After spending a few hours replaying the recently released demo of Resident Evil 5 we were happy, but ever so slightly concerned. A demo isn't really the best way to get a feel for a game like this, with two small sections failing to really give an impression of the bigger picture. With that in mind we settled in for a few days of the real deal: the first three chapters of Capcom's guaranteed survival horror smash hit. But is it still a survival horror game? And is it the kind of game we want in this day and age?
What came through loud and clear from the first three chapters (a sizeable chunk of the game we should add) is that it really does feel like Resi 4, except with a definite extra helping of action. We won't say that the series debut on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 isn't survival horror any more, but it's walking that thin line between an action packed third-person shooter and a full-on, nerve-racking horror title.
For some the action won't be to their taste, with the stop and pop shooting mechanic often proving to be difficult as enemies come at you from all directions. Yes, you can now strafe (and at points even take cover behind objects), but by forcing you to stop and take aim every time you want to pop a cap in an infected guy's head, you feel like you're in more danger, panic sets in and you get scared. This is how a more action packed Resident Evil still manages to feel like the classic series many gamers grew up playing - despite not being old enough to buy the games from stores. If you can't get your head around not being able to run and gun, we can tell you now that you're not going to enjoy the game.
With that out of the way, we're happy to report that the opening three chapters, which each contain at least two acts, feature plenty of the jaw dropping moments that made Resi 4 so memorable. One early boss encounter saw our heroes Chris and Sheva taking on a nasty leech monster (that's what we're calling it anyway) - a fight which coincidentally took place just outside a rather large blast chamber. Some classic Benny Hill-style 'you can't catch me' running around ensued, and, well, you can probably work out what happened next. We'll say that the fire effects is Resi 5 look very nice indeed.
Another boss fight saw the two of us going up against what can only be described as a giant flying armoured beetle wasp thing. Taking place on the edge of a cliff, the flying beast chases you around until you're able to stop it in its tracks (hand grenades and proximity mines work well), allowing you to get up close and personal with its fleshy stomach. Rinse and repeat a few times and the bug is no more. Not only does this battle look great (complete with collapsing shacks if you hide in them for too long), but it also demonstrates how the controls make for a more intense encounter. If you were able to move around like Master Chief there'd be no threat, no real danger, and the result would be less fun.
Since starting this preview we've had to edit out details of other encounters, simply because we don't want to reveal them all and spoil the first portion of the game for you. Even three chapters in there have been some incredible moments, including the return of an old, not so small foe (if you really want to know what it is, spoilerific screens are out there, but we recommend you try to avoid them), and some rather nasty infected dogs - not so pretty when their faces split open. We've even played a few on-rails sections that look stunning, completed some brief QTEs (hopefully they'll remain fleeting affairs throughout) and much, much more.
Resident Evil has always been about the special moments, like the dogs jumping through the window in the original, the first time you encounter a licker in 2 and the lake monster in 4 - or simply having your head cut clean off by the mad guy with the chainsaw and watching in despair as Mike's chopper crashed and burned. Resident Evil 5 certainly looks like it's not going to disappoint in this area. With more than half the game still to see we'd wager it might have even more jaw to the floor moments than the stupendous GameCube game, and that's really saying something.
Chris and Sheva really don't know how to stay in one place, so your adventure (which we're estimating will last well in excess of ten hours on your first run) will take you to places very different to the dusty, desert-like location seen in most the released screens and videos. From what we've played they all look stunning too, more than living up to level of expectation placed on the series' next-gen console debut. Resi 4 dazzled with its lighting effects (an area of the game that still impresses today), but 5 takes it to a new level. During one section Sheva carries a lantern while Chris dispatches enemies in an underground tunnel system. The real-time shadows being cast here look amazing, and the whole section is incredibly atmospheric.
Sections like this hammer home how core co-op play is to Resident Evil 5, even more so than we thought it would be. Having played through portions of the preview build alone (with AI Sheva) and with a real-life friend, there's no question that it's more enjoyable when played with a mate. Certain sections seem quite contrived (doors that need two people to open or objects too heavy for one person to push), but these are countered with clever co-op set-pieces and fights in which you have an advantage when working together.
If there's a downside to the co-op, and the game in general, it's the inventory system. Gone is the trusty briefcase of previous games, usually accessed from a paused menu screen; in comes a real-time inventory management system and quick selection shortcuts. The d-pad allows you to assign four items to be selected instantly, but it's really not enough. It might just be us being sticklers for what we've used before, but we don't like being made to swap items and combine things in real-time, and there's no way to simply offer a portion of your ammo to your partner. There's also a big question mark over whether you'll be able to upgrade weapons and how item buying will work - the current store, presented at the end of each act and when you die, doesn't let you buy ammo, which we hope is simply a work in progress.
There's more we want to say, a lot more, including loads of things from Chapter 3 that we haven't really mentioned, story details that would put us on Capcom's most wanted list and character info that would probably cause the website to explode the moment the names were written. We had concerns about Resident Evil 5, concerns that the demo only partially assuaged, but the considerable amount of time we've spent with a more complete build of the game has made us much happier. It might very well be Resident Evil 4 with shiny new clothes and co-op play, but that's a game we'd gladly give an arm, a leg and a brain to play.
Resident Evil 5 is due for release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 13. A demo for both consoles is available now from Xbox LIVE Marketplace and the PlayStation Store.