Resident Evil 5 Preview: A Building Sense of DreadS

It only took one and a half chapters of Resident Evil 5 to convince me that everything I thought about the game, everything I disliked was totally off base.

What It Is
Resident Evil 5 is, more than anything else, an evolution of a franchise once rooted in the survival horror genre. Spoken or not, it is a promise to gamers that Capcom can push their latest Resident Evil into the realm of action without losing the scares, the terrors that make the franchise so evocative. It is their stab at making daylight scary.

What We Saw
We were sent a disc featuring the first three chapters of the game. Unfortunately, our disc bugged out about half way through, so we were only able to play through to the end of chapter 2, section 2, or half way through the preview experience. Only linked cooperative play was enabled, but we were only sent a single disc, so our time with the game was single player only.

How Far Along Is it?
Resident Evil 5 is scheduled for release March 13 in North America. The version we played was a polished version of the first three chapters, but it isn't final code.

What Needs Improvement
Loading: The loading screens, especially early on in the game, are plentiful, sometimes having you sit about reading Resident Evil history for as long as you end up playing before hitting another load point. The issue seems to go away as the game progresses.

Lighting: The lighting in Resident Evil 5 is eerie, detailed stuff. Motes of dust float through splashes of sunlight, but sometimes that sunlight doesn't include shadows when you walk through it. And those can be immersion-breaking moments.

Cuddly Creatures: Sure men with chainsaws, zombies fast and slow have done their share to scare me in the Resident Evil franchise, but it's the dogs that I most identify with the frights of this game. Unfortunately, five features massive, almost cartoon like dogs that come in all sorts of breeds, some more cuddly than cujo. Take for instance the floppy-eared great danes that lope unto the scene. I didn't want to shoot them, I wanted to hug them.

Immobile Knife Fights: I've grown to accept, perhaps embrace the fact that you can't move once you pull a firearm in Resident Evil 5. I know it sticks to the game's history, but more importantly often police and military lock into position before firing off a few rounds. So I'm Ok with that. But knife fights? Knife fights are fluid things that are often more about positioning and movement than the cutting motion. Unfortunately in Resident Evil 5 these potentially strategic melee moments turn into zombie piñata, with gamers patiently waiting for a bad guy to walk into your cutting radius.

The situation, not the controls should be the thing rooting you to one spot.

What Should Stay The Same
Boss Fights: What I like best about this game's boss battles is that they're so diverse. Even playing through just a chapter and a half I came across boss bad guys that were cleverly disguised puzzles, over-sized enemies requiring wearing down and, in my favorite, cut scenes and action-button moments tightly woven together to present a memorable experience.

Graphics: I've seen graphics like this before, stunning visuals that bring a game to the edge of realism, but never in such a real world setting. Despite how gritty and realistic the gameplay looks, they almost dull in comparison to the cut-scenes.

Codependency: Even played alone, Resident Evil 5's use of a partner makes everything more tense. You suddenly feel responsible not just for your own survival but your partner's. You need to heal her when she's down, call for help when you get pinned, trade weapons, ammo, everything. It adds extra edge to an already sharp experience.

Scare Tactics: Initially I was disappointed to find that the game seems to lack any big scares. No dog-through-the window moments that so engrained the first title in my memories. But as I played the game I came to realize that those haunted house moments are cheap scares, instead Capcom is taking a more adult, more sophisticated approach to delivering thrills.

The game slowly winds the tension up from section beginning to end, missing several obvious and easy opportunities to be genuinely scary. Instead the game ops for a persistent and growing feeling of suspense, one that seems to be approaching dread but never actually arrives. It's this wait for a second shoe to drop that wears at the gamer and deliver a fear much more robust and meaningful than what has come before in survival horror games.

And remember, this all occurs in full daylight, often outside. If you can make daylight scary, imagine what you can do when the sun goes down.

Final Thoughts
It was a brief play-through of the game, but what I saw has won me over. I went into the experience thinking that the shift from survival horror closer to action would result in a Resident Evil awkwardly stuck between two genres. Instead what I'm finding is a game that evolves the nature of fear in gaming and reminds us that there is something far more frightening than a room full of cheap scares.