Resident Evil 5 (Xbox 360)
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 and tested on the PlayStation 3. No notable performance or video differences were noted.
First things first: I'm a big white dude. Aside from a small amount of Native American blood, I'm as white as white gets. So I'll say this as clearly and as honestly as I possibly can: As a big white dude, I was uncomfortable with the subhuman portrayals of black people in Resident Evil 5. I remember -- cue the flashback harp music -- shifting in my seat during a screening of "The Birth of a Nation" as an undergraduate. I remember thinking that something was wrong with what I was looking at, even if I couldn't effectively articulate what was wrong at the time.
In watching "The Birth of a Nation," I felt like an accomplice to the film's sins, and I felt the guilt and shame that typically comes along with being an accomplice.
I felt the same way while playing through Resident Evil 5. If you've got a PC bone in your body, if you know the history of racism at all, Resident Evil 5 is not going to sit right with you.
The game shifts milieus from Vague European Burg (where Resident Evil 4 was set) to Vague African Savannah, but preserves the now-familiar over-the-shoulder vantage point from Resident Evil 4. Thick-necked Chris Redfield, the protagonist from the original Resident Evil, and newcomer Sheva Alomar are the dynamic duo sent to subvert -- you guessed it -- another bio-terror threat. Both are so ridiculously hale and hearty, they appear to have just finished high-fiving after doing wheatgrass shots.
The African zombies, in contrast, look underfed and hollow-eyed. Their lips are puffed and cracked; their bloodshot eyes practically bug out from their skulls. The physical contrast between the game's heroes and villains -- light skin versus dark skin (even Sheva, who's African, is light-skinned); civilized versus savage -- makes cutting down hordes of the infected with a submachine gun a complicated and troubling act.
Things get more troubling when a scream erupts from a nearby alleyway, and Chris and Sheva spot a white woman being practically dragged off by the hair by a zombie. Chris and Sheva give chase. When they find the woman, something has happened to her. She falls limply into Chris' arms. "Are you OK?" Chris asks repeatedly. The woman, of course, promptly transforms into a zombie. She has been infected.
Chris and Sheva are forced to destroy this abomination. It happens so quickly that you don't really have a chance to unpack what's going on here; you don't think about what you're doing until after you've done it. The logical moment-after question is this: What the f*** is a white woman wearing a thigh-length black dress doing wandering around in the middle of this nowhere African village? Did her plane bound for fashion week in Madrid make a wrong turn somewhere?
More poignantly: It's wholly unnecessary for Capcom to invoke dated racist tropes -- tropes regarding what black men will do to white women; tropes with none-too-subtle connotations of rape and transformation -- in the name of making Resident Evil 5.
Things get even more troubling once you encounter zombie natives wearing bone necklaces and grass skirts and, quite literally, throwing spears. "You'd swear [the game] was written in the 1920s," wrote Dan Whitehead in a preview of the game for Eurogamer. I agree. All that's missing is the pot of boiling water containing the mustachioed explorer still wearing his pith helmet and quizzical expression.
Ironically, this is simultaneously the best and the worst localization job Capcom has done in its history. The English translation is better; the grammar and spelling mistakes (a longtime staple in Capcom games) are kept to a minimum. Yet the localizers and developers were profoundly ignorant of how Africans, and African-Americans, and big white dudes with liberal leanings, would process the game.
When Evan Narcisse and I spoke with Jun Takeuchi at the DICE Summit a few weeks back, I asked Takeuchi if Chris Redfield, who behaves like a selfish jackass throughout the entire game, is intended to be a satiric comment on American culture.
Turns out I was giving Takeuchi and his team too much credit. To my disappointment, he explained that this wasn't his intention at all. "[Chris] probably isn't a nice person to be around," he said. "He probably isn't good at dealing with other people because he takes his work so seriously. You can see that in a lot of other [Japanese] games, too. Japanese people tend to like those kinds of characters more than Americans do."
Which brings me to the most troubling aspect of Resident Evil 5 -- and on a more global scale, with the videogames being produced by Japanese developers these days. They lack an awareness of the rest of the world, and an understanding of the subtext they create.
That once-charming Japanese irreverence? (Example: the absurd pseudo-macho things that Street Fighter IV's characters say before and after fights.) It's not charming anymore; it's annoying and small-minded; it's lazy. It's no longer acceptable to explain away a game's shortcomings with the excuse that "it's Japanese," and therefore comprehendible only to Japanese people. The medium has become a global entertainment; it's not the niche hobby it was five or 10 years ago. And that ever-expanding audience -- different ethnicities, different tax brackets, different levels of education, different points of view -- must be considered.
