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Resident Evil 5

Down with the sickness. Chapters 1 to 3 dissected.

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.

The mini-map lets you keep track of your partner - though there's rarely anywhere for them to go.

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.

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