Dissenting Opinion: Resident Evil 5
Scott Jones' review of Resident Evil 5 says things that need to be said. To his credit, he leads with an admission of his own white guilt, expressed in that quintessential moment when white guilt dawns: being shown "The Birth of a Nation" in some undergraduate class where you probably also watched "Triumph of the Will." Scott goes on to hold Resident Evil 5 to the same standards we hold for other forms of entertainment. He argues forcefully that Capcom's Japanese parochialism is outdated and inappropriate. These are good points, and Scott makes them in exactly the right place. There's been plenty of fretting about Resident Evil 5 up to now, and there's no reason to stop when it comes to reviewing the actual game.
But I think Scott misses an important point. Capcom's execution is indeed muddled and oblivious, but by the time you've explored the obligatory super-secret laboratory at the end, intentions come into focus a little more clearly. The creators of Resident Evil 5 seem to think they're branching out into politically conscientious territory by telling a story about how the Umbrella Corporation exploited Africa. It is a larger version of a point they've been fumbling with all along about corporate evil (corporate in the literal sense of corporations, rather than the existential sense of collective humanity). This point has meandered from a haunted mansion to small-town USA, into Europe, and now down to the Third World (it's interesting that Resident Evil 5 cut scene director Jim Sonzero cites "The Constant Gardener" as one of his main influences). Capcom must have thought it was being downright progressive. Here they are no more intentionally racist than they were intentionally anti-American when they nuked Raccoon City. Does it make the clumsy imagery any less offensive? That's for you to decide.
Have gun, will travel to Africa
But the more important point I think Scott glossed over is the thing that has taken me by surprise: the gameplay. Scott calls the gameplay "a solid endeavor," but he fails to note how it's unlike that of any other shooter. With its real-time inventory management, it even differs substantially from Resident Evil 4, which had a staccato routine of shoot, pause, manage inventory, unpause, shoot, save Ashley, do a puzzle, shoot, pause, etc. Why is Resident Evil 5 such a delight for a guy like me who adored the thoughtful politics and distinct pacing of Far Cry 2, the other recent game about Africa? Why am I playing through Resident Evil 5 a third time?
For starters, I love that this is a game about resource management. How much ammo do I have? How much stuff can I carry? How much stuff can my partner carry? Which weapon do I spend my money on? These are constant and important questions. Scott says these considerations took him out of the game, but I'd argue they are the game. The concept of survival horror here has less to do with horror than it has to do with the constant ammo shortage. There's really nothing scary about Resident Evil. In this regard, it does a great job of capturing the basic tension of zombie "horror." Zombies aren't frightening in the same way other monsters are frightening. They're not powerful, mysterious or even particularly evil. They're just inevitable. No matter how many bullets you have, zombies will keep coming. Ergo, you never have enough bullets. This is a central tenet of zombie horror and something that Resident Evil 5 understands beautifully.
The actual shooting is also unlike any other shooter's, which is why many people don't care for the controls. Shooting in Resident Evil 5 is always a deliberate action, requiring care and calculation. Which means this fantasy of gunplay doesn't blur into the thousand other videogaming fantasies of gunplay. Even the studiously tactical Gears of War 2 has instances of running backwards and shooting, something that has never actually happened in the history of people actually shooting at each other (I know this from watching movies). Resident Evil 5, like its predecessor, is about having to stop. You do not run and gun. You plant your feet. You aim. You shoot. You might even imagine something about squeeeezing the trigger instead of pulling. And whenever you get a free moment, you make sure to reload, enjoying the crisp click of sliding clips, chambered rounds and set breaches. Every bullet counts, whether you're loading them or shooting them.
This is where the wonderful graphics come into effect. For all the great lighting and the detailed shantytowns and the canned drive across the savannah (simultaneously the most beautiful and boring bit), the real eye candy is the animation. Specifically, the way zombies get shot. Each hit generates a reaction animation based on where you hit your zombie target. Whether knocking them back with a shotgun, gimping them with a leg shot, splattering their heads, or just reducing them to paste with a grenade, there are a thousand ways to kill a zombie, each lovingly presented to reinforce that you are a totally bad-ass zombie killer. The crunch of your boots on gravel and the rustle of your gear reinforce this bad-ass-ness even between the shotgun blasts.
Yeah, okay, it all looks pretty silly. Chris' bicep is as big as his stupid head. Sheva is as unlikely an antiterrorism agent as you'll ever see, and that's even before you unlock her goofy "clubbin'" outfit or the bikini that's culturally authentic for how it makes her look like she works at a strip club in downtown Mombasa. Resident Evil 5 is never not an adult cartoon, which is to say it is a thoroughly juvenile fantasy about violence without repercussions. Zombies are perfect for this. It's worth noting that everyone in this game is too busy putting down the infected to worry about curing them. Before it ends, it veers awfully close to being some run-of-the-mill Ubisoft shooter, complete with a half-assed cover system. But for the most part, the gunplay's the thing.
