You know who the unsung hero of the Resident Evil series is? The guy who moans "Resident Eeeeeevil" at the start of each game. I like to think that it's the same person, and that for each sequel he puts years of practice into making each number sound as spooky as possible.
Loading up a preview build of Resident Evil 5, containing the first three chapters of the game, that booming introduction is one of the few elements still remaining from the traditional template that defined the series throughout the 90s. Following on from Resident Evil 4, this fifth sequel (actually the nineteenth in the series!) is far more action shooter than survival horror, and most of its triumphs and failures stem from trying to serve these two goals at the same time. Much like the bizarre T-virus mutated creatures, this is a series mid-evolution.
Set ten years after the events of the original game, Resident Evil 5 opens with Chris Redfield barrelling through the African savannah on his way to meet with a contact. He's now working for the BSAA, or Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance, and is investigating reports that Umbrella's viral weapons have ended up in the hands of African ne'er-do-wells. Arriving in a small town, he's met by Sheva Alomar, his pert and lovely African counterpart from the BSAA and the second playable character for the new co-op based gameplay design.
Chris and Sheva meet with an informant in a butcher's shop, who tells them they need to find a man called Irving. Off you trot into the winding (but linear) slum streets, stepping over mangled animal remains and examining gruesome slaughterhouse leftovers, until you get your first glimpse of the Majini, the Plagas-infected locals who are the African equivalent of Resident Evil 4's Los Ganados. As the first attack wave swarms towards you, there's clearly no chance of fending them off with your limited ammo reserves this early in the game, so you flee to a nearby house and escape through an underground tunnel.
You emerge at the start of a scene that will be familiar to everyone who downloaded the demo. It's the Public Assembly area and things play out exactly as you've seen. You now realise that the man being beheaded is your butcher shop contact, but you're soon fortifying yourself against the next wave of bloodthirsty Majini slaves and the lumbering axe-wielding executioner. The first major action scene of the game, much is familiar from Resident Evil 4. You barricade doors with bookcases, and later kick down ladders to escape their clutches, while exploding barrels and choke points provide carefully placed opportunities to thin the herd.
Playing offline, Sheva falls under AI control and the results are mixed. Assuming she has the items in her inventory, she's able to hand over ammo for the current weapon you're using, heal you when your health is dangerously low, and even combine red and green herbs automatically to create more powerful healing items. However, she's also a bit dim when it comes to combat, and since her death spells game-over even in single-player mode, she can be as much hindrance as help. In the midst of a scrum, the sight of her blithely standing around while the executioner readies his axe right beside her is most unwelcome.
The controls, inevitably, will be the subject of much debate. You can now strafe, and there are four different control set-ups to choose from. Capcom promised "Gears-inspired action controls" but this is a dubious boast. The inability to move and shoot at the same time was originally because of technical limitations, but with the game now an over-the-shoulder co-op shooter more in the style of Army of Two or Kane & Lynch, the decision to stick with the rigid run, fast turn, shoot, repeat approach to combat seems more bloody-minded than creatively inspired. It's not unworkable, and it may be traditional for Resident Evil, but it does leave the game feeling clunky and inelegant in contemporary context. Maybe Capcom needs to have faith that the series has endured for reasons besides the way the characters move.
Chapter 1 continues in this vein, through various streets, houses and buildings, until you reach an underground facility, the location of your first boss encounter. It's a gloopy, wormy mass that takes on a vaguely humanoid shape. It's already polished off another BSAA squad, but luckily for you it decides to attack in a room with a giant incinerator oven at one end. Luring the beast into the oven is the obvious solution, but the timing is tricky since the doors take a while to close, giving the monster a chance to slither back out again if you strike too late.
So ends the first chapter, and you get the chance to restock your weapons (but not your ammo) from a menu. No sign of the merchant from Resident Evil 4, but you can sell trinkets, gems and treasures discovered on your travels to earn more gold. You can also rearrange your inventory, putting essential weapons and items in the left, right, up and down slots for fast access using the d-pad.
Chapter 2 brings the first encounter with infected dogs, which often prove tougher to kill than the human enemies, and leads you through a booby-trapped storage yard to a broken bridge where fast reactions are required to prevent a maniacal Majini from running you down in a truck. Survive that encounter and it's down into the sewers, where you're up against more dogs as well as flying mutants that hatch from dead bodies. There's then another swarm battle in a dockside market, before you reach the Shanty Town section which formed the second half of the demo.
Then it's down into some mines for the first true co-op part of the game. There have been a few moments where Sheva is able to be boosted up to a higher level and take an alternate route, but in the mines teamwork is essential, because one of you has to carry a large battery-powered lamp while the other provides covering fire. Played with a human partner it's probably a real blast, although when you have to rely on Virtual Sheva's rather flaky responses it's hit-and-miss. If you're the one doing the shooting, she's not always illuminating the areas you need to see. If you're handling the lamp, there's no guarantee that she'll do a good job of shooting the enemies. In a game where ammo is at a premium, watching her waste shots can be frustrating.
Once out of the mines, the game continues to deviate from its established formula. You finally get to meet Irving, a weasel-faced villain who talks like James Cagney. Before you can arrest him, he's spirited away by a mysterious woman in a bird-like mask. Clues suggest they're headed for a nearby oilfield, so you battle your way along a cliff-face for the next big boss fight against a giant mutant bat-scorpion. It's a tricky encounter, and once again shows up the limitations of the partner AI and real-time inventory. Sheva has a habit of picking items up without your permission, but if she grabs an explosive she'll hoard it rather than use it and cause you damage.
