The Resident Evil franchise has come a long way since it was scaring the pants off gamers back in 1996 with crude polygon blocks. Thanks to Hollywood move adaptations and Milla Jovochich’s legs, the T-Virus, Umbrella Corp and Racoon City are almost common knowledge these days. So now after many gaming titles, across five different platforms and over 35 million copies sold worldwide – what can Capcom possibly offer next?
Resident Evil 5 has been eagerly awaited since back in the middle of 2005 when it was announced to be arriving on a next-gen platform. Surprising to many, anxious fans were greeted by screenshots of sun-soaked desert land-scapes instead of the typical dark and gloomy scenes that the franchise was famous for. Even more unusual was the choice of the first title’s character Chris Redfield returning as the main protagonist after a long hiatus. The massive success of Resident Evil 4 – a game that changed the dynamics of the series dramatically (and went on to spawn multiple releases across different platforms) - ensured that expectations were at an all time high. Thankfully we can report that it has been worth the wait.
The game immediately throws you into a sinister shroud of mystery with an opening cinematic that shows a cloaked figure hovering over a man who is obviously in pain. As the faceless cloaked figure begins to leave the room, the young man begins to convulse violently; which is fair enough considering he then starts to grow crimson pulsating tumour-like lumps from all over his body. Meanwhile outside, a military presence has started to gather and are getting ready to breach the building.
The intro then cuts instantly to our hero Chris who is cruising down an African dirt track in a hum vee. The heat waves shimmer off the golden plains as we start to learn about the events that took place in the 10 year gap since we last saw Mr. Redfield. Since leaving STARS and the painful memories of his lost partner Jill Valentine, he has become a member of a group known as the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA) - whose latest assignment has sent him to investigate a bioterrorism incident in the fictional African country of Kijuju.
Arriving in a small, under-developed town, Chris meets Sheva Alomar, his soon to be partner. Capcom has excelled in creating realistic faces, matching facial expressions and fluid animations with their character designs. Sheva is no exception, with curves all in the right places and looks that combine all the best parts of Lara Croft, Jessica Alba and Rihanna in one. In fact the entire game is a visual treat, where just walking through the town’s dusty streets has detail like eerie locals staring at you from house porches, chickens scampering in front of your feet and shimmers of hazy sun-light blinding your vision at times. The graphics were so brilliant it was difficult to tell when the cinematics ended and the gameplay begins. At one time I was wondering why my character was just standing there not doing anything until I realised that I could actually control him. The visuals really are this good.
The opening moments of gameplay, where you are walking through the street, allow you to come to grips with the control system. Anyone who played Resident Evil 4 will be right at home with the over the shoulder third person perspective and separate stick for movement and camera control. Turning your character around is slow, just like in the previous game, so don’t expect to be strafing and running around like a super ninja. The controls will take a bit of getting used to so expect to stagger around looking like a drunk Thunderbird puppet initially. But after a short while, angling the camera and navigating yourself around will become second nature. Which is good because it isn’t long before you are face to face with the infected masses.
Firstly, Resident Evil 5 isn’t about plain old zombies now. Mindless brain-eating zombies are totally old school these days. Instead the poor inhabitants of this African town have been infected by a much more serious strain of the virus causing a wealth of ugly side-effects. They are smarter (they operate machine-gun turrets and ride motorcycles now!), fast and sometimes very difficult to take down. While some can be killed by careful headshots, others will mutate into other, more destructive forms when wounded. As Chris mentions early on, “…they don’t move like any zombie I’ve ever seen.”
As in Resident Evil 4, players cannot target and move at the same time. Holding down L1 gives you a cross-hair (or the ultra stylish laser pointer) and R1 shoots. In order to move around you have to lower your weapon, preventing you from shooting while retreating…which is what I would be doing in most cases Chris and Sheva find themselves in. But this element of gameplay is one of Capcom’s finer creations and truly opens up that aspect of survival horror. It basically means that every shot counts – whether you aim for a leg to slow down your attacker or try for a well-placed headshot as a zombie charges for a taste of your juicy bits. The inability to fire blindly while running around like an idiot makes the combat intense and personal. Not to mention the sparse ammo in the game that will cause you to curse every missed shot. The only main gripe with the combat is the hand-to-hand fighting with your knife. At times where you run out of ammo, your trusty blade is your only defence. But without being able to move while holding it, you are forced to just stand around and wait for them to come to you. Moving closer and then drawing your knife is often too time-consuming, leaving you vulnerable to their close quarter bites. Surely a burly lad like Chris can operate a knife at the same time as moving his legs?
The introduced concept of having a partner changes the dynamics of the gameplay considerably. Sheva can provide you with backup, direction when you’re lost, help you find items scattered around in crates, hold extra equipment that one person couldn’t carry and - most importantly – is someone to hear Chris’ wise-cracks and general banter. If you are low on ammo she will (if she posses any) throw you some from her inventory. Sheva will also cover your back and help you if you get pinned down in a tight spot. When playing single-player the AI that controls your partner is fairly clever and usually gives you a good sense of team-work.
Resident Evil 5 offers some great level designs as well. The opening sequences place you in a poverty stricken village filled with narrow alley-ways and confined spaces like two or three roomed houses that you can try and defend by pushing bookcases in front of windows. Zombies will smash down doors, leap in windows or climb in from the roof to ensure that you squeal like a little girl in front of your flatmates. Later on this sense of claustrophobia is counted with a scene that takes place on a cliff-face overlooking a huge desert canyon - fighting off a giant maggot thing with wings and nippers. Next you will be in a pitch black mine. Here it is so dark that it requires one partner to light the way with a two-handed battery operated torch. The genius behind this is that it leaves just one other player to fend off attackers when they suddenly appear in your team-mate’s beam of light. Resident Evil 4 sometimes felt a little recycled in the environment department so it’s great to see that Capcom have put the next-gen technology to use creating exciting surroundings. I did find it a bit odd however the way Chris felt the need to smash through glass windows by jumping head-first every time. Surely knocking the glass out with your gun or maybe even just opening it would be a safer option? I guess it just takes a real man like Chris to open a glass window with his skull.
The ruthless difficulty of Resident Evil 4 is still intact. Players have the option of three difficulties when playing and at certain times throughout the game you can definitely expect to meet your end at least once. Many of the chapters end with a seemingly impossible boss battle where your odds of success seem to be non-existent. But as any previous player will tell you, there is always a weakness to exploit if you keep your wits about you. Epic boss battles aside, just getting through the standard stock of enemies can be challenging at the best of times. Dogs make a horrible re-appearance, often leaping out from under objects and taking you by surprise with their vicious attacks and blinding speed. Dogs have always been the devil in Resident Evil games but this game takes them to a whole new level of evil. There are different breeds of dog, some smaller and easier to take out. But other larger canine baddies can make their entire face open up and reveal a massive set of teeth ready to make acquaintance with your torso.
Human enemies are equally nasty, but slower and usually easier to hit. However they often will pick up weapons like spears or throwing knives that can cause some serious damage from distance. Some even come prepared with flaming Molotov cocktails that they can hurl from above. Good thing about these though is that if you manage to shoot the Molotov while they are still holding it, it causes them to explode all over the place in a fiery ball of body bits. As previously mentioned, many enemies can change form when injured, causing you to re-assess your plan of attack. Zombies may erupt with gruesome appendages that can lash out at you with greater range thanks to their organic whip tumour growth. Others turn into some form of pustule covered plant-like thing that seems almost unbeatable with its thick armour. Resident Evil 5 definitely doesn’t allow for mindless shooting. Players will need to find weak-spots, look for explosive objects to take out multiple enemies or just try and clear a path to flee in the search for more ammo (or a green herb to restore health). I totally recommend having proximity mines on hand. Grenades can be tricky to successfully land on target due to the lack of a projectile arc indicator and the random movement of the infected. But proximity mines can be placed between you and the advancing enemies, allowing you to bait them in with your tasty flesh.
Some of the later encounters are so tough you will also need to pay careful attention to your upgrades. Finding valuable items throughout the levels give you currency to purchase and improve your equipment. There’s no dodgy man in a trench-coat this time, though - instead you have a menu at the start of each save-point to spend your moola. Upgrades to your weapons include the standard things such as reload speed, ammo capacity, firepower and a critical rating that determines your success with head-shot (or one-shot) kills.
Making another return from Resident Evil 4 are the interactive cinematic sequences. Many people, myself included, have grown weary of these “push this button now or die” aspects that video games seem to have embraced in recent times. Thankfully, Resident Evil 5 doesn’t over-do them and even the few that are in place are fairly fluid and don’t hamper the experience.
Capcom has had years to fine-tune their survival horror formula and this is the result. They have built upon highly-praised foundations that Resident Evil 4 put down and raised the bars both visually and with their production values. Resident Evil 5 has plenty of extras to keep fans happy – many of which we unfortunately can’t talk about with our early review code of the game. But online co-op multiplayer will be included and die-hard fans of the game can expect some tasty unlockables not to mention some great plot developments to keep you guessing until the end. Besides, even if we could, we wouldn’t spoil the storyline anyway!