A little over four years ago, Capcom served a healthy dose of crow to a legion of naysayers with Resident Evil 4, a game that completely revitalized the revered but flagging survival horror franchise, and also happened to practically rewrite the rules of the third-person shooter genre. I'll admit upfront I consider Resident Evil 4 one of the best games ever made, and I don't think subsequent hits like Gears of War would exist--at least not in their current form--without the innovations Capcom brought to the table in early 2005.
Now we have Resident Evil 5, arriving with the enormous legacy and expectations that followed in the wake of its predecessor. Can the new game reach the same staggering heights as the old? Has lightning struck twice for Capcom? No. But then, is it reasonable to expect such a defining experience with every new iteration of this series? No, not really. In 2005, shooters needed redefining. These days, I think most people are comfortable with the genre's current standards. Resident Evil 5 may play it safe within the formula Capcom established the last time around, but it's still a tense, fantastic action experience that tidily wraps up the decade-old Resident Evil plot arc with some of the most impressive visuals and production values I've ever seen in a game.
Then again, if you weren't a big fan of RE4's specific style of shooting--its relatively limited movement controls, laser-sight targeting, constrictive inventory management, and so on--you won't find much in the new game to change your mind, since the basic feel of the shooting is the same here. There are at least few minor improvements. You now have the option to strafe while walking and control the camera movement with the right stick. The game moves the aiming and shooting control to the triggers by default, making it feel more like a modern shooter. You can even take cover on some predefined flat surfaces, and luckily you only really need cover in the spots where the designers allow you to use it.
But otherwise, RE5 doesn't quite get with the times, as it ignores some of the changes Gears and other games have made to third-person action in the last four years. It plays almost identically to RE4; you still can't shoot while moving, nor strafe while running. But you don't need to do those things. The game's basic zombie-style enemies and even uglier monsters are slower to move and attack than the quicker, better-armed enemies of more hardcore shooters, so I never felt like I was fighting the controls to get my dirty business done. RE5 strikes a clean balance between modern third-person shooting and the slower-paced survival horror of the older games in the series.
The game's story reaches all the way back to Resident Evil's beginning. You're back in the role of the series' original square-jawed hero, Chris Redfield. Following the dissolution of the nefarious Umbrella Corporation, bio-organic weapons (read: nasty monsters) have fallen into the hands of the highest bidders with the worst intentions, and Chris is now part of a global clean-up crew called the B.S.A.A. that deals with bio-terrorist outbreaks around the world. At the outset, he travels to Africa to meet up with his new partner, indigenous hottie Sheva Alomar, and investigate a rumored weapons deal. Of course, the mission quickly goes awry, leading the pair through more dangerous locations and more sinister events, and ultimately exposing some of the series' darker secrets in the process.
RE5's plot initially feels like backpedaling on Capcom's part, because RE4 made such a point of dispensing with the series' backstory. It relegated old figures like Umbrella and Wesker to history and instead focused on new villains, the cultish Los Illuminados and the parasitic Las Plagas infection that created the game's quicker, smarter enemies. The parasites are still around, but they're more relevant to the gameplay than the story, which quickly gets back to basics, with Umbrella, Wesker, and other elements of Resident Evil lore again front and center. The game does such a good job of wrapping up the whole saga by its end, though, that I can't fault Capcom for falling back on familiar territory. Whatever direction the next Resident Evil takes, it seems a safe bet that the Umbrella-influenced part of the series is behind us.
I really can't say enough about how good Resident Evil 5 looks or how creepy it sounds, but then, I also feel like a picture--or in this case, a video--is worth well more than a thousand words, so you'd be better served by simply watching the game on the Internet to see what it looks like. I will say the environments are extremely varied and immaculately crafted from start to finish, with a really impressive amount of care having been given to the lighting, smoke and particle effects, and other ambient elements that bring each area to life. The creature design is at least as disgusting and disturbing as it was in 4, if not more so. And I have to call special attention to the real-time cutscenes here, which are among the most impressive I've ever seen, easily equaling and perhaps surpassing even the brilliant scenes in Metal Gear Solid 4. The use of motion capture, facial animation, eye movements, and other subtle touches makes the human characters shockingly believable, and there's some really impressive fight choreography and intricate action sequences that make them exciting to watch. And while we're talking about graphics, it's worth noting that the frame rate on the PlayStation 3 is noticeably lower than on the Xbox 360 in a number of spots. It's certainly still playable on the PS3, but the difference is significant enough that I'd recommend the Xbox game if you have the option.