Resident Evil 5, a game that cost millions of dollars to make, will hopefully stand as a tombstone for the end of a tradition. It's the beginning of the end of an era. Resident Evil 5 will forever be remembered as an important game, for all the wrong reasons.
As for the gameplay, it's a solid, if unsurprising, endeavor. The presence of Takeuchi-san means that you can expect far more grand-scale boss fights a l? Lost Planet, which I personally could have done without. There's nothing in Resident Evil 5 that's even remotely as nuanced or memorable as your encounters in Resident Evil 4 with the Del Lago (the lake creature that you battle while in the rowboat) or the El Gigante. Instead, what you get are lots of massive, vaguely insectoid bosses with big, red, throbbing weak points.
Making cooperative play the focal point of the game is also a mistake. While you play as Chris, Sheva (controlled by the artificial intelligence in single-player) does indeed help you at times. She's surprisingly deadly with the sniper rifle. Equip her with one, upgrade it, and make sure she's stocked with ammo. Sheva's also adept at healing you during battle; load her up with herbs and First Aid sprays.
But my problem with cooperative play is that, although it sounds good in theory, in practice it constantly took me out of the game. For example: Instead of having my own, personal experience, I'm mired in annoying decisions. I'm trying to decide if I should let Sheva haul around the proximity mine, or if I should mix the herbs before giving them to her (the AI isn't savvy enough to mix them on its own). Instead of being steeped in the fiction of the game world, I'm annoyed that Sheva has a fully-stocked sniper rifle, yet the AI insists on using the shotgun to take potshots at distant enemies. I'm annoyed that she's hoarding all the handgun ammo even though she doesn't have a handgun. And for a game that puts a premium on ammunition -- I ran out on several occasions -- the AI and I often wound up targeting the same enemies at the same time, meaning that we were always using more bullets than we needed to use to survive. The emotion I felt wasn't fear. I was irritated and annoyed by the micromanaging the game requires.
If you've got a friend to drive Sheva around for you, that's definitely the way to go. But the emphasis on co-op play, personally, only made me long for the queasy, surreal solitude of Resident Evil 4. More often than not, I wished that I had the option to ask the AI-controlled Sheva if she'd mind sitting this one out, and letting me handle this level alone.
Aside from a somewhat exciting Tomb Raider-esque digression toward the middle of the game, you'll traverse the same clichéd mine shafts, the same clichéd boat docks and military complex and sci-fi laboratories that you traversed in Resident Evil 4 (as well as in countless other games). There's nothing here that you haven't seen or done before. Yes, you'll be confined to an area for a certain amount of time and challenged to survive. Yes, you'll have to time button presses to get through Quick Time Events. Yes, devil dogs with tentacles flying out of their heads will attack/annoy you on several occasions.
What I miss most is the theme-park-gone-wrong quality of Resident Evil 4. That Vague European Burg? It felt more like something from an evil Epcot Center than a real village. Even the ridiculous recycling of the character models -- here comes the guy in the suspenders again! -- made the production feel playful, cheap and nightmarish at once. Remember the cheeseball castles that felt like abandoned movie sets? Or your encounter in the burning barn with Osmund Saddler? Or the little Napoleon-like guy who created a giant robot statue of himself? Nothing in Resident Evil 5 can hold a candle to those indelible, unforgettable surrealities.
No, none of it made any damn sense. Yet there was a Buñuelian disjointedness to Resident Evil 4 that somehow made it compelling, despite itself. Resident Evil 5, in contrast, is trying too damn hard to be dramatic, in the name of upping the ante from the previous game. Those bombastic set pieces, and the battles with the massive bosses, are not exciting. They're overwrought and numbing.
Most disappointing of all [minor spoiler, if you care about such things], the El Gigante, the most feared enemy in Resident Evil 4 and one that will forever haunt me, has a cameo in Resident Evil 5. But he shows up sporting an unkempt Appalachian beard for some inexplicable reason, making him look more like Old Pappy looking for his jug o' moonshine rather than the nightmarish creature he formerly was.
In the end, once the credits roll on Resident Evil 5, what I'm left with is a grim, unimaginative world; an annoying, unreliable partner; and a host of impersonal, forgettable encounters -- all of it poisoned by hideous, unfortunate racism.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.