The story in Resident Evil 5 isn't really the story. Instead, the story is a recursive set of playthroughs -- at higher difficulty levels, on Game+ options or just to collect things you need. Your first playthrough will be your most challenging, but it's the warm-up. You're dropped immediately into a village siege with nothing but a handgun. This might frustrate you. It's supposed to. You will remember this place. You will remember it well. Then you will return with a shotgun, an assault rifle or maybe a grenade launcher. You might bring all three. In time, this village siege will be a massacre. I'd argue this is the point of Resident Evil 5's gameplay: the return to really give these zombie jerks the what for.
The wonderful weapon upgrade system drives this home. There's an economy in Resident Evil 5, built entirely around the shortage of ammo and the increasingly powerful weapons. You upgrade your weapons to make your shots more effective, to minimize the downtime between reloads, to maximize the chance of a fatal headshot, and so on. As I said before, every bullet counts. It's like a role-playing game, but instead of characters you have guns. I leveled up the MP5 first, and then the Dragunov a little, but now I'm working on the pump-action shotgun, which is a real beast. As I do it, I'm earning money, improving my ratings, and stockpiling ammo and grenades and proximity mines and medical supplies. And all the while, I'm revisiting old levels and settling scores. These recurring levels work because the basic combat model, the bad-ass gunplay, and the purity of the zombie motif all hold up even in relatively canned situations. Resident Evil 5 is good enough that replaying a level isn't just replaying a level. It is a revenge story.
Capcom has carefully built the game out of replayable set pieces, with treasure, collectibles, scaling difficulty and leaderboards. You'd think the Tomb Raider bit in the middle would feel out of place in such a game. Why would I ever want to return to pivot some mirrors around? Oh, wait, I remember now. Because solving puzzles spawns zombies. This is an action game, through and through. Those puzzles aren't even puzzles. They're excuses for you to grab a doo-dad that will spawn more zombies. The boss battles are mostly simple, thrown in almost out of a sense of obligation. Speaking of which, there's that bat/beetle/scorpion boss in the Tomb Raider level that I ran from instead of fighting. I wonder what he'll think when I come back with a grenade launcher and a stockpile of acid shells? Hey, jerk, remember me?
Of course, if I ever get sick of all this, I can take the gunplay to the skill-based Mercenaries challenges, which won't let me rely on leveled-up weapons and stockpiled firepower. Unlike the rest of the game, I cannot brute-force my way through these. And of course, in a few weeks there will be the Versus mode available for download for a paltry five bucks, for which I would be a lot less cavalier about paying if I weren't enjoying myself so much. Capcom knows the gunplay fantasy is good enough to be played different ways and even paid for.
I'm with Sheva
Which brings me to the co-op. While Resident Evil 5 plays fine solo (a couple of boss fights excepted), it deserves recognition for the co-op. This sort of calculated shooting is so much more gratifying with two humans calculating it instead of a human player and an artificial intelligence. Whereas Scott says it takes him out of the game, on the contrary, I find the game is built to draw two people in. You cover this side, I'll cover that. You take the shotgun, I'll take the sniper rifle. I'm throwing a grenade now. You get the flamethrower, I'll distract it. Do you have a red herb? Okay, we died, so I'm going to get my shotgun this time. If you have any shells, I could use some. Bring that first-aid spray. More than any other co-op game I've tried, Resident Evil 5 is carefully built for two.
As far as the story, Scott considers it disappointing and I think that's selling it short: It's flat-out terrible in that way that so many overly earnest Japanese stories are terrible. He says Resident Evil 5 lacks the "unforgettable surrealities" of Resident Evil 4, most of which I'd forgotten. However, this game's final set piece -- and by final, I mean the one after the supposedly final set piece -- elicited an actual laugh-out-loud from me. Really? This is where we're going to end the game, Capcom? I couldn't come up with something more inane, ridiculous and clichéd if I tried. Capcom's wild lack of imagination at the last moment utterly floored me. I don't suspect I'll forget that anytime soon.
Scott also longs for the "queasy, surreal solitude" of Resident Evil 4, which I would have agreed with if only he'd lopped off the number "4." Ever since bringing along the whiny, annoying Ashley in the last game, Resident Evil hasn't had any kind of solitude -- queasy, surreal or otherwise. To RE5's credit, Sheva is a huge help and, yes, a strong female character, inasmuch as anything resembling a character exists in this ham-fisted story.
But to me, the real triumph of Resident Evil 5 is that I ultimately don't care about the bad story, the clumsy imagery or the obligatory boss fights. As a game about gunplay, Resident Evil 5 is different, refreshing, uniquely social, and most of all, it packs a long-term punch in terms of replayability. It takes potential liabilities -- ammo shortages, unconventional controls, canned encounters, limited environmental interactivity, reliance on multiple playthroughs -- and turns them into assets. I'd rank this right up there with Far Cry 2 in terms of shooters that refuse to play by the usual rules and are ultimately better for it.