Being confronted with a violence-thirsty society, it is worth wondering what makes the difference between high quality horror and your average Halloween farce. It’s the same as differentiating between a Hitchcock movie and the clichés that feature blondes never-endingly running up and down the staircase.
We could talk about principles, about that single neuron or unique idea that carve a huge rift between horror as art and horror meant for consumption. Or, just as well, we could talk about conventions and light. And that is how we reach Resident Evil 5, a game that slowly slides away from predefined ideas to the refined and delicious shivers upon the spine.
Those that are accustomed with the darkness from former titles, which hid the infestations of Raccoon City or the plague of the Spanish city Las Plagas will probably be disappointed by the fifth title of the series. With the passing of time, Capcom has reached its maturity as a horror game developer, now being aware of all the mechanisms behind horror games. So Capcom thought it was time for a change. Detachment and auto-analysis is obvious at all levels of Resident Evil 5, be it the goofy characters, the risky racist tint of the game, or just the quantity and intensity of light.
As soon as the story begins, you will be surprised by the vibrant universe surrounding your character. Kijuju teems with Afro-Americans who fight the decomposing heat like in a Baudelairian poems. The fact that evil no longer needs darkness or snake holes to develop into a menace is a troublesome idea. And although is it common sense to believe that fear doesn’t go well with daylight, you will soon realize that, in Resident Evil 5, light is the catalyst of destruction, always somehow resembling the artificial light of science laboratories. The final impact is that you won’t have the hope of salvation anymore, because the Evil has surfaced, it has come to dominate every safe spot or idea, leaving no place for our hero to hide. The game no longer has the contrast between light and darkness, only a lot of violence injected in its vivid colors.
There’s no doubt that the color of the game and the feast of light in it will chase away the feeling that you’re actually playing a Resident Evil title. Not even the main character, who we go waaay back with (the first title), won’t be able to shrug off the unfamiliar atmosphere. This time around, Chris has suffered an image boost and we can now suspect him of having fallen into a cauldron of Creatine in his childhood. And because initials just sound right, Chris is still part of the BSAA (Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance), an (incompetent) organization that has sworn to fight the development of the biological weapons responsible for so many Resident Evil games.
But Chris isn’t quite Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, as we well know from the previous Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles. So the lame five in this title is there just to push the story forward, to explain where Jill Valentine actually disappeared (hint: in a sort of Transylvanian umbrella-decorated Russia) and to explain why lately, Chris drags a sweet Beyonce Knowles along through the savanna.
So, Sheva Alomar and the quantity of makeup on her face is the subject of the discussion above. Unlike Chris, she is a biological weapons expert and really suffers the plague along with her people. Capcom has such developed the game that Chris can’t actually cope without her, no matter what he has to do. They have to pry open huge gates together, and sometimes, just sometimes, Sheva lets Chris use her as live crocodile bait.
Thus, we can underline the fundamental difference between Resident Evil 5 and former titles: here, the cooperative experience, brainstorming and team-play, are insisted upon. If you strip the Co-Op off Resident Evil 5 you’ll end up with an artificially animated Sheva that does a great job at dodging all the icky monsters and your very bullets which sometimes seem to mistake her for the rest of the sick inhabitants.
Sheva will never get lost among the masses, will always aim straight and, unfortunately, will never save bullets. And, for a Resident Evil title, that’s not too good for your character’s health. At least from this point of view the game is still tributary to its past and although you can rummage for ammo, you’ll never really get the chance to reload, let alone smash boxes or pick-up pistol clips. So, if you want to temper Sheva’s female spending tendencies you’ll have to choose between letting her do all the hard work and using her as a pack mule.
If you prefer the company of a real mind, Resident Evil PC allows local co-op sessions, as well as Games for Windows LIVE matches. The latter option, although a Microsoft service, does its job of linking bloodthirsty people throughout the world pretty well.
We could brag about some aspects of the LIVE system, such as having to wait for the next checkpoint to actually drop in a game in progress. Or the impossibility to swap weapons with your partner, which will really slow the pace of the game if your new sidekick doesn’t have a whole arsenal in his pocket, for example. But the actual drop in/drop out system is really elegant, a straight-forward up to five minutes wait.
Communication, on the other hand, is less smooth. Using a microphone is mandatory, because the developers did not integrate a chat in the game. This really keeps the screen clutter-free, which is nice for a horror game. No one would be impressed by the horror elements if they had a half-screen section with continuous spam comments.
Unfortunately, you’ll also wish to use the inventory at times, and this is done, naturally, by pressing I. You’ll soon realize that inventory management is impossible during tense moments, although combining healing herbs on the fly would come in handy. Moving an object from one character to the other is much simpler, once the object has been selected. Just as often, you’ll find yourselves unable to give something away because your partner has his or her inventory full. Once again, the developers decided to limit the overall inventory to just nine slots, so as the average zombie killer would not sit too comfortable with his exhaustive arsenal. Another detail worth noticing is the fact that not only weapons take up slots in the inventory, but also ammunition. In addition, you can’t group more than a dozen of clips together so you’ll pretty much have to choose between being space and firepower.
