I've been playing a lot of Resident Evil 5 lately, and until last night, I didn't really know why. More than once after battling through its many clunky boss fights and slogging through its unintuitive inventory interface and combat system, I would turn to my co-op partner (usually Albert, a frequent guest host on the S-Words Podcast) and ask "You know, I'd really rather be playing Gears of War 2."
My major issue with the game was its unwillingness to commit to a genre. It had all the signs of wanting to be an awesome action game, the next logical step from the cheesy fun that was Resident Evil 4. I wasn't really expecting it to be as testosterone-friendly as Devil May Cry or Gears of War, but I was expecting a game that was filled with zombie action. What I got instead was a sorta-action game that clung too hard to its survival horror roots and ended up missing the mark on both counts.
The first thing that held up the game for me was the incredibly clunky menus. Split-screen co-op, generally the easiest form of cooperative gameplay, is a chore. First, player 1 has to sign in, choose the storage device, start the game (there's a brief loading screen here), exit the inventory organization screen (loading screen), skip through the cinematics, wait for the system to start saving, and THEN player 2 can hit start. At which point, player 2 has to sign in and choose the storage device, followed by a two-player version of the inventory preparation screen where both players have to confirm readiness (there's another loading screen here), then you skip through the cinematics again, and THEN the game starts. It's a pain in the ass that drags out the process, and many other parts of RE5 suffer from the same unintuitive design that artificially inflates the amount of time spent outside of combat. The inventory system isn't horrible, but it definitely could have used some improvements in order to make ammo management and item dropping/trading less annoying.
"But Dom," you say, "limited inventory is the mark of Resident Evil and the Survival Horror genre!"
I reply, "ZOMBIE RIGHT BEHIND YOU! SHOOT IT IN THE HEEEEAD," which is a huge contribution to what makes Resident Evil actually fun.
Combat itself isn't so bad this time around - sure, you can't move and shoot at the same time, a sad fact for a lifelong shotgun fan such as myself, but the design itself detracts from the enjoyment of many boss fights. Several times, you're faced with a classic RE situation - some giant monster comes up, wants to kill you, and it's up to you to survive long enough to figure out a way to kill it. The problem is that once you DO figure out what to do, the execution is simply onerous and not very exciting. For example, in the secret lab fight against an Uroboros-created monster, most of the tension and excitement associated with a big boss fight are quickly overshadowed by the fact that the fight is basically a three-step process:
1) Pick up conveniently placed flamethrower, use it on monster.
2) Put away flamethrower so it can refuel
3) Run around until the refueling pod beeps, then go to 1.
There's no real sense of danger because the boss is about as dangerous as head lice, and because of that there's no accompanying feeling of triumph when the boss dies. There's just a sense of tedium associated with "ho hum, let's run around until our Boss-Killing Aid is no longer on its artificial cooldown." There are several more fights that are about as exciting as whittling, including a pair of bosses that are just "point turret at boss, hold R until your fingers hurt," and the ever-so-wonderful "hit the A button 333 times, your hand will love you" fight against Jill (zomg! Spoiler!).
All that said, there is one reason I am still playing RE5: Mercenaries Mode. This mode is everything I wanted RE5 to be, and in some ways, everything I wanted out of Dead Rising. The split-screen co-op is quick and intuitive thanks to a screen that asks if a second player would like to join you from the very beginning, and once you jump into the action, it doesn't stop until you're good and ready for it to stop. A constant horde of zombies wants to kill you and your partner, and you have to fend them off with your limited ammunition until a chopper arrives to pick you up. As Matt and I played it over the weekend, we had plenty of moments filled with panic and danger and excitement, the likes of which we hadn't really had in the main game since chapter 1 and its village full of zombies versus you and your handguns.
It really feels like the Mercenaries mode was designed by an entirely separate team from the main game, because not only are the menus cleaner, but it keeps you more on edge as you struggle to keep a horde of bad guys from overwhelming you.
Maybe as we unlock more characters and get more powerful weapons, the whole thing will become a bit more ho-hum. But... killing hundreds of zombies without blinking an eye will still be more fun than mashing buttons to punch boulders.