As a sequel to Resident Evil 4, the last desperately needed shot in the arm that the Resident Evil series needed to stay relevant, Resident Evil 5 is a victim of its own success, adding a co-op element to the relatively measured and sedate gameplay introduced in its predecessor. Though fascinating on paper, more often than not, the co-op creates a one-more-mouth-to-feed scenario.
Much of that is tied to Resident Evil 4‘s control scheme being incongruent with what Resident Evil 5 asks of the player. Much of the time, enemies don’t just come in manageable groups of two or three, but in intimidating hatchet-wielding gangs. Resident Evil 4‘s over-the-shoulder setup doesn’t allow for movement while aiming at enemies; the lack of a persistent crosshair makes precision aiming aggravating; and the on-the-fly inventory system is more likely to get players killed than help them be adequately armed in a fight. As such, being able to effectively be an asset to other players, as opposed to looking out for Player One, is an active hindrance to any enjoyment.
Still, especially in Resident Evil 5‘s new current-gen vestments, running at a reliable 60fps, the chaos of numerous enemies all coming for your blood at once makes for some effective set pieces. Indeed, nobody could fault Capcom for just adding more stuff to a formula that worked, without tweaking the fundamentals; this is, after all, the philosophy that guides sequels to virtually all their best-known properties. It’s where the developer and publisher decided to innovate that the game finds itself in murkier waters.
Africa and its people are, essentially, exotic props in this game, with no humanity or purpose.
And where Resident Evil 5 sets itself apart from its zombie-killing brethren is in its choice of location. Here, the Resident Evil series moves on from the gothic trappings of Resident Evil 4‘s Spain to the fictional village of Kijuju in Africa, where a biological weapon is changing hands and infecting the populace, and series mainstay Christ Redfield is tasked with taking down the dealer. Zombies, in general, are an exhausted, tired concept, but if there was ever a way to wring the last few viable drops of creativity out of them, it definitely lies in taking this ghoul back to its roots in the Caribbean and Africa. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to invoke the indigenous folklore in a way that doesn’t embody the worst kind of “deepest, darkest Africa” tropes that make films like White Zombie and the original King Kong such uncomfortable cultural relics, despite their other virtues.
Resident Evil 5 is interested in Africa as a backdrop only insofar as it allows the folks at Capcom to create set pieces based around evil tribesmen in grass skirts, tribal hunter villages and traps, and the indiscriminate murder of third-world savages. Unexplored are the religious connotations behind how Las Plagas—the gnarly parasite used by the Illuminado cult in Resident Evil 4—was so widely accepted in Kijuju. Meanwhile, the player is bombarded by long-winded explanations of how the T-virus started here, Albert Wesker’s involvement, the dealings of new corporate baddies Tricell, and much more. Africa and its people are, essentially, exotic props in this game, with no humanity or purpose, and Chris’s partner being a light-skinned African woman (admittedly, a decently written African woman) is little more than an exception that proves the rule. It felt ridiculous in 2009. In 2016, when black people have enough problems in real life trying to convince militarized police that they’re human and not to shoot them, it feels especially disquieting.
If there’s a redeeming factor to Resident Evil 5, it’s that the re-release includes so much extraneous content entirely divorced from the main game and plot that it’s possible to never come across anything problematic whatsoever. Most of the extra modes and gameplay are variations on the series’s famous Mercenaries mode, where the player is killing for points and little else, but they’re at least frivolous and enjoyable in ways that the single-player campaign isn’t. Subsequent Resident Evil sequels/spinoffs have done campaigns without such a heavy cultural burden, and with more gratifying controls, making the straightforward re-release of Resident Evil 5 more of a cultural artifact than an enjoyable game.