Monday, March 30, 2009

Final Thoughts on RE5 Single-Player

As a fan of single-player gaming, I have to admit that I was more than a bit skeptical when I heard that RE5 would include co-op. I like co-op, but have a hard time finding someone who'd be willing to play through the entirety a game's campaign with me. I tend to keep odd hours, so finding someone I know to play with at 3 a.m. can be a bit tricky. When the game finally came out, it seemed as if my worst fear had come to fruition, with all of the internets a roar about how RE5 was an epic failure as a single-player game and hardly worth playing. I can now say, with great pleasure, that RE5's single-player is hardly the epic failure it was made out to be and is still a heckuva lot of fun.

Sure, the partner AI isn't great, but it gets the job done. While Sheva is not going to pull off any complicated maneuvers, say toggling between different weapons in her arsenal the way a real player might, she's still perfectly serviceable. If you keep her move set limited, she gets in the way surprisingly little and can add a lot to the combat. Personally, I always limited her arsenal to a handgun and a machine gun with a couple clips of ammo for each. She'd default to the handgun, and when out of ammo for it, she'd switch to the machine gun. Complex? No. But hardly game breaking. Just give her a tad bit of ammo and she'll stay out of your way, as well as carry stuff for you. While she has the tendency to waste ammo and health, she's also a damn good shot, so it's kind of a wash (though far from a travesty). I still would have preferred they kept it a strictly single-player affair, but the partner AI is hardly as big a deal as some are making it out to be.

In fact, in a lot of ways, she really added to the game for me. Though it's easy to put RE4 on a pedestal, lest we forget that roughly a third of that game consisted of escorting the defenseless Ashley around? At least Sheva can fight back. And while it's true that she uses up ammo that would otherwise be yours, I found this sort of liberating as I was less conservative about hoarding ammo as I knew she'd use it all anyway. Not to mention the smaller inventory you're allotted in this game. Maybe I'm just indecisive, but I recall spending a long time deciding what to do with my inventory in RE4. Here, I felt like since I had less control over it, it wasn't something worth stressing over. While I'm sure that says more about me than the game, it's sort of a happy accident and I wouldn't be surprised if others have a similar reaction.

In a lot of ways, I'd say this is more a true "survival" experience than RE4 (though maybe not so much horror). While there is a much greater emphasis on action, you also have a much smaller inventory, so ammo is a constant issue. You only have 9 inventory slots, so I'd tend to keep five weapons, plus the melee and bullet proof vests, so that would only alot me an extra 2 spaces worth of inventory. I'd frequently only have room to carry whatever ammo I has in my guns at the moment, and only and extra clip or two stocked up. I'd give a bit more to Sheva, but she also had 3 guns and 2 vests, and was in charge of healing supplies. As a result, I felt like I was constantly just getting by.

The inventory system does have some of what I would consider universally agreed upon flaws. Notably the fact that if you're out of ammo for a gun, find ammo, but your inventory is full, you cannot pick it up just to reload. You can't even set an item down, pick up the ammo, reload, then pick the item back up, as it will have disappeared into the ether. They should have allowed you to automatically pick up however much ammo you can fit in your clip, without it interfering with your precious inventory space. Also, there's no option to make Sheva drop an item. If you want her to get rid of say, a flash grenade in exchange for an herb, but she's out of space, rather than being able to tell her to drop an item, you'll have to swap items with her, drop it yourself, then take your item back. Not cool.

Still, despite some niggling inventory control issues and simple (yet effective) AI, RE5 has a very distinct flavor of action unlike RE4, or any other game I've played before. I'd be tempted to call it a mix between RE4 and Gears of War in its mechanics, but it also brings to mind the earlier Resident Evil titles. The controls are not up to task, but that adds a certain level of tension. Ideally, I would have preferred smoother controls where they could have created tension in other ways. Bioshock is a perfect example of a game that has smooth controls, no penalty for dying, and yet is STILL scary. Thus, making things scarier is hardly an excuse for control quibbles, but for those who liked the cumbersome nature of the earlier Resident Evils may find some redeeming value in the way Capcom chose to handle things.

The game is still far from perfect. I could have done without the zombies with guns sequences late in the game (also true of RE4, mind you). The bosses are certainly a step down from RE4 as well, where half of them suffer from the same design mantra of, "cover it with a thick layer of black worms and it will be scary." And yes, the AI is flawed (but not broken).

Nitpicks aside, the core experience of being in a large area, non-zombies surrounding you from all angles as you desperately try to avoid them, whilst scurrying about in search of ammo, is every bit as intense and fun as it ever was. Go on, enjoy it!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

N'Gai Was Right...

I'm really a bit sick of the whole debate over whether Resident Evil 5 is "racist" or not. There seems to be a popular opinion that it either a.) isn't and if you think it is, you're a crybaby liberal douchebag. Or b.) it is racist, and if you don't see it, you're a sheltered, naive, ignorant, and racist. It's an interesting topic, but the problem I've had with much debate I've seen of it online is that everyone is convinced they're "right" and anyone who doesn't agree with them is "wrong."

