Though Resident Evil 5 had the difficult task of following its critically acclaimed predecessor, it largely succeeds by changing relatively little.
While it's easy to point to the stellar Resident Evil 4 as a turning point in the series, it's far too often invoked as a starting point for games like Gears of War and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Certainly there has been a number of third person action games since Resident Evil 4's release. But while they may have taken a few inspirations from Resident Evil 4 here and there, it is difficult to argue that their presentation would have been radically different had it never existed. Indeed, Resident Evil as a franchise has long played by its own -- sometimes archaic -- rules. While 4 represented a large change for the series, in terms of its presentation as an action horror game as opposed to a traditional survival horror game and with respect to its somewhat friendlier controls and mechanics, it still occupied its own niche. When Resident Evil 5 was announced, then, the expectation of many gamers was that it would redefine the Resident Evil experience yet again. This is not, however, what RE5 is attempting to do.
It cannot be overstated that Resident Evil 5 is an enjoyable affair in its own right and as a standalone game has many merits. But it clearly lives in the shadow of its older sibling, largely because it doesn't do much to try and set itself apart. In fact, the argument that modern third person action titles copied certain mechanics of Resident Evil 4, regardless of merit, seems to underscore the fact that Resident Evil 5 makes no attempt to adopt successful mechanics from these more recent games. As always, Capcom seems content to let Resident Evil mature at the pace that it sees fit. This very well may indicate that the longer that it survives as a franchise, the harder it will be to attract newcomers to the series.
Resident Evil 4 was a graphical showcase for its time and 5 continues that trend. Many areas of the game are simply stunning, an impressive feat given that, at least in the opening levels, players are largely confined to drab, dusty shantytowns with limited palettes. The sounds work is similarly impressive. In short, the game is a technical superstar, and there is plenty to appreciate for those that are drawn to those elements of modern games. That said, one would expect these kind of technical upgrades to a series whose last appearance was during the previous console generation. As previously mentioned, meatier upgrades outside the realm of presentation are far scarcer. Your character can now strafe, which offers some degree of added freedom of movement. Items and upgrades are now purchased differently as well. Instead of having to run across an inexplicably placed merchant, players are simply given the opportunity to spend money between chapters or when continuing the adventure. On the other hand, inventory management is more difficult in Resident Evil 5. Although you have access to your partner's inventory (assuming she's controlled by the computer), trading back and forth is tedious. In the case where both inventories are full, it can actually be downright maddening as you have to drop an item to create a free slot rather than just passing something from one character to the other. Further, although four items in the inventory can be mapped to the D-pad for quick access, the rest must be accessed in real time with no pause screen to protect you from enemies.
In practice, the biggest change in Resident Evil 5 is its cooperative nature. It's easy to imagine that the decision to have a constant companion for Chris Redfield had less to do with Capcom trying to alter the flow of the series and more to do with it attempting to take advantage of the far greater prevalence of online gaming since Resident Evil's last outing. Without a doubt, the partner mechanic is very enjoyable so long as both characters are being controlled by humans. When the AI is controlling Sheva, however, it is far from perfect. Sometimes Sheva uses decidedly the wrong tool for the job, and other times she heals you when you've sustained only slight injuries. It's difficult to fault the title for this, since it's clearly not the way the game was intended to be played. But an option to play completely alone with an expanded inventory might have been nice both because you needn't have worried about the safety of a partner in that case and because it would likely have increased the tension in facing these hordes alone.
A downloadable versus mode was recently released, and though many questioned the fact that it costs $5, it's difficult to argue against its enjoyability for people that want to spend more time with the game. The nature of Resident Evil means that it will never be able to compete on a level playing field with those titles that were conceived with competitive multiplayer in mind from the beginning, and in that sense, the versus mode is nothing more than a diversion. Neither of the two included game types has a great deal of depth and there is a good deal of similarity between versus mode and the freely unlockable Mercenaries mode. While it might have been nice to have versus play have been a simple unlockable for the game as well (something that seems like it would have been quite possible given how tiny the download adding the feature is) $5 is not too much to ask from hardcore Resident Evil fans, and they are certainly the ones most likely to enjoy the mode.
When it was first announced that the game was to take place in an unnamed African nation, and the first videos emerged showing the enemies involved, there were inevitable discussions about the game's appropriateness with respect to race. At the time, there seemed to be a good deal of sensitivity towards the fact that your partner Sheva has a noticeably lighter skin tone than your enemies. That concern has since died down considerably, and in my estimation, rightfully so. The game happens to be set in Africa, and as such, the enemies are necessarily the native inhabitants. It is outside the scope of a simple review to discuss why this became an issue here, but not in the Spain of Resident Evil 4. But another recent example does come to mind. While Call of Duty 4's "ripped from the headlines" narrative required the wholesale slaughter of unspecified Middle Eastern characters, it barely raised an eyebrow as far as racial overtones were concerned. Yet there were certainly some rumblings at the notion of Japanese enemies in Call of Duty: World at War. It seems a similar situation, but I don't know that I understand (nor could articulate if I did) the reason for the differences in perception between titles in these cases.
Though Resident Evil 5 had the difficult task of following its critically acclaimed predecessor, it largely succeeds by changing relatively little. While this might be disappointing to some, Capcom can certainly not be expected to go back to the drawing board each time it releases another title in the series. The production values are top notch, and overall it is an enjoyable experience. While possible to play alone, the game shines when playing cooperatively with a friend, and it would be surprising if that mechanic were not present in the inevitable Resident Evil 6.