If it seems like it's been forever since we've seen a new Resident Evil game, that's probably because it has. Resident Evil 4 came out all the way back in January of 2005 before later ports to the PlayStation 2 and Wii. So for fans of the series, this is the long-awaited homestretch, with just over a month to go until the release of Resident Evil 5. To make that wait easier to cope with, Capcom has been kind enough to give us our most thorough look at the game yet. We've been spending time with the first three chapters, playing them through in both single-player and co-op. It may come as a surprise to exactly no one that the latter option is a blast and preferable to going it alone in almost every way. But what may come as a shock is that even with a friend at your side in a game set mostly during broad daylight, RE5 still manages to produce plenty of scares.
After a brief and thoroughly creepy cinematic depicting an African villager being overtaken by what appear to be zombie worms, the game begins in earnest with a shot of Chris Redfield cruising through the African savanna in a Humvee. His inner monologue is kind enough to spell out the circumstances of his arrival for us: working for the BSAA antiterrorism unit, he has been sent to a remote African village after a potential bioterrorism incident. After his arrival, he's quickly met by Sheva Alomar, who will be his partner throughout the course of the game.
They go on a brief walk through the village where the locals appear to be mostly normal, insofar as they're not all zombies. Sure they're leering suspiciously and one small group appears to be beating a burlap sack containing a human body, but at least it's not the zombie apocalypse. But shortly after, things go quite wrong: the villagers all disappear for a few moments and then suddenly reappear as rabid, brain-starved undead.
This is where the action starts. If you're playing a co-op game, the host will take on the role of Chris Redfield while the other player will assume control of Sheva Alomar. Aside from the occasional moment when Chris gives Sheva a boost to reach a high area, there's no significant difference between the two: they move similarly, they both have the same nine available item slots in their inventory, and they can use the same type of weaponry. From our time playing RE5, we spotted only a couple of differences. For one, Sheva is left-handed. Rather than occupying the left side of the screen like nearly every character in a third-person shooter (including her partner, Chris Redfield), Sheva and her southpaw aiming style sit on the right side of the screen--a cool little twist that doesn't affect the way you shoot after you take a minute to get used to it. The other difference? Melee attacks. Chris uses brute force, such as deadly uppercuts and head-stomps on fallen enemies, while Sheva opts for acrobatic kicks and precision knife-stabbings.
The similarities work nicely to maintain a sense of balance to the co-op. We never felt like one player was a burden to the other at any moment during the game. And that's good, because Resident Evil 5 isn't a game that's going to hold your hand. The first chapter begins in a familiar location: Chris and Sheva stumble upon an apparent execution, which you might recognize from the game's demo. But shortly after fighting their way through this mass outdoor scuffle, they move on to an underground facility mysteriously littered with dead soldiers, culminating in a boss fight that seems tailor-made for two players. Without giving too much away, successfully defeating this boss requires a careful combination of distraction and timing, with one player taking on the role of decoy. It's moments like these when you realize co-op isn't something that has been tacked on but is a real part of the game.
Later environments take Chris and Sheva on a journey through industrial shipping yards filled with zombie dogs and hyenas, a small fishing village, and an extended underground mine sequence that recalls one of the scarier chapters from RE4. The difference here is that these mines are pitch black--at least for a while--and require one character to stash his or her weapons and carry a floodlight for a good while. This means both characters must stick close together, one taking offense while the other becomes a highly vulnerable target. Other sequences that mix up the familiar on-foot shooting that dominates the game include moments that find you on the back of a moving truck shooting zombies on dirtbikes, cruising through the swamps on a fanboat (watch the crocodiles), and engaging in a turret-mounted battle that pits you against a familiar boss from RE4.
Altogether, there seems to be a good variety to the action in Resident Evil 5. Veterans of the series won't be feeling too much deja vu, because the new setting and often startling new takes on the zombie tropes make the game feel quite different from its predecessors. The co-op strategies of sharing ammo and supplies, healing one another, and working as a close-knit team in the aforementioned scenarios achieve a similar result. In fact, the most pronounced legacy is in the game's control scheme: RE5 controls very similarly to its predecessor. Four control options exist, but not a single one lets you run and shoot at the same time. The closest you'll get to feeling like you're playing a recent third-person shooter from the West (Dead Space, for example) are the second and third control schemes, which at least let you strafe when you don't have a gun out.
But in our personal experience, the quirky controls weren't much of a hindrance. Once you take a moment to get used to them, you'll likely come to appreciate them for the deliberate nature in which you'll face every minor scuffle. You get a good appreciation for the smaller battles, never feeling like you're just slicing through a huge swath of undead humanity. In other words, you have to look at the zombie hyena who has just cleaved his own head in two to produce a giant, gaping alternate mouth. You wouldn't want to dart past that sort of visual, trust us. You'll get to soak it all up for yourself when Resident Evil 5 is released on March 13.