Console Yourself: Resident Evil 5
“I will tolerate no further delays.” -Albert Wesker
Format: Xbox 360, PS3 & PC • Developer: Capcom• Released: March 2009
Anticipation for Resident Evil 5 has yo-yoed sharply over the last couple of years. Initial enthusiasm off the back of its predecessor was tempered by concerns of the racial implications of its setting, and excitement about the implementation of co-op has been balanced by fears that the Resi 4 mechanics would not stand up in 2009. These fears have been partly justified- although the game offers many memorable hours of fun, a number of issue prevent it sharing Resident Evil 4’s status as one of the all-time greats.
The gameplay never falls below competent, and is frequently superb. Concerns about whether the Resident Evil 4 control scheme and concept could still cut the mustard a few years down the line are quickly put to rest, with an intelligently structured walk around easing the player in before throwing them into the classic riot scenario. From then on, the title is consistent of a succession of superbly executed set pieces in a much more varied set of locations than any previous episode in the series. Although the addition of cooperative gameplay runs contrary to the themes of the titles, the implementation is in pure Resi, and ensures that every part of the game has to potential to deliver memorable moments. Unexpectedly the AI substitute used for offline play is extremely competent, not getting left behind by Chris’s dashes for cover and sensibly prioritising ammunition, reserving the big guns for the toughest opponents. While I wouldn’t want the series to make a name for itself as offering two player action, as and addition to the fourth game’s formula it’s a smart move, acquitting itself well against allegations that Capcom have simply jumped on a western design bandwagon. The game’s actual shortcomings lie elsewhere…
In gameplay terms, Resident Evil 5’s big problem isn’t the obvious one of being too similar to its predecessor. Resi 4 is a truly magnificent piece of software and more of the same would be just what the doctor ordered, even four years later. The drawback is that’s it’s not quite as good. While the new inventory system is simply and quick, it lacks the fun of Leon’s Deus Ex-style attach case. A prime example is the length of the game, which at ten hours is around half the size of the fourth title. It’s still an acceptable duration, but doesn’t allow for the subtly and experimentation that was present in 4. It also hampers the game’s arsenal, as there isn’t enough time to appreciate the subtitles of the array of different handguns, shotguns, riles and more that Chris is handed. In 4, a new weapon felt like a real event, and the choice over whether to trade in Leon’s present upgraded armaments for an entry level version of the new gun was a fraught one. In 5, weapons are introduced frequently enough to feel throwaway. Also missing are most of the moments of silliness that gave 4 its charm. The merchant whose voice acting enlivened Leon’s shopping is sadly absent, replaced with a faceless transaction screen, and little touches such as the shooting gallery and action figures are ordered out of the main game at gunpoint, leaving it poorer for it.
One area where the game undeniably trumps its predecessor is plot. Resident Evil 4 started strongly, with a new and exciting situation, but ran out of story just before the halfway mark, containing no revelations after this point. The fifth game on the other hand, staggers its storyline all the way though, giving a consistent array of villains and perfectly engineering the shifts in tone which are demanded by the levels. Capcom have obviously taken fan dissatisfaction with Resident Evil 4’s story to heart. After most of the series had focussed on its characters’ determination to destroy Umbrella, there was a distinct anti-climax when it was revealed that the fall of the corporation had occurred between games, moving to a new scenario without resolving any of the unanswered questions left outstanding from previous titles. Resident Evil 5 remedies this mistake in style, focussing its story on the loose threads left over, and weaving them skilfully together to create a genuine climax to the last ten years of the series. The answers presented aren’t particularly imaginative. The resolutions to the two key questions of “What was the founder of Umbrella playing at?” and “What is Wesker’s motivation?” are the most obvious possible. But in a videogame series, it’s a pleasant surprise to get any resolution, and the story crafted here is both authoritative and consistent, providing a definitive solution to the Chris/Wesker conflict which has been slowly building in the games since CODE: Veronica. Although it’s bold of Capcom to kill off such a popular character as perishes at the conclusion of the game, most followers of the Resi story had rightly applauded the decision to give this story an ending, instead of leaving it in limbo.
Complementing this is some skilled characterisation. Chris’s redesign is a triumph, being the first iteration of the character to convey his status as the hardman of the Resi crew without making him look thuggish. Despite his over-developed biceps, he’s got more personality that the cast of Gear of War combined, and the voice acting from newcomer Roger Craig Smith keeps him endearing even as he dispatches hoards of impoverished shantytown dwellers. His companion is also an unexpected triumph, being the best addition to the Resi cast since the second game. Although Sheva’s upbeat tone is a little at odds with her tragic background, leading the player to suspect that her backstory was only written after her dialogue was recorded. The remainder of the character are an interesting mix of old-school Resi figures, such as ally Josh and the leader of Tricell Africa, alongside the Resi 4-inspired cowardly bioweapons dealer Irving. Crowning this all is the ingenious narrative device used to tip Wesker over the edge from cold amorality to all-out psychosis.
Unfortunately, these successes must be balanced against the racially offensive content that the game contains. Some have sought to defend the title on the basis that there is no malice intended, but offence caused by ignorance is still offence. Although the subtext of the game, with a western corporation using the people of Africa for its sinister experiments can be read as an anti-colonialist message, the game is too clumsy for anyone to genuinely believe that Capcom were aware of the issues they were blundering into. After the opening chapter sees a glamorous white woman being snatched by the black mob and turned into a monster, there’s almost a perverse sense of anticipation for what failures of taste the Japanese developers will inadvertently commit next. The game doesn’t disappoint either, with Chris soon dispatched to mow down a stereotypical native tribe, complete with grass skirts and wooden spears. I don’t buy the argument that there are some subject matters that cannot be dealt with by video games- they’re a medium like any other, and so are equally capable of examining the human condition and the history of our species. But Capcom has simply appropriated images to enliven their crowd-control shooting game, ignoring the real human tragedies that they have been derived from. The developer deserves all the criticism that has been flung its way.
Applying brute force calculations to Resident Evil 5 makes allocating a score relatively straightforward. It’s a reprise of a magnificent game, with one point docked for a few gameplay stumbles and another for the derogatory setting of the title. Fortunately, the conclusion very much clears the decks, leaving the future of the series wide open to new influences.