Video-game controversies typically revolve around sex or violence. "Resident Evil 5" has plenty of the latter, but it's catching a lot of flack for a different reason.
Even longtime fans of the horror franchise may find themselves wondering: Is this game racist?
Two years ago, some video-game reporters winced at the first "RE5" trailer, which showed a white man killing dozens of black zombies.
The game's Japanese developers seemed surprised by the reaction, and asked us to reserve judgment until we had seen the completed project. Now you can decide for yourself.
The "Resident Evil" saga (I'm talking about the games, not the movies or comics) began in a small Midwestern town, where experiments by the ruthless Umbrella Corp. turned people and animals into relentless killing machines. By 2005's "Resident Evil 4," the infection had spread to Europe.
"Resident Evil 5" (Capcom, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99) moves the action to a fictional African country called Kijuju, where Chris Redfield (the American hero of the original game) has been sent to investigate a bioterror outbreak.
He's teamed with an African woman named Sheva Alomar, and they quickly discover that parasites have taken over most of the population.
Like "RE4," the new game plays more like an action movie than a horror tale. The infected monsters are faster and smarter — they can use machine guns and drive vehicles — but you have a more impressive arsenal, from handguns to grenade launchers.
The major change is that "RE5" is designed for cooperative play, and it's much more fun if you have a friend controlling Sheva.
Otherwise, it feels a lot like its predecessor. That's not a bad thing — "RE4" is a landmark — but the shooter genre has evolved over the last four years, and "RE5" feels somewhat clunky and old-fashioned when compared with, say, "BioShock" or "Call of Duty 4."
Still, it looks tremendous, and the sun-drenched African setting still manages to be creepy. The action is smartly paced, ranging from cramped hand-to-hand combat to widescreen shootouts. And the suspense can be excruciating, as you enter each new location knowing that the infected hordes will attack at any second.
Yes, the vast majority of monsters in "RE5" are infected black men. Does that make it racist? I believe producer Jun Takeuchi's claim that the story led naturally to Africa, and it's obvious that a zombie-creating virus unleashed there would lead to hordes of African zombies.
Still, there were plenty of moments where I felt uneasy after shotgunning a path through a crowd of feral Africans.
Even though "RE5" makes some points about colonialism and capitalism — the real villains are pharmaceutical companies that have been experimenting on African villages — the racial imagery is more loaded than its creators probably realized.
Judged purely as a game, "RE5" is undeniably entertaining. But many players are going to find it disturbing for the wrong reasons. Three stars out of four.