Resident Evil 5 is probably the biggest surprise at this year's eGames & Entertainment Expo, as we found it unexpectedly sitting in the middle of Sony's main booth for anyone to play. After Resident Evil 4 revolutionised both the action and horror genres, we've been itching to see just how the series will progress. Resident Evil 5 takes us to an area called 'Kijuju' in Africa, and sees the return of Chris Redfield as protagonist, who has been missing from the series since Resident Evil: Code Veronica (although he did turn up for a brief stint in the Wii shooter Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles). Along with Chris, many other familiar elements make their return to the series, but does this latest entry take any steps to evolve the franchise?
We played two levels at eGames, the first involving a gathering of African villagers in the town's square and the second taking place in a 'shanty town'. The first level sees Chris and Sheva (his female partner) stumble across a public execution, where a giant axe-wielding butcher separates a poor prisoner's head from the rest of his body as a crowd of angry, red-eyed villagers look on. As you'd expect, it's not long before the villagers notice the duo and attack the house where Chris is holed up inside.
The first thing we had to come to grips with were the new controls, which have been re-thought to help the game stand out from its predecessor. The left stick now allows Chris to strafe, the right stick takes care of the camera, and the aiming and firing controls have been moved to the shoulder buttons. Don't get your hopes too high however - you still can't move while aiming, but the strafing and quick turn work together quite well to help you stay on top of the zombie hordes. Of course, it's a well-known fact that if you implement an aiming system into a game, there are only two places that gamers will want to go for - namely, the crotch and the head. And if it's headshots you're after, you've come to the right place. It's still immensely rewarding to find that sweet-spot in a zombie's skull which causes it to explode into a gooey, bloody mass. We also found that more often than not you'll find those heads soon being replaced by strange plant-like tentacles which keep the rest of the body on the attack, so it's important to keep on your toes.
Obviously, the co-operative play in Resident Evil 5 is one of the biggest advances over the rest of the series. While the demo we played was only single-player, it was clear that the levels were built from the ground-up with co-op in mind. There were multiple instances where we had to split up with Sheva, helping her up ladders so that she could take out zombies from afar, then repaying the favour as we protected her from the undead masses with our trusty sniper rifle. The AI controlling Sheva in the demo wasn't too shabby either, although she did require our help more than a few times when a zombie got a bit too close for comfort. In instances like these, you can use the context-sensitive action button once you get near Sheva to rescue her, although it was unclear whether you too could request such help during an actual co-op session. This button also allowed us to uppercut unguarded enemies, resulting in several brutally hilarious moments as we gave that town executioner a little of the old five-fingered magic.
Other annoyances from Resident Evil 4 have also been removed, such as the attache case item system, which literally required you to become a Feng Shui master to fit all of your items in. Now, weapons and items are accessed from a quick pop-up menu that doesn't take you out of the action or force you to choose suitable positions for each of them. However, this menu does take place in real-time, which means that if you're in the heat of battle you'll want to make a decision as quickly as possible to avoid letting your guard down for too long. When all else fails though and you've run out of alternatives, the simple knife makes its return, allowing you to cut down enemies in their path. It's still a little cumbersome to use for inexperienced players, but you should find it a useful friend when your ammunition is running low and the enemies are running straight for you.
Speaking of enemies, the zombie-plant-villager-people of Resident Evil 5 seemed a little on the slow side in this build. On multiple occasions we found them crowding around doorways, unsure of whether to stay inside and have a cup of tea or to actually come out and try their luck at gutting us. They also moved pretty slowly, making it easy to pick them off one by one, which is perhaps for the best considering that you still can't move while aiming. It wasn't until we met the African cousin of Resident Evil 4's 'chainsaw guy' that we found a worthwhile match, as he sliced through a gate and hounded us through the streets of the 'shanty town' level as we plugged round after round into his hideous head. Just as in the last game, this encounter was an extremely tense and adrenaline-fueled battle of gun against chainsaw, which was unfortunately cut short after he sawed through Chris' neck.
Resident Evil 5 looks and sounds amazing on next-generation consoles, but the jump has resulted in more of an evolution than a revolution of the franchise. Capcom are clearly sticking with what worked so well in Resident Evil 4, while adding ways to make the experience even more fun. Whether you decide to cull Africa's zombie population with your intelligent AI-buddy or with a friend via co-op, Resident Evil 5 is shaping up to be an action experience just like its predecessor. And that's no small praise at all.