Sometimes, Lightning Does Strike Twice
Once upon a time, Capcom turned its flagship series on its head with Resident Evil 4, and in the process transmorphed the 3rd person shooter genre. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that games like Gears of War wouldn't exist in their current forms if RE4 hadn't rocked the gaming world back then. So how do you follow up what is arguably one of the most beloved games of all time? The answer is, you double the fun by adding a wicked co-op feature, but otherwise leave the beloved gameplay schema fully intact. Also, you go to Africa.
Let's just get this dealt with right now: you can't move while you're shooting. When in his aiming stance, Chris is quite literally rooted to the ground he's standing on, able to pivot on a horizontal axis but nothing more. While this may alienate some of those who've embraced the tweaks made to the genre since RE4, a few hours of get-to-know-you time with RE5 is all it takes to adjust to said limitations. As with their Spanish brethren, the Majini's AI has been programmed to complement the game's controls: enemies will run up to Chris with unnerving speed, then slow to a crawl once they get within break-bottle-over-your-head distance. It's a little clunky design-wise to watch Majini essentially bend over backwards to accommodate you, but otherwise, they would be unstoppable killing machines. Regrettably, the controls do break down somewhat in the later chapters, when commando Majini start charging you with automatic weapons in hand, and a bare-bones cover mechanic has been implemented to help you squeeze by in these segments. It would have been nice to see a bit more functionality in this mechanic, but luckily, it's just barely enough to keep Chris from getting pumped full of lead.
For a game that takes its cues from RE4 in most other areas, it's a bit surprising to see RE5's narrative stray so far from its predecessor. Here's the rundown: following the liquidation of Umbrella's assets, the monolithic company has fell into disarray; a whole lot of nasty bioweapons have fallen into the hands of terrorists, and in an effort to staunch this vile flow, the BSAA has been formed to track down these sophistocated evildoers. Chris Redfield is one such BSAA member, as is his new exotic companion, Sheva Alomar. Predictably, not all goes as planned, and the duo soon finds a whole lotta Africans raining down on them.
While RE4 fell somewhere in the "side story" category, its successor takes the Umbrella lore head-on, boldly attempting to tie up the plethora of loose ends in a story which has never been able to stand up to close scrutiny. Or any scrutiny, really. Indeed, in order to even mildly appreciate RE5's story, one must first accept the fact that the series' storytelling has never been all that impressive. However, if you're able to look at it like the B-action movie that it truly is, then you'll probably find yourself unable to take your eyes off the screen. A few cringe-worthy moments aside, I found RE5's narrative surprisingly engaging, mostly because it avoids the long stretches of uneventful castle-trawling that plagued its predecessor. Also, Capcom seems to have made a genuine effort to change up the gameplay schema every once in awhile, and it pays off in the form of brilliant edge-of-your-seat pacing. There's almost always something cool happening, and if it feels like you've hit a dry spell, that just means something jaw-dropping is around the corner.
The feature that has garnered perhaps the most attention is the partner feature, and for good reason. Poor old Sheva is poised to obliterate the solitary vibe the series has been known for. Unfortunately, that's exactly what she does, but I feel that the series has moved so far from its survival horror roots that it doesn't even matter anymore. The mechanics are a lot more straightforward: Sheva is surprisingly competent as far as AI companions go. You can give her different commands to better meet the current situation, and you can load her out with different weapons between missions as well, so there's actually quite a bit of flexibility in how she handles in a firefight. On the defensive end, she rarely wanders off so far that you can't come to her rescue, and vice versa. She's incredibly adept at keeping Chris' health up, though as with her disregard for ammo, she tends to use herbs more cavalierly than you might want her to. There will be times when she dies unnecessarily, but since she tends to stay close to you at all times, it's probably your fault if she gets caught in the middle of an attack. Overall, Sheva's composure in battle is impressive for an AI, but RE5 was clearly a game meant to be played with another human. If you play the game with a friend, all the niggling little Sheva issues disappear.
One bar I feel RE4 set particularly high was its boss encounters, and on this front, RE5 doesn't disappoint in the least. You'll encounter several mucous-glazed abominations over the course of the adventure, and every boss you face seems even more insurmountable than the last. In fact, some of these baddies are so horrifying that your arsenal of weapons won't be enough to take them out; a few of these encounters will provide a chance to use some insane context-sensitive means to defeat them. Blowing a tentacle monster to pieces with an orbital laser array, for example. Of course, this can actually ruin some of the later boss battles, specifically the humanoid ones who just so happen to be series mainstays. You'll probably want to just fill these whackos full of lead, but the game is clearly geared toward defeating them through some means that contributes to the story, at the expense of having actual fun. Luckily, these cases are rare, and the majority of the bosses you'll face will be pure goo-covered bliss.
The most pleasant surprise RE5 has up it's sleeves is its huge replayability factor. Between multiple difficulty levels, unique costumes and graphics filters, scores of weapons to unlock and upgrade, emblems to hunt down, and a reincarnation of RE4's Mercenaries minigame, there's plenty to do after you blow through the game's main story. Without these extras, RE5 would simply be worth the money I paid for it. But with them it's a steal. Furthermore, the ability to return to your favorite chapters eliminates the need to plod through the ones you might have disliked, so there are dozens of reasons to keep the game spinning after you've completed your first playthrough. This alone makes RE5 one of the best 3rd-person shooter experiences on the shelves: it's a hefty bundle of compelling features that will keep you coming back for more months after you thought you were done with it.
Of course, it helps that the core experience is a tightly-paced adventure that doesn't exactly redefine the genre like it's predecessor did, but sharpens the RE formula to a near monomolecular edge. Whatever Capcom has brewing for the inevitable series reboot, you can rest easy knowing that they still know how to make one hell of a Resident Evil game.