This is problematic, since you need to use proximity mines to stun the creature and if Sheva has grabbed them you need to stand next to her, open the inventory, navigate over to her side, select the mines, request them, wait for her to hand them over, open the inventory again and equip them. It's a horribly long-winded process, and sometimes proves fatal when there's huge monster stomping around.
It's also a fight clearly designed for co-op play, since the creature's weak spot is only vulnerable from behind. One character must lead it away while the other shoots. Stun it with the mines and you get a longer window of opportunity to whittle down its hefty defences. "We need to trap it between us. I'll take the rear!" exclaims AI Sheva. Except she doesn't. I ran around wasting ammo for several minutes wondering where she was, before realising she was still jogging along behind me. You can change her stance from defensive to aggressive, but the difference is minimal. Playing on Normal difficulty, it's very easy to run out of ammo and explosives while trying to get your computerised partner to assist in the fight. It's rather telling that when this section was last demoed to the press, the infinite ammo cheat was activated.
Beat the monster and you're thrown into a chase sequence where you use mounted machineguns to mow down Majini attacking from motorbikes and trucks, and this leads straight into another boss fight against an El Gigante from Resident Evil 4. Once again, you're using fixed gun emplacements to blast the Plagas pods on his body, while dodging his attacks using quick-time event button prompts.
It's all incredibly action-packed and breathless in its pace, served up with the polished production values you'd expect from Capcom, but nothing up to this point has felt very Resident Evilly. There have been almost constant gunfights, but nothing you could really call a puzzle and no adventure elements at all. That changes slightly in Chapter 3 as you venture into the marshlands in pursuit of Irving and must locate four quarters of a plaque to open a doorway. In the Resident Evil games of old these pieces would be hidden away, unearthed by moving statues or matching patterns. Here, they're just marked on your map and you zip off to find them in a rather nifty airboat. It feels like the vestigial remains of the old Resident Evil, paying lip service to a more varied experience, but with little interest in developing anything beyond the gunplay.
Somewhat ironically, it's at this point that the story really starts to kick in, and where fans will start to learn how the events of Resident Evil 5 tie in with the dense narrative tangle of the series. There are the usual melodramatic plot twists and cheesy revelations, but I'm not about to spoil any details. It shouldn't take much mental effort from fans to work out what might be involved.
There's a battle through an oil refinery where you're joined by a third character, Josh, followed by an airboat chase during which you have to jump ashore to find the buttons that will open the gates to continue. It all culminates in an even bigger boss battle against an aquatic creature, once again relying on conveniently placed mounted weapons to blast the weak spots to bits.
And so ends Chapter 3, and our time with the game. It's never less than visually impressive and the set-pieces are delivered with all the movie-style aplomb you'd expect. The controls are a struggle at first, but it's not difficult to accommodate the quirks with the aiming speed turned up and the fourth control option selected. Where the game seems weakest is in its reliance on a wonky AI model for the single-player, and a noticeable lack of scares. There are plenty of gory moments, some agreeably wacky monsters and enormous amounts of bullets fired, but the series' famous sense of dread and horror-movie pacing has been completely ditched in favour of all-out action. That your character is wandering around in broad daylight, with a constant and shapely companion, hardly helps to nurture a feeling of paranoid terror.
There's also the spectre of the old racism debate, hovering the background. That debate is only going to get louder and more urgent once the game is released, and is being covered beyond the cosy world of the specialist gaming press, since there's imagery in here that goes beyond the general air of foreign menace that caused a ruckus in the first trailers.
One of the first things you see in the game, seconds after taking control of Chris Redfield, is a gang of African men brutally beating something in a sack. Animal or human, it's never revealed, but these are not infected Majini. There are no red bloodshot eyes. These are ordinary Africans, who stop and stare at you menacingly as you approach. Since the Majini are not undead corpses, and are capable of driving vehicles, handling weapons and even using guns, it makes the line between the infected monsters and African civilians uncomfortably vague. Where Africans are concerned, the game seems to be suggesting, bloodthirsty savagery just comes with the territory.
Later on, there's a cut-scene of a white blonde woman being dragged off, screaming, by black men. When you attempt to rescue her, she's been turned and must be killed. If this has any relevance to the story it's not apparent in the first three chapters, and it plays so blatantly into the old clichés of the dangerous "dark continent" and the primitive lust of its inhabitants that you'd swear the game was written in the 1920s. That Sheva neatly fits the approved Hollywood model of the light-skinned black heroine, and talks more like Lara Croft than her thickly-accented foes, merely compounds the problem rather than easing it. There are even more outrageous and outdated images to be found later in the game, stuff that I was honestly surprised to see in 2009, but Capcom has specifically asked that details of these scenes remain under wraps for now, whether for these reasons we don't know.
There will be plenty of people who refuse to see anything untoward in this material. "It wasn't racist when the enemies were Spanish in Resident Evil 4," goes the argument, but then the Spanish don't have the baggage of being stereotyped as subhuman animals for the past two hundred years. It's perfectly possible to use Africa as the setting for a powerful and troubling horror story, but when you're applying the concept of people being turned into savage monsters onto an actual ethnic group that has long been misrepresented as savage monsters, it's hard to see how elements of race weren't going to be a factor.
All it will take is for one mainstream media outlet to show the heroic Chris Redfield stamping on the face of a black woman, splattering her skull, and the controversy over Manhunt 2 will seem quaint by comparison. If we're going to accept this sort of imagery in games then questions are going be asked, these questions will have merit, and we're going to need a more convincing answer than "lol it's just a game."
Resident Evil 5 is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 13th March.