts to a surprisingly lazy design. Even the bosses are sloppily placed in the world. At one point, I found myself entirely pinned against a wall by a boss with no way to escape. I sat in horror as it stared at me, attacking every few seconds, until I died--only to be consistently revived by my partner, over and over.

It was the scariest scene in the game.

Controlling Interest

The buzz surrounding Resident Evil 5 has gravitated around two rather dissimilar talking points: the game's control scheme, and its treatment of race.

I'm not going to say much on the fire alarm that is the latter. I will note that, as charged as the imagery appears in a trailer or a screenshot, while actually playing the game I was never conscious of race in the same way that I am with other blatantly racist works. Maybe that speaks to a powerful form of subversive, violent entertainment--or maybe it speaks to an overblown topic that couldn't seem any more out of place in a juvenile industry.

Either way, the game's control system is a far more interesting issue for gamers. For whatever reason, control systems have always been controversial in Resident Evil games. Resident Evil 4's was largely seen as an upgrade over the tank-like, spin-and-thrust movement of the PlayStation era. Its stop-and-shoot solution kept things just rigid enough to keep the tension high, and the series feeling more like an action-adventure game than Quake.

But as much as I had hoped that Capcom would carry over the mechanics from Resident Evil 4, I found myself understanding the opposition to it by the end. It's not that I find these controls frustrating in this day and age, but rather that Capcom has shifted the series to a place where that scheme no longer makes any sense.

When all you have to deal with are ambling, dim-witted, snot-for-brains farmers and the occasional chainsaw-wielding sackhead, the stop- and-shoot method works wonderfully. But when having to cover your teammate from afar while dodging enemies nearby, it becomes a little frustrating. When zombies bend backwards to dodge bullets like Neo undead, it might be time to consider a change.

When zombies are shooting at you with laser-sighted AK-47s and chaingun turrets, it's time to loosen up the damn controls.

Cooped Up in Co-op

The focus here is on co-op action, and in that respect, Resident Evil 5 is still somewhat of an effective action game. Despite the fact that the weapons mostly amount to re-skinned versions of Resident Evil 4 guns, I did enjoy using them to take down infected Africans. The combat scenarios aren't as nuanced, but the act of shooting zombies in this setup is still a working formula.

However, the co-op component is another mixed bag. There are very few moments where the co-op itself matters in a meaningful way, and most often the situation involves turning a crank to open a door. Unlike Gears of War, there aren't often paths to "flank" enemies, or incentives to do so. From a cooperation perspective, it's as much about getting out of the way of your friend as it is in truly cooperating. And in singleplayer mode, the co-op AI turns out to be one of the clear-cut failures of the game.

It was certainly ballsy of Capcom to include an AI character that stands that chance of dying while entirely out of your sight. That speaks to a certain amount of faith on the part of the design team--faith that the character was smart enough to defend herself, and faith that you'll care enough to rescue her consistently.

That faith was misplaced, for Sheva makes a poor virtual girlfriend. Throughout most of the game, Sheva is merely an average AI squadmate--rarely covering you when you need it, often wasting ammo on distant shots and blowing healing herbs at the worst times. But the first time she dies while separated from you, knocking you back to a checkpoint for something that you didn't do, she becomes an instant burden. Because of this, more than anything else, playing with a friend will be preferable.

Even seemingly harmless systems, like the new shared inventory, are made obnoxious by her existence. Having to hand her ammunition--or point it out on the ground like you would food to a dog--becomes annoying, and moreso when you find that she's been holding out on you, hoarding ammo for your weapon. After a while, perhaps out of sheer animosity, I found myself using her as a mule more than an actual squadmate, loading her up with extra ammo and herbs before setting off.

The levels themselves are full of typical tasks, and very few require actual teamwork. There's an emblem to insert here, a crank to turn there. A mirror-reflecting-light puzzle stood out as one of the few that required actual thought, but I immediately ruined the moment by setting Sheva alight with a laser beam and getting kicked back to a checkpoint.

It was worth it.

Monster Mash

By the time I was ducking behind boxes, popping up to snipe at rifle- wielding zombies, I had seen enough. Resident Evil 5 attempts Gears of War-style combat, but without a decent cover system or tactically-minded AI of that game. It gives you the combat mechanics and basic enemies of Resident Evil 4, but not the nuanced scenarios or environments that made them special.

And beyond all of that, it offers little else in the way of new gaming experiences. A Mercenaries mode is fun enough, and upcoming multiplayer DLC might be an incentive for some--though the latter seems a particularly egregious form of priced content. For my part, none of it will wash away the average aftertaste of the actual campaign.

The RE4 fan in me hopes this will stand as merely a diversion in the series. That this isn't the start of a trend toward action-packed mediocrity. That Capcom learns from this experiment, and at least crafts a less confused Resident Evil 6, no matter the direction. I'd buy it at a high price.

Resident Evil 5, on the other hand, I won't pay for.

Resident Evil 5 will be released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 tomorrow, March 13.