The Short Version:
Even if you’re a longtime Resident Evil fan, it’s hard to justify buying this particular instalment. It’s not in line with the series’ horror legacy, nor is it a shining example of action-packed shooter gameplay. This is a clunky, padded, underwhelming product that deserves no more than a rental – it’ll take about that long to complete, anyway.
The Long Version:
I’m going to be completely honest here – I’ve never played more than a minute of Resident Evil 4. Kind of blasphemous for a reviewer, some may say, but that’s the situation I’m in. I have no outside context for the decisions made in Resident Evil 5’s development beyond what information I’ve gathered and my experience with other third-person shooters.
As such, my distaste for 5 comes from two places – its disconnect from its roots, and its poor functionality as a modern shooter. Every design and aesthetic choice made here has been done before, and done better, in other games of its type. It attempts to cram in a lot of the series’ history and its worst traits, but despite this feels short and inconsequential.
Kicking off five years after Resident Evil 4, this instalment reunites players with the now-enormous Chris Redfield, an agent (and founder, apparently) of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance. The BSAA receives intelligence suggesting bioweapons are being moved through Africa, so Chris is sent in to investigate. Within minutes of meeting with his new partner, Sheva Alemar, the duo are thrown into a fight for their lives built on a long-standing conspiracy – and more than a few plot twists.
Here’s the thing with conspiracy-based action-thriller plotlines: you need compelling characters, a clear sense of atmosphere and tone, and sharp writing to really pull it off. Trouble is, the same trite writers and developers that worked on the rest of the series are back again to guide this game – and Shinji Mikami’s nowhere to be found.
I didn’t connect with Chris, no matter what flashbacks or moments of reflection were thrown at me. I didn’t find Sheva to be a worthwhile (or even adequate) character, nor did the introduction of supporting characters or antagonists do anything for me. The closest things to “solid” in Resident Evil 5‘s story are its resolution of various plot threads, its use of fan-pleasing trivia in the loading screens, and the fact that it lasts a little under ten hours.
So, with the story being mostly inconsequential to fans or newcomers, surely the gameplay can make up for narrative shortcomings. Had Mikami been on board for this, given what I know about Resident Evil 4, perhaps believing in the best case scenario would have been possible. However, that’s not the case.
As with most shooters these days, you control Chris (or Sheva, in co-op) from a close over-the-shoulder angle. Aiming with laser-pointer-guided weapons, the player must shoot their way through moderate-to-heavy waves of mutated enemies. On the plus side, there’s a good range of weapons to pick up and try out, and enemies are varied enough to make the effort to kill them seem relatively worthwhile.
Unfortunately, the failings of Capcom’s development team come to light the second you try to move. Their design philosophy seems to have been to make enemies pause long enough to get in a few good shots, in order to make up for the player character’s restrictive tank-like movement. Nice animation is sullied by Chris and Sheva’s inability to turn faster than a few inches per second and their rather single-minded sprint maneuver. The aiming is also a little wonky and often sends rounds of ammo flying near an enemy’s head, given that it’s a tiny pin-point laser guiding the player’s fire. Pin-point accuracy is fine in third-person shooters, just make sure that we can always see where exactly the laser hits and can maneuver it accordingly.
Bad controls aren’t the game’s only problems. The first and most prominent of these issues is the quality of the AI. Sheva, your partner, is often wasteful of precious resources like herbs and ammunition. She will run into hordes of enemies, fire off every bullet she has, use up all of the health items at the slightest hint of injury, and is often slow or unwilling to assist you when trapped by monsters. Her incompetence, however, is small potatoes compared to the inconsistency of the enemies’ subroutines. Sometimes they’ll trap you in invisible corners of the level, or pelt you with explosives from a lofty position, but then the aforementioned pausing before an attack happens and you wonder how they lasted before guns came into the equation.
