E3 2008: Resident Evil 5 Hands-On

We tear through two levels of Capcom's latest survival horror game.

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We've been anxious to try our hand at Resident Evil 5 since we first got a look at the promising game earlier this year. The long-running series clearly found a cool new groove with the last entry for the GameCube and PlayStation 2 in 2005, and hopes have skyrocketed for this highly anticipated sequel. We got a chance to play a couple of levels of this survival horror game and lived to tell the tale.

Chris and Sheva are taking down zombies with extreme prejudice.
Chris and Sheva are taking down zombies with extreme prejudice.

The first level that we tried was a short, tutorial-style run called "Assembly Place." Main characters Chris Redfield and Sheva Alomar are in the back alleys of a shantytown when it starts. The first order of business is guiding the pair down a short path, at the end of which they drop down and enter a house. There were a few items to collect--ammo and health--on a dumpster by the door. The game's new co-op angle was front and center; the minute the option to collect the items came up, it was possible to direct Sheva to pick them up.

Once we guided Chris into the house, a lengthy cutscene kicked off. From the look of it, a fair chunk of the in-game cinematic has been shown in the previous trailers for the game. The action revolves around a dictator type speaking to a mob before an execution courtesy of a massive, hooded behemoth wielding a big axe. Shortly after the execution, the dictator spots Chris and Sheva; in retrospect, it probably wasn't the smartest thing for the pair to be watching everything go on while standing in the window. As you'd expect, the dictator and the mob aren't thrilled about the intruders, and the cutscene closes with him directing the mob to house.

We took control of Chris as the house came under siege by the masses, who could be seen through the windows. We had a few options as they started rushing, which were pretty interesting. We were able to push bookcases in front of the main door and one of the windows. We liked that; much like having the option to direct Sheva to collect items, we were able to get her to assist with the bookcase. Before we started pushing on our own bookshelf, we set her on the other, which was handy because time is of the essence when you're being set on by an angry mob. In the few seconds that we had left, we also collected loot from around the small house. As with previous games, the loot was laying in plain sight, and also hidden in drawers or left behind when smashing crates.

The level's pacing started with a slow burn, much like the first big rush of enemies in RE4, with the mob getting more and more aggressive in their attempts to enter. As we were getting our bearings, Sheva helpfully started shooting at anyone who showed their face in windows. We were actually able to take out quite a few by shooting them through the windows, but eventually the mob kicked in the main door and started streaming in. As if that wasn't bad enough, another highly motivated group started dropping down from a hole that they had made in the roof. The final kicker was when a massive, axe-wielding hulk smashed his way through the main wall...clearly a sign that it was time to get out.

We snaked past Mr. Axe and the enemies streaming into the house and took to the streets. Besides affording us more room to maneuver, the streets were littered with a number of useful items. There were crates to break that yielded assorted ammo, grenades, health canisters, and gold. More importantly, there were a few houses that we could loot, one of which contained an AK-47. Flammable barrels were the other useful element in the outdoors. Although they didn't explode, the fire that they kicked up took out most enemies, with the exception of the axe wielder who, we discovered, could kill us with just two hits.

Sheva is a formidable woman in RE5.
Sheva is a formidable woman in RE5.

Thankfully, one of the best perks of having Sheva around was that, when Chris' health was low or when he was about to get killed by a second axe blow, she could restore some of his health. This doesn't mean that you won't die, because we did; Sheva needs to be near you when you're on the brink of death. Regardless, it's certainly a handy mechanic. Once we survived long enough, we triggered another cutscene that featured a military helicopter coming in and tearing things up with an aerial salvo that cleared out most of the enemies in the town center.

We explored the cleared town a bit and made our way farther up, coming across a few more enemies, including some Molotov cocktail-pitching ones. We were able to shoot the bottles out of their hands as they were getting ready to throw, which had the added bonus of setting the enemy on fire. This short segment also introduced a new flying enemy that was all about clinging to our face and murdering us. Thankfully, they didn't stand up to a volley of bullets. The level ended when we reached a large gate.

