The March 13 release of Capcom's Resident Evil 5 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (actually something like the 12th game in the series) makes it easily the highest-profile new video game of 2009 so far, and marks the end of the typically dry post-holiday game season.
We've been playing through a preview version of the game for more than a month now, and found it to be a largely successful mix of familiar and new elements. Like all the Resident Evil entries, this is essentially an action game where a somewhat generic protagonist has to travel through creepy houses, compounds, cities, or secret bases, shooting zombies, madmen, and other monsters along the way.
Two key elements separate games of this genre (the awkward Japanese translation is "survival horror") from straight-up shooters. First, there are occasional brain-twisters to solve, such as deciphering a puzzle to open a door; secondly, ammunition for one's firearms is relatively scarce, so making every shot count is important. However, RE5, like its immediate predecessor, Resident Evil 4, tones down both of these gameplay factors, at least compared with earlier games in the series, opting for a more fast-paced (some would say mainstream) approach.
What distinguishes RE5 from its forbearers and imitators is a change of scenery, moving the action to Africa, and trading the traditional Resident Evil look--dark, shadowy nighttime tableaus--for brightly lit, outdoor villages, where sunlight offers no guarantee of safety. This change throws a wrench in the classic "fear of the dark" instinct that we automatically fall back on in movies, video games, and real life.
We found the change of pace refreshing, but were sometimes frustrated by the controls. Despite some major tweaking, and several different control set-up options, we still felt like we were driving a human-shaped tank at times. More seriously, the inability of these trained combat veterans to walk and shoot at the same time makes for a major disadvantage when the screen is mobbed with machete-swinging psychos.
More successful is a new co-operative mode, where a secondary character named Sheva fights alongside you. The computer controls her when playing solo, but a friend can join your game via Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network and take over her character for any period of time. It's a nifty little addition that one can chose to ignore, or make a major part of the RE5 experience.
Editor's Note: Much has been written about accusations of cultural insensitivity in the game's setting and characters (it's essentially a Japanese game about Caucasian guys shooting semizombified African villagers), but I'll always have a soft spot for the Resident Evil series, because it's largely responsible for the last 10 years of my career.
Back in 1998 I was a lowly Assistant Editor at a trade magazine called Beverage World, with no aspirations to write about video games or technology. After seeing a TV commercial for Resident Evil 2, I marched down to my local video game emporium and purchased an original first-generation PlayStation and the then-new RE2 game. Mere months later, I was working at video game Web site UGO.com (now owned by Hearst), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Related: See Jeff talk about RE5 on Loaded.