The Underappreciated Strengths of ‘Resident Evil 5’
A concise history of Umbrella.
Resident Evil 4 gets all the love. Released in 2004 for the Gamecube as part of an initial exclusive five game deal with Capcom, RE4 shook up both the flagship series and survival horror in general by trading in the slower, clunky style of entries past for a shoulder-cam action horror that was measured in intensity, if not dread.
The game’s radical changes made it an instant classic, its design reverberating throughout the industry both inside its genre and beyond. When it came time to make the inevitable Resident Evil 5, the team of developers, now without series creator Shinji Mikami, faced the same kind of impossible task a sequel is always up against: how could they possibly top what came before?
The short answer is seemingly that they couldn’t. With an upgraded remaster coming out for current-gen consoles later this month (accompanying ports of RE4 and 6 on a reverse order release schedule), it’s actually worth taking a closer look at this somewhat unfairly maligned entry.
Before RE5’s release, it was exciting to learn that the game was in development for next-gen hardware, and would take the original game’s S.T.A.R.S. member Chris Redfield on an unknown expedition to Africa; the earliest interview details also talked about the idea of using sunlight as a system to disorient the player when coming indoors, temporarily throwing off sight and making the increased mob mentality enemies that much more of a threat.
After a long development cycle, RE5 finally came out in 2009. Playing it at the time it felt like it couldn’t quite escape RE4’s shadow (despite generally positive reviews), as if it were almost the same game, only with a sweatier setting and improved graphics.
In hindsight that’s quite a disservice. Though there’s no escaping that RE5 exists on the back of its predecessor, in design and otherwise, it manages to distill what makes modern Resident Evil what it is maybe even better than RE4 first did (and has the best narrative DLC of the series, to boot).
This is actually where RE5 benefits from being a sequel. With Chris as the protagonist and a plot that revolves after a fashion around the last vestiges of Umbrella, it’s really a more direct continuation of the series original storyline, with ties going all the way back to the first game.
In Resident Evil 2, players learned that Chris had left the country to investigate Umbrella’s European headquarters, a plot that was sort-of (but not really) continued Code: Veronica; RE4 hid its connections until near the end of the game, making the human, parasite-infected monsters somewhat a point of mystery in the overall mythos of the series.
RE5 finally comes full-circle on everything, as a response to what happened in RE4 as well as the that first plot thread with Chris’ investigation (and the disappearance of mainstay villain Wesker, not seen really since Code: Veronica). Really, if Capcom had chosen this route, RE5 could’ve been the last game in the series, and the way it respects its past has arguably been unmatched at any other point in the series – it’s basically a perfect encapsulation of, and the logical conclusion for, the history of Umbrella.
At the same time Resident Evil’s ridiculous storyline isn’t necessarily the reason you play these games. It tends to be schlocky – something taken further and further going down the narrative path from the wooden scripting of the older games to the bombastic Hollywood insanity of the later ones.
If you could see the beginnings of the action moments that have defined the series for better or worse in RE4, 5 was where the developers really on a more embraced an explosive movie-style production, with giant guns used in on-rails shooting and over-the-top set pieces.
It felt a bit incongruous at first – wasn’t this supposed to be a horror game? But it comes down to being more compact. Compared to its predecessor, which could take upwards of 20-25 hours to finish, RE5 is a much shorter affair.
And despite the stakes being raised on what you might reasonably expect a game like this – at least until RE6, which Michael Bay’d them so hard the only place to go is back down – there’s no filler, either. It evolves just about everything that was great about RE4 and neatly packs it into a leaner package. (The direct fan service nods to classic Resident Evil in the last third of the game are a fun surprise, as well.)
Thundering along from location to location attributes to the brisk pacing, not to mention the actual progression of the environments, which go from shantytowns to ancient temples and beyond, almost lending RE5 the feel of a classic pulp adventure, if not a more socially-acceptable homage to the “dark continent” stories that once helped defined the genre.
RE5 does have a few flaws – namely the end game boss battle, which is atrocious if you’re playing alone, and the somewhat questionable co-op AI for Chris’ partner, Sheva. It’s not enough to derail the whole shebang, and everything that comes before it is so satisfying these just end up as annoyances. They could even be fixed, to some degree, in the remaster. (But play co-op. Way more fun.)
Still, compared to the raves of RE4, RE5 is vastly under-appreciated. Its legacy is much better than that.