Saturday, May 1, 2010

Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition

I played through Resident Evil 5 four times, which is the most time I've spent on any single Resident Evil. This surprises even me, because I very rarely play through games more than once. I don't think I've ever encountered a game that is so deliberately user-unfriendly in its controls and basic mechanics while also being so addictive and replayable by its mission design. I know it's not to everyone's taste, but I do love that game. And yes, I did play through it in both co-op and single-player (the latter on Veteran difficulty, in fact). That was all months ago, of course, but I was able to enjoy one last hurrah with the game recently in the form of the new Gold Edition content.

The first piece of new content, "Lost in Nightmares," is a prequel scenario starring Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine. Set in a mansion environment that is completely new to and unlike anything else in RE5, it is a lovingly packaged homage to the classic pre-RE4 survival horror games. You spend most of it reading documents, solving simple puzzles, collecting limited supplies, and fetching keys and turning cranks, before confronting a boss enemy that cannot be defeated through direct means. "Lost in Nightmares" also included the one moment in all of RE5 that genuinely scared me (although I wonder how scary it would have been if I had remembered to turn on the RE5 mini-map). There is even a nifty trick to switch the perspective to the classic fixed camera mode, so you can remind yourself where the series came from and see just how far it has come. Alas, it does not restore auto-aiming, rendering the perspective highly impractical (well, more so than usual) once the shooting starts.

With tons more nods and references, "Lost in Nightmares" is wonderful fanservice for veterans, but its brevity makes it more of a nostalgia-driven novelty than an independently rewarding experience. Lasting one short sitting (you cannot save your game in the extra missions), as opposed to several nightly sessions scheduled before bedtime, it's missing the rewarding narrative arc, from hopeless nightmare gradually to hopeful dawn, that was so essential to old-school Resident Evil. It also makes apparent just how poorly suited cooperative multiplayer is to the old survival horror design. I've discussed this before, but the more intimate adventure style of Resident Evil is not something that gets better with more players. When it is just you and your player character journeying through that mansion, it is easy to become immersed in the exploration and bond with the game itself. When you add another live human being to the mix, you become anchored in the real world, unable to drift into the fiction. Without that immersion, all this scanning of objects and flipping through pages in lengthy files becomes just a tiresome exercise.

On the other hand, when I collected a key item that I had no idea how to utilize, it occurred to me that maybe I was never very good at these games. As I read aloud the clue, however, my partner was able to recall an important detail that led us in the right direction. Had I been on my own, I'm sure I would have just wasted several minutes rechecking every object in the environment. Unfortunately, the presence of another player could not help me to make sense of the cryptic documents, some of which seem barely relevant to either RE5 or past games. Perhaps they are the first clues to the story of the next game.

The other new chapter is "Desperate Escape," which is set during the events of RE5. The name evokes "Last Escape," the Japanese subtitle for Biohazard 3, which was the last game chronologically to feature Jill Valentine as the main player character. Jill is back as the player one character here, but "Desperate Escape" is more of a distillation of the action elements of RE4 and 5. It is probably the most intense chapter in all of RE5, constantly tossing overwhelming numbers at you and forcing you to keep on the move. Of course, you still can't move while shooting, so the resulting action is maybe the finest example in RE5 of the series's trademark engineered panic. For reference, the hairiest chapters in the main game require taking out as many as 60 enemies to earn an S rank for the stage. At the end of "Desperate Escape," my partner and I finished with over 150 enemies routed. Each.

The highlight for me was a sequence that, more than anything else in the game, truly reminded me of Black Hawk Down. Armed with a sniper rifle, I was forced to take shelter in a crumbling shed. With three walls and only one window, it was the most fortified position available. I quickly found myself against the back wall and essentially prone as I covered the two entry points. As packs of enemies stormed both sides, I was pretty much locked in scope mode any time I wasn't frantically reloading. Occasionally my partner, packing a puny automatic, would charge out to collect ammo. Certain that I would not survive long out in the open with a sniper rifle, I had to remain behind and watch him shrink in the distance and wander off screen, perhaps never to return.

Both chapters are well worth experiencing if you are a fan of the game or series. "Lost in Nightmares" is a very novel experience that shows how the old survival horror formula could still work with the newer camera. "Desperate Escape" is an action-packed scenario that serves as a short encore for the experience of RE5 as a whole. They are not entirely satisfying, but I don't see how post-game downloadable content of this sort can be. Although both chapters are comparable in length to those found in RE5's campaign, as standalone chapters they don't carry the feelings of consequence that come with progressing through a full game. "Lost in Nightmares" feels especially insubstantial and "Desperate Escape," even as hectic as it is, feels a tad anticlimactic. Like the Wizards Jordan, it lasts just long enough to remind you of the great times you had before, but it's over all too soon and the payoff isn't quite there this time. Even so, I'm glad to have had this one last dance.

The final piece of Gold Edition is Mercenaries Reunion, which is a huge disappointment. It is just the regular Mercenaries mode with barely reworked stages and eight new characters to play as. Unfortunately, instead of simply plugging the new characters into the existing mode, Capcom decided to include Mercenaries Reunion as a completely separate mode, despite the fact that it is obviously 99% the same code. Thus, none of the original Mercenaries characters are playable in Mercenaries Reunion, nor are any of the new characters playable in plain Mercenaries. This only really matters when playing co-op, but it means that you cannot, for example, team up Wesker with Barry Burton. Less significant but still annoying, your old scores and progress also do not carry over to the "new" mode. I can speculate as to the reasons, but there really can be no good excuse for this.

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