Sheva's presence in the game allows for cooperative play, the biggest change to the core gameplay. Even when you're playing alone, she's with you from start to finish, joining in the fight. And as AI partners go, she's really not half bad, most of the time. She'll effectively use the weapons you give her or let her pick up; she killed quite a few enemies for me during my playthrough. She also doubles your inventory space, since you can trade items between both characters. There were a couple of times she got herself randomly killed, which was a big buzzkill, but the game is generous enough with checkpoints that you don't lose too much progress when you die. While I missed the lonely, solitary feel of Resident Evil 4 from time to time, Sheva is a good enough ally to secure a spot on your own personal zombie team.
Of course, she's an awful lot better when she's controlled by another human in cooperative play that works online, with system link, or even in split-screen (though the latter doesn't utilize the entire screen and looks pretty bad). There are a few places that only Sheva can reach in the story mode, and when you play as her in a co-op game, you can explore them. Otherwise, the co-op is mainly good for tag-teaming a bunch of zombies, so I think it will best serve you on harder difficulties. The game is challenging but not impossible by yourself on the normal mode, so that mode may get a bit easy for two experienced players.
The inventory has also been updated from the spatial, Tetris-like system in RE4. There, each item had specific dimensions, and you had to move and rotate them around to make them all fit into your allotted space. In the new game, each character has a simple nine-slot inventory system, with each item or type of ammunition taking up one slot. I definitely found myself having to pass up a lot of dropped ammo due to a lack of open slots, but I also never ran out of ammo for the weapons I was using, so it wasn't a big problem. More pressingly, you now have to manage your inventory in real time as the action keeps happening around you. So you're strongly advised to get all the necessary items traded between Chris and Sheva when there's a lull in the action before moving on--because trying to get her to give you a grenade while she's being eaten alive by a giant zombie dog is a dicey prospect at best.
You can finish the story mode here in about a dozen hours, though every minute is filled with an entertaining mix of combat and light puzzle-solving. The game sends you through dusty towns, wetlands replete with tribal villages, underground ruins, and the requisite secret research facilities, throwing more dangerous zombies and nastier creatures at you every step of the way. There are some really enormous, epic boss encounters here too, many with unique items or mechanics involved that require you to do more than simply pump a bunch of shotgun shells into the boss. It's also worth noting that the weapons upgrade system hasn't gone anywhere, though Resident Evil 4's merchant sadly has. No more mysterious, creepy "What're ya sellin'?" guy at every turn, which is honestly the most disappointing aspect of the entire game for me. Regardless, you can still buy weapons and tweak out their damage, capacity, reload speed, and other attributes from a menu between chapters and every time you die. It's a good way to add variety to the combat, like it was last time.
Like RE4, this game has a lot to come back to after you finish the story. You can replay any chapter from a menu to earn more money and upgrade your weapons beyond what you could achieve on your first run, and you can also earn points you can cash in for items on a gigantic list of peripheral goodies. These include new costumes and "figurines" of every character in the game that you can rotate and view up close. The Mercenaries mode also makes a return, giving you 10 unlockable characters to throw against a series of time attack challenges where you try to kill zombies in quick succession to score combo points before time runs out. Mercenaries is now available in split-screen play, too. There are emblems to find hidden in each level that unlock even more goodies. You can unlock infinite-ammo and special versions of most weapons. The list goes on.
There's really no way Resident Evil 5 could have lived up to the momentous impact made by the last proper Resident Evil game, but I don't think it needed to. That game paved the way for a lot of other great games, one of which is this direct sequel. I played it start to finish in three sittings, have played it extensively in other capacities while working on this review, and still can't wait to go back and play through it again cooperatively on higher difficulties to open up more of its goodies. If that's not the definition of a fine action game, I don't know what is.