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.
Reunited at street level again, we're back into narrow corridor territory and facing off against a maniac with a turban and chainsaw (miraculously, not as offensive as it sounds). Mr Chainsaw is a one-hit killer. We know this because he did it to us on several occasions - the spray of blood as he sank the blades into our neck matched brilliantly by the suddenly lolling tongue and slack body of Chris as he slumps to the ground. The battle is contrived - there are suddenly a lot of exploding barrels nearby - but the sheer walls of the corridors, and the twisty layout of the map makes it extremely effective. It's time to back up, take aim, and hope we don't run out of space.
At moments like this, Sheva takes a back seat, happier to support you with ammo and health jabs rather than tackle the mini-boss directly. Although she's great in combat, she struggles with providing support in other situations: later, in a section of the second level where we have to move furniture to barricade ourselves in, she jumps at the chance to take people out by sniping through the windows, but isn't able to help with the pushing and shoving. Disconcertingly, in slow moments, she has a habit of moving as close to Redfield as she can and staring, with cow-like devotion, right into his face. We know he's a dreamboat and all, but hopefully this won't be her MO in the finished game.
This aside, there's not that much chemistry between the two leads yet, and certainly no sign of the tender, aching love affair that blossomed between Dom and Marcus in Gears. There's plenty of time for this to change, however: we've seen very little of the game, and the code isn't anywhere near finished, but at the moment, when she isn't in the thick of battle, Sheva can be a bit of a plank.
It's hard to judge how the friendly squabble of co-op will affect the oppressive tone of Resident Evil. The second demo area, however, seems to suggest the game has no problems on this front, even with company in tow. Meeting Place is a pressure-cooker set-piece that manages to overwhelm and terrify in the space of about four minutes. It starts as we move through a corrugated-iron alleyway towards a small shack. There's a party gathered outside to see a beheading, which is always nice, and the racially diverse crowd are eager for blood. We're spotted, and then have to barricade our stronghold, blocking doors and windows, and fighting off attackers until the executioner himself blasts in through a wall. Then it's off into the shanties beyond to try and take him down.
As you might expect, each stage of this is heavily scripted: first the crowd arrives at the shack, then they get in through the ceiling, and then finally the executioner bursts in. What's promising is that although the scripting creates the same set-piece each time, the way it then unfolds can be radically different from one play-through to the next. We replayed the barricade sequence at least five times, and saw notable variances in when the infected chose to attack, how they reacted to gunfire, and whether they opted to swarm in all at once, or approach from multiple angles. Their reactions are often ghoulishly intelligent: when we accidentally triggered an exploding barrel early, one poor loser walked straight into the flames, and then the rest took stock before working out a new path around them. Equally, if a door's been barricaded and the infected come under fire trying to bust through, they'll head for the windows instead. Taken as a whole, the entire sequence may be a set-piece right out of the previous game, but the AI advances makes for a wealth of new strategies - and RE4's AI was hardly backwards.
And even though the hulking executioner appeared to be following a set path at times, there were ample ways to tackle him, too. After a few attempts to finish him off in the streets, which generally ended with us falling victim to his axe attacks or buried alive under crumbled masonry, we finally fled to the rooftops and, like the cowards we are, used the environment against him. Once again, things were slightly controlled - the game allows you to jump to certain rooftops but not others, for example - but there was a variety of different approaches available, from chipping away at him from a distance, to luring him towards electrical generators and giving him a nasty zapping.
Most of RE5 remains under wraps at the moment: there's no word yet on how the weapons purchasing and upgrading will work, no details on which flavours of co-op will be available, and the long-hinted-at cover system hasn't been revealed, if it even exists. But given the relatively distant March 2009 release date, the game's already looking sharp: the AI seems smart, and the levels we saw were filled with details and strategic options. If you were hoping for sweeping changes, then you're likely to be disappointed: this is a series that clung tenaciously to a control scheme long after it was out of date, and is hardly likely to throw everything out again now it's got one that works. Instead, this opts to refine RE4's revolution, and, if the game isn't quite as good as scaring you in the hard African daylight as it was in the misty half-darkness of previous titles, it's still able to bring on a visceral thrill as the crowd gets closer.
This is about full-on panic rather than sudden shocks, then, and that may be a wise choice: you can find yourself panicking again and again, but you can only be scared by a cheap trick once.
Resident Evil 5 is due out on PS3 and Xbox 360 on 13th March 2009 in Europe.