Sunday, April 26, 2009

Resident Evil 5

I've now completed Resident Evil 5 both in single-player on the PS3 and split-screen co-op on the 360. I had a lot of worries coming into this one. Especially after the lame Degeneration movie, I was perturbed by the loss of Shinji Mikami's authorial vision and by what I perceived as a selective amnesia regarding the franchise's female leads. While I still have some qualms with the latter, the game is certainly a better product than Degeneration, and, overall, I'd say it does the series proud.

The major complaint against the game and series continues to be with the inability to move and shoot, but I maintain that RE5 doesn't need such functionality, and it has nothing to do with me being a stodgy traditionalist. I'll use it if it's there, but I've always been mildly annoyed at the absurdity of circle strafing in a lot of first-person shooters, while, in more realistically paced titles, shooting with any degree of accuracy while moving is rarely practical anyway. In Gears of War, the whole cover mechanic--now a staple of the third-person shooter genre, which does not quite include RE5--was obviously implemented specifically to direct the player away from desperate and ineffectual run-and-gun tactics.

Moreover, I'll continue to insist that dual-analog controls are not natural by any means. While single-stick movement may feel archaic to post-Halo FPS veterans, I suspect it would be much easier to grasp for everyone else. I think RE5, in its own way, as a title developed in Japan, where the FPS is still a niche genre, actually targets a broader audience, beyond just shooter fans. That said, the developers did include two dual-analog control schemes, and, while I would have liked fuller customization options, it's better than nothing. Since there's still no way to shoot while moving, the only real advantage is the ability to strafe. I imagine that would help in dodging projectiles, but I stuck with the RE4 controls I was accustomed to, and I never felt like I needed more.

Dispensing with the typewriter save system, RE5 adopts Devil May Cry 3's mission and checkpoint structure. About half the length of the overly long RE4, the full campaign is divided into several chapters, with a few checkpoints and save points per, and completed chapters can be revisited at any time to gather loot or just to improve your rank. As in DMC3, the chapter select option doesn't get enough credit as a simple yet brilliant way of encouraging replay, especially in conjunction with the extremely addictive weapon upgrade system. For better or worse, the format of linear, self-contained chapters is one of a number of changes that places the series now firmly apart from adventure and into the action genre, but it is one of the most consistently playable (and replayable) action games I've come across. Granted, I haven't yet played Gears of War 2 or Dead Space, which I hear are RE5's nearest competitors in its class, but I did very recently play through both RE4: Wii Edition and the first Gears of War, and I think RE5 definitely holds its own as a must-have addition to the library.

The biggest change, provided you have someone to play with, is, of course, the addition of two-player co-op. Multiplayer was never something I thought would fit in a main RE title, but playing through RE5 with another person is a blast. I do feel, however, that it's a sort of one-dimensional delivery of fun.

What little adventure aspects there are in RE5 don't really survive into the co-op play. One of the great benefits of any multiplayer experience is the sheer energy provided by the presence of another live human being, but it can also be awkwardly isolating if, at any time, you begin to feel like you're having more or less fun than the other person. Taking time out to forage for items or read documents can really kill that energy, so the inclination is to keep pushing forward with the action. As a consequence, you would likely miss out on many treasures and large chunks of the plot. While the documents are less numerous than in the older games, each file is far lengthier to compensate, making for some long waits whenever the other person decides to flip through twenty pages of text. It's also a shame that they do not get saved for future access, so, if you want to know the story, you have to search them out and read them as they appear. And what of the character profiles that unlock after each chapter? When in the co-op game am I supposed to read those?

The series's traditionally strong sense of immersion is never complete when you have another live human grounding you in the real world. The story, for example, is not any smarter in single-player, but it's far easier to become absorbed in it, since the impulse toward snarky commentary tends to just fizzle out when you don't have an audience. Also, through my single-player playthrough, I gradually came to regard Sheva's AI routines as aspects of the character ("She's got some skills, but she lacks experience. She needs to learn to calm down and ease up on that machine gun trigger."), adding another dimension to her personality, whereas, in co-op, the characters don't have personalities outside of cut scenes because, during gameplay, my partner is just the person I'm playing with. My point is that, while co-op is a fantastic experience, it does necessarily come at the expense of many of the qualities--ambiance, immersion, narrative--that had previously made for strong single-player adventures.

