Resident Evil 5 is a game with an identity crisis. By attempting to straddle a line between action and suspense, playing to two different strengths, it manages to undercut the effectiveness of both. Resident Evil 4 took genre conventions and evolved them, making an experience that was more accessible, and, by most estimations, all but flawless. So it's even more puzzling when Resident Evil 5 retreats from that path, pulls back from what made its predecessor so strong, and finds itself in a very confusing place.
RE5 marks the return of the not-particularly-notable-or-likable Chris Redfield, who ditches his STARS affiliation to join the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance and investigate a bio-organic weapons deal in Kijuju, a fictional African country. He's immediately joined by Sheva, a local BSAA member who acts as his partner through the entire adventure.
I should pause it here and discuss the co-op issue. Namely: It's the only way to play. Capcom's trying some interesting stuff here, attempting to create tension through the dynamic between the two players, and you're going to miss a lot of it if you're letting the computer call the shots for Sheva.
When you're with a human partner, you're having to watch two life bars instead of just one, constantly having to ask your partner about the ammo and health they've got on hand. There's a give and take there, balancing your desire to survive with your concern for the other player. AI Sheva, though, she seems to have little consideration for herself, getting, for example, mauled by a chain gun only to use up your healing items. She is, however, completely devoted to you, healing you up at the slightest bit of trouble (if she hasn't used all the herbs for herself) and always risking herself to save you, effectively cutting the tension of a severe attack. The partner dynamic does away with a lot of the isolation and fear that has been a series hallmark for so long.
It's hard to not be frustrated when you see how right RE5 is capable of getting it.
I don't say that without any sort of context. I say "they're bad" because those gameplay mechanics hamper whatever strength RE5 has as an action game; getting in the way of the immersion, the fluidity an action-based approach needs to work. Meanwhile, the steps Capcom takes towards making RE5 an Americanized action game (check points, copious amounts of ammo, etc.) negate the sting of death and, by extension, the fear of death. Other series tropes have been ditched, too: Exploration has been cut to a minimum and the couple of puzzles are so depressingly half-hearted as to almost be unworthy of the word. We're talking heading to the point conveniently mapped on your radar, picking up the plate, putting it in the door. That kind of puzzle.
If Capcom wanted to ditch the survival-horror thing in favor of uninterrupted action, I wouldn't complain, though I realize many series stalwarts would. But to try cling to both? Suicide.
Am I being overdramatic? Sure. But it's hard to not be frustrated when you see how right RE5 is capable of getting it.
When RE5 decides on a path and follows it, the result is dazzling. When you're occasionally made to be truly afraid of what you're fighting or feel like your partner is in peril, it's the Resident Evil of old; and maybe even better, thanks to the stunning, horrifyingly realistic graphics. And when you're provided a decent cover mechanic later in the game and pitted against a horde of gun-toting zombies, it's new, it's different, and it's no less great.
It's not a bad game: It's a solidly constructed, workman-like effort with some cool set pieces that figure into some exciting boss fights (I'm looking at you, rad blast furnace battle with giant plague zombie). But too often you're left befuddled, muddling through some strange, wrong-headed mixture somewhere between action and horror, hoping against hope that Resident Evil finds its way again.