Resident Evil 5: The Last Really Good One
CAPCOM had a good thing going for a while, until they started to drill holes in the bottom of their own boat. First Mega Man didn’t get any love, having his games cancelled left and right and being restricted to “nostalgia releases” effectively killed public interest in the Blue Bomber, on top of Keiji Inafune leaving the company to start his own gig. They closed Clover, which lead to the creation of Platinum Games who’ve gone on to make games CAPCOM wishes they could have published. They outsourced Devil May Cry to Ninja Theory, who proved to CAPCOM that their in house development teams weren’t nearly as up to snuff as the other guys when it came to high action. They’ve lost touch with their core product, and nothing is a bigger indicator of that than the evolution of Resident Evil.
While it wasn’t the first survival horror game, the original Resident Evil set a precedent that went unbroken through the first three games of the series. Your characters were fragile homosapiens amidst superior, if far more unstable, specimens. “Walking turrets with tank controls” was an accurate way to describe the movement in these early titles, as your characters could not move their feet once they took aim and walked with “3D controls” (wherein the Up button always made your character walk forwards regardless of the camera’s perspective.) Death was around every corner and the scarcity of resources made battle and recovery a gamble. By the third game in the series the creators had gotten quite good at the formula, and the signs of aging began to set into the series.
While Code Veronica was good in its own right, other games like the failed Resident Evil: Dead Aim and Outbreak series derailed the popularity of the previously shining franchise. Nostalgia for the original games drove people to continue to play them instead of supporting the new deviations, and CAPCOM responded by taking a drastic step with the series with Resident Evil 4.
First they took the camera, previously fixed in place and angled for effect, and put it over the shoulder of the main character. Their second call was softening the “haunted house” nature of the gameplay in favor of a room-to-room flow, still peppered with puzzles but not at all like the twisted hallways of Spencer Mansion. Finally, they overhauled the combat and gave the player a host of new weapons, far more ammo than ever, more enemies to shoot at, more health to survive them with, Quick-Time-Events, and a new checkpoint save system to top it all off. These three changes brought the series into the new light of the “modern shooter”, quickly drawing comparisons to games like Gears of War and other action titles, and putting the fear in the fans that Resident Evil had lost its way. Despite the fears the game did well on the Gamecube and PS2, even if it wasn’t a perfect transition (The whole campaign is an escort mission? Really?), and of course a sequel was greenlit. The sequel would be the last great Resident Evil title, Resident Evil 5.
Set in Africa and starring the classic RE hero Chris Redfield alongside newcomer Sheva Alomar, the game borrows a lot from Resident Evil 4. It’s still got the “walking turret” controls, but they’ve added 2 player co-op (on and offline!) to make the combat even more tolerable. The puzzles are almost completely gone as well, and the game is more of a mad dash across battle maps for switches and keys than a tense castle crawl. The quirks of the game become its strengths as you quickly learn to shoot for the knees and use the accessible melee system to conserve ammo, and successive playthroughs give you the chance to unlock unique weapons and costumes. The boss battles are all memorable, and the final moment is a culmination of one of the longest rivalries in the series history.
Of course it’s not without its faults. RE5 suffers from a bit of racial insensitivity as it depicts native Africans. From a REALLY critical point of view you can go nuts with the plot: Sheva, a beautiful black woman raised out of Africa with no hint of an native accent, returns to her homeland with Chris, a strong white man, and spends hours “saving” (by shooting) both town and indigenous village dwelling Africans. HOWEVER, in this universe these Africans have all been infected by the Las Plagas II parasite, which essentially makes them all controllable minions of Tricell/Umbrella Corporation…so it kind of softens the whole “mass genocide” angle of the story. Still, the ham handed portrayal of Africa ruffled some feathers, but didn’t do much to hurt the strengths of this game. Aside from the thematic issues the game isn’t necessarily that hard once you’ve played it through (especially with a friend), and some of the extra costume options are similarly simple minded (Tribal Sheva comes to mind…).
But theme isn’t why we’re here. It’s gameplay that rules. Once you beat the campaign, RE5 boasts one of the series best Mercenaries modes thanks to online play, allowing you and a friend to tackle the fantastic time trials with a pretty impressive list of guest characters. A typically unplayed Versus mode rounds out the options in the base game, and the two DLC are both pretty entertaining (especially Lost In Nightmares). RE5 took the good from RE4, left out the chaff, and further pushed the series away from its survival horror roots. Then all it took was two games for CAPCOM to realize it was all falling apart.
Resident Evil: Raccoon City and Resident Evil 6 were travesties. Raccoon City could have been something special, taking a look at the side stories to previous games in the series and featuring four player coop…but the crap gameplay shot it in the foot upon launch and it hit the bargain bin in under a month. Resident Evil 6 pushed itself to tell a massive story, but the gamble failed when the crappy matchmaking, graphics, plot, and gameplay all met the now uncaring public. Despite massive hype the game didn’t take off. It was the first numbered game in the series where players could walk and shoot at the same time, making it the further from the original title in both name and style. RE6 just didn’t have the same je ne sais quoi that the still fan favorite RE2 managed to elicit.
After the failed experiment in the new direction for the gameplay, CAPCOM quickly went back to the tried and true with the Revelations series and yet another reissue of Resident Evil 1, this time for current gen consoles and PC. These games have been well received, and the Revelations games have both so far been accepted as part of the canon thanks in part to their return to a more classic Resident Evil feel. More twisted hallways, keep the coop, and dial up the terror again instead of the action to really get the fans fired up.
So that’s it. RE5 was the last great numbered game in the Resident Evil series, and that’s why. It was the last time the grand action experiment worked in the series, and the last time the series really gripped its fans. People who loved RE5 still play it, and the recent transition of the PC port from the defunct Games for Windows Live to Steamworks has breathed a massive wave of new life into the community. Now is the time more than ever to either get back into RE5, or to take a crack at it for the first time on the cheap. Bring a friend along, and the game can be a seriously great bonding experience.