Resident Evil 5
"We had to stop thinking about Resident Evil 4 all the time", says Jun Takeuchi, producer of the hugely anticipated sequel to the game that many consider the PS2’s best title. "It’s been a much stronger influence than anything else: the way it felt, the way it played is something we’d like to reproduce but with new elements, as well as our own personal touch. That was the hardest period of development, actually, we wanted to make a new entry but we didn’t want to just make the same game again."
Such a sentiment is exactly what we wanted to hear when we visited Capcom’s Osaka HQ this month to play the latest build of Resident Evil 5. As much as we loved the previous game (a lot!) we have been burnt by lazy sequels before and were wary that Capcom might just settle for reiterating one of its most successful action games.
In many ways Resident Evil 5 does re-cover the same ground as its predecessor. It’s still one of the most intense, panic-fuelling games around. And it still has a rewarding combat system that makes every minor victory as satisfying as most boss battles. But it also bears a handful of new features that elevate it into a significantly different game to Resident Evil 4. It is both comfortably familiar and refreshingly different, much in the same way that the change in tone, scope and pace made Resident Evil 2 such a great sequel to the original back in 1998.
The new additions – the African setting and the introduction of two-player online coop – are well documented by now, but it may surprise you to hear that both have been at the core of Resident Evil 5’s design since hands-on development began several months ago. "I had the idea for the online modes when I was working as the producer on Lost Planet, which is another game where online play was very important", reveals Takeuchi. "While working on that game I was also made the producer of Resident Evil 5 so I thought it would be cool to use online play. I told the team that I wanted to go online from the start and there was a bit of a sceptical reaction from them, but once we got it up and running everyone could see that it was going to be a lot of fun. And the concept was greenlit almost immediately."
From there the team designed the whole game, every single location, with teamwork in mind, which is, on one level, quite a departure for the series but in other ways is a natural extension of a dynamic that defined even the first game. From Chris and Jill, through Leon and Claire, to Rebecca and Billy, the series has almost always focused on two main characters at once. Early entries delivered interweaving narratives while the later games created a shared experience between the player and their AI partner. And let’s not forget that the Resident Evil team has dabbled with online gameplay before, not only on Lost Planet, but also within Raccoon City itself in the two Resident Evil Outbreak games.
Both the use of an AI team-mate in Resident Evil Zero and those Outbreak experiments helped Capcom create the sort of programming routines that power Resident Evil 5 behind the polygons but neither formed the basis for the current gameplay design, according to director Yasuhiro Anpo. "In Outbreak you had four different characters each with four different abilities and you had to have most of them online at the same time to be able to continue through the game, so that was something we didn’t want to repeat because the game was too confining if you wanted to play it alone. So when we started on Resi 5 we wanted to make a game that could be enjoyed alone and then, by co-operating online with someone else, you would be able to achieve more. But these extra experiences would not be essential for clearing the game."
In practice the concept has paid off wonderfully, whether played with a friend over Live or with the AI taking control of Sheva. One of the greatest examples of how the coop has changed Resident Evil occurred while we played through one of the two levels that are likely to constitute the Xbox Live demo early next year. Unable to reach a building across the street, the person controlling Chris must boost Sheva through the air to reach the other side. Once there the new character is forced to deal with a classic Resident Evil 4-style struggle against a horde of infected aggressors at dangerously close range. Chris, still across the street and unable to join her, must watch from afar and take out any attackers with his sniper rifle, prioritising targets based on who seems to pose the biggest threat to Sheva.
Such set pieces occur often throughout the game, but more dynamic emergent problems will also need to be dealt with, especially if each player has a different approach to combat. "Some users might be like characters from a teen horror movie; constantly getting themselves caught in dangerous situations", explains Takeuchi. These moments encourage, nay demand, that co-op players keep an eye on each other and help out whenever necessary. The often-overwhelming number of enemies will often force players into a position where they require assistance, their health occasionally dwindling to the point where it affects the speed of their own movement and ability to fight back. At these points the other player must locate them and inject a life-saving serum before they succumb to an instant kill from one of the enemies. Just finding the other character can be half the battle sometimes, though Capcom has added two commands to aid partner location. A left shoulder button can be used to fix the camera on the other player, while the right shoulder can also be used to bring up a small real-time map.
