Capcom’s “Resident Evil” franchise pioneered the survival horror videogame genre in 1996 and brought it to new heights with 2005’s best selling “Resident Evil 4,” spawning three movies along the way. But sometimes a revered veteran falls behind the times. The highly anticipated “Resident Evil 5” offers few terrifying moments or new ideas, mixing tired features from the series’ previous incarnations with poorly implemented ones borrowed from modern games, all set against a backdrop with disturbing racial overtones. While it has already scared up a massive initial shipment of 4 million units, “Resident Evil 5” is unlikely to survive gamers’ long-term judgments.
The “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” principle is a cherished one in the sequel-heavy videogame biz, so it’s no surprise that “RE 5” follows the successful formula of “4.” Once again an American military operative – Chris Redfield, first seen in the original “Resident Evil” – is investigating a mysterious infestation in a foreign land, this time a fictional African nation. The only major change is the addition of a controllable partner, giving two people the chance to play together in the same room or online.
When it comes to scares, “Resident Evil 5” relies on the same bag of tricks seen in “4”: natives with tentacles that explode out of their heads, rooms dripping with blood, and battles with giant slimy monsters. At a time when horror has come to be defined by the psycho-sexual gore of “Saw” and the unpredictable terror of “Left 4 Dead,” the developers at Capcom seem stuck in the past, offering a game that simply isn’t frightening.
Most of the changes come in the form of action, on which this new title leans more heavily than its predecessors. The slow pace, scarcity of ammunition, and inability to run while shooting provide some much-needed tension. But “Resident Evil 5” too often feels like a montage of action game clichés, from a turret gun on a truck to shooting around walls to laser beams that move in timed patterns. They’ve all been done before, and better.
It’s particularly frustrating that “RE 5’s” cooperative option, its most heavily touted new feature, is so lackluster. Joining a game mid-session forces both players to start at the last checkpoint, for instance, and inexplicably leaves the newcomer without a weapon.
At the same time, many of the worst aspects of “Resident Evil” remain intact. Controls are ridiculously complicated, as is the supply management system. Levels are unnaturally constrained and too often consist of busywork like collecting puzzle pieces to open a door. And instead of just telling its story visually, game frequently calls on players to push a button to “investigate,” resulting in insightful observations from Redfield like, “Looks like it was torn apart by animals. Not a good way to go.”
The one unique touch in “Resident Evil 5’s” high quality but standard visual design is its use of the African sun. Horror is usually defined by darkness, but the glaring light here replaces the usual anxiety with an almost oppressive sense of exposure. Unfortunately, the game abandons its unique sun-drenched shantytowns early on in favor of generic underground and sci-fi settings.
As players have come to expect from the series, the dialogue is cheesy and voice acting mediocre. That might be excusable if the mood was that of a B movie, but the game takes itself far too seriously, particular near the end as old enemies and allies reveal themselves in what’s essentially a “Resident Evil” band reunion.
Game’s seriousness also makes its racial politics awkward, to say the least. While there’s no evidence of bad intentions, “Resident Evil 5’s” Japanese developers seem unaware of the historical resonance for Western audiences of seeing a white soldier arrive in Africa and murder thousands of natives. Though they’re nominally zombies, many look, move and even shoot guns like living people, save for the barely-clothed 19th century stereotypes holding a spear in one hand and a painted shield in the other. The racial problems only deepen when combined with the classic “Resident Evil” currency system in which players earn cash to buy guns by stealing gold from corpses and looting homes.