'Resident Evil 5' comes up with new survival strategies

For years, Resident Evil ruled the land of the video-game dead. The zombie franchise, influenced by George Romero's Living Dead films, lumbered its way to fame, selling 36 million-plus copies worldwide and spawning a genre of horror games and a profitable movie series.

But since the 2005 release of Resident Evil 4, there has been a population boom in zombies. Thrillers such as Left 4 Dead, Dead Space and Dead Rising have been connecting with rabid fans.

The arrival of Resident Evil 5 on Friday (rated M for ages 17-up, $60 and $90 for collector's edition, for Xbox 360 and PS3) does not necessarily mean a return to the top of the heap.

"The landscape on which Resident Evil 5 is appearing is radically different. There has been an upswing of creativity in the horror genre," says Evan Narcisse of CrispyGamer.com. "The challenge it has to meet in order to re-establish any kind of dominance is a lot bigger."

The Resident Evil formula of claustrophobic, dark settings swarming with seemingly insurmountable hordes of zombies and mutants has been successful. The franchise began in 1996 (with Resident Evil 1 for the original PlayStation). The last true episode, Resident Evil 4, released in January 2005 for the Nintendo, later that year for PS2 and finally in 2007 for the Wii, was considered a high point for the series.

Three films, starring Milla Jovovich as protagonist Alice, who battles the sinister bioengineering firm Umbrella Corp., haven't been critical successes. But they've grossed a respectable $378 million-plus and solidified a following.

"That's really what has kept (the franchise) at the top of mind," says Geoff Keighley, host of GameTrailers TV on Spike. The live-action films are based loosely on the events in the games; a computer-animated flick, Resident Evil: Degeneration, released in December on DVD and Blu-ray, fills in the gaps between Resident Evil 4 and 5. Novels, comics and action figures have added to the merchandising blitz.

The development team at Capcom enhanced Evil 5 for its high-definition game debut. Traditionally lurid settings have been replaced with luminous and unnerving vistas in a fictional western African region. Enemies move faster than in past Evil games, and there's more action.

"We felt tremendous pressure to add something new to the series to create a new and better game than Resident Evil 4," says Jun Takeuchi, the game's co-producer.

Another major new feature is that main character Chris Redfield, who has battled the spread of mutant viruses and biological weapons throughout the series, teams up with a new partner, Sheva Alomar, and players can control them cooperatively or let the game control Sheva.

"One of the motifs is partnership and the ties that bind people together. It's important in the story and in the gameplay," says Takeuchi, who also was lead programmer on the original Evil. "You want to protect your partner and work together to overcome the challenges."

As the story unfolds, he says, you grow "dependent on your partner for so much that later in the game, when you are left by yourself, it creates a new horror experience."

Some Evil aspects remain unchanged, most notably that the player's character cannot run and shoot at the same time, as allowed in other popular shooting games such as Halo and Call of Duty.

Still, the game hits stores at a great time, far from the holiday rush so that it won't get buried among other top titles, Keighley says. "There's pent-up interest among gamers who have wanted a new Resident Evil," he says. "This is not a radical departure from the formula, but it is something that is definitely fresh and looks really good."

More Evil games are planned, says Takeuchi. "There are a lot of horror games out there now, but I'd like people to remember this is the series that started everything. This is the series that created the term 'survival horror.' "