There's something grudgingly admirable about Capcom's determination to make Resident Evil games feel like no other. And yet - even as a long-term fan - when you first pick up Resident Evil 5 it's almost impossible not to find yourself bitching about the way you can't move and fire. Or the glacial turning speed. Or the unwieldy inventory system. Just like you did with Resident Evil 4, in fact - and Resident Evil Zero before it, and all the others. It comes with the territory. These fundamental design decisions are illogical in a modern context, and part of me wishes Capcom would wake up to the present.
But the tradition of survival horror games has its place too. Make it tense. Place just enough ammo and health. Make it a struggle to get by. To enjoy them, you have to be prepared to put to one side the default annoyances. Once you adapt to the way this game plays compared to all the other third-person action-adventures out there, it all rather clicks into place. Perhaps the question to consider from the outset is whether you really want Resident Evil to feel like every other action game or not? Because if the answer's no, then you're halfway to getting the most out of it.
In many respects, Resident Evil 5 is content to follow the path of its much-loved predecessor and tweak a few things along the way. It's still very much a series of abrasive set-pieces strung together by camp hilarity. The main addition is the presence of a fully-controllable camera for the first time. Assigned to the right stick, you finally have the option to sweep the viewpoint around as you wish, and as a result the game is more fluid. Although four control configurations are available, the default works just fine, with a squeeze of the left trigger zooming the camera to the trademark over-the-shoulder view (which so many games aped in the wake of Resi 4, remember). The laser pointer remains, and a customisable level of sensitivity allows you to tweak to your own satisfaction.
Possibly the most jarring initial impression is how little has changed in the core game mechanics. While the prospect of split-screen or co-op online play tantalises, there's an inescapable feeling of deja vu and frustration as you play with an AI partner. To all intents and purposes, this looks and feels like a reskinned, high-def Resi 4, and what was hugely impressive back then often struggles to repeat the trick this far down the line.
As you'll probably know from the numerous previews, the game kicks off with returning former STARS hero Chris Redfield (from the original 1996 Resident Evil) meeting up with local BSAA operative Sheva Alomar in a dusty African shantytown. Tipped off about a bioterrorist named Irving, it quickly becomes apparent that the hostile natives' attitude problem has more to do with viral shenanigans than a distaste for foreigners. As they are called to arms by a megaphone-wielding leader, Chris and Sheva find themselves running the gauntlet from a feral mob, forced to scale buildings, hop between rooftops and shoot fuel barrels in a desperate fight for survival, occasionally splitting up using co-op moves like the assist jump and then covering one another.
The setting might have changed a little, but everything else is inescapably reminiscent of the village sequence of the previous game, right down to the chainsaw-wielding giant, and the need to scale buildings to get some distance from the onslaught. Even the lurching enemies with their side-stepping attack evasion are the same. The weapons they wield are largely identical, as is their physics-defying animation, where foes reel back in familiar exaggerated fashion. From sound effects to graphical style to core gameplay and AI, there has been little or no change apart from an admittedly arresting visual upgrade. It's a different setting, with different character models, but the game you're playing has, for the most part, essentially the exact same template repeated in a different setting.
And if that doesn't strike you as mildly disappointing, then the almost complete absence of puzzles and exploration may come as a hammer blow. Where puzzles do exist, they're so crushingly basic as to be insulting, rarely amounting to more than simple, pointless object hunts that take place right next to their intended target. Far from the promised return to the adventurous exploration of old, you simply work your way through six extremely linear chapters where straying off the obvious beaten track is not an option. In addition, the presence of a new mini-map allows you to see exactly where you should be heading if there's any lingering doubt. The dumbing-down of almost every aspect of the gameplay is depressing, if not unexpected. There are even turret gun sections.
