It's shallow, fun and bombastic -- and the best thing about "Resident Evil 5" is the thing so many people hate.
There's a theory not everyone believes that there will someday be one video game console. Platforms will merge, standards will unify and never will someone have to decide between a Thisbox and a Thatstation again.
It's a controversial theory.
Here's one that might be a little less audacious:
Some day there will be one video game. Just one. That gets made by different names, stars different characters and tells different stories. But it's just one game.
The scares are gone, even though panic -- primarily when you're playing without a friend -- still swarms.
Jump back in time to the release of the first 1996 "Resident Evil," a specific horror experience, paced slowly and assuredly within the creepiest mansion ever rendered in video games. It was a game unlike its peers.
Today we have "Resident Evil 5," a thrilling save-the-world adventure from start to finish that has much that's good about it if little that feels original. It has much that is "Gears of War" about it, much that is Indiana Jones. Some "Metal Gear Solid." Some "Resident Evil 4" and so on. It's not just the co-op or the cover-system or the conspiracies, but the pacing, the bombast and scene after scene designed to push a fast pulse.
Games converge. "Zelda" games have first-person sequences. "Grand Theft Auto" does quality racing. The best mech levels in games these days are in games that aren't mech games.
Whatever it was that once made "Resident Evil" its own thing is less evident in the new "RE5," the one with co-op and an African setting. The mission is to stop bad guys who are turning swaths of Africa into nest for zombie-like infected humans. Shoot them, shoot them, shoot them some more. With bigger and badder guns. The scares are gone, even though panic -- primarily when you're playing without a friend -- still swarms. More sacrilege: the sun shines for most of the game. The puzzles are less "RE" classic and more "Zelda," in that they are fun and physical and not tedious.
What's so "Resident Evil" about this game? It's an action-adventure, a macho shootout through villages and caves with massive explosions and multiple use of a commodity not seen in most haunted mansions: missiles.
The game could be set on 26th century Venus, and if it abided by these rules it would be "Resident Evil."
No, what's "Resident Evil" about this game is the one thing that no other game dares to do. Some say it's because no other game developers are so backwards to repeat it. I say development studio Capcom is smart to maintain it. It's the one thing maintaining this game's soul: those controversial controls.
Movement rules can not just define games but force a wonderfully distinct experience. Here is "RE5." In the proud tradition of the game that allowed you to run around, shoot and then roll into a ball ("Metroid") and of the game that let you never jump but always swing with a grappling hook ("Bionic Commando" ) we have a video game series that has at its core a simple rule about how you can move through it. In other games, you run and shoot at the same time. In this game you must either fight or flee. You must either risk standing your ground or you must venture to run where safety hopefully awaits. The game could be set on 26th century Venus, and if it abided by these rules it would be "Resident Evil."
This is a game with mostly rising action and climax. It's traded spooky for Bruckheimer.
It's no survival horror game. That genre name was a mistake. It's survival panic. No matter how realistic its heroes look -- no matter how much it looks like they should be able to backpedal and fire at the game time or circle-strafe with a machine gun, they can't and they won't. That's against the rules. And that's against the soul of this game.
So that is what you get with "Resident Evil 5," a 15-hour journey through a series of some of the most graphically impressive outdoor landscapes -- deserts, oil refineries, a crocodile marsh -- ever illustrated for a video game, most of it designed to funnel hero Chris Redfield and companion Sheva Alomar toward enemies that will ask them to decide again and again: fight or flee? You will be asked to answer this question by ferocious crocodiles, spider-beasts, and even war-crying African villagers rendered primitive by the game's evil viral. (Some of these characters are stupid, by the way. They will not notice you or stand at the foot of a ladder running in place. You are not fighting "Gears"-smart enemies. Others are simply vicious, especially the dogs and some insect things.)
This is a game with mostly rising action and climax. It's traded spooky for Bruckheimer. There's little rest and little peace, proving the game hasn't quite converged with the first "Resident Evil" let alone fellow Africa shooter "Far Cry 2." In this sense, the game is pop. It's shallow, bearing no sign of the racism some expected because it doesn't trade in stereotype or caricature but in cliché. The African villagers? They're stock casting. Here's an angry guy in donated t-shirt. In the marshlands? Fire-breather guy in grass skirt. Bring "Resident Evil" to the U.S. of the 1800s and I would expect to see cowboys and Indians, because, hey, isn't that what you'd find in America then?
The story and gameplay tricks "Resident Evil 5" borrows from so many of the games mentioned above aren't crass theft. They're smart selection, a combination of the ingredients that go into these video games that feel like summer blockbusters. Where "Resident Evil 5" stumbles is only in the debatable need to offer some new ideas and, more disappointingly, in its lack of great set-pieces. To see so much effort poured into rendering this game is impressive. If only it had moments so distinct I couldn't wait to tell you about them. There is lots of excitement in this game but nothing with the pacing and visual signature of "RE4"'s opening rush of village battle, lake battle and giant fight. Machine-gunning monster motorcyclists from the back of a pick-up truck is fun in a videogame but not in the same league.
It's a pity that the game's restrictive controls have received such scorn. They are "RE5"s unique touch, its own twist on its rush of explosive scenes that could have appeared in other games. Get a grip on what makes "RE5" still instill panic and you'll enjoy this adventure. It will look and seem like so many others, but for an exciting half-day of play, it will feel like its own thing, a terrific terror with little depth but much dazzle and a lot more noise than the creaking of a mansion floorboard.
[Note: I played "Resident Evil 5" all the way through by myself and halfway through on co-op. Both have their advantages, though I preferred solo. I've told friends that solo and co-op make for almost two entirely different "Resident Evil 5" games. I'll have more on that tomorrow in a story that compares my experiences in both modes.]
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