Are you willing to accept the convention?
But Capcom has dirtier tricks up its sleeve. Other gameplay mechanisms, meant to slow the rhythm down, are a lot more annoying. For example, the characters have to stand still in order to shoot so you can’t really hit and run. The personal machete is subject to the same rule. Happily, this slow motion is compensated by the heavy Majini (Swahili for “evil spirits”) enemies. Most of them are so slow that survivability actually comes down to running in circles and mesmerizing the artificial intelligence. When it comes to bosses at least, luring them away works like a charm, as they kill all the lower level folks in the process.
If you can ignore these small details, or, in other words, if you can accept the weird conventions of pure horror games, you will get to savor an excellent cooperative game, one that has been built from the ground up for this specific purpose. Level design can be characterized by words like variation and imagination, as level themselves succeed in maintaining player’s interest long enough. Moreover, the thorough, balanced levels really force the team to stick together and, in the end, they make the two players really appreciate each other’s presence.
Creativity unfolds itself naturally, so that there are no embarrassing moments. The start is rightfully lazy, with you exploring the African city in the calm before the storm. Then the producers will throw anything but the kitchen sink at you: motorcycle rides, crocodiles and even pseudo-Aztec cities. And some levels, though brilliant, are really a first in level design.
The developers really have a sixth sense for deciding when to split the team apart. There are a lot of moments when you have to watch each other’s back, sometimes separated by huge rifts or crumbles, at other times just hanging around with different missions. In one particular scene one of the players has to attract a monster in a huge furnace, while the other operates its controls. The game also features a lot of puzzles that involve reflecting light into a lot of mirrors and also throws some button mashing for the both of you in the most alert moments.
Possibilities are almost limitless and Capcom tries to make sure that, once the game is finished, players won’t rush to other titles. Resident Evil 5 is full of collectibles and additional models for the characters. Also, a complete playthrough lasts somewhere around 12 hours, after which Mercenaries, a rudimentary multi-player mode, is unlocked.
The aim of this mode, similar to Left 4 Dead’s Survival, is to survive the waves of enemies as much as possible. The only difference consists in the fact that enemies are continuously spawned and that you have to collect some ethereal watches to keep your timer up. The number of such Survival levels is overwhelming and each new high score unlocks more characters, so you’ll get to spend a lot of time just surviving.
Although Mercenaries had been initially developed as a single player mode, a post-launch patch adapted it to the Windows LIVE service. Those of you that have played Resident Evil 5 on consoles probably already know of the Versus mode, a five dollar DLC that adds Deathmatch elements to the same Mercenary mode. Unfortunately, Versus wasn’t launched on the PC, in favor of the No Mercy mode, which is Mercenaries, triple the enemies.
Les Fleurs du Mal
Still, I wouldn’t say the Resident Evil 5 experience is more thorough on consoles. Although Xbox LIVE is much more robust when it comes to matchmaking, the PC alternative has a whole lot of other technical knick-knacks aimed directly at the picky players. I am talking about multi-core optimization, DirectX 10 support and Stereoscopic 3D technology.
Whatever the system specs, the game looks and plays extremely colorful for a horror game. All characters are a delight for the eye,be it the lyrical mysterious lady in the beginning or Ricardo Irving, who seems kidnapped from Rockstar’s The Ballad of Gay Tony. Action scenes and facial animation are all state of the art, with a nice touch of surrealism. The same surrealist vibe can be sometimes caught in static moments, and I’m talking not only about feathers or blood, but also about flowers whispering in the darkness, Quetzalcoatl like mythologies and electronic monoliths.
Best thing yet are the enemy monsters, especially when it comes to their demonstration of earthly DNA alteration. It’s bowel-twisting to watch how crude tentacles burst from a freshly decapitated head, or how wild hyenas literally split in two to be able to devour you. Chainsaw enemies make you think Psycho was nothing, while the real monsters behind the whole scheme are actually much more humane and elegant than the protagonists themselves. While Chris and Sheva are always battling the elements and getting down and dirty, these bosses expect word-fights and ideology duels.
The soundtrack is no worse, carefully put together by Kota Suzuki, whom we already know from Devil May Cry 4 and Onimusha 3. Although the basic tunes are electronic, Suzuki also put the Holywood Studio Symphony Orchestra into the picture, as well as the voice of Oulimata Niang. The result is one melodious saga, which overflows with all kinds of emotions: the troublesome artificiality of the virus, the sudden impression that there can be beauty in the craziest of places, or even epic battles that go back to the Indiana Jones era.
Nevertheless, Capcom’s attention to details, their courage to surpass the comfort of clichés and the means in which Resident Evil unfolds its surprises like a priceless present make this game one of the most valuable title of the series.
Still, evolution means leaving some things behind. And some argue that Resident Evil 5 actually betrayed what defined it as a horror survival game. Maybe, on the contrary, we could say that through the fifth Resident Evil title, the horror genre has found new ways of expression, new ways of exploiting the human psyche. It aims for deep unconscious fear, and not for the superficial Goosebumps. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but whatever the conclusion, this title is surely the best nightmare of the year, one you can witness with your eyes wide open.