Following one of the greatest games of all time can't be easy. For many people Resident Evil 4 is the perfect game. It's action packed, tense, scary, brilliantly paced, full of "wow" moments, features incredible visuals, is jammed full of replay value and surprises from start to finish. Four years later gamers expect this and more from Resident Evil 5. While in most cases Capcom has delivered the goods, making what will undoubtedly be one of the best games of 2009, it doesn't quite have the magic that made Resi 4 so special.
We won't detail too much of the story as spoiling it would hurt your enjoyment, but you play Chris Redfield (Resident Evil veteran from the very first game in the series), now a member of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA), who enters the fictional African country Kijuju in order to investigate a mysterious event in the desert. Cue a zombie outbreak similar to that seen in Resident Evil 4 (where we've got infected humans, not the walking dead), with heads exploding and mutated monstrosities bursting out with a general willingness to cause harm to everyone around them.
There's obviously a shady organisation behind all this, working on a virus for its own evil means. You'll come across a whole host of familiar faces, and prepare to be surprised now and again, too. Part of Resident Evil's charm has always been its cheesy storylines and dialogue, and this is carried off quite superbly here. The main bad guys ham it up quite brilliantly, the plot takes Chris to places you simply couldn't have foreseen as you walk the streets of an eerily quiet small town during the game's opening, and some of the one-liners are truly laugh out loud funny.
Much has been made of Resi 5's core gameplay mechanics, with the characters unable to move and shoot, forcing players to stand still every time they want to fire a gun or slash with a melee weapon. This will be a problem for some people, but if you enjoyed Resi 4 it won't be an issue at all. New to the series is the ability to strafe while walking (you can choose to use a more traditional control scheme if you wish), so once you've gotten to grips with the control scheme you're really quite nimble - especially with a powerful weapon in your hand that enables you to run up close to the infected and take them down in one shot.
It's your co-op partner Sheva Alomar (an agent of the West African branch of the BSAA) that really makes Resi 5 a different Resident Evil experience, whether in the hands of a real person or AI controlled. How good a job the AI-controlled Sheva does depends on the situation. If you want her to kill enemies, set her to attack mode and she'll be great, and she's brilliant at healing you when you need "urb", but if you want her to do a specific task (distract an enemy for example) she's more or less useless. This is where a real person (playing online or via single system split-screen) can remove many of the game's more frustrating moments.
When playing with AI Sheva you're going to have to tackle the more complex bosses without much help, moving into the right position to attack their weak spots through your own hard work. If you've got a friend helping you out you can work together to get these bosses exactly where you want them. During general attacks on infected one player can take out the up close enemies, ideally with a tuned-up shotgun, while the other can hang back and snipe. It sounds like simple stuff, but it works really well. There are numerous split-path moments too, so the co-op gameplay certainly hasn't been shoe-horned in. Resident Evil 5 was clearly designed from the ground up as a game best played with a friend.
What makes Resident Evil 5 so much fun to play is the way it's impossible to know what's coming next. You start off in a seriously atmospheric African town, complete with villagers, but you're soon off to an oil refinery, a pitch-black mine, a secret bunker, a yacht and more. Tie these environments to some breathtaking set-piece encounters and you'll be looking back on your time with the game and reminiscing about certain moments just as many people do with Resident Evil 4. There are some spectacular on-rails sections too, and superbly directly QTEs that never make you wish they were traditional gameplay elements.
Upgrading your weapons is key to how you'll be able to take on the increasingly hard enemies as you move through the game. As is traditional, almost everything you kill drops something, be it some money, ammo, jewel or health item. Collect money and sell jewels (sadly there's no combining jewels to make more valuable pieces) and you'll be able to upgrade your weapons in key stats, like chance of single shot headshot kill, reload time and capacity. Sadly the travelling salesmen from Resi 4 didn't get on the plane to Africa, and there's no direct replacement, leaving you to do all your buying and selling with a lifeless menu screen.
Completely new to the series is a real-time inventory system, although with it comes an inability to upgrade your inventory's size. Sheva and Chris each have nine slots (every item takes up one slot, so there's no accounting for big weapons taking up more space, and four of these correspond to a direction on the d-pad for quick selection), which means you can't simply take everything you see. It's key to leave any unnecessary items in storage at the end of each act (the game is split into six chapters, each comprised of two or three acts), leaving you room to carry ammo for your weapons and pick up herbs and other weapons you'll find.
Gladly you can carry over your items from one game to the next once you finish the campaign, allowing you to start again (perhaps at a higher difficulty) with your tuned up guns. This has always been a great part of the series, and it's just as much fun here, replaying previously tricky sections with a maxed out head-shot, 100 bullet capacity hand gun and a fast reloading death-dealing shotgun and laughing at the ensuing carnage.
Multi-platform games tend to be less technically impressive than exclusives, but Resi 5 is visually stunning. Some of the animations are a little clunky and we've seen far better physics, but the environments, bosses and general atmosphere on offer here is worthy of a tremendous amount of praise. If there's a criticism to be levelled at the game it's that it doesn't feel all that Resident Evilee, with much of the game taking place in broad daylight. That doesn't mean it's lacking creepiness, as there are moments here that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up (the many infected come in some rather disgusting forms, including the hideous split-head dogs), but Resi 5 definitely feels different to the games that have gone before it.
Puzzles, which have been a staple part of the series, occur infrequently and of those only one needed a bit of out of the box thinking. Resi 5 feels more like an action game than any game in the series, with a lot of cover-based shooting, loads of machine gun carrying enemies and a definite industrial feel. As spectacular as this action packed gameplay is, there's no doubt that Resi 5 is missing something that made the previous game so special. Whether it was the relationship between lead man Leon and the hopeless Ashley, the forever amusing tradesman or the outrageous boss encounters, Capcom's latest just can't quite match it.
Don't let that rather disappointing comparison to Resident Evil 4 fool you. Coming second to one of the best games of our generation is nothing to be sniffed at, and Resident Evil 5 is still a game that does the series proud. With a whole heap of content to unlock, including the brilliant Mercenaries mode (playable cooperatively off and online), a campaign that begs to be replayed and top of the line production values there's very little to be disappointed with. If you've read all that and the first thing in your mind is "but you can't move and shoot?" this isn't for you, but everyone else should grab a friend and enter the world of not quite so much survival horror.