Thursday, March 11, 2010

In Praise of Resident Evil 5

Capcom's venerable Resident Evil series disappointed some gamers with the fifth core title released last year.  Resident Evil 5 built on the more action-oriented style of play established in RE4, but emphasized cooperative play with online and local support for two players.  So ingrained in the game's design is the team approach that the single-player experience relies on an automated partner character, who seems to spend most of her time getting in the way and wasting healing herbs.

I wasn't in a rush to play RE5, given its lukewarm market reception, but on Valentine's Day this year my wife and I were in the mood for something new and picked it up at its discounted price (on disc, just a few days before it debuted as a downloadable XBox On Demand title.)  I have played through most of the Resident Evil games over the years, but my wife's direct experience with Capcom's bio-horrors has been limited to the two Wii light-gun shooters; they're great fun, but they're a different sort of experience.

Fortunately, Resident Evil 5 really shines with two local players who know each other well.  The split screen allows each character to explore on his or her own, but the game mechanics for assistance and healing also mean it's not a good idea to become separated.  It's valuable to have one player (usually me) covering for any unexpected attacks while the other (usually my wife) scavenges for ammo and healing herbs.  We've been having a great time planning strategies, exploring, and hastily improvising during those panic-inducing Majini onslaughts.  And when we die, as we occasionally do, we're grateful for the breather and the chance to upgrade our equipment and plan a new approach.

With two players, Capcom's design preserves what RE has always done well -- the series has become more action-oriented over time, but this fifth chapter still maintains a palpable sense of tension and surprise throughout, especially during sections where the players are forced to separate.  Helping my wife jump across the street to another building, then doing my best to protect her from the rampaging infected using a sniper rifle from a distance, while she fought her way downstairs to unlock the door so I could join her -- this is the stuff memories are made of.

So kudos to Capcom for taking a chance and taking a popular series in a bold new direction. Videogaming is too often a solitary exercise; what's great about RE5 is that we've now both "been to" this virtual world, and we've done it together.  So I must respectfully disagree with some players' reaction to the latest Resident Evil -- the co-op approach may not be what everyone wanted, but the design takes the concept seriously, and it works spectacularly well.  RE5 remains hardcore enough to be challenging -- ammo and supplies are always limited -- but it's also welcoming and flexible enough to allow two players of disparate experience to have intense, challenging fun together.

We couldn't have asked for a better Valentine's Day gift.

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