The other notable issue is the big one hanging over the series: the inventory system. From what I have seen of Resident Evil 4, the concept of a “not-all-items-are-equal” inventory system seems somewhat revolutionary and seldom used in mainstream games. Why, then, would Capcom choose to return to a restrictive “one-item-fits-all” system? This means each character can only hold 9 distinctive items – though ammo can overlap if the same type is present – and constant management of resources is necessary. Bringing up the item screen doesn’t pause the game, though, so be prepared for a lot of interrupted trades and accidental transfers of items.
Other problems lie under the surface, in the inherent structure of the game. Grinding is all but encouraged thanks to a very overpriced upgrade and market system, which pops up in-between levels or when starting the game from a checkpoint. Essentially, in order to afford that nice melee vest or a f**king rocket launcher, the player has to collect thousands in gold that is conservatively dropped throughout levels. Levels can be replayed with the player’s inventory being saved between playthroughs, but this hampers progression and outright kills any semblance of balance.
The levels themselves are also problematic. They are designed to take up as much of the player’s time as possible with repetitive “three-of-a-kind” puzzles and arbitrary restrictions that require you to pull a lever or hit a switch way on the other side of the area. Granted, some puzzles are conceptually interesting – I point you to the light-based puzzle in Chapter 4 – but generally it feels like a lot of effort for little payoff.
There’s moments of brilliant design here, underneath all the bullcrap. The boss battles – as with the puzzles – are interesting on a conceptual level, only they’re more varied and occur in a wide range of locales. Without spoiling anything, rest assured that they run the gamut of physical attributes. Trouble is, they’re hampered by overly aggressive AI routines and made more difficult to combat with the clunky controls and your crap AI partner.
And then there are the quick time events. Quick time events, wherein pressing or mashing buttons in time with the onscreen indicator is the key to success, were expertly used in a small handful of games. Resident Evil 5 is not one of them; here, as with most instances, it’s training gamers to rely more on reflex and obedience than genuine skill. It’s a lazy way to get around programming lots of player-controlled actions, and it gives outsiders the impression that we’re a bunch of mindless button-mashing drones.
If there’s a saving grace at all, it’s three-fold. First, the game is incredibly short despite feeling padded with irritating fights and tedious puzzles. Me, I’m looking at an eight-hour or so playthrough at Medium difficulty, so expect around that length. Second, the game sports the timed “Mercenaries” survival mode as a holdover from RE4. Aside from the control issues, it’s tense and thrilling and avoids many of the campaign’s pitfalls. Third, the game’s integrated co-op mechanic (available online for all platforms, and offline for consoles) means that players can cut out the issue with Sheva’s AI, provided they have a teammate or are confident enough in the kindness of strangers.
Before I move on from the gameplay, I should also address the hot-button issue this game has raised. I went into Resident Evil 5 with as open a mind as possible and with the expectation that the Internet’s numerous claims of racism were unfounded. Then I encountered large enemies in native African dress wielding spears and promptly joined the angry mob. You can do a lot of things, Capcom, but avoiding extreme stereotypes is far from one of them.
Fortunately, offensiveness doesn’t apply to the game’s visuals for the most part. The MT Framework engine used here gives life and detail to this very stark interpretation of Africa, with environments and character models alike being impressive to the eye. The advanced lighting also gives a mild sense of atmosphere, albeit a very surreal sort. Admittedly, this also creates a sort of haziness that’s unappealing to behold, since the art style is so bereft of colour and variety.
Sound-wise, it’s nothing special but also not terrible. Certain music cues alert the player to ambushes or “jump scare” moments that were intended to be scarier than they actually ended up being. The voice acting is uninspired but notably solid, especially considering the presence of Roger Craig Smith (better known as the voice of Ezio Auditore).
At the end of the day, all I expect out of a Resident Evil game is pure cheesy entertainment and some semblance of creative horror elements. Today, I was sorely disappointed by Capcom’s efforts – or lack thereof. Resident Evil 5 is a shell of its series’ former glory, however dubious that was, and it stamps on any progress its predecessor made. There’s better shooters out there, and none of them have gameplay this broken.