Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Thirty One Days of Horror: Resident Evil 5

Day Sixteen: Resident Evil 5 (PC Edition)

Can you tell I have a thing for Resident Evil? I've tried to touch base on the movies and key games, but so much more remains. Today we'll take a retrospective look at Resident Evil 5. I didn't actually play through this game until just a few months ago, actually; it took me a while to be in the right mood to engage with it, and I waited to secure a cheap copy on Steam. This proved to be a good strategy; I might have been more annoyed at this game if I had paid $60 for it.

Resident Evil 5 picks up in the near-now much as RE 4 did with Leon Kennedy, this time focusing on the current-day antics of Chris Redfield and his new partner, Sheva Alomar, both now employed by the Bioterrism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA). There are a few layers of "plot" going on here: first, Chris has been busy pursuing Wesker, ne'er do-well from the original games and former stooge for Umbrella. Turns out he's been heavily experimented on, and is basically turning into an "Alice," except in the RE game universe. He's been very naughty, too, kidnapping poor Jill Valentine and experimenting on her using mind control, among other things.

In the midst of all this a local South African province in the town of Kijuju is being terrorized by an outbreak of what was previously called Las Plagas and is now known to create majini, which are basically an extension of the same viral outbreak, creating weird parasitic entities which possess the host and make them go axe-murderer on everyone.

Before the end of this game you will have burned, blasted and bashed your way through half of South Africa....or it will certainly feel like it. This game ditches much of the series trademark puzzle solving and slow pacing for a much faster, more action-oriented over-the-top cinematic adventure. In fact, the cinematics in this film are pretty good, noticeably more interesting than the same stuff you'll see in the movie Resident Evil: Afterlife, which took direct visual inspiration from RE 5.

In the game's defense it does have moments that feel very much like the Resident Evil that we all came to know in the original trilogy of games (plus Code: Veronica). However, the game veers away from much of that to focus heavily on gunplay, "maps" which you move through to clear out, and a general focus on action over tension. This works against the title, and ultimately is why RE 5 fails where prior games succeeded. The tension, the dread of what lies around the corner, the prospect of sudden shocks and thrills...the risk of unstoppable opponents; these are all features of the older games, largely discarded now in favor of vast waves of enemies coming at you in elaborate set-piece maps that, while pretty, start to feel more like arenas that you need to clear before the next gate opens (and indeed that's usually how you proceed). There's little in the way of puzzle solving, story pieces are sparse and often little more than interesting fluff you can otherwise ignore, and the game's main showcase revolves around key boss battles and events which, while impressive, are not enough on their own to sustain the game over time.

I really found that whole hydrofoil/swamp sequence tiring, to take an example. You get a swamp boat, a fan-powered craft you must take from point A to three other points, each of which has a switch you need to hit, basically, but to do so you have to survive waves of zombies...er, majini. The areas you go to are all more or less alike. The sequence of actions doesn't vary much, and few distinct plot threads pop up worth noting.

It becomes painfully apparent at moments like this that the gem devs are giving us busy work. Busy work happens in almost all computer games, but the trick is making it so that the player either doesn't notice or doesn't care, because they are having too much fun. RE 5 has some spots where you do not feel engaged enough to be having fun, and the thin veneer begins to wear off, revealing the gruesome underbelly of a grind beneath. Not a good thing.

There's no tension here; in some ways you could replace "majini" with zombies, or russians, or nazis and you'd find yourself in any number of other games. When the thing that makes your franchise distinct is missing, you have a problem.

The game also saddles you with a permanent NPC partner who's primary job is to get in your way and swipe useful stuff before you can. In my final completion playthrough I got pretty good at managing her, but for a single-player game it was an entirely needless extra feature, not one I'd complain about much, though, because Sheva added a bit to the story and made for an interesting character in the cut scenes. If you get a chance to play this multiplayer, it is worth it, and while I would agree with most that playing co-op drains some of the isolation and tension away, don't worry; RE 5 already got rid of all that for you.

Resident Evil 5 does try to deal with the problem of RE 4's impressively adept gunrunner. Rather than having you occasionally stumble across a guy selling guns, you simply go to a loadout/purchase screen between mission chapters. Oddly, this has the effect of being slightly less immersion breaking, I guess, although only because its employing a fairly generic approach used by many other action games. It would have been better to integrate these moments in a way that made more sense (i.e. finding occasional weapon drops that let you open the purchase screen) but there's no way around the fact that someone has strewn a ton of cash and valuables across the South African landscape, and you are pilfering all of it to buy your equipment, since the BSAA appears to be badly underfunded.

Sigh. I hate it when gameist elements bash their way into a title known for its sense of immersion and coherence (even if in a campy fashion).

Personally, I'd love to see what the team behind Spec Ops: The Line could do with a franchise like Resident Evil. Imagine the possibilities; Spec Ops had no supernatural elements as such, and yet it was considerably better at managing the tension, isolation and horror of its subject. Hell, you had two NPCs with you in that game and they actually contributed to the feeling of growing horror by virtue of their presence. Amazing stuff.

If you don't mind that RE 5 is basically a slightly more sophisticated modern on-rails shooter that just dolls itself up with the co-op/NPC feature, slightly more interesting levels and swaps out zombies or russians for majini, then you will find this is a fun game. If, however, you want more than just a story continuation of the Resident Evil plot and would also like the Resident Evil Feel, then you're likely to face disappointment here.

I'll give Resident Evil 5 a C+, chiefly because the stuff it does well stands out...it's just not very Resident Evil at this point. I enjoyed playing it, but I was disappointed that someone had scrubbed too hard and washed away the stuff that made this franchise distinct.

I've heard Resident Evil 6 takes RE 5's action over tension focus and ups it a notch. As of the time of writing I'll be picking that one up next, so I can see for myself. Maybe a review soon...

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