Africa may prove difficult territory for Resident Evil 5, and not just because of Umbrella Corp meddling. The E3 2007 teaser struck an unpleasantly colonial chord by suggesting that - crikey! - you'll certainly be shooting a lot of black people this time around, and the media has been quick to voice its unease. The developers may consider the new setting just another change of location following RE4's European holiday, but the trailer's problem was that its depiction of a white man fighting off a depraved black mob was "imagery with a history", in the words of Newsweek's N'Gai Croal, particularly as there was no wider context available for those not versed in the series' back-story.
Capcom's solution is simple: a lot more context and a few little tweaks. Not only has it unveiled a black co-star, it's gathered up a fresh mob of such racial diversity that it's as if Redfield's being attacked by a mid-nineties Gap ad. Whether it's possibly even more problematic to suggest that shooting a black person is alright so long as you're black yourself, or whether, in fact, videogames reaching Africa actually represents some kind of equality in the first place, are knots each player will have to untie for themselves. This isn't a debate that's going to go away, but we may owe it to Capcom to try the completed game before passing judgement.
And now we've had a chance to play a bit of Resident Evil 5 (running on 360 hardware), some of the worst fears can be put aside. Capcom has taken pains to show that the infected are, ultimately, victims - they may run at you with a variety of gardening implements, but they're surrounded by locations that put their behaviour into context: everywhere you look in the game's crumbling streets, there are signs of their previous lives, and the events that changed them. So while we didn't feel as uncomfortable shooting our way through two levels of RE5 as we did watching the 2007 trailer, another question remains: how does it actually play?
Well, it plays a lot like RE4. Crowd control remains the order of the day, and it's still all about finding a good space, using it to your advantage, and knowing when it's time to move. Ammo is easy to come by, enemies attack en masse, and the movement and controls are essentially unchanged from the reboot offered in the previous game.
Story details are still scarce: it's Africa, everyone's going loopy, and sometimes-huge winged bugs erupt from their mouths. This may be the birthplace of the T-Virus, and there's also a lot of chatter about something called Majini, which sounds like some kind of downmarket Ovaltine rival, but may be, according to Google, a kind of shape-shifting African spirit who lures people to their death. (But, then, it was Google who told us all those sweet, sweet lies about a new Back to the Future movie, so we're not sure we trust it anymore.) Whatever the cause, cue the return of RE1's Chris Redfield (who's always looked like he should be doing the links on CBBC rather than shooting people through the brain), bring on the hordes, and let splatter commence.
The first area we played through was Shanty Town. A maze of crumbling, scorched masonry, burnt-out buses, and general post-riot disarray, take out the palm trees and it could be a scene from Gears of War. It's familiar, then, but still beautifully done: this is a convincingly dilapidated world of corrugated iron and cast-offs. Environments are full of human details, like a filthy sink clinging to the cracked plaster of a wall, or an ancient rug hung over a banister. Very little feels off the rack, and much of the map appears to be judiciously destructible.
We start by working our way through narrow streets, fighting huge buzzing fly-like monsters who burst from the mouths of corpses and have nasty lunge attacks. We're being channelled, but there's a pleasing amount of freedom to deviate from the path along the way, each side-route providing a short cut or an unexpected item.
And, crucially, we're not alone, either. Fighting alongside Redfield is Sheva, a typically Capcom beauty who provides AI partnership in single-player (and our demo), while also doubling as the friend-slot in online co-op.
Her design document may have simply read, "Let's make her hot," but her AI soon gets its chance to shine too. Out of the narrows, we've found ourselves on the top floor of an abandoned tenement; the task now is to boost Sheva across to the opposite building to fight her own way down and open a locked gate from the far side.
The game switches pace, Redfield providing sniper cover as Sheva guns through a sudden crush of infected. The sniper rifle's enjoyably weighty (the pistol and shotgun we tried later were equally entertaining), but what's more surprising is how well Sheva tackles things. She may be a bit too handy with headshots to be entirely credible, but the way she creates space for herself and keeps the crowd at bay is refreshingly lifelike. She's also capable of changing tactics when the situation demands it, holding people off with gunfire or moving in close for knife attacks when she sees an opening. At one point, she even decided to dive through a window and surprise enemies by doubling-back on them - a convincing display of combat intelligence, particularly since she opted not to on a second play-through.