The second level that we tried offered an even greater challenge but showed off more of the possibilities of co-op. The level, called "Shanty Town", started in the claustrophobic streets of a city. The initial run was simple enough, in that we guided Chris and Sheva through some gates and side streets, which had an assortment of ammo and health pickups. When we finally met with some enemies, they were fairly easy to deal with. However, things got complicated when our path through a building was blocked by a padlocked set of doors. We wound up heading to the top of the building and performing an assisted leap with Sheva to send her to a building across the way. Upon landing, she was beset by enemies and we were forced to cover for her, using a pistol or a sniper rifle, as she made her way down the building and onto the streets to the door blocking our way, which she helpfully opened.

Skip across the roofs of the shanty town before blasting zombie flesh.
Skip across the roofs of the shanty town before blasting zombie flesh.

Once the team was reunited, we started making our way up the streets, dealing with enemies and collecting loot. As we reached the end of the street we triggered a cutscene that introduced us to what is the front-runner on our most-hated enemy list in this game: a skinny, burlap-sack-and-hood-wearing, chainsaw-wielding fiend committed to gutting you. The skinny foe was agile and quick, which is a bad combination when mixed with the aggro-slash-crazy vibe he had going. The level ended when he was defeated, which took equal parts bullets, grenades, explosive barrels, and lucky dodging.

The two levels gave us a good sampling of the action that Capcom is packing into the promising game and also served as a good introduction to the co-op mechanic with Sheva. The demo's AI control of her was surprisingly helpful, which isn't always the case in games that pair you with an artificial buddy. She was handy and pretty aggressive when the action heated up. She got a little greedy with the loot at times, and she wound up Hoovering some much-needed ammo, but it's hard to hate considering how often she saved our life.

It's possible to share or request loot and weapons from Sheva, which helped make up for her acquisitive tendencies, although we wish that we could have split ammo to ensure that she wasn't left dry. The assisted jumping and climbing moves in the demo were similar to those in Army of Two, albeit a bit more straightforward; the moves simply involved a button press that triggered a short cinematic of the move executing. The life-saving bit was a nice touch that was actually dynamic and resulted in Sheva using a healing item if she had one, which would heal you both, or simply using an adrenaline shot that restored a small amount of life to you. You could return the favor during gameplay, given that she calls out for help when cornered. In the rare circumstances when she either wandered off during battle, or in which we were lost in a desperate rush to avoid trouble, we could call her back our way or locate her position by hitting a bumper and making our way to her.

The control scheme basically follows the RE4 model and adds new features, such as calling your partner and the new context-sensitive actions with Sheva, although so far we saw only a jump and a leap. Like before, you'll be able to aim and shoot with ease as well as use your knife when ammo is spare. You'll also be doing much shaking of the analog stick to get enemies off of you. The game handled well, and the new features fit in pretty seamlessly once you adjust to them.

The visuals in the game are looking fantastic, even in the work-in-progress version that we played. The game is sticking close to the gritty, realistic art style of RE4, which works well with its African setting and the tone. The color palette is a bit washed-out but the gray hue adds to the grim feel of the proceedings. Likewise, the character models look great and feature a ton of detail. We especially like how your enemies occasionally have their faces burst into tentacles when you're getting attacked, which raises some questions about what the heck is going on. The new destructible elements in the environment are a cool albeit unsettling touch. There's an added sense of danger now because nowhere is 100 percent secure or safe. As far as performance goes, the game purred along nicely, although there were some obvious work-in-progress loads for the cinematics.

Skinny guy with a chainsaw? Not good.
Skinny guy with a chainsaw? Not good.

At the moment, Resident Evil 5 is looking like a wickedly good debut for the series on the current generation of consoles. The game appears to be building smartly on RE4's winning revamp of the series. The addition of Sheva is interesting and the promise of online co-op play has us really excited. Though the gameplay may be pretty similar to that in the previous game, that's hardly a fault. Resident Evil 5 is slated to ship on March 13, 2009 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Look for more on the game later this week at E3 when we'll have it live on our stage show and in the months leading up to its release.

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