Two new levels were shown off at the Capcom Resident Evil 5/Bionic Commando event, but we were sternly told we couldn't take pictures and screenshot coverage is limited.
Only four consoles were set aside to demo the two "never-before-seen" levels – and they had blown out the power strip just as Joystiq's Randy Nelson and I got to them. While we waited for the techies to fix the problem, Randy and I tried out the PS3 version of the Japanese demo levels to compare graphics and playability.
The PS3 version of Resident Evil 5 looked lousy compared to the 360 version. The environments weren't as sharply defined, the colors were duller, and that "dusty" layer that covers the Shanty Town in the 360 version came off as "you need to wipe down your TV screen." At least the controls handled the exact same.
We wandered back over to the special consoles for our sneak peak. The guy demoing for us on PS3 introduced them as "We can't tell you what levels they are – they're just new." He loaded up the game and for a few moments, we saw tantalizing glimpses of the opening cinematic. There's a guy with a hood and a beaked facemask standing over someone crouching/kneeling/bowing, followed by a wide open African landscape with a jeep driving through it.
"Dude – we're not showing that yet," snapped another demo guy. Button presses were made and the cinematic went away. But not before crashing the PS3.
*Warning – potential spoilers follow. Although I defy any of you to make any sense of the plot based on these meager snippets.*
After being shuffled over to the 360 version, we finally got a look at the promised levels. The first was what looked like mining facility: there was a cluster of rundown buildings, scattered bins loaded with rocks, and further inspection revealed that we were on top of a cliff. The demo guy explained that this level occurs just after meeting some villain named Irving who has run off after a dramatic confrontation (that we didn't get to see). Chris and Sheva start out by going through Irving's abandoned office for clues to his whereabouts. Oil fields are mentioned, and then zombies attack.
This level was like a shooting range. You can poke your head out of the elevated window of the office and fire down at zombies that pop up from behind trucks and rocks in the plaza down below. When you get tired of that – or you kill them all – you can leave the office, cross the plaza, and take off up the road after Irving.
This is where we saw our first boss fight with some kind of monster that fell off a truck. The demo guy said he wasn't allowed to tell us what the thing was called – but "zombie bat caterpillar thing" just about sums it up. This boss fight was all about quicktime events (boo!) and making use of Sheva to get behind the zombie bat caterpillar. There was also minor babysitting of Sheva involved whenever she'd fall off a cliff and need pulling up.
I imagine this would have gone more smoothly had a real person been playing Sheva instead of the AI. The entire game can be co-oped, so you might want to take advantage of that if you get a particularly lousy boss fight where you don't have the time/energy to babysit.
As soon as the boss was dead, a "teammate" of Sheva and Chris pulled up in a jeep and whisked us away from the mining facility. Another cut scene ensued that didn't really reveal any plot points and then a biker gang swarmed up behind us. Apparently, Sheva and Chris had run into them before and had cause to shoot at them with the machine gun mounted on the back of the jeep.
The demo guy let us stay long enough to see Chris manning the gun and Sheva covering from the sides of the jeep before skipping the level with the debug option. An end-of-level screen popped up, indicating we'd just finished Mission 2-2 and then the game loaded into an inventory screen where the player can equip, trade, or sell Chris and Sheva's items and weapons. The demo guy loaded himself up with a shotgun, a machine gun, and unlimited ammo (gotta love debug) before loading in the next sneak peak level and handing me the controller.
I found myself in the oil field mentioned back in 2-2. The oil field level is like a puzzle instead of a shooting range. You have to go up and down ladders and zip lines, turning valves while Sheva covers you. You're also introduced to a new "mini boss" zombie in this level – a chainsaw-wielding maniac with bandages wrapped around his head.
One hit from the chainsaw is insta-death, so the demo guy advised me to aim shotgun blasts straight at his face. Eight direct hits later, he was dead. Maybe it would have been scarier without the unlimited ammo cheat…
After turning all the valves in the level to shut off flaming gas mains blocking my path, I made it to a building where Sheva and Chris met another "teammate" of theirs named Josh. Another cut scene occurred wherein names like "The Bow Experiment" were dropped and then the zombies attacked again (I'm sensing a pattern here). The section that followed the cut scene was all about covering Josh while he hacked various terminals to open doors and activate elevators. More chainsaw guys spawned in, and eventually I worked my way up and out of the building to find – Irving!
This nefarious scoundrel looks like Samwise Gamgee with a bigger forehead, smaller facial features and a predisposition toward evil. He was boarding a boat and delivering some "you'll never catch me" monologue while another person – that masked man from the cut scene we weren't supposed to see – jetted off in a much smaller boat. Sheva seemed to know who the masked man was, but of course she said something non-specific like "Isn't that…?" instead of "Hey, that's so-and-so!"
Irving took off and Josh scored the team a boat. Now the level turned into a time trial where I had to dash across the dock in less than two minutes to make it to the escape vessel. Again, it'd probably be more challenging if you didn't have unlimited ammo. And I'm not sure if this is a bug, but you can totally ditch Sheva because the level ends when Chris makes it to the boat – not her.
Boat boarded, the oil field exploded and our heroes jetted away. The end of level screen appeared again, telling us we'd just finished Mission 3-2 (guess we level-hopped quite a bit with the debug option), and the demo guy shooed us to let other games journos have a turn.
I came away with from these new levels with three major gripes:
1) It's not scary. Not even a little bit. Part of it is the atmosphere – you're running around in broad daylight and can pretty much tell exactly where the zombies will be coming from. The other part of it is Sheva – she's always with you and relatively capable, so you're never really lonely or anxious the way you're supposed to be in zombie games.
2) You could swap the zombies for Nazis and not know the difference. Resident Evil 5 seems more like a generic shooter than survival horror, complete with gray and brown backgrounds and the occasional bloom effect. I quipped that it was like Gears of War without the cover and Randy compared to Army of Two. So – we've got Gears of the Zombie of Two instead of Resident Evil. Great.
3) The zombies have machine guns and flaming arrows. That just doesn't seem right. Oh, alright – fine. They're "infected villagers," not zombies, but even then the premise of having twenty guys running around with chainsaws and crossbows feels like it'd be a better fit for a different game.
I also came away with three things I liked (or at least didn't hate):
1) The facial expressions (on the human characters, at least) look real. That moment when Sheva sees Josh for the first time, her eyes widen and then narrow in recognition. I've never seen this somewhat subtle facial expression done as realistically in any other game.
2) The PS3 version looked almost identical to the 360 version in the secret levels. I was really worried there, having seen the disparity between the 360 and PS3 on the Japanese demo; but it looks like the demo is way older code.
3) Flamethrowers. We weren't supposed to see them, but a saucy demo guy spawned Chris in with one for the oil field level.
All in all, I came away from Capcom feeling a little disappointed. It was like getting the kind of gift I wanted, but finding out it's the wrong type – a Nerf rifle instead of a Super Soaker. I realize Resident Evil 4 was a total departure from the straightforward survival horror genre what with the over-the-shoulder cam and daylight sequences where you're leading Ashley around. But for some reason, I still felt like it was true to the original Resident Evil because it was upsetting and scary. RE5 doesn't have that, or at least didn't show it in the demo or these new levels. What I saw played more like a bland shooter with occasional stressful moments where I was trying to juggle the needs of my partner versus how much ammo I had left. I was never lonely, never anxious and never scared.
At least I was never bored. And unlike the analogy in the previous paragraph, I can't return Capcom's gift on December 26 for store credit. So I've just got to wait ‘til March 13, 2009 and hope that Resident Evil 5 is better than what I saw.