Resident Evil 5 Final Version Impressions

In Resident Evil 5, you play a two-legged bull with mad knife-fighting skills. Make that a two-legged elephant-necked bull with arms like a cement mixer. I'm not sure when Chris Redfield got his hands on A-Rod's stash, but holy arms-like-pythons and barrel-chested beefcake, Batman. Goodbye welterweight jock of bygone games, hello Lou "Mr. Olympia" Ferrigno.

While those chiseled biceps won't lend Chris's knife arm any extra RPMs, it does seem to imbue him with superhuman strength in RE5. Step next to a slavering bloody-eyed-zombie-thing and you'll have the option to pop hooks or uppercuts that send the bad guys flying across the screen. "Rescue" your teammate from a pileup and your punches knock the entire group off its feet. Step over a fallen figure and your stylish stomp splatters skulls. Goodbye Chris Redfield horrified-barely-survivor, hello Chris Redfield super-action-hero.

But let's back up. Have you played the demo? The final version embarks a few areas prior to the teaser's "public assembly" level, the one where you (as Chris) and your African-English-European-Jamaican-Irish-East-Indian-composite partner Sheva tango with hordes of virally amped-up locals. It's been 10 years since the events of the first game, and you're investigating some hardscrabble village in a fictional African country that's experienced an "incident," and we're not talking just a finger in a bowl of chili.

Forget the sublime transition from status quo to surreal here, you're deposited sans niceties at the outskirts of a town inhabited by scowling weirdos. These guys lean against awning struts and roll their eyes as you wander by or simply glare from the shadows. Their heads swivel robotically as you pass, tracking your motion like CCTV cameras. They're not pulling pitchforks and machetes at this stage, but friendly chatter (much less handshakes and hugs) is clearly off the menu.

In terms of the visuals, it's hard to imagine the game looking any better — or bleaker — at this point. Here's how I described the two-level Japanese demo back in December.

[Heaps of] rack-and-ruin building[s] flanked by corrugated sheets of metal. Oily plumes of smoke rise in the distance. A few tires are half-sunk in the ground with the characters 7BER5 gouged in grimy rubber. The sun flares at the edges of objects. The sky is clear blue with a few wispy clouds.

Ranging further afield in the final version, you'll find the entire town a dust-smothered mass of shanties with shaggy thatched roofs and cadaverous structures pieced together from dingy slabs of stucco and crooked shafts of wood. Several of the locals wear heavily stained pieces of clothing (Blood? Chocolate ice cream?) and engage in disturbing activities, like hacking fly-caked hunks of meat, or standing in circles and kicking a bag that's squirming. The churchy, gothic look of the earlier games is gone, replaced by something out of a Slawomir Idziak film, desiccated in lieu of haunted, contemporary instead of remote, and with its Black Hawk Down vibe, eerily familiar.

Getting around still feels on par with Resident Evil 4's third-person controls (for better or worse). The camera hangs behind Chris at approximately shoulder level and off to one side, providing an unobstructed field of view. You can't shoot and run, which actually seems appropriate considering you also can't (effectively) in real life.

The inability to walk and shoot, on the other hand (especially to walk backward while wielding a weapon) remains a serious problem. Since spinning in place is sluggish, and close-combat therefore clumsy, you'll typically react to swarms of assailants by sprinting forward out of range, spinning to fire, then repeating until you've culled the zombie herd down to a size that's more manageable.

While the environments look sharp and detailed, you can't really interact with them. Pull up the automap and you'll see areas are actually geometrically primitive, more or less a series of linked squares and rectangles. You don't explore so much as run your body along each area's edges to discover loot or glean info. There's more stuff to climb up or over and jump off or plunge through this time, but outside of combat, you're interacting with pop-up buttons and busting open crates or barrels, not engaging a flexible environment with freeform physics.

I called the demo "underwhelming" because the zombies were "fairly dumb," that there wasn't much to do, and that the controls were slightly annoying. I take the part about the zombies and the control scheme back. Partly.

Allow me to illustrate. At one point, Capcom producer Jun Takeuchi compared RE5's control scheme to Gears of War's. As it turns out, it's not. Chris can't roadie-run or shoot-and-scoot or stick to nubs of cover. But that's not the point. Takeuchi's comparison is misrepresentative for fundamentally unmissable design reasons.

In Gears of War, the bad guys are usually hunkered behind cover halfway across the screen. They'll attempt to assault and flank, but with care and hesitation. Close-combat chainsaw duels, when they occur at all, are risky, and typically last-ditch reactionary maneuvers.

In Resident Evil 5, the bad guys are right up beside you. Self-preservation isn't part of their programming. They swarm over chain link fences or pour from fissures in ceilings and lunge across gaps between roofs to get at you. There are no long term safe spots, no blocks of cover to hunker behind, no hanging back and fighting pitched battles by laying down suppressive fire. Tactics are positional, not ballistic. Head shots matter when you've got the time to pull one off, but staying alive is less about aiming and assault-flanking than finding fleetingly safe patches, preserving ammo, and properly partnering with your teammate.

You're meant to be unsettled, in other words, not carefully concealed behind objects or running and gunning like the superhumanly accurate protagonists in Gears. The sense that there's nowhere you can hide from these guys is what makes these games so unsettling, and RE5's no different.

Actually that's an oversimplification. The bad guys really do move faster here, lunging across space with preternatural speed. When their heads pop off and the creepy, slithery stuff issues forth, you'll find its reach has grown (to your considerable disadvantage). Enemies now hurl ranged weapons that keep you on your toes even at a distance, and whether it's the fact that I'm playing on the "veteran" difficulty setting or something in the stamina system itself, those enemies take much longer to kill, falling down and getting up repeatedly whether you're landing dead-on head-shots or plugging torsos and legs full of lead.

All in all? RE5's looking better than I expected after fooling with Capcom's mediocre demo. I wish they'd sprinkled the introductory areas with more backstory and slowed the pacing a bit, and the wacky logic puzzles are (so far) MIA, but I definitely want to keep playing. The story starts to crack open by the third chapter (there's six in all) and in spite of the silly-science and cheesy melodrama, I'm a sucker for Japanese-style horror.

And sometimes that's enough.

Matt Peckham's level-setting his expectations for the game's remainder. You can follow his impressions of the final version at twitter.com/game_on.

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