The co-op gameplay has had other less obvious ramifications on the whole game too. Leon’s briefcase, the divisive inventory system of Resident Evil 4, is now no more; replaced by a much simpler menu like that of the 1996 original, only accessed in realtime while the action continues. "There are a couple of reasons why we decided to change the system", explains Takeuchi. "Actually, I really liked the puzzle system to Resident Evil 4, I thought it was interesting the way you had to cleverly manage all of your items. But when we decided to have online co-op, we realised that the previous item management system just wouldn’t work in a real-time situation. So the system had to be very quick and simple. Also, personally speaking, I like the idea that you cannot safely pause the game to sort your items, you have to try to do it while the enemies are attacking you, which makes the game that little bit more tense. There’s much more of a ‘survival’ feel to it."
For all Capcom has struggled to drag Resident Evil 5 from out of the shadow of Resident Evil 4, the developer’s inspiration has been anything but introverted. When we ask co-producer Masachika Kawata which contemporary games Resident Evil 5 has the most in common with, he reels off the sort of videogame equation that would have any publisher reaching for its chequebook. "Silent Hill + BioShock + (Gears Of War x2)"
Perhaps in acknowledgment that Japan is no longer the dominant gaming superpower, the influence of Xbox 360 blockbuster Gears Of War on Resident Evil 5 is felt at every moment just as the blood of Resident Evil 4 coursed through the veins of the original Gears. And not just in the addition of online co-op either, as Capcom has also chosen to learn from Gears’ control scheme, shaking up the way the series has always played right from the start.
Resident Evil 5’s new optional control scheme has only recently been implemented and was demoed to us in exchange for constructive feedback. It’s clear not only that Capcom wants to address some of the criticisms that have been levelled at its controls through the years but also wants to do it as well as possible. Unashamedly dubbed the ‘Gears Of War control scheme’ by the designers, the officially titled ‘D-Type controls’ enable the player to strafe left or right using the left analogue stick and to manipulate the camera with the right stick. Holding the left trigger brings up an aiming reticule, which can then be moved with the camera stick, the right trigger pulled to fire a bullet. It’s a classic FPS control scheme with the key difference being that you still cannot move and fire at the same time in order to retain the feeling of vulnerability that is essential to the genre.
"We decided to add those controls reasonably well into development, once all the basic elements had been decided", reveals Takeuchi. "Actually, the main reason that we decided to put them in was the existence of the Resident Evil movies. We felt that the series had become a huge brand where many people knew the property even if they had never played any of the games, so we wanted to create a way for those people to pick up the game very easily and not battle with an unfamiliar control scheme. So, in one sense, using that control scheme is following the trend of what most gamers are familiar with. Thanks to the hard work of the dev team we were able to incorporate it into the game without ruining the fundamental gameplay, it just adds another element of ease of use for newcomers or those who were put off by previous games in the series."
From the perspective of a veteran Resident Evil fan the D-Type controls may seem like a needless addition, but there’s no denying that the old-school methods employed in the past have been a huge barrier for entry for some gamers, particularly those whose interest was piqued by the action-heavy Resident Evil 4. What Capcom hopes is, that by offering a control scheme that is immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever played a modern action shooter before, the game will be much more appealing to the millions of gamers who only began playing during the last generation. The obvious benefit for hardcore fans is that it should now be much easier to find an online partner for co-op and make sure that they play all the way through. But there may be other advantages too. The use of a strafe mechanic does come in very handy for dodging enemy attacks and, though it does take some getting used to, this useful addition may even convert some traditionalists over to the new scheme.
With the radical overhaul of its setting, the addition of a long-awaited multiplayer mode and one surprise control scheme, Resident Evil 5 has done more than enough to set itself apart from its predecessor. But, crucially, it hasn’t distanced itself too much. On a fundamental level, in the heat of battle, the heart of everything that made Resident Evil 4 so good still beats within Resident Evil 5. It still has intense combat, grotesque enemies, huge bosses and glorious action set pieces. It still has an absorbing story that may actually be resolved this time according to Capcom. And it’s still defining the genre, 12 years on, rather than following the pack. And for all of these qualities we are thankful. The baby hasn’t been thrown out with the bath water: giving us a game that plays just as enjoyably as before plus a host of new features that might, just might, make it an even better experience. If you can imagine that.
It’s been three years since the release of Resi 4 and our anticipation for its sequel has swollen to unbearable levels during that time – and that’s before we’d even had the chance to play the thing. Now that we have, it’s clear that we may actually have set our expectations too low. The new setting and the change in controls alone would be enough to make this a worthy sequel but the addition of online co-op is really where Resident Evil 5 exceeds expectations. Capcom has feared merely re-treading Resident Evil 4 but we can now confidently put those fears to rest. Now, only having played three levels of the whole adventure, our only valid concern is that the pace, action, and inventiveness can be maintained throughout the entirety of the game to as satisfying a level as we’re used to. In this respect, we’d be perfectly happy for Capcom to reincarnate what it has made before.