With so much of the gameplay distilled to a sequence of set-pieces, a significant part of what made Resident Evil appealing has been removed, and what remains is the shooting portion. Pushed front and centre, it morphs what was a survival horror adventure into a survival horror shooter, and many will find Capcom's transparent desire to appeal to the action gaming audience a little troubling. Whereas Resi 4 skillfully straddled a happy middle ground between old and new, Resi 5 embraces the action element without concession. Whether it goes too far, of course, will be a matter of serious discourse.
That's not to say Resident Evil 5 is in any way a bad game, because judged on its own merits it's a very enjoyable and polished effort, blessed with considerate checkpointing, well-balanced enemies, sensible ammo-placement and the removal of the needless backtracking that used to pad out many of the previous titles. You can even buy ammo and health between deaths, upgrade weapons and tool up when things are getting too difficult. That's all fine, but Capcom might have been better off presenting this as an action-focused spin-off series in the same way it did with its numerous lightgun titles. But it hasn't. This is it now. This is where Resident Evil has gone.
Fortunately, there are quite a number of saving graces. Firstly, there's the ludicrously camp drama that ties things together. We're bound by sinister threats from revealing specific plot details, but suffice to say that it's brilliant in its complete ridiculousness, and worthy of Scooby Doo in its chucklesome improbability. If there's one thing Capcom hasn't lost the ability to do, it's weaving an air of sinister mystery throughout, so that even going from A to B to C and shooting everything in between is never less than captivating.
But what really boosts the game's appeal is co-op play with a friend. Although the AI does a reasonably decent job on normal difficulty, it's by no means infallible, and, at worst, can be downright dim-witted in the choice of weapon and use of health (you'll waste plenty of ammo on the early scorpion boss, for example, because Sheva struggles to draw its attention so you can blast its weak spot). The fiddly inventory system, likewise, is a real toil when you're under pressure. Simple procedures like dishing out spare ammo and health to your partner take place while the action goes on around you, and with no quick way of doing so, it's almost pointless to try during a fire-fight.
Crank it up to Veteran level and matters become unbearable, with your partner consistently getting into difficulty during even the earliest encounters, and often no quick means of helping her out. Given how many people will want to play the game on their own, this is more than a minor oversight. Resident Evil 5 as a single-player game is nowhere near as entertaining as Resi 4. But that doesn't apply when you're able to play alongside a pal. With a skilled friend in tow, it's one of the best co-op shooters I've played - at least if you dare to crank up the challenge.
On Normal level, Capcom has done what so many developers have done in this generation, and made it too easy. With all the checkpoints available, an average player will breeze through the game in 10-12 hours, beating most of the bosses on the very first attempt. However, Capcom has made one exceptionally smart design decision in rewarding game completion with an infinite-ammo assault rifle.
While this is a fairly standard reward in Resi games, it works particularly well with co-op in mind, because it enables you to tackle the enormously entertaining Veteran difficulty on a surer footing and wade into enemies like never before. The entire style of the game transforms, as one player harvests all the ammo while the other becomes a kind of point man, taking the lead and a lot of the risk into the bargain. Because enemies are so much tougher at this level, and dish out so much more damage, what might have been a mindless procession turns into a challenging, tense affair that plays out superbly with someone providing backup.
Even better, Capcom has managed to get the whole thing working well whether you're playing locally or over the internet. Offline, the split-screen mode is excellent, with an interesting horizontal split system that, rather than splitting the screen in half, shifts both views to a specific portion of the screen area to maintain the aspect ratio. If you're lucky enough to own a big TV, it feels like having a proper screen to yourself, which is rarely the case in these situations. Online, of course, is at the mercy of connections speeds and lag, but in the right conditions holds up remarkably well.
So while Resident Evil 5 might not be the game that the traditionalist might have hoped for, it still stands out as hugely enjoyable in its own right. Bereft of puzzle and exploration, Capcom has instead pointed both barrels at the action element in the hope that the masses will warm to it. Thanks to the game's stubborn loyalty to stop-and-shoot, the result is distinctive, but with suspect partner AI to contend with, this is a game that only truly comes into its own with a friend who's up for a challenge.
7 / 10