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Things fall apart: Looking back at Resident Evil 5

Capcom's co-op emphasis deserves more respect argues Rich Stanton.

Resident Evil 4 is one of the best games ever made, and so gave Capcom a problem that - until the recent reveal of Resident Evil 7, at least - it was in no rush to solve. How do you follow up a classic? Resident Evil 5 would spend four years in development, benefit from a new generation of hardware, and use it to offer a simple answer: you do the same, but better.

Were it so easy. Resident Evil 4 was the point where the series prioritised survival over horror, establishing a new combat system that was all-action and made the player character a supremely capable hero. In the early Resident Evil games, monsters were less frequent and combat had simple principles - empty bullets into the bad thing, and try not to let it get too close. Proximity meant vulnerability, it meant damage, and most of all it meant trying to escape with a control scheme designed around moving forwards rather than back.

Resident Evil 4 upended these principles by introducing location-specific damage and follow-up attacks, as well as making the enemies more aggressive and numerous. In terms of pure mechanics this led to bigger and more intense battles, and most importantly a much wider range of possibilities for the player. It also meant that horror, for the most part, was a secondary effect - Resident Evil 4 has scares, for sure, and in the creepily human Ganados and cultists genuinely scary enemies. But horror is also about a protagonist being helpless or at least significantly outmatched. Leon can take on any number of enemies, deliver an up-close kicking, and walk away without a scratch.

The environments are much wider than those of Resi 4 but, outside of additional melee options, Chris and Sheva don't have more moves than Leon did (something addressed in the much-maligned and, I would say, misunderstood Resi 6.)

Resident Evil 5 made few changes to this combat system but, with a number of other design choices, completed the move away from horror and became almost a pure action game. If Resident Evil 4 was in some sense a game about the fear of crowds, Resident Evil 5 is about facing an even bigger crowd. This is not as small a change as it appears. The Ganados are now called Majini and, in the earlier levels at least, appear in much larger crowds that swarm Chris and Sheva at a nearly-unstoppable rate, continuously attacking from the sides and behind.

This shifts the focus of combat from taking out baddies to delaying them - because you simply can't kill this many. In these early levels Resident Evil 5 uses the Majini as obstacles, sending endless waves of them at the player in large-but-enclosed arenas, with the objective being simply to survive long enough until a door opens or a cutscene is triggered. Standing in one spot sees you quickly flanked and beaten down, while the mob adjusts swiftly to changes in position and uses the more open environments to approach at different angles. Killing one doesn't feel like any kind of victory, because two more step over the corpse while a third attacks from behind, and stronger enemies move ever-closer with the Majini as their shields.

If you're thinking of Mercenaries, you're not wrong - though only the opening chapters reflect this. They're full of explicit Resident Evil 4 callbacks too, designed to make players think they're playing the same thing before a twist. There's a house you have to barricade from assault right at the start, an echo of Leon's co-op defence with Luis, but here pushing shelves in front of windows and blocking doors only works for a minute - the giant axe-wielding maniac eventually reaches the building, and simply smashes through the wall.

The familiarity of Resident Evil 5, however, is oversold. Yes this shares an enormous amount with its predecessor but, as the game progresses, it finds a new identity borne of co-operation. The game's initial development was as a single-player project and, even though this changed quickly, the early stages still reflect it - you can feel that more straightforward follow-up to Resident Evil 4, one that simply switched lead character and location but amped up the challenge.

One of Resi 5's weaknesses is a few too many mounted gun sections, which in the case of the desert motorbike chase may be because that area was a scrapped 'walking' environment. It was thought to be too big and open for fun combat.

Co-operative play is what makes, and in some ways breaks, Resident Evil 5. With a human partner the game's design makes much more sense, whereas played in single-player the AI's tendency to waste ammo and herbs alongside, most infuriatingly, frequently bleeding-out can make it a chore. In particular there are sections so dependent on two human players being in control - where, for example, Chris boosts Sheva to a new area and she must work through it to reunite the pair - that the single-player AI simply can't cope. Few things are more frustrating than a Game Over because the AI died.

With a human partner, however, Resident Evil 5 does transcend beyond being a Resident Evil 4 tribute and - for better or worse - changed the course of the series. It is a truism that co-op makes everything better, but with Resident Evil 5 the benefits are momentous because the design embraces it. All of a sudden the larger environments make more sense, new mechanics like proximity healing feel right, and crowd control becomes a sheer joy. What is lost is that fingerhold Resident Evil 4 still had on horror, but what is gained is a new kind of tension. You both have to survive, and so if one of you is in trouble the team is in trouble.

Resident Evil 5's ultimate rhythm is here, a push-me pull-you series of engagements where a well-oiled team can be undone by a single lapse in concentration. The temptation to divide and conquer is ever-present, and the benefits are obvious, but moving too far from your partner risks it all - the Capcom touch is how enemies don't hesitate to finish off a wounded partner. When a certain amount of damage is taken Chris or Sheva will bleed out, at which point the other can revive them, but the massed Majini allow only a few seconds' grace before moving in to finish the job. Certain tougher enemies will do it immediately. It's a tough lesson to learn but learn it you do, to the extent that being too far away from your partner becomes its own source of tension. Co-op may make most games better, but it's a rare one that so guides players towards fluid teamwork.

