If a nongamer asked me to explain the "Resident Evil" series, I would be tongue-tied trying to do so.

I mean — how would one describe a multigenerational zombie epic? I could begin with the incident in Raccoon City that ended in nuclear annihilation, but before that, there was a disastrous train ride that contributed to that whole mess.

I could talk about Claire Redfield, and how she escaped one zombie disaster only to end up in another in Antarctica. And don't get me started on the whole reset to the series with the "Ganados" cult and its "Las Plagas" virus in "Resident Evil 4."

Talking about "Resident Evil" is complicated. Players will have to wade through more than 13 years worth of games for the full scope of the series — or at least sift through several Wikipedia pages. But though "Resident Evil's" plot has more twists and tangles than a Gordian knot, the two elements that remain consistent are its survivalist gameplay and quirky controls.

Both remain, for better or worse, in Capcom's latest entry to the series, "Resident Evil 5." This is the first time in a long while that players take control of Chris Redfield, one of the characters from the original game.

In this sequel, he's bulked up and is now part of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance, a group tasked with fighting and containing potential biohazards throughout the world.

Along with a face-lift, Chris also has a new partner, Sheva Alomar. In western Africa, the two investigate a purported deal involving Bio-Organic Weapons. But not surprisingly, the situation falls apart, and once again Redfield ends up battling his arch-nemesis and one-time partner Albert Wesker.

This time around though, Capcom added a new wrinkle with its co-operative gameplay. Players will need to work together with the computer or a friend to solve the mystery behind Wesker's new weapon called Uroboros.

Co-operative moments can be anything from double-teaming a chainsaw-wielding zombie or helping Sheva across a gap so she can open a locked door for Chris on the other side of the building.

What separates Capcom's take on co-operative play from say, "Army of Two," is the fact that the two don't have to be tied at the hip. The gameplay feels more organic and less contrived as players need teamwork to slay bosses or overcome obstacles.

There's a shared sense of us vs. them that's more similar to "Left 4 Dead." Part of that may be because of the zombies, but some of that attachment may be from the characters themselves. Chris and Sheva are just more appealing as they learn about each other's histories and lessons of partnerships.

But unfortunately, "Resident Evil 5" retains some of the arcane controls that have been a mainstay of the series. Unlike "Army of Two" and "Left 4 Dead," Capcom's title gameplay feels agonizingly slow because of the scheme.

In a fight against giant bugs, it can be frustrating to shoot at them, run for dear life, climb a ladder and jump down. There's just too many button presses to do something that should be easy and instinctive.

Capcom says it's part of the design. I suppose it builds tension, but it's also artificial. The tension of fleeing from a monster should come from being out of ammo or low on health. Instead, "Resident Evil" adds an unneeded layer of anxiety with its controls.

Often, players end up feeling like that panicked horror film victim, who runs for her car and ends up fumbling through her keys while the ax murderer hovers dangerously close. Playing through parts of "Resident Evil" is equivalent to that clichéd scene.

If gamers can accept that, then "Resident Evil 5" is a good game with some memorable moments. It's easily one of the most beautiful titles on any console, and it has levels that are as smart as they are inconsistent.

At times, players will be wondering why African marsh tribes would carry shotgun shells in claypots or why Chris and Sheva can't take a shortcut and jump across a gap when they can easily drop two or three stories unharmed.

Then again, it's "Resident Evil 5," and love it or hate it, the game is guaranteed to have its quirks. Elements like the tongue-in-cheek dialogue and bizarre puzzles have become a hallmark of the series and without these idiosyncrasies, Capcom's latest would just be another faceless survival horror title.

Reach Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanews group.com. Read his blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/

Video Game
Review
  • WHAT: "Resident Evil 5"
  • PLATFORM: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
  • RATING: Mature
  • GRADE: A-