There was once a survival horror game called Resident Evil 4, and lo, it was greatly praised. It played like a dream, thrilled like a nightmare, and was tons of fun. Critics adored it. Gamers enjoyed it. Even those of us who don’t like violent or scary games gave it a try and thought it was pretty fantastic.
Then its sequel, Resident Evil 5, was released. It met with disappointment and even outrage. It was accused of being uninspired, unoriginal, and—of all things—racist.
What can we say? Is RE5 an unappreciated classic, or is it bland, repetitive, and even offensive?
Resident Evil 5 is campy, frustrating, insensitive, and… surprisingly excellent.
RE5 is the bloodstained, action-packed tale of Chris Redfield, an agent working for an organization devoted to stopping bio-terrorism. He is dispatched to an African country to investigate rumors of BOWs—Bio-Organic Weapons, monsters created through genetic tampering. Together with his ambiguously African partner, Sheva Alomar, Chris punches, shoots, and slices his way toward saving the world from megalomaniacal bio-terrorists.
There are a lot of good things to be said about this game. It’s violent—obviously—but also a lot of fun to play. The environments are brilliantly designed, aesthetically and mechanically: they look great, and they’re easy to navigate. Gameplay hasn’t changed much from RE4, which is a really good thing. The third-person, over-the-shoulder view makes exploring and shooting a breeze.
One of the things I liked best about the game was, oddly enough, reading about it. The game’s options include files containing background on the plot, characters, and enemies. These optional files delivered a lot of interesting information without burdening the game proper with long-winded exposition. Players wanting to immerse themselves in the story of RE5 can read these files; players wanting simply to shoot monsters in the face can play the game without tedious interruptions.
RE5 is fun to play, but not without its faults—many more, I’m sorry to say, than its remarkable predecessor. As long as we’re discussing a game set in Africa, we had better start with the elephant in the room.
Is RE5 racist?
During his mission in Africa, Chris, a white person, ends up shooting a bunch of black people. Granted, these Africans are BOWs infected with mind-controlling parasites, but it still seems awfully racist on the surface. It wouldn’t be so bad if Chris’s partner, Sheva, were unambiguously African. However, she’s light-skinned, speaks unaccented English, and seems more European.
Worst of all, at a few points in the game, the African BOWs dress in a primitive, tribal fashion. This is explained by a footnote—the parasites controlling these Africans cause them to revert to the customs of their distant ancestors—but this depiction of stereotypically savage African natives is the nastiest I’ve seen since Heart of Darkness.
In the end, I think RE5 is not racist. Its enemies happen to be indigenous Africans in the same way the enemies in RE4 happen to be Spanish peasants. There’s no intentional prejudice. There is, however, staggering insensitivity. I’m astonished that apparently nobody on the development team of RE5 realized a game in which a white guy slaughters African natives might be controversial.
Besides concerns of racism, the story of RE5 is a bit campy and the dialogue is horrendous. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game didn’t take itself so seriously. RE4 was just as silly, but it had a sense of humor. Like Doctor Who or Metal Gear Solid, it was extremely kitschy, but also very self-aware. It had one or two absurd villains, some outrageous set pieces, and the ubiquitous merchant.
RE5 lacks those gleams of humor. Where RE4 allows itself to be funny and succeeds, RE5 tries to be grim and fails.
Mechanically, RE5 is not without faults. Chris’s computer-controlled partner, Sheva, can be useful or frustrating depending on the situation. As neat as it was to have a partner, I missed going it alone. Nearly every boss battle revolves around some gameplay gimmick, some unique trick to damage the boss, which is irritating. As much as I appreciate creative gimmicks, I would have liked a few bosses of the traditional, “shoot-them-till-they’re-dead” variety.
There are also so many quick time events. Oh… dear reader… there are so many. In moderation, quick time events can add tension to a game. In RE5, they are a frequent and unpardonable nuisance.
Last of all… Resident Evil 5 isn’t scary.
It’s a fine action game, but it ain’t survival horror. As a third-person shooter, it’s fun. As an entry in Capcom’s respected horror series, it completely misses its mark. The quick time events were pretty much the only things I feared or dreaded in RE5.
Should you play Resident Evil 5? My answer would be: play Resident Evil 4. If you like RE4, and can tolerate quick time events and cultural insensitivity, you’ll probably enjoy RE5. Otherwise, you may want to keep your distance.