N'Gai Croal, from Newsweek wrote after the initial trailer that the game employed "imagery with a history." That while it may not be outright racist (it never, for example straight up says that black people are evil or anything less than human), it still relied upon old cliches of intimidating dark skinned people who have nothing better to do than stare down foreigners and throw hatchets and spears at them. Sure they're all the victims of a zombie outbreak, but that may not be apparent at first glance. The problem was not that the game had black zombies, but that it was preying upon negative stereotypes of Africans to accentuate the horror. It's a fair take on it. N'Gai, an African American himself, is certainly free to get that from it. Contrary to what some people have said (I won't name names) I do not believe that N'Gai or others went into RE5 looking for a problem. I do believe that that was a genuine sentiment based on his, and others' upbringing that these images brought to mind.

I'd argue, however, that by not seeing these things does not make wrong or racist. Personally, all I saw from the trailer was zombies. Sure they were black, but it was set in Africa. What do you expect? Once I stopped and read N'gai's take on it, I could see where he was coming from, but for a lot of RE's fanbase, they'll see one thing and one thing only: zombies (and yes, I realize that they're not technically zombies, but they are infected by a parasite and no longer the people they used to be). Furthermore, the whole plot revolves around an American corporation infecting Africans with a virus, so it's not like the exploitation of Africa is left untouched. It's not great writing or anything, and while I'm sick of the whole "it's just a game" argument, I do gravitate towards the "it's just Resident Evil" argument. I mean these games have never been known for their quality writing. It could hardly be called a hugely influential work of art that people will form their world views based on. To many it is nothing more than a zombie themed action game (and in my mind, a rather fun one at that).

In conclusion, I'll say that while I don't find the game to be particularly objectionable, I can hardly say you're "wrong" for reading into it that way and am sick of the supposedly liberal first amendment quoting douchebags who think that it's okay to make a game like RE5, but no okay to talk about it unless they happen to share your own point of view. But I also wouldn't say you're "wrong" for not seeing the game as racist at all. We all come into these things with a different background are are going to see something different when looking at it. While I didn't see (in the trailer) what N'gai saw, he was right about one thing, "It's very difficult in this country, in many countries, to have a conversation about race."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Resident Evil 5 First Impressions

The problem with Resident Evil 5 is that to really get the most out of the experience requires two things:

a.) Someone to play with (ideally someone willing to make the commitment of playing it through to the end). And...

b.) Someone who's played RE4.

That second part is crucial, and something I never would have gathered from reading reviews, as most critics play games with their colleagues who are very familiar with these sorts of games. I, however, had a friend who had never played RE4 come over to check out RE5, as we'd both heard great things about its co-op. With this in mind, we both went into the game expecting to have a lot of fun. Sadly, this was not to be...

The first problem we encountered was that the game does not tell you how to set up a split-screen co-op game. The second player has to press start (which was easy enough), but it will then tell them that they cannot save unless they select a storage device. If they choose to do so, it kicks you back to the title screen under their profile. Whaa? In theory, this makes sense as the game only records your save progress for one profile at a time, but this is not made clear. As a result, we spent an extraordinarily frustrating 10 minutes worth of menu exploring, cutscene watching, loading, and going back to the dashboard before finally figuring out something that should have been very, very simple, and selectable from the main menu.

Once we finally got the game running on split screen, we encountered another problem; the game is very slow at the offset. We spent the first 10 minutes doing little more than picking up ammo, figuring out where to go, and watching cutscenes. Since it was my game, I wanted to collect all the items and ammo I could find, but I didn't want to bore my friend, so I didn't explore every nook and cranny as I would had it been a single-player game. If the game continues to be anything like RE4, there'll be a lot of slow moments between the action, where you have to scavenge around for resources.

This may be fine for the RE4 initiated, but to those who haven't played Capcom's prior survival/action/maybe-a-tad-bit-of-horror classic, this will be an arduous and grueling process. Not the least of which because inventory management is rather cumbersome. Those who are not familiar with the franchise won't even know how combining herbs works. Child's play for us veterans, but a lot to take in for the outsider friend who just wants to pick up the controller and have fun. Compare this to something like Gears of War, wherein after the first five minutes of holding the controller, you'll understand everything you need to know to sustain the entire game.

Therein lies the core flaw of RE5. As a single-player game, the combat is buggy with an unintelligent AI partner who insists on wasting your ammo, who you cannot strategize with. And as a co-op experience, the action may be a lot of fun, but the parts in-between are far too slow and inaccessible to the uninitiated. And don't get me started on the real-time inventory management system. Even as an RE4 vet, I had trouble giving the items I wanted to my partner during the thick of action. For the novice player, that will be next to impossible as they're just trying to come to grips with the controls and what all the items do.

I'm not saying that RE5 is a bad game. Not at all. I still find the core shooting mechanics to be as satisfying today as they were four years back in RE4. I don't even mind the sometimes awkward controls all that much. I do, however, feel like the game is an unceremonious mix between RE4's slow, methodical single-player experience and Gears of War's balls-out action approach to co-op. In the end, it falls short of pleasing either camp as well as it could or should have.