Sunday, September 13, 2009

Resident Evil 5

I rarely play games more than once, let alone start them over again as soon as I finish them. Yet that's exactly what I did the first time I played Resident Evil 4 on Gamecube...and all over again when it was ported to the Wii. It's easily one of my favorite games ever, and I put it up there with Super Metroid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and the original Fallout as one of those "as close to perfect as we get in this world" games that I routinely play through every couple years. Hearing that Resident Evil 5 would continue on in its predecessor's footsteps, I tried to keep my expectations in check. And while Resident Evil 5 is still a great game, it's unfortunately a case of good news, bad news.

The good news is that RE5 plays and feels a lot like RE4. Dead Space was an interesting and solid pretender to the throne, but it didn't have enough variety or new/interesting ideas to truly light my world on fire. On first glance, RE5 might as well be a hi-def port of RE4: the controls and mechanics are largely carried over, from collecting and upgrading weapons via a "shop" to a more playable, action oriented style of gameplay than previous Resident Evil games. Moreover, RE5 looks incredible, and while the controls don't quite move forward as far as I'd like (can we please get the ability to move and shoot at the same time?!) they quickly become natural. Which is good, since the game does away with any pretense of horror and swings the pendulum even further toward the action side. In fact, you'll routinely face enemies with guns of their own and engage in (very) rudimentary 'cover' mechanics ala Gears Of War.
The bad news is that RE5 simultaneously backsteps into some clunky design mechanics and most of the new things it adds aren't very fun. For starters, RE4 had a sense of self conscious ridiculousness to it which it never felt it had to explain. The weapon merchant, the very videogame-y environments and enemies, the absurd characters and was a breath of fresh air from a series that took itself deadly serious. RE5, unfortunately, goes back to the old way of doing things, with ridiculous but self-serious characters and plot. Meanwhile, you can't manually save or access the shop anymore. And since the inventory system has gone back to the awful "a shotgun takes up as much space as a small green herb" system of pre-RE4 games, you'll frequently have to quit/save your current game in order to re-load your save so you can sell off items in the store. Call me crazy, but I preferred the admittedly somewhat tedious backtracking to get to the weapon merchant or save spots.
RE5's much vaunted addition, the co-op AI partner mechanic, works well most of the time, but I never found it especially satisfying. Most of the time it felt like cheating to hammer on the 'Help!' button when an enemy was munching on me, and my AI companion infallibly jabbed me with a shot to keep me from Game Over-ing time and again. Sometimes the AI can be slow to do things or do them in awkward ways, but by and large it works and that's better than you can say for most games. I can't comment on the online co-op s since I haven't tried it, but I assume it makes the game easier still.

It's odd that I think of this game as "easy" since I died a hell of a lot toward the end of the game. In my defense, that's because RE5 abuses the quick time event "hit this button now!!" stuff of RE4 (or, you know, God Of War or Shenmue) to a terrible degree. It gets to the point where you die a dozen times in a row because you didn't react with split second timing, and often the only way to finish off certain bosses is with this mechanic. Without spoiling anything, there's a fight toward the mid-to-late game that forces you to hammer the X button like we're back in the NES days with that one Track and Field game. Most annoying, though, is when these suddenly pop up during what you assume are movie cutscenes. This isn't even like Simon Says, it's just arbitrary command prompts. I don't think of this as me being bad at the game, I think of it as the game being really cheap and poorly designed. Doubly so when you fight enemies that require precision aiming in weakpoints. You could pretty much fudge your way through those in RE4, Regenerators aside, but here they're bizzarely exacting.

Speaking of Regenerators, as I said before, RE5 is not scary. It tries to be a few times but it falls flat. I don't mind this because I never found the RE games scary (jump scares are not horror in my book), yet it does cause me to wonder why so much of this game feels uninspired and personality-less. RE4 is constantly awesome throughout and never feels as long as it really is. You always wanted to keep going to see what crazy new situations you'd be in, what cool new enemies you'd fight. By contrast, RE5 feels repetitive and not particularly exciting. The last couple hours feel padded out--after all, you chase the main villain through several locales, fighting his henchmen, just as you did in RE4, but it all seems contrived and irritating here. Again, without spoiling anything major, you chase the dude halfway across Africa, a huge boat, and what looks like the Blackbird from X-Men. Yes, the game wraps up the Resident Evil storyline for good(??) but the wrapping up of all the various plot threads smacks of George Lucas-ism. That is to say, made up as it went along for so many years that when some ultimate explanation is needed, anything offered must be convoluted and stupid.
RE5 suffers from what I like to call Lesser Sequel Syndrome. All the elements of something you love are there, but certain things have changed, been added and subtracted, to make it not as good. In other words, RE5 is lacking the polish, inventiveness, and streamlined fun of RE4. Much like Dead Space, it's a great game in the RE4 mold with impressive graphics, good-but-not-outstanding sound/music, and competent controls, but it's just not as exceptional as RE4. To put it yet another way, RE4 was a 5 out of 5 game, the kind that only comes around once in awhile. RE5, then, is a 4 out of 5 game: well worth the time and money, but not transcendent and with some glaring flaws.

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