I’m close to ten hours into Resident Evil 5. So far, I’m throughly enjoying it; it’s not some great masterwork but it’s an extremely well-made game and I haven’t run into any major frustration points. Unlike the technically similar Dead Space, the moment-to-moment game play is deep enough that simple pattern alterations (new enemy, new weapon, new location) are enough to keep the whole thing from feeling repetitive.
Still, it is quite repetitive. The formula is very well defined at this point: traverse through an area that establishes the current location, spend some time shooting zombies, move on to a simple puzzle or QTE event, uncover some story details, fight something new, fight the boss monster. The boss monsters are, as in every Resident Evil game, people that transform into giant tentacle monsters who have conveniently-colored bulbous weak spots. After shooting the red or orange swollen spots and then doing a particularly strong attack when the monster is down, we are treated to a cutscene about the story and the end of a chapter. At the beginning of the next chapter we get the chance to buy items and organize our inventory before continuing. The reverse influence from Devil May Cry is very clear.
But despite the rather systematic precision with which this formula is iterated, it actually works pretty well. I am particularly interested in the segments that aren’t about fighting, the location-establishment and story-building sections. These are the areas where Resident Evil 5 is strongest as a horror game. As in every previous Resident Evil game, there are files to find that fill out the back story and ancillary characters though diaries and reports. Along with the cutscenes, these documents are the player’s primary source of information about the context within which they are operating, and though they can be skipped, the game is much more interesting with them.
The locales that the players visit are the other major storytelling vector in the game. When in exploration mode, Chris and Sheva move through areas that bear the mark of past events. Sometimes this is simple foreshadowing; an empty, quiet, blood-spattered hall is always a good place to heal and reload, as some new threat is surely around the next corner. But other times, the locales themselves suggest a much larger story world. For example, the goal for the first couple of chapters is to track down a slimeball arms dealer named Irving. Irving only has about five lines in the entire game, and they are all conveyed through cutscenes, so he’s not a deep character by any means. But if you are paying attention, you eventually realize that he ran an oil field in Africa that served as both cover and a source of funding for biological weapons research. His work is recent, but later evidence that you uncover links it to the operations of the Umbrella corporation and provides backstory for the company’s movements long before the first Resident Evil events occur. The oil field and subsequent processing plant are just set pieces along the way for players who are not paying attention to the story; a new backdrop against which to shoot zombies in the head. But to people who care about the narrative, the locales provide very specific story context.
The other narrative method that Resident Evil 5 uses is dialog between Chris and Sheva. Since Resident Evil 4 the background environments in Resident Evil games have become much more visual and static; it used to be that every interesting corner of every room would have a line of text associated with it, and by throughly investigating everything the player could learn, often through simple suggestion, about their environment and their character. But the increase in pace and streamlined approach to the series defined by Resident Evil 4 doesn’t really allow for (or encourage) ransacking and investigation of everything. So instead, the characters talk to each other about what is going on and what they see. It’s a method that is used sparingly but to great effect; Chris and Sheva’s observations on their environment do a lot to tell us about how they feel about it.
I don’t mean to suggest that Resident Evil 5 has some fantastic story. It’s just the standard evil-corporation-bio chemical-underground laboratory-conspiracy schlock that they repeat every iteration. It’s fairly predictable and, unless they pull off some crazy Bioshock twist in the next few hours, I think it will end the way most Resident Evil games end: with a giant base explosion enveloping the otherwise-indestructible final boss and the fate of key antagonists left ambiguous. But the story that is there, however trite, is well-told. For players interested in more than just exploding heads, there’s more here to find.
This is my primary complaint with games like Gears of War, which an extremely similar type of game system. In Gears, there’s absolutely no time spent on exposition. The cut scenes exist only to progress the active plot, and while there are some clues about the background of the characters and the events that lead up to the story, it’s so out of focus that it really doesn’t matter at all. The locales really are just set-pieces; despite being beautifully rendered they have no particular meaning or relevance. Nothing can be investigated, and the characters never talk about their surroundings. Even when the protagonist visits his home after spending years in prison, he doesn’t have a single comment to say about it. He’s too busy shooting aliens in the face to notice.
But as a player, I want my characters to notice. I want more information than what is immediately available on the surface. That’s what keeps the game interesting when the game play itself starts to wear thin. In extreme situations, a compelling narrative can keep people playing an otherwise terrible game. Resident Evil 5’s story is nothing to write home about but I’m very happy that it’s there. While the game play is deep enough to last for a while, the addition of story and narrative, especially when communicated a variety of ways, makes Resident Evil 5 a much more interesting game than some of its contemporaries.