Co-op also led to less noticeable changes that, while essential and well-intentioned, upset the balance of combat in interesting ways. One of Resident Evil 4's greatest achievements was the mini-game of inventory management, accessed through pausing the game and looking at Leon's attache case. In Resident Evil 5 this becomes a radial menu mapped to the d-pad, an important change because of course you can't have players pausing the action in online co-op to colour co-ordinate their herb collection.

The African controversy led to Sheva being promoted from an NPC to Chris's partner. Originally the idea was for Jill to fill this role or, at an early stage, the legendary Barry Burton.

This inventory system is fascinating because it is well-engineered, works perfectly well, and is arguably more effective in allowing players to access their kit in the middle of a ruck and quickly switch between weapons. But in removing the ability to temporarily pause the action something else is lost, the ability to take a breather in the middle of super-intense action and think about what to do next and what tool to use. It's a curious thing. Resident Evil 4's intensity is increased, to my mind, by this ability to stop everything for a few seconds and consider your next step. Resident Evil 5 doesn't have the option and so any engagement is full-on action until it's over. The mis-selections or panic this can induce in the middle of a mob is arguably a good thing, and yet it never quite feels that it's an improvement on the more basic system it succeeds.

There's a wider point here, in that an iterative sequel is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't. Many of Resident Evil 5's best ideas take it away from Resident Evil 4, but many of the worst come from a desire to move too far. The idea of bright sunlight as a setting for horror, for example, the glare creating an oppressive fug throughout, is beautifully-realised. The African setting was the subject of understandable criticism for the imagery of a white all-American hero shooting up hordes of mostly-black Majini, but as a new environment for the series it is inspired. Baking yellow roads weave past crumbling buildings, the packed earth's brightness communicating a stifling heat that's driven home by the way distant objects shimmer with distortion. Rotting animal carcasses pile up next to the waxy sheen of fruit, everything metal seems rusty, and dark interiors feel like oases, broken through by merciless shafts of sunlight.

This aesthetic is trampled in the rush towards bigger and more explosive set-pieces but never fully lost, and Resident Evil 5's world ends up feeling much more plausible than Resident Evil 4's magnificent rollercoaster of horrors. But then comes the desire to out-do Resident Evil 4's spectacular series of ending climaxes, and Resident Evil 5 takes off in a manner that baffles me to this day - at once incredible, and so OTT it can't quite be believed.

In the final chapters you end up fighting Wesker in an aircraft hangar, missiles exploding everywhere, before pursuing him to a volcanic island. The goal is clearly to provide an ending you'll never forget, and does it ever. Wesker's fate is an unusual element of Resident Evil 5 simply because - spoiler alert - you don't expect the series' main antagonist to ever really die (and who knows, he'll probably pop back up at some point.) But once the decision was made to do it, by god did Capcom go all-out.

Chris and Wesker's final showdown is both a terrible boss fight and unforgettable, because despite the faults it showcases a certain mindset about what an ultimate action climax should be. The bad part is Wesker's invincibility unless attacked in certain ways, a series of QTE and timed events, and various ways to insta-fail. But some of the stuff that happens is so crazy you simply have to applaud: Chris's bulging biceps deserve 2000 words of their own, and here are used to literally punch boulders into smithereens. I mean, why not?

Anyone deeply interested in Resi 5 should consider picking up the official artbook, which contains a number of concept sketches and ideas that never made it into the final game. It's a great insight into how radically such big projects can change during development.

At the end, Wesker's mutated final form is dumped into the lava and our heroes go to leave in a helicopter. Naturally Wesker re-emerges with his tentacles grabbing the chopper at which point - in classic series style - you finish things off with a rocket, which in this case is fired at his head and takes it clean off. Closure or over-compensation? I still don't know, but that last rocket shot forever defines Resident Evil 5 in my mind. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Following a game like Resident Evil 4 is a poisoned chalice but Resident Evil 5, warts and all, makes a much better attempt than it's given credit for. The only thing it lacks, in the end, is the delicacy to balance survival with horror, largely abandoning the latter in favour of making co-operative play so core to the design. In this it breaks free of Resident Evil 4 and the series as a whole, setting a new path that every subsequent Resident Evil game has followed.

It's a double-edged legacy. Resident Evil 5 is a beautiful game, enormous fun to this day with a buddy, and packed with memorable set-pieces. But it also locked the series into an essentially unwinnable competition with other third-person shooters, sacrificing something of what made Resident Evil 4 special in order to appeal outside that fanbase. Resident Evil 4 created a new template for the series but Resident 5 engineered that, and engineered it beautifully, into a reliable formula. Which means, for this old Resident Evil fan at least, it has always been an easy game to enjoy, but a hard one to love.