Resident Evil 5 Preview: Rock That Chainsaw

It's been a good few years for sequels—less of the radical changes and outlandish departures, and a more pronounced focus on making improvements where necessary while preserving what already functioned well. Resident Evil 5 is definitely among those

It's been a good few years for sequels—less of the radical changes and outlandish departures, and a more pronounced focus on making improvements where necessary while preserving what already functioned well. Resident Evil 5 is definitely among those games, as one of only two titles that successfully inspired cackles of glee as I witnessed my own head cut free from my body.

The other, of course, is Capcom's incredible Resident Evil 4 (GCN, PS2, Wii), a game from which this latest chapter in the company's long-running survival horror saga draws a great deal of inspiration. The successes of RE4 are intact and accounted for in this follow-up: a solid control scheme, an excellent camera, and the tension of third person action amid scores of encroaching foes.

I'd hate to sully an otherwise incredible demonstration by simply spelling out the features, however—rather, let me set the scene for you. In the first of the two scenarios available in the demonstration, I was settled squarely inside a small building in a shantytown village somewhere in Africa, with a slew of infected humans bearing down upon me. My companion Sheva—protagonist Chris Redfield's previously revealed and cooperatively-playable cohort—was already in tow, and set to work taking pot shots at the foes just outside the window.

Was this familiar? I recalled in an instant the first bunker-down in Resident Evil 4, in which Leon Kennedy shoved bookshelves in front of windows to keep the enraged villagers at bay inside a similarly tiny, similarly decrepit house. As Chris Redfield, a similar course of action seemed appropriate—I blocked the entryways, steadied myself before the one unguarded window, and readied my shotgun.

This is where the first of Resident Evil 5's improvements became quickly apparent: the inventory system, already drastically reworked in RE4, has seen a major overhaul in this latest installment in the series. Gone are the briefcase item management screens, replaced with a nine-slot inventory system in which knives, rocket launchers, everything occupies just a single slot a piece. Arranged in a 3-by-3 grid, those items are mapped to the directional pad on the controller, allowing for quick swaps between pistols, frag grenades, machine guns, whatever.

With my boomstick prepped and ready, the first onslaught poured through the window—or tried, had I not filled them from feet to neck with buckshot. I hurled myself through the window and popped off a few more rounds before Sheva followed closely behind.

Even controlled by the AI, your companion is no pushover. Armed to the teeth and equippable with up to nine items in a system similar to your own, Sheva can hold her own against a reasonable number of enemies, but will occasionally require an assist or two when things get hairy. A Capcom representative told me that the cooperative mode will function in a similar way—on-screen indicators to alert you if your companion is grabbed or incapacitated, detailing their current location and status.

Sheva's inventory can also be managed, provided she's in close enough range. She can be given weapons, ammunition, equipment, and healing items, which come quite in handy in keeping her alive—Sheva used them where appropriate and absolutely necessary, freeing me up to stick with my frenzied infected-slayin'. Meanwhile, Sheva will also supply you with items that you might need, like machine gun ammunition just as you're grinding down your last clip.

Though this latest chapter in the saga takes place in another part of the world and features altogether different characters, the feeling and tension maintained so well in Resident Evil 4 is most certainly present. The closeness of the camera keeps you constantly checking your back for overlooked enemies or sudden intruders, and the sound of a chainsaw—or the sound of a chainsaw behind you, more precisely—is still the scariest thing you've ever heard.

But one unexpected element that really ramped up the tension was a very simple, but game-changing mechanic: inventory management is handled in real time. Whether you're sorting through your d-pad quick selections or digging through your entire inventory selection, the game will continue onward with or without you. I took a machete or two to the face before that finally dawned on me.

Unfortunately, the cooperative play as demonstrated at Microsoft's E3 press conference was not available in the demonstration, which is likely to be the biggest draw in Resident Evil 5. The areas seem constructed entirely around the presence of two people, with plenty of great locations for drawing in the hungry dead while your companion unleashes a brutal assault from the flanks. Key locations also require that Chris and Sheva split up, often prompting one to provide cover fire for the other. The game is built for cooperative play, and will likely prove a wholly satisfying experience for partner players.

As you've likely already observed, Resident Evil 5 is visually striking—easily the prettiest Resident Evil game to date, and one of the most graphically impressive titles I've seen at E3. So far, Capcom's latest opus is shaping up to be something spectacular—the company has promised more big surprises from the game at this year's Tokyo Game Show, and it's a game worth keeping up on.

The E3 demonstration was just a sliver of what's promised in the full game. I can't wait for the rest.

Resident Evil 5 is slated to hit the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on March 13, 2009.

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