Lost in Nightmares and Desperate Escape, the two downloadable chapters for Resident Evil 5, are pretty much perfect gaming experiences. They're compact, precisely assembled little machines of delight, built with the loving craft that makes for real art. Each chapter's campaign runs about 100 minutes, and it's worth praising them just for that. Freed from the obligation to provide an extended tutorial or an epic backstory setup, each chapter delivers a movie-length experience, the perfect block of time for one great co-op session—and for half the price!
Both chapters expand on RE5's emphasis on the co-op experience. The game constantly forces you to synchronize actions with your partner, communicate remotely across a level, cover each other from different vantages, and otherwise divide up duties at a moment's notice. Played solo, the levels are fun (though the AI player is as semi-competent as you'd expect), but play them with someone else and you have the rare campaign mode that creates the social narratives that usually only happen in intense multiplayer guilds.
Lost in Nightmares is a flashback to Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield's last mission together, and the developers have wittily turned it into a flashback to the history of the Resident Evil series. Say hello to door-opening cutscenes, long stretches of wandering an abandoned mansion looking for crests, a hilarious co-op quick time event where Jill gets to use those finishing-school piano lessons, and even a hidden option to turn on an old-fashioned survival-horror camera.
And like the old Resident Evil games, the enemies are fewer, but better, shifting the genre from twitchy action to a kind of high-stakes puzzle game. Instead of the zombie hordes RE5 threw at the player, Lost in Nightmares focuses on a few major bosses who can only be beaten with careful observation of your surroundings and tactical cooperation. You'll die quite a few times trying to figure out the way to beat them, but the satisfaction of turning them into zombie marmite is all the sweeter for it.
The zombie hordes return in force for Desperate Escape. Lost in Nightmares set its story in an old-world mansion, where old-fashioned Resident Evil things happen; Desperate Escape returns the user to the modern (third) world, so it appropriately focuses on the enemy swarm mechanics of the last two Resident Evil games. The chapter sends the player through a series of gauntlets that test your mastery of its stop-and-pop gameplay, like making your way across a monster-clogged bridge under cannon fire, or luring bosses to exploding barrels without letting the grunts detonate traps in advance.
And as long as we're back in Africa, I may as well mention the elephant in the room: Yes, Desperate Escape returns the player to RE5's Africa, with all the attendant racial insensitivity. My feeling is that RE5's mistakes were always those of cluelessness, not malice. The story elements, in which we discover that the outbreak is a result of Western companies treating Africa as a place where the rules don't apply, actually made the game a potent metaphor for the evils of colonialism, though that critique was undermined by the game's unwitting aping of the worst sorts of Boys' Adventure visions of the "dark continent." But I'm impressed by any game's attempt to engage, however weakly, with the real world, and given RE5's obvious good intentions, I'm willing to give them a pass. Your sensitivity may vary, but at least Desperate Escape doesn't have anything as egregious as Sheva's alternate costume.
The chapter ends with a final level that reprises the game's Mercenaries mode, and it's a great eye-opener for anyone who hasn't explored that mode's demanding combination of brutality and precision. Desperate Escape comes with new characters and new weapon loadouts for mercenaries, and dedicated players will have a great time teasing out the strategies they impel.
If you're the kind of gamer who appreciates a deep, smart play experience, but doesn't want to make a 20-hour commitment, these two packs are exactly what you've been waiting for: two of the best evenings of gaming you'll have all year. It's sadly looking like they're going to be the only extra chapters for RE5, but I hope that some other game follows this model—maybe the episodic Alan Wake?—and creates a game with the kind of infinite lifespan and efficient brevity that these chapters offer.
Resident Evil 5: Lost in Nightmares and Desperate Escape. Publisher: Capcom. Developer: Capcom. Release date: Feb 17, 2010 and March 4, 2010. Platform: Xbox 360/PS3. ESRB Descriptors: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language.