I played "Resident Evil 5" halfway through with a friend, then all the way through on my own. The experiences made for two radically different games.
Last week, I started playing a review build of "Resident Evil 5" with ex-Newsweek reporter N'Gai Croal. Over three sessions, we played through the first half of the game.
And then, in the middle of this week, the retail copy arrived and I started over. I played through the game by myself, finishing yesterday just 90 minutes before I posted my "RE5" review.
To those unsure of which way to play, I recommend what I hear is the unpopular choice: play the game solo.
The scarier way to play is...SOLO: I was never afraid when playing "Resident Evil 5" co-op. I could always assume that the second player -- N'Gai playing as Sheva -- could handle his own problems and, when needed, get me out of a jam.
Only when I played by myself did I feel pressure. Maybe not intense fear...but pressure to keep Chris and Sheva alive. She needs your help. While a solo player can command Sheva to attack or stay close, most of the manuevering and tactics are going to happen where Chris is standing. There's no drawing off half the enemies to the other side of the village, no ability to shout "You-take-the-sniper-position-while-I-draw-them-out!"
It's your against the enemy crowd and often the odds are bad. Which is good. Because it's scarier that way.
The other reason solo "RE5" is more haunting when played solo is because it's more quiet. It's an obvious point, but a key one. With no one to talk to, you'll more effectively hear the score that's designed to manipulate you into feeling terror.
Think of the counter-example: the reason that a "Left 4 Dead" can still be scary when played with friends is because the game is paced for fast reactions and rushing action. The speed of its zombies and of its player-character movements generates moment after moment of pitched chaos. That creates a sensation of alarm and sends players into rescue attempts and desperate gambles. You are stumbling, sprinting, panicking, hoping desperately to all stay alive and get to safety. The slower "RE5" just can't achieve that when played co-op. Instead, co-op transforms what would have been lonely danger into the divided labor and careful combat of a fire-team assault mission. It's cool, but not very terrifying.
If you want fear, leave your friends out of this. Play solo.
The more amusing way to play is...CO-OP: This is a no-brainer, since co-op can make even a bad game fun. "RE5" is full of moments set up for huge firefights against crowds of shambling enemies. N'Gai and I had a great time yelling our way through these skirmishes, running in to save each other and laughing at the few, lucky times enemies would glitch and we'd suddenly be safe.
But the problem with co-op is the same problem I have, as a boxing fan, with the three-person announce team used for most fights on HBO and Showtime. The more chatter that takes place in front of the action, the more the experience as a whole becomes about that chatter and less about soaking in the action itself. As a result, co-op will cause you to miss a whole lot of storytelling and have trouble taking the characters seriously. When I went back to the game solo, I better understood what was happening and why protagonists Chris and Sheva were going to each of the locations they did -- and this was with me skipping the cutscenes I had already seen. I was picking the story up through the during-gameplay dialogue that I hadn't been able to hear over my and N'Gai's chatter.
Still, for sheer entertainment, you would have to go with co-op.
The best gameplay way to play is...SOLO: This is the key one for me. Those who play "RE5" co-op will still be frustrated by the need to constantly manage their inventory. The aggravation is even worse, because players will want to manage that inventory together, swapping ammo, sharing health packs, trading guns and so on. Checking the inventory doesn't pause the game like it did in earlier games in the series, but who wants to go into an inventory window if you don't have to?
So... play solo and you won't have to access your inventory menu nearly as often -- that is, if you play solo correctly. Here's my tip: when you reach a healing item or stock of ammunition, have Sheva pick it up. You'll seldom have to open your inventory again, because any time you or she is low on health, she'll run over and use the healing items on you both. Any time you're out of ammo, she'll put any compatible clip that she's holding in your inventory, so you can just press your reload button. She'll even combine red and green herbs if she's got them both. Well, most of the time. Sometimes, though it's rare, Sheva doesn't give you the ammo or combine the herbs. It's a glitch. Most of the time, she's a great help and the best improvement to the inventory system "Resident Evil" has ever had.
One other good thing about letting the computer control Sheva is that she'll figure out most of the boss battles that stump you. In quite a few of them, a specific weapon or attack is needed. You can puzzle it out yourself, but if you think to give her the right weapon or item, she'll do the hard part for you. And yet if you take that weapon or item back, you can do the tough task yourself. That's a novel way of tweaking the difficulty level during a game. Just hand things over to the expert. It's another smart touch you'll experience only when playing solo.
As you can tell, I'm convinced: the best way to get the most of the game's mechanics is to sever all ties with your friends and play "RE5" by yourself.
Solo beats co-op for me for "Resident Evil 5." How about for you?