Resident Evil 5: A Retrospective
Whenever a developer hits on a commercially successful and critically lauded formula, the temptation is always there to take the successful mechanics, append them to the trappings of a new setting and story, and then proceed push them out of the gate as frequently as possible. And hey, it’s understandable to an extent; the chains that larger publishers and development houses are bound to are predominantly fiscal, but inevitably the cyclically amplified staleness of the whole affair is redolent of the law of diminishing returns. The problem with this mode of videogame production also lies in the seeming tendency of the developers to get a little bummed out with the process. You take a look at the past and present models of this type of publisher behaviour; The Splinter Cell series, Mario Kart, or actually, any Nintendo franchise, Assassins Creed, Call of Duty, and like the Termite Queen pumping out larvae every three seconds, you sense that the equivalent of these developer’s birthing canals are getting chafed and exhausted with the heaving effort of what year after year amounts to increasingly trashy sequels. There’s a total sense of joylessness to Luigi power sliding around the corner into a banana peel in the last Mario Kart, a total boredom to Sam Fisher’s workmanlike saunter through his annual neck-break and trespass simulator.
So I guess it’s a little weird, considering this perspective and what I knew about it leading up to release, how excited I was initially for the release of Resident Evil 5, although considering I played through Resi 4 9 times while I was supposed to be studying for my GCSEs, it was probably an obvious anticipation. 5, on the face of it, had several things in its favour; the immediate benefits bestowed by new hardware, co-op which, while inducing some trepidation seeing as isolation was one of the ways the previous game created tension, still had the opportunity to be adapted to the style of the series, and the fact that it had been three years since the last iteration, was enough to cleanse my palate and have me rearing for some new shit. I wasn’t anticipating some overwhelming, hot new gameplay innovation, just a new title with the feel and vibe of the game I had loved a few years ago, and enough different about it to not cause a jarring bout of déjà vu. I knew Capcom were going to rinse Mikami’s formula, and I was alright with that for the most part. Yet it still disappointed on such a colossal scale.
The first flag was one raised all over the internet; the racial tensions underlying the setting of the game. In typical fashion, the internet nerd collective, displaying that its culture has less to do with intelligence than anal retentive pedantry, blew up over the assertions of racist imagery. The same people that would try to convince you of gaming’s “artistic” merit were totally irate that such a concern had been levelled at a “game.” I guess, in part, gamers have become naturally defensive after having their pastime serve as the scapegoat for everything from the Columbine shootings to obesity, but, to be so totally clueless as to not see the obvious concerns underlying an entertainment product that involves a white male protagonist shooting up hordes of feral, “infected” Africans is a little dense. Walking through the opening scene, all you see in any direction you look is leering Africans, a brief detour into a side alley triggers a scene of a man being beaten into submission and then being dragged off. Flies congregate around the viscera of animal carcasses in outdoor stalls under the beating sun and you get one feeling; these are not humans, but a bunch of zombies waiting to happen. This was the immediate observation made by anyone with some social sense or memory of high school history classes, and it’s not to say that this game is deliberately racist, but rather that it’s pretty insensitive to issues of race that undoubtedly exist in modern western culture. Capcom’s response; make your co-op buddy an African, which sort of missed the point and also made an argument as similarly absurd as “I’m not racist, I have black friends.”
Inevitably though, whatever, it’s a Resident Evil game; if the stories of the series’ past are anything to go by, its designers aren’t really clued into anything beyond the mechanical functions of their product. Incidentally, I should probably add that moving from a sort of criticism of the games unwittingly racial undertones, to a description of the inadequacies of the mechanical aspects of the game is going to make me sound like a complete psychopath. But hey, that sort of transition is reflective of the continuing fissure between games as narrative and games as, well, games. And so, I will say that it just does not feel good to shoot someone in the face. This is something of an artistic problem with games; when you have to ensure the player gains some level of satisfaction from input feedback, you’re limited in the sort of emotions you can evoke through this interaction. If I was in the least bit inclined to take Resident Evil 5 seriously on an artistic level, it might force me to think about the frustration I feel in shooting at enemies, and how this perhaps reflects what the protagonist feels as he’s seeing these civilians turn into monsters, having no choice but to kill them for his own safety. But it’s not that way, and it’s clear that the only reason the story or any motivational backdrop exists is to serve as an excuse for changes in pacing, and where exactly you encounter the monster menageries, or boss battles or palate cleansing pseudo puzzles. When you level your weapon and shoot, the reactions of the enemies aren’t even as precise, and definitely not as fun as in Resi 4. The latter game rewarded you for skill shots, with enemies stalling, and falling on one knee as you pop them in the leg, leaving you a window of opportunity to take a hit at their heads, which exploded with all the impact of an elephant charging a rotten watermelon, and the sound to boot. The ridiculousness of how these ambling targets burst open like piñata’s full of b-movie gore was part of the fun, and in 5 by comparison, the sound design, apart from the ambient music with was about as impactful as the last game, was dulled and muted. Headshots no longer had the same gory payoff, and definitely not with the same frequency, while stalling an enemy with a quick shot to the leg to go in for a ammo conserving hook sounded with a low boring thud like a half hearted punch to a pillow.
It just feels so sterilised of the little moments that made 4 so charming – rescuing the husky from the bear trap at the beginning, to have him show up later and help you fight the El Gigante, or the way treasure pieces you found fit together to create items far more valuable than their comprising units. Gone. Even the weapons feel dull. Where you had the Killer 7 magnum or the Blacktail in RE4, in 5 the weapon names are an impersonal series of letters and numbers that detract from the sort of enthusiasm with which you constructed your arsenal in the previous game. So many backwards steps and missed opportunities. Co-op, which ostensibly provides a strategic boon in a game all about finding ways to keep tides of zombies at bay, is hampered by an inability to have a friend jump in at any point during a play session, instead having to wait until the present chapter concludes. Meanwhile, playing single player is frustrated by the awfully programmed buddy AI that heals you at inappropriate moments, is incapable of switching weapons as required by the situation, and is a total annoyance in her frequent need for resuscitation.
The unfortunate thing about the game is that, regardless of how much I harp on about its inadequacies, it’s really not all that bad, and only looks it next to its predecessor. There are parts where it does well, even though its increased focus on action is misguided and cramped by the idiosyncrasies of its control method and the dampened gratification you get from the shooting that forms the bulk of the gameplay.
There is nothing quite so terrifying in the entirety of the game – tentacled super mutants included – as the moments when you see the surface of the water rippling in the tribal village stages of the game, while you’re wading waist deep in a crocodile infested creek. It resonates with the horror elements that have actually worked through the course of the series’ lifespan, and those have always been to do with evoking something primal; an intense instinctual fear, from the crocodiles ready to devour you in one surfacing swipe, to the feral dogs that burst in through the window in the first game. Inevitably, Resident Evil 5 focused too much on overblown spectacle, and the sort of screen filling boss battles that were impressive way back in the 16-bit era when you knew there were technical limitations that made it difficult to render that kind of thing. Unfortunately, as a successor to a game that was as much to do with the atmosphere and the interaction with environment as wit h the moment to moment action, it’s a poor placebo that leaves you with a wistful nostalgia and the sense that the crack dealer you buy from hooked you with the real good shit, and then subsequently left you bummed out with not much more than baking soda in your glass pipe.