Opinions vary wildly as to whether the AI Sheva is smart or stupid, but I found that, provided you understand how she operates, she is much more a help than a hindrance. Most of the time, the AI is simple yet effective. When set to "Attack" mode, Sheva mercilessly hunts down enemies with no regard for the ammo reserves. I found it more prudent most of the time to leave her in "Cover" mode, keeping her close so that I could more easily heal her if needed or, as was more often the case, so that she could provide quick aid when I got into trouble. Even in "Cover" mode, she tends to burn through the ammo, but, otherwise, she requires very little babysitting, and my personal assessment is that things go more smoothly the less you worry about her and the better you handle your own end. On Normal difficulty, I took care of most of the fighting and let her handle all of the healing, but certain enemies--even some bosses--are actually easier if you drop back to the supporting role and allow Sheva to take point. In some ways better than a human player, she rarely misses and has no blind spots. She can also see in the dark and instantly pinpoint weak spots through the sometimes overly intense graphical effects.

Problems only really arise when specific gameplay sequences trigger contextual AI programs that override her basic behavior. I recall one hairy situation after Sheva operated an elevator that carried me to a higher platform. While up there, I ran into a pack of tough enemies, and I decided that it would be wiser to jump back down to ground level so that Sheva and I could fight them together. As the enemies followed me down and I stood my ground, I quickly found myself overwhelmed and alone. Where was my support? As it turned out, the moment I jumped down, Sheva had decided to run off to recall the elevator, and she was still at the controls waiting for me to get on again. Helping me to survive against the immediate threat was apparently not a priority. That scenario paled, however, in comparison to the boss fight immediately after.

In a two-on-two fight, one tank-like enemy continuously stalks you about the stage, while a second shoots at you with automatic weapons. It's almost like taking on an RE4 berserker that's being backed up by a Gatling gun guy. Oh yeah, did I mention this tank enemy has complete frontal invincibility? And it shoots at you too. It's a tricky fight in any event, but, in single-player, it becomes an absolute nightmare, and the greatest enemy is Sheva's busted AI. She automatically goes after the gunner and routinely gets shredded by bullets. The problem is that, for no logical reason, this event-specific AI program overrides even her impulse to heal herself. But you can't just stick close to her with herbs at the ready, because, all the while, the tank is pursuing you, and the only way to stop it is to lure it into a maze where you can wrap around and get behind it. The sadistic setup forces you to separate from Sheva, but she can't survive for very long on her own. Madness, I say! These moments are the exception rather than the rule, but they do stick in the mind.

My bigger issue with the game had to do with the real-time inventory system. While it makes sense in co-op as another mechanism to keep players from interrupting one another, it prevents you from enjoying the full variety of weapons. In single-player, it's imperative that you equip the pistol, shotgun and rifle. I usually assigned my last shortcut to either the handy stun rod or the boss-slaying magnum. With this setup, it's the grenades that fall by the wayside. Against large packs of enemies, when grenades would be most useful, the cumbersome inventory system rules out manually equipping them under such pressure. Basically, I never equipped grenades mid-fight, instead only chucking them at the beginnings of engagements, regardless of their strategic appropriateness, because I found my inventory overflowing with them. In cases where, in RE4, I would have used grenades, I just had to rely on the shotgun, and, quite often, I would end up discarding grenades to free up space for more ammo and herbs. Oh yeah, the AI Sheva is not programmed to use grenades, so it's pointless to give any to her.

Some occasionally obscure boss battles and lethal cut scene QTEs notwithstanding, RE5 is primarily a series of great set pieces. I'm not sure if there are any as dynamic as the barricade cabin from RE4, but there are a few that definitely come close, and the power of current-gen technology introduces some new possibilities. Some may lament that the switch to bright outdoor environments ruins the horror atmosphere, but the reality is that darkness has always been easier, whereas RE5 handles light as no game I've seen before. While the cut scenes--generated in real-time but looking about ten times better than the gameplay graphics (or Degeneration, for that matter)--are naturally stunning, for me, the most striking moment in the game came when we charged up a mountainside with the midday sun shining fiercely in our faces, practically blinding. Even though it made aiming harder, it was a gorgeous effect unlike anything else I've come across.

Removed from the horror elements, RE5 is definitely a departure from the classic narratives of survival. Even RE4 began as a rescue mission that ran into numerous complications along the way to extend the length of the adventure. RE5, on the other hand, is a proactive extermination mission. While I miss those old feelings of despair eventually giving way to hope and escape, since it is now an action game, it's better that the plot should be on the same page. Besides, I don't think horror could ever work in a co-op game.

Would RE5 have been a better game under Mikami's direction? I now realize that's not a fair question. Perhaps RE5 is not the visionary masterpiece today that RE4 was in its time, but it is nonetheless superb. Co-op play provides an amazing experience that is almost another game apart from the single-player, and, even though RE5 is far shorter than RE4, I can see myself spending more time with it thanks to the replay-friendly design.

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