Hawk Zombie Down.
Reader's Note: Let's get one extremely minor, stupid, 'controversial' thing out of the way so that we can both, reviewer and reader, get down to business: Resident Evil 5 features a Caucasian protagonist blowing away lots and lots of non-Caucasian enemies. If you are aware from the outset that the game takes place in Africa and yet you are still troubled by any skin-tone-related aspects—on any level whatsoever—there is a distinct probability that you have been exposed to the brain-damaging mutagenic affliction Politicalus Correctimus. Alternately, there exists the possibility of simple, congenital retardation on your own part. Seek professional consultation before you attempt to breed.
Resident Evil is back—although you might not necessarily recognize it.
[image1]By any reckoning, the folks in S.T.A.R.S. and the B.S.A.A. (and/or whatever other short-lived, alphabet-soup agencies they've collectively bounced between in previous, doubtless-undocumented years) have been doing a pretty unspectacular job of reigning in the whole zombie/bioterrorism thing. However heroic their Good Fight, they've generally cocked it up, and cocked it up badly (that smoking crater at Raccoon City is starting to look pretty good these days), at least compared to the spillover of zombie-intensive pharmacological shenanigans to an unsuspecting Africa, as presented in Resident Evil 5.
If you haven't dipped into the RE franchise recently—or even if you have, for that matter—you are in for some surprises, rafiki. (Please consult this dictionary for all your Swahali needs.)
Surprises, like people—alive or otherwise—come in all different colors, of course. While Resident Evil 5 does retain Resident Evil 4's over-the-shoulder perspective, it takes the unprecedented step of incorporating cooperative multiplayer—not only incorporating it, but embracing it wholeheartedly as the key selling-point of the game. This is by no means the only 'surprise' of the game... but more on that in a bit.
From RE5's beautifully-presented, commendably-straight-faced introduction—gone, at least for the most part, are the days of painful “master of unlocking”-era hokeyness. Players learn that Chris Redfield has been dispatched as lead of a B.S.A.A. task force to investigate/combat some fishy zombified goings-on in Africa, and is paired up with West African badass beauty, B.S.A.A. Operative Sheva Alomar (inexplicably ranked, at the time of this writing, as only fourth-hottest Resident Evil gal on our front-page reader poll; after Claire Redfield, people? Seriously??).
[image2]Even if you play Resident Evil 5 as a single-player game, you're not really alone. Sheva is your constant A.I. sidekick, co-star, and wing(wo)man ass-kicker (she can also be your choice of main, too, once you've made it through the game once). Not only is she a decent fighter in her own right—very decent, if you equip her properly—but she can help you activate twin switches. Also, she's obviously got some inventory slots of her own, so she also serves as a reliable pack-mule (...you male chauvinist oinker, you). Before long, you'll find serious strategic considerations in how you divide up and constantly re-organize the items you'll find or purchase (with points) throughout the game.
The good news is that, like I said, she can be helpful, even indispensible, in combat. Give her the rifle and let her pick off enemies for you surgically, while you do the tank-work, wading through ravenous packs of what I can't really call 'zombies' anymore (your parasite-enslaved foes are crazed, Danny Boyle-fast, wield their own weapons, majini who will surprise you in other ways, too).
Occasionally, Sheva will get in hand-to-hand trouble, obliging you to get close to her and slap the mindless hordes off of her with a single button press. Contrariwise, if you get in over your head, she'll usually return the favor... and if you're really getting your ass kicked/chewed/chainsawed in a dire way, she'll be Sheva-on-the-spot with the healing items if she has any—important, because if one of you bites it, you're both hosed. In still other instances, the partner mechanic
can must be used to have Chris give Sheva a literal leg up, to climb to higher perches from which the player can spot (or shoot) different things (or, y'know, things). Teamwork: It's not just a good idea; it's, like, the law.
The bad news is, Sheva is often actually a little too helpful and can be pretty cavalier with the collection and application of said health items (at the precise moments, you'd rather she didn't), not to mention with her own ammo as well. She won't go Full Retard on you like the 'helpful' A.I. sidekicks in some games I could mention... but the single-player experience here can't hold a cheap recycled Bic to the true, two-player cooperative experience. It's pretty damned exciting once you're into it, because among numerous other and better reasons, a panicked, flesh-and-blood co-player can easily go Full Retard on you, providing a screaming, frustrating experience that even the most maliciously-dim A.I. can never hope to approach.
[image3]Like I said, exciting: The inventory-swapping between Chris and Sheva's goodies (that you'll need to constantly and I mean constantly be aware of) sounds, on paper, like it would be more of a pain in the ass than a cool mechanic—but it works perfectly, and even logically. It's proximity-based, after all, which only reinforces the need for you and the other player to continually have each other's backs (and even if your inventory situation is fine for the moment, it's a real camaraderie-builder and/or lesson-learner) to help kick a bloodthirsty no-longer-human off your buddy at the last minute, after he/she suddenly backs himself/herself into a stupid corner. Believe me, a few close calls (or "prematurely truncated") games will turn them off of that shit pretty damned quickly.
But let's not pretend that the excitement somehow resides solely in the sheer buddy-love and gaming skills of you and your co-op partner. Capcom designers have described the tension and setting of Resident Evil 5 by referencing not only the expected wave of 'fast-zombie' films, but also the white-knuckle Black Hawk Down. And there are whole stretches of this game that absolutely nail the frantic, outnumbered panic of hauling ass down some pisspot, claustrophobic, clutter-strewn, bifurcating Kijuju back alley—vaulting over obstructions, desperately tossing ammo back and forth for last-second reloads, getting briefly separated at a forking path, heave-ho-ing your partner up to a better position—all of this broken up by the infuriating (and yet somehow emotionally right) need to actually stop and stand in place to try and gun down the waves of gibbering subhuman hordes raving and scrabbling toward the unlucky spot where you try to make a stand. (Now you can breathe.)
It's a comparatively short ride, one whose Normal-difficulty challenge can leave you blowing through the main game in 12-14 hours even if you don't particularly know what you're doing. To beef up the challenge, Veteran is the way to go (and once you're done with that, Professional mode), and the ever-faithful Mercenaries game gives the overall game package some high-octane legs.
Now, for the other 'surprise' I mentioned earlier: You'll note I keep using the words 'exciting' and 'excitement'. It's not because I have anything remotely approaching a stunted vocabulary. It's because the Resident Evil series has, as of this 5th incarnation (of the 'prime' titles, anyway), ceased to be a 'survival horror' game. It's just... not 'scary'. In, you know, that way. At all.
[image4]Oh, it's got some god-awful, thanks-for-the-bad-dream-fuel imagery of ropy worms, black pus, and other wrong things boiling out of very wrong places; and there are some awesome environmental set pieces with boss monsters you'll thank whomever or whatever you pray to you'll never meet in real life; and you'll sure as hell have some tense moments when you're either grappling with or running your ass away from some insurmountable odds. But it has definitely jumped the mutated shark in terms of crossing the gap to full-on action blockbuster.
Gone is the sense of eerie, heart-pounding desperation you may have felt in the corridors of the Raccoon City mansion; gone, the obligatory, perversely-appealing, saving-your-shit-like-it-was-gold ammo conservation of the earlier games. Even in subtle visual terms, RE5 takes the edge off... I mean, what Duke Nukem-endorsed brand of nutso steroids has Chris Redfield been injecting, and when will some lunatic baseball commission somewhere get on his case about it? Everybody's thinkin it, I'm just saying it. [His biceps are bigger than his head. ~Ed.]
That one particularly touchy point aside, the gorgeous environs, character models and overall visuals, and the adrenaline-soaked cooperative gameplay (wonky, stodgy Capcom controls and all) cannot be denied. If Resident Evil 5 is a new flavor of game for the long-running franchise, it's also a strong, spicy one—with occasional chucks of co-op wasabi to goad your inner action hero into fits of running and gunning